Reflections From a Black Mirror: S1 E1 “The National Anthem” (Netflix)

Reflections From a Black Mirror

That tweet is from Butcher Billy, a Brazillian Pop-Art genius. He really gets Black Mirror IMHO. You can find all of his stuff by looking at his Redbubble page or on his Twitter feed (@billythebutcher). 

Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television.

It is unusually deep and powerful social criticism, sometimes it is so seamless (and contemporary) that its criticism can often be mistaken as a celebration of elements of the status quo (much like many of the fans of Starship Troopers love that movie for its call to fascism).

Many have compared Black Mirror to the Twilight Zone.

I guess that is fair but most Twilight Zone episodes operated in defense of the social order while I think of Black Mirror as an excoriation of our ethical status quo and a window into how technology has magnified our cultural hypocrisy and cruelty (I will admit that this might be unfair to the TZ).

My last "Reflection" was S1 E3 "The Entire History Of You"

The Nuts and Bolts of Black Mirror S1 E1 "The National Anthem" (Netflix)

Talk about starting off with a "bang," the very first episode of Black Mirror ever forces a Prime Minister to "pork" a pig.

Bad puns aside...

British Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) is woken from his slumber to find that the royal Princess Susannah has been kidnapped and that she has been held for a very particular kind of ransom. The kidnapper promises that the Princess, who is much loved in Britain, will be killed if the Prime Minister does not have sex with a pig on camera live at a designated time and to be broadcast across all British networks terrestrial and satellite.

The Prime Minister is also told that there will be repercussions if the government, military, or police interfere in any way. Despite this, the Prime Minister chooses to resist and orders the security forces to not release the information about the kidnapping and the ransom. Unfortunately for him, the video of the kidnapped and terrified princess including the instructions and conditions was released to YouTube and has since been copied and disseminated across the country and the world.

At first, the British news agencies all collude to not cover the story, but once CNN and Al Jazeera start broadcasting the story the British press joins in and the story starts to dominate all news and social media worldwide. The incident initially generates much sympathy for the PM and is given the Twitter hashtag #Snoutrage.

The PM attempts to use a body double and CGI to create a fake video to broadcast in place of him actually having intercourse with the pig but the kidnapper finds out and appears to cut the Princesses finger off in a new video. The finger is sent to the press. Somehow, the story of the attempt at a fake broadcast leaks and public opinion turns against the Prime Minister. The majority of voters now insist that the PM follows through on the bizarre ransom demand (have sex with the pig).

Callow next attempts a raid on a building where they think Susannah is being held. The building, however, is a set-up by the kidnapper and the raid goes horribly wrong (ultimately resulting in the capture only of a reporter). The Prime Minister's approval rating drops even lower and public opinion is squarely behind him having sex with the pig (in fact, even the Queen calls to demand that he fulfill the ransom demand).

Callow finally gives in to the reality that he has to have sex with a pig on international television and commits the deed in front of a global audience of an estimated 1.3 billion people. People "act" disgusted but there is not traffic on the streets and everyone in the UK seems to be glued to their screens.

After it is all over, they find out that:

* The Princess was released unharmed (and not even missing a finger) 30 minutes before the PM had to engage with the pig (his aides have that information suppressed without even telling the PM).

*  The PM gains massive popularity from committing the act and a year later is even more popular than he was before he was forced to commit the act.

* The "terrorist" was an award winning artist named Carlton Bloom who was trying to make a point about how real life has become almost entirely subordinated to the life on our screens etc. (and who commits suicide after creating the "art").

Colin Kaepernick Sings

Colin Kaepernick is a National Football League QB who plays for the San Francisco 49rs. During the 2016 pre-season, Mr. Kaepernick decided to refuse to stand and put his hand over his heart for the playing of "The National Anthem" in protest of police shootings of African Americans.

Predictably, America went INSANE (because...irony?).

Sure there was a lot going on here, but at the root of it was something that Matt Taibbi retweeted yesterday:

One of the main themes that Charlie Brooker is investigating here is how much we value the absurd symbols of government as much or more than we value or respect the principles and people involved in governmental disputes.

But the criticism certainly goes beyond governments and Royal families.

Why, in America, do we value a flag symbolizing the right to protest more than we value protest itself?  

Why do we pay football coaches more than we pay water treatment specialists (Flint) or even the most world-renowned professors at those same Universities?

This is not really about if he, or any of us, should feel obligated to have sex with pigs for ransom (we should, IMHO, if it could save someone's life). Obviously, even if he has no responsibility for the predicament Princess Susannah finds herself in, he should certainly take personal responsibility for her as a fellow human being.

But, it shouldn't matter who she is or who he is or what she or he does.

Part of what we see exposed here is his attachment to things like the 'dignity of the office' and from the public we see how attached they are to her as a Princess (as if that makes her somehow more important than another human being).

In fact, this entire ransom scheme worked, in this instance, because we as a society value some people (like those with impressive titles a great coaching gig or hereditary title) more than we value people in general.

But, I think this is a minor point.

The larger point Booker is making is that we care more about the newsworthiness as much or more than we care about the tragedy. 

I think maybe this is what Brooker was getting at by calling this episode "The National Anthem." Our national anthem is played on the strings of our addiction to reveling in endless and sensationalized tragedy.

We have become a Western world full of rubberneckers searching for car crashes on our dark screens. 

Almost 1000 people died in Chicago in gun violence this year and we have heard CNN and Donald Trump use them ONLY as statistics. 

