More so than any thinkpiece on the internet, #SouthPark is slowly emerging to be one of the most potent forces on the current maelstrom that is American politics and culture 2016, and how brutally the two have intersected. By focusing on the bigger picture in season 20, the show has been able to dovetail various plots together with a level of sophistication hitherto unseen. The result is some brilliant TV. Check out the promo below:
With the US election, in both South Park and in real life, only two weeks away, the stakes are getting unbearably high. I, for one, keep refreshing my Twitter feed and newsfeed every twenty minutes for some new tidbit of information that suggests it may go one way or another, whether or not to trust the polls, and what this means for society in general. Yet at times like these, it's good to have South Park, where at least if it laments the various problems the country faces, it always manages to throw in a joke or two, the most recent one revealing that:
Cartman Hasn't Really Changed
The opening sequence of the episode sees Cartman fantasizing that he is floating around Mars. It seems that merely being with a woman is a fantastical land replete with neon rollercoasters. Cartman, unplugged from the internet, is basically in a different planet from everyone else. Yet it also suggests that he isn't supportive of Heidi's aims to defeat the trolls for mere moral reasons, but that there is a selfish pleasure to be had merely being with her. His passionate feelings have superseded those of justice. So maybe Cartman hasn't really changed to become a better person, he is going along with it because it makes him feel good.
Heidi, based on an analysis of how people use emojis, has figured that the person trolling the school message boards isn't any of the students, or the teachers, but in fact one of the parents. She sends this method of analysis to the Danish, who can now reboot their Troll Trace program. Cartman initially supports this — because in case you didn't know Heidi is both funny and smart — before realising he has inadvertently shot himself in the foot. As Kyle points out, even his internet history will be available for public consumption.
In a hilarious sequence, Cartman puts his memory on rewind, back to the premiere of the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters. After it ends, he messages Butters to say it wasn't funny and the women in it ruined everything. Soon his fantasy of being Matt Damon is ruined. So he does what Cartman does best, and lies: claiming to Heidi, in advance of Troll Trace, that Butters stole his phone. This cowardly way out shows that Cartman hasn't grown up, and still knows how to scheme to maintain what he wants. Yet nobody is safe, because:
Troll Traces Work Like Drone Attacks
The Danish finally get their first victim, exposing MLKKK, in the process basically destroying the entire town of Fort Collins. By using top-down views of the impact of trolling, plus the moral argument that the widespread danger to everyone in that town was justified because they got "one of them", the Troll Trace is being equated to using drones, which despite not intending to have collateral damage ends up inadvertently killing innocent people. They same goes for Troll Trace, which in targeting trolls reveals everybody's email and search history whether it is relevant or not.
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This Black Mirror-esque conclusion to troll tracing shows the very real danger of everyone knowing what you do on the internet. Imagine this in reality: do you really want to know everyone's internet history, what porn they watch, what potentially embarrassing questions they type into google, their anxieties and fears, what they say in private to friends? The potential for exploitation is rife, and although many awful people — hate-trolls, pedophiles, cyber-criminals — would be caught, the invasive nature and potential for collateral damage from Troll Trace is crossing a line too far.
In previous recaps I supported the view that this was South Park criticising the way the government spies on its people to make sure they're in check, but viewing it from a different angle, it shows the problem with organisations such as WikiLeaks, which in constantly 'hacking' the Democrats and releasing very innocuous information such as internal political planning and secret risotto recipes, gives material for trolls to turn into memes that are factually irrelevant but end up swaying people's political opinions.
