Thirty years ago this month, America’s favorite animated family made their debut as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. To celebrate, CoS will be broadcasting live from Springfield all week with a slew of Simpsons features. Today, Andrew Bloom shows why Homer’s battles with Mr. Burns are more relevant to us than ever.
In the opening of “Last Exit to Springfield”, one of The Simpsons’ most celebrated episodes, Homer and Bart watch a scene from the latest McBain shoot-em-up. It ends with McBain’s dastardly antagonist Mendoza laughing maniacally, having felled his adversary with a poisoned salmon puff. Bart is aghast at such villainy, but Homer reassures his son that “there’s nobody that evil in real life.” Then, in one of the show’s trademark subversions, the episode immediately cuts to Mr. Burns, who is laughing exactly as maniacally at an imperiled window washer who’s dangling just outside his office.
The lesson is clear. As much as we may wish our most fearsome of foes were confined to celluloid and pixels, sometimes the art that holds a mirror up to nature can reflect our reality with a disquieting accuracy. More to the point, given that long ago The Simpsons itself had already depicted a wealthy businessman running for office against an experienced civil servant while railing against the establishment; since it had already shown a former TV star and political outsider (with awful, awful hair) defeating an incumbent through his use of media-friendly bombast; and considering the show even went so far as to posit a future where a newly elected Lisa Simpson would inherit a budget crunch from President Trump, perhaps we should start paying closer attention to its predictions.
But The Simpsons doesn’t just provide, as Kent Brockman puts it, “a chilling vision of things to come.” It also offers guidance. While no one should aim to look, think, or act like Homer Simpson, episodes like “Last Exit to Springfield” shine a light on the way regular people can find themselves emboldened by circumstance and demonstrates how we unwashed masses can stand up to the plutocratic figureheads who might threaten to take away the things we need and hold dear.
That’s exactly what Mr. Burns tries to do in “Last Exit to Springfield”. When it comes time to renew the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s union contract, he laments the end of the “good ol’ days” when unruly workers could be “wall[ed] up in the abandoned coke oven.” In order to strike back at the union for making such outrageous demands as “benefits,” “perks,” and “a green cookie on St. Patrick’s day,” Burns vows to revoke the dental plan in the current contract.
Homer is, true to form, pretty oblivious to all of this. When Marge tells him that Lisa will need some orthodontic work, he takes it for granted that their plan will cover it. While his fellow employees went on strike years ago to win that concession, he was more interested in winning a food truck burrito. And when his coworker announces Mr. Burns’ proposal to drop the plant’s dental plan in favor of a free keg of beer, it takes Homer a significant amount of iconic mulling to piece it all together.
But eventually he realizes the most frightening thing of all — this change to the benefits and services the plant offers will affect him! If the new union contract goes through, he’ll have to pay for Lisa’s braces! This epiphany quickly turns Homer into a rabid defender of the plan he’d been oblivious to seconds earlier, and he finds himself spurred to action to oppose the change.
He’s not alone. In the past seven years, the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) has been consistently more unpopular than popular in national polls — that is, until Donald Trump and a Republican Congress seemed poised to actually repeal it. Suddenly, for the first time since the bill was passed, more people were in favor of it than against it. Over the course of the debate surrounding the proposed repeal, the A.C.A.’s popularity continued to improve, and over the same stretch, support for the Trump-Ryan bill plummeted.
More than that, all around the country, legislators attended town hall meetings with their constituents and were taken aback by the fiery response they received. Congressmen and women were put on the spot by people demanding their representatives explain how they were supposed to obtain coverage without the law’s protections. Even in deeply red states, people stood up, imploring, cajoling, and crying over the looming possibility of the repeal.
While support for the A.C.A. had been mixed at best and tepid at worst for a long time, the prospect of it disappearing galvanized the public when, like Homer, they faced the reality of what they’d be losing in the process. It’s easy to be nonplussed by something, even against it, when it’s mainly abstract. But when it’s made real, when a change is coming that may severely affect you, it suddenly becomes a great deal more salient and vital that it stick around like so many sugar daddies.
This is not an isolated incident. After Homer is elected president of the union in his dental plan-defending furor, he quickly begins to feel in over his head. The negotiations with Mr. Burns are unfamiliar terrain for the local oaf. Homer is not used to being anything approaching an activist, and while the Simpsons’ patriarch is characteristically blithe to the machinations and innuendos Burns throws his way, it speaks to the sense in which many people, unused to standing up or speaking out, found themselves moved to act in the wake of the election, even if that felt a little unusual for them.
A viral image of a protester from the 2017 Women’s March with a placard that said “Not Usually A Sign Guy But Geez” sums it up well. For plenty of folks who were not accustomed to political action, the 2016 election and its aftermath were a rude awakening and a call to action that brought them to equally unfamiliar places.
The question then becomes, for Homer and for people in the real world, how do you stand up to someone, anyone with that much wealth and power? Fortunately for Homer and his compatriots, Mr. Burns’ initial attempts to squelch their strike go comically awry, whether it be his misguided efforts to hire strikebreakers from the 1930s or his backfiring attempt to turn a hose on the workers. In real life, sadly, the attempts from those in power to stifle dissent and bend opponents to their will are rarely so humorous or ineffective. Repugnant travel bans, deeply-flawed health care policies, and money-wasting border walls all threaten to harm far more people than Mr. Burns’ malfunctioning robot workers ever could.
Still, “Last Exit to Springfield” also offers a way forward. First and foremost, it illustrates how even Mr. Burns, with his devilish schemes and amoral bent, falters in part because he’s too caught up in perceived slights and affronts from the mostly harmless Homer, in a way that causes him to make plenty of unforced errors. Mr. Burns mistakes Homer — who confuses a bribe for a come-on and thus rejects it — as a man of principle. He confuses Homer’s need to go to the bathroom for stubbornness and steadfastness. He misconstrues his eternally hungry negotiating partner leaving to fetch yet another burrito as Homer acting like he’s the “cock of the walk.”
The upshot is simple. Burns cannot stand to be upstaged, to perceive himself as demeaned by anyone not kowtowing to his will, and it causes him to make misstep after misstep against someone who can be talked out of a danish in exchange for a doorstop by a 10-year-old. Even the rich and powerful can be thin-skinned and paranoid, as liable to be tripped up by imagined slights and overestimated threats as anyone.
Nevertheless, with his other attempts to disrupt the strike thwarted, Mr. Burns opts for a last resort. He shuts off the power to all of Springfield — a sign that he is great and vengeful and mighty and not to be trifled with by the likes of the average man who’d dare stand in his way. But a funny thing happens. Even as the eerie darkness of a lamplight-free dusk descends upon the picketers in front of the plant, they do not yield; they do not relent; they do not cease. They are, instead, unmoved. As Mr. Burns observes in Seussian tones, they’re actually singing.
He has offered his worst, his greatest gesture in service of his petty goal, and still it is not enough to crush the spirits of those whom he meant to crush under his boot heel. In the end, Mr. Burns gives in, and together, Homer and his fellow workers win their dental plan back.
That is, thankfully, a lesson as true in flesh and blood as it is in pen and ink. There is a power that comes from regular individuals banding together to fight for what they believe in — to stand up to those who would see them squelched, to rise and, as the saying du jour goes, resist.There will always be threats. There will always be challenges. There will always be those with enough money and might to cause problems, with or without the imprimatur of elected office. But as cheesy as it is to say, this is still a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people. When those people join together, when they pour out into the streets and pressure those whose job it is to represent them and make their voices heard, they become an irresistible force. And no man, whether his skin is yellow or orange, can withstand it.