Have we ever heard one talking head say the name of even ONE victim?

The Chicago Tribune, in contrast, may have reduced many of them to dots, but at least you can hover over the dots and see names and ages like the name Deandre Banks who was aged 16 when he was killed on October 29th.

But, when the violence is of the "made for television" variety, we will hear it played (that national anthem) 24/7 until the next "newsworthy" crisis starts up to supplant it.

If a plane disappears we will get three weeks of endless coverage but if some normal (non-pretty or rich) schmuck disappears...It's Milk Carton time.

Black Lives Matter and Kaepernick (and, to some extent, the occupy movement) are attempting to get people, and networks, to care more about the marginalized and the oppressed. In a sense, they are trying to change the anthem back to one with Democracy at the heart of the song.

Unfortunately, the verdicts in the trials of the police, in the court of public opinion (Kaepernick), and in the election of Trump seem to suggest America still cares more about the drama itself than about the people suffering behind the drama (perhaps the best example of this was Trump's campaign promise to solve inner city poverty by doubling down on tough on crime - the exact same solution that started the massive incarceration epidemic that eviscerated inner cities in the 80's).

Democracy has become the right to be entertained by people's suffering while appearing concerned or angry (instead of empathetic).

I have heard it suggested that Kim Kardashian is America's "Royal Princess" and that makes a strange kind of sense to me. Our royal family would probably include Nick Saban, Kim Kardashian, and Beyonce (Lady Gaga might be that strange royal cousin). Our Royal biographer would probably be E-News and our "castle" would probably be Trump Tower (sigh).

Our national anthem has clearly become CNNs "Breaking News" crawl.

Excess Enjoyment, White Bear, and The National Anthem

So, there are several ongoing themes that run throughout Black Mirror.

One theme, that I have highlighted over and over, is that technology might be an accelerator (gas on a fire) for our baser instincts in Western society but the core darkness at the heart of virtually every episode of Black Mirror is us.


It is our cruelty reflected in the black mirrors of our technology (not the problems of technology).

This is probably best demonstrated if you look at the comment board of any Black Mirror site where people are talking about White Bear. A large percentage of people LOVE (almost orgasmically) that Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow) is punished in the manner she is.  They seem to entirely miss that "she" has been reduced to literally only a body being tortured (has no memory of anything she has done). 

In fact, even at the end of every day, when she is "reminded" that she was a child murderer, technically she is still only the body that committed the crime and not the person who committed the crime (because her memories of the event are repeatedly obliterated).

In this way, White Bear reminds me of the old story about the good Buddhist, who had never come into contact with Christianity in his entire life but was sentenced to Hell on judgment day only because he had never accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.

If we label clear injustice as justice, for solely technical reasons, we truly have lost our souls (and the meaning of justice).

In addition, none of these people getting off on punishment porn were victimized by Victoria, most of the people in the park never met her (except through mass media), and Victoria (the body) cannot ever hurt them (because she was sentenced to prison).

So, people have turned punishment into a form of entertainment, even in the watching of White Bear. A form of excess enjoyment (pleasure beyond what should be expected). White Bear is torture porn.

You are probably wondering what this has to do with The National Anthem?

Well, as you probably noticed, no matter how distasteful everyone pretended they found the idea of the Prime Minister having sex with a pig, every single person in the nation was glued to a screen.

In fact, the entire scheme was predicated on the idea that people would care so much about the spectacle that they wouldn't even notice that the Princess had been freed well in advance of the "event."

So, guess, what...It wasn't only the people on the show that were glued to their screens. We, the viewers of Black Mirror, all watched the Prime Minister have sex with that pig too.

Sure, we didn't see it as graphically, but what is the difference between rushing to watch after hearing that there is this crazy show called Black Mirror where they make a fictional Prime Minister have sex with a pig and rushing to watch after hearing a Prime Minister is being forced to have sex with a pig?

It is only a difference in degree.

And this is where the two parts of this recap meet in the middle. The problem is the same, what we are not coming to grips with, as people in Western societies, is that we have started to commodify the pain of people.

Just another aspect of our National Anthem (torture or pain porn).

We see it in jail porn television shows, on extreme survival shows (The Discovery Channel goes out of their way to add b-reel of crocodiles, deadly predators, and snakes into every episode), on our criminal justice shows (we so love watching people get their just desserts), and especially on the so-called News and on social media.

I would guess over 70% of my social media feed is people saying awful, and I mean awful, things about Trump or Trump followers or from Trump followers about liberals and progressives. Our social streams are full of the theater of pain and humiliation.

And if we can join in the pillorying and humiliation, all to the better.

Again, it is my suggestion that the futurism and dystopia is a screen that allows us the distance to, hopefully, find our empathy again...But sometimes, like when Brooker suggests the ethics of Shut up and Dance were purposely left unsettled (they weren't, every single actor was ethically wrong), the cynic in me thinks Black Mirror might really be just a circle jerk. That the show is just Charlie Brooker getting off on mocking all of the people getting off to his haughtily manufactured torture porn.

I hope the cynic in me is wrong, and that people will start to see that sometimes society has to punish people but that we should never take joy in causing the suffering of others (for the good of our own souls). That people will start to see that putting on a socially acceptable "discomfort" face while secretly loving watching or participating in the pain of others is wrong (even when those people suck).

Okay, that is enough for today. I think that means that I have finished all of Season One, Everything in Season Two except "White Christmas," and about half of Season Three.

Let me know what you think, leave a comment!