catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Demolishing the Nanny State

with 3 comments

The post below was originally published in 2001 in the  Laissez Faire City Times (LFCT). Along with Laissez Faire City, the LFCT is now nothing  more than a part of history.  

Demolishing the Nanny State

Hollywood action movies aren’t the place you would typically expect to find libertarian messages being passed on. But the movie Demolition Man, whilst not overtly libertarian, is an interesting look at how anti-authoritarian messages do sometimes slip into mainstream cinema.

 

Let’s get something straight from the start though. Demolition Man isn’t a great movie. For instance, the main plot is relatively simple. It begins in 1996 (the film is (c) 1993) , with the one-man police force of John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) being sent in to rescue a group of hostages from the L.A. hideout of the criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). Predictably, for this is the start of the movie, the rescue goes wrong. The hostages are found dead in the wreckage of Phoenix’s hideout and so both Spartan and Phoenix are sent to cryo-prison.

Flash forward to the 21st century. Phoenix makes a miraculous escape from prison during his parole hearing and flees into the peacenik world of San Angeles. Of course the 21st century cops aren’t cut out for catching Phoenix and so unfreeze Spartan to bring him to justice. This being your typical Hollywood action movie, it is fairly obvious that the ever escalating series of gun battles and fight scenes is going to culminate in a showdown between the good guys , Spartan and his sidekick Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), and the assorted terrorists who Phoenix reanimates to help him take over San Angeles.

Questioning the Nanny-state.

Along the way however, Demolition Man questions and pokes fun at the Nanny-state of 21st century San Angeles. And what a Nanny-state the 21st century has become.

Speech is tightly controlled. A ‘verbal morality code’ is enforced by a citywide network of microphones and fine dispensing machines. Don’t say ‘crap’, don’t say ‘god-damn’ and certainly don’t say ‘fuck’ – or you’ll land a fine, even in the privacy of your own home. One of the movie’s more humorous moments is Spartan letting fly with a string of obscenities in order to produce a wad of fines for use as toilet paper.

Then there is the nanny state intrusion into what people can eat. The defacto ruler of San Angeles, the “benevolent Dr Cocteau ” (Nigel Hawthorne) has declared off limits anything which is deemed unhealthy. Meat, alcohol, caffeine – all have been deemed ‘bad’ and therefore illegal. When Spartan ventures into the subterranean world occupied by those who have rebelled against the nanny-state , one of his first acts is to enjoy the delight of a rat-burger and home brewed beer.

The whole system is of course overseen by a massive network of eavesdropping devices and privacy invading cameras. When the police want to see the destruction caused by Phoenix during his escape, they zoom to a camera in the cryo-prison to watch the dying moments of the former warden. The impression the viewer is left with is that these cameras are so pervasive that individual privacy has almost ceased to exist in San Angeles.

How far fetched?

The world of San Angeles is the nanny-state taken to extremes. It is so clearly an overblown parody of the nanny-state culture that it is tempting to simply dismiss it as a fanciful joke. But a simple search of the net and a scouring of recent news headlines suggests perhaps San Angeles, if not just around the corner, isn’t that much further down the street.

Free speech it seems, is under almost daily attack. After threats of regulation and censorship by the Federal Trade Commission, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is tightening up its own ‘self-regulatory’ code to “ensure the industry follows marketing guidelines to avoid discs with violent and lewd lyrics being sold to children.” (Zeidler) Not wanting to be left out of the effort to sanitize society, the Federal Communications Commission has issued new guidelines on what it will tolerate on television and radio. Occasional profanity is apparently ‘ok’ , but Howard Stern talking about “about lesbians, his genitalia and animal sex” (Taylor) is unacceptable. Across the USA, and increasingly across the globe, college ‘speech codes’ stifle the free speech of students and academics alike. Meanwhile in Australia, the Victorian state government has put forward laws to jail or fine those found guilty of taunting others on racial or religious grounds. The “be well” verbal morality code of San Angeles is perhaps not as far-fetched as it first seems.

But surely the government isn’t going to dictate what we can and can’t eat? Oh isn’t it? That depends on to what extent the Bush administration and other governments hear out the various do-gooders concerned about our health. At the ‘Center for Science in the Public Interest’ (CSPI) for example, the call has gone out for all levels of government to increase the tax on foods ‘high in calories, fat or sugar’. In an editorial in The Boston Globe, Derrick Z. Jackson criticizes the concept of tax breaks for the heath conscious.