Unlike Chelsea Manning or Snowden who actually wanted to show injustice, Julian Assange is more interested in settling petty scores and giving the alt-right bait. He is a real-life example of someone who may have had a higher purpose when he started, but has now veered completely out of control, in the process aiding Trump, the Russians, Erdogan's Turkish government and stoking anti-semitism. It would be interesting if South Park found a way to tie troll tracing (WikiLeaks) and twitter trending together because:
Trolls Are Affecting The Election
It looks like Gerald might turn out to be a good guy, even if he is a right dick at the moment. Dildo Schwaggins not only wants to use trolling because its funny, but actually in order to change the world, i.e. impact the election. Gerald, in contrast, really just wants to make fun of sick people on Yahoo Answers. Both are terrible people, but it seems whilst Gerald is a regular asshole and a bully, Didlo Schwaggins is a lonely man who was bullied who now seeks revenge through trolling and has a desire to make a difference.
Gerald dismisses the idea that trolling should be used to impact the election outright. Yet it has already changed the discourse of public opinion. Members of the Alt-Right and other extreme right-wing groups use Twitter's trending algorithm in order to push bizarre conspiracies into the realm of mainstream news. The argument goes that if enough people are talking about it, it will be picked up by breitbart.com or Alex Jones' Infowars, before sneaking its way onto CNN or Fox to be discussed as a legitimate topic of conversation. Subjects as ridiculous as Clinton apparently dying or Obama not being an American have gone from fringe conspiracy theories to actual conversation topics on television.
This is linked directly to Trump, the ultimate meta-meme. With him they have a post-truth candidate they can use to legitimise their bullshit. Now, partially in thanks to his dedicated trolls, he has a genuine chance of being elected. What's exciting is how WikiLeaks and Russia attack Clinton and promote Trump, with the hordes of anonymous trolls behind them, not only has a direct effect on the election, but will also change the path of South Park's season. It seems Gerald, in separating himself from the politicized trolls, has a chance to redeem himself by protecting Clinton, whose "email scandal" has become a little-understood or properly explained phenomenon weaponized by the trolls in order to undermine her campaign. Hopefully, she won't get off so easily too. Her complacency is already starting to grate.
Meanwhile, for Randy and Mr Garrison:
Nostalgia Is The Most Powerful Enemy
Randy and Mr Garrison have realised something important: to stop an unqualified primary school teacher from getting elected, they have to destroy the memberberries. They try all different types of scientific experiments, but to no avail.
The memberberries, understanding that Randy wants to kill them, suddenly escape and drive off in a tiny car, referencing Goodfellas by tying up one of their own in the back. Tellingly they listen to "Africa" by Toto in the car, a classically overused signifier of a previous, simpler time: used recently in the first episode of Stranger Things, a TV series that relied on stoking nostalgia by using such lazy 1980s reference points. This is reinforced again and again as the memberberries keep reminding themselves of the time of the song. Yet the memberberries, like trolls, use the power of memes (Toto! Jeff Goldblum! Star Wars!) as an incredibly powerful tool to suggest that the past was better, and that the only solution to the present is by simply going back.
Given that Randy and Mr Garrison can't destroy the memberberries physically, they need another path. But how do you kill nostalgia, or as I like to call it, the "J.J. Abrams effect"? For South Park, the most important thing is to recognise that nostalgic entertainment, such as The Force Awakens or Stranger Things isn't and never could be, as good as A New Hope or E.T. As Garrison calls it, its merely a "Happy Days reunion special" as opposed to a substantial work on its own.
This is the same as with politics. Given that Trump's slogan is Make America Great Again, i.e. bring back the 80s — to kill nostalgia for that time is to understand that things weren't all rosy, and not everything Reagan did was fantastic. It is to view the past with a sober and honest lens. So Garrison makes an honest speech:
"On November 8th you must vote against me and show the world you didn't think the new Star Wars was all that good."
South Park, for a show in its 20th Season, almost argues against its own relevance: saying let's stop being lethargic and in reminiscence mode, and instead push forward as a culture, inventing new and interesting forms of art, thus in the process seeing the world in a different and more progressive way. Thankfully its on-point messages keep it highly important, to the point where I really want to see what the solution to nostalgia may be.
For now, I'm looking forward, not backwards, to when the next episode airs in two weeks time.
Did You Enjoy This Week's Episode Of South Park?