“Rip soda machines out of the schools. Ban soda sponsorships of sports programs.” cries out Jackson. “Ban candy racks at checkout counters at supermarkets, and levy taxes on grocers who give more space to snacks than vegetables.”

Caffeine has also come under attack by the food do-gooders. Tim Gannon, (Executive vice president of Outback Steakhouses Inc) has pointed out in an editorial in The Baltimore Sun that the “new wars on caffeine and fat are mirror images of the anti-tobacco crusade.” According to Gannon “There is no doubting the coercive nature of this crusade.” The food-nannies want the government to become the food police. Of course, it’s all for our own good and that of our children.

The ever-present surveillance of San Angeles is perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the 21st century world portrayed in Demolition Man. Yet in this respect we are perhaps closer to San Angeles than most of us realise, or would care to imagine. A recent article on security cameras in schools (Hetzner) noted that despite objections by the ACLU and a walkout of students at one high school, the schools district went ahead with a plan to install up to 20 cameras at the school. At Arrowhead High School, despite early objections “students have grown to accept them [cameras]” (Hetzner).

It is this growing acceptance of surveillance which is as disturbing as the growth in the technology itself. Security and surveillance cameras are now such a common part of our everyday lives that many people no longer notice their intrusion and appear untroubled as more cameras invade our public and private spaces. Buses, trains, train-stations, malls, public streets, schools and college campuses, even our workplaces. At present, such surveillance is carried out by individuals organizations. But as the ability to transfer larger and larger amount of data via networks grows – the possibility of governments and the police linking these disparate systems together into an integrated snooping network will also grow.

ConclusionThe nanny-state of San Angeles portrayed in Demolition Man is in some ways still a bit off, but in others, closer than we think. Free speech, at least in the USA, continues to enjoy constitutional protection, and may therefore yet prove resilient to ‘verbal morality codes’. When it comes to food and security cameras however, it seems that the government and nanny-state interest groups have gained the initiative and appear set to lead us down the path to San Angeles. We might not be able to demolish the nanny-state with the pyrotechnic style of John Spartan, but we must at least do something. In the end, it is up to each of us to come up with own way saying ‘Pass the beer and rat-burger’.

The nanny-state of San Angeles portrayed in is in some ways still a bit off, but in others, closer than we think. Free speech, at least in the USA, continues to enjoy constitutional protection, and may therefore yet prove resilient to ‘verbal morality codes’. When it comes to food and security cameras however, it seems that the government and nanny-state interest groups have gained the initiative and appear set to lead us down the path to San Angeles. We might not be able to demolish the nanny-state with the pyrotechnic style of John Spartan, but we must at least do something. In the end, it is up to each of us to come up with own way saying ‘Pass the beer and rat-burger’. 

 Further Reading & Sources

 ‘After cigarettes, get ready for the attack on fat and coffee’, Tim Gannon, 8 September 1998, The Baltimore Sun Online, Available: http://www.guestchoice.com/oped11.htm

‘Am I on Campus Camera’, Amy Hetzner, 28 May 2001, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online, Available: http://www.jsonline.com/news/wauk/may01/secure29052801a.asp

‘FCC offers broadcasters guidelines to avoid on-air indecency’ Phillip Taylor, feedomforum.org, Available: http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=13652

‘Liberals discuss Government’s proposed vilification bill’ 5 June 2001, The Age Online, Available: http://www.theage.com.au/breaking/2001/06/05/FFX467ZJKNC.html
‘More Absurd Fat Tax Proposals’ The Guest Choice Network, Available: http://www.guestchoice.com/0505_fattax.htm

‘Recording industry forms task force’, Sue Zeidler, Excite.News, Available: http://news.excite.com/news/r/010504/19/leisure-music-taskforce

‘This Tax Proposal is Full of Flab’, Derrick Z. Jackson, The Boston Globe, Available: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/150/oped/This_tax_proposal_is_full_of_flab+.shtml

 

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Written by Admin

October 29, 2006 at 7:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Yes, great themes, dreadful movie.

    Scott

    October 29, 2006 at 7:54 pm

  2. Good piece, Heath.

    Sounds like you’ve covered all the good bits so need to waste 2 hours watching it.

    JohnZ

    October 29, 2006 at 8:50 pm

  3. I didn’t think it was a great movie, but it was fun enough to watch.

    Brock

    October 30, 2006 at 12:48 am


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