Tag Archives: American Values

“King of the Hill” Vs. “F is for Family” And The Evolution/Disillusion Of The American Dream

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What happened to the American Dream? That’s a question more and more people are asking these days. It’s a question people have been asking in some form or another for decades. Even if you’re not American, it’s relevant because as politics and economics become more global, there’s a sense that a great many people are being left behind. More recently, it feels like that trend is accelerating.

Since I’m not a political scientist or an economist, I’m not qualified to break down all the factors behind these trends. However, given my age and relative experiences, I’ve witnessed many of the changes and upheavals that have shaped the current state of affairs. Over that period, I’ve even seen those changes reflected in two iconic animated TV shows from two disparate eras.

One is “King of the Hill,” a colorful slice of the late 90s/early 2000s cultural zeitgeist. The other is “F is for Family,” a show that, despite taking place in the 1970s, heaps plenty of scathing criticism on current American ideals. I’ve written about both shows before, citing the former as a lesson in work ethic and the latter as a perfect satire for its time. I also consider myself a fan of both shows.

Combined

On their own, they each have their own sense of style, story, and overall humor. They’re both entertaining and endearing in their own unique way. When placed side-by-side, though, they reflect an even greater message that goes beyond the themes of either shows. That message can be summed up with one harsh realization.

The American Dream isn’t just failing. Those who pursue it are being punished.

I know it sounds bleak, if not fatalistic. It’s certainly not a message that “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” ever state overtly. However, when placed in the context of their time and their over-arching themes, the overarching themes are clear, if not unavoidable.

In terms of ideals, Hank Hill and Frank Murphy have a lot in common. They’re both hard-working American men who see themselves as embodiments of American values. They take pride in their roles and responsibilities as husbands, fathers, and providers. They’re active in shaping the identity of their community. They both have an idealized vision of what the American Dream entails.

Some of those similarities extend to their family and how they impact the structure of the show. Many plots in “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” revolve around Hank and Frank reacting to events that happen within their family. They have wives that seek their own path and kids who rarely appreciate the work they do. Much of the comedy in each show emerges from these conflicts.

The face of many such conflicts.

Things really start to differ when the bigger picture of their respective worlds comes in. Whereas “King of the Hill” reflects a more optimistic view of the world that was more prevalent in the late 1990s, “F is for Family” paints a more dire picture. In Frank’s world, American ideals are failing and he’s struggling just to keep that vision alive.

In just three seasons, Frank has lost his job, struggled to provide for his family, and had his dreams derailed again when his wife gets pregnant. While his temper and his penchant for threatening to put people through walls don’t help, many of the factors that put him in such situations aren’t his fault. In fact, his tendency to do things the right way, as Hank often does, often work against him.

This isn’t even Frank’s worst day.

Within this dynamic, “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” diverge in a critical way that speaks to the larger issues surrounding the American Dream. In the world of “King of the Hill,” doing the right thing and following American values are rewarded. It’s one of the show’s most common themes over the course of 13 seasons.

In this world, working hard at a blue collar job is fulfilling, respectable, and rewarding.

In this world, a man can support his family with a job that involves selling propane and propane accessories.

In this world, people who take short-cuts or try to avoid hard work ultimately fail.

In this world, a man who marries the woman he impregnates is rewarded with respect, support, and admiration.

Simply put, adhering to principles of hard work, high morals, and personal responsibility will help someone achieve the American dream. Hank Hill, with his quaint suburban house and supportive community, is the personification of these principles. It’s not always easy for him, given his influences, but that only makes his adherence to those principles more respectable.

This is virtuous system is not present in “F is for Family.” If anything, it’s turned upside down. Frank Murphy followed those principles as closely as Hank. He put his personal goals on hold when his wife got pregnant. He served his country dutifully when he got drafted. He works hard and provides, despite having a slob for a boss. However, his efforts go unrewarded. If anything, they’re punished.

In Frank Murphy’s world, a hard-working man can save the company he works for, but still get fired.

In Frank Murphy’s world, marrying your pregnant girlfriend instead of following your dreams will only get you ungrateful kids, a miserable wife, and an unfulfilling job.

In Frank Murphy’s world, people who eschew hard work and behave irresponsibility are rewarded with cocaine-fueled parties and trophy wives.

In Frank Murphy’s world, a corporation can steal your idea and make millions off it while you don’t even get credit.

The system is harsh, unfair, and completely unconcerned with who adheres to American ideals. The only thing that ever seems to matter is dumb luck and already having significant wealth or privilege. Sadly, this is a lot more consistent with the current state of affairs where the rich and powerful exact immense influence, creating a system that benefits those at the top while straining everyone else.

Frank yelling on behalf of America.

This unfair system even extends beyond the political and economic sphere. In “F is for Family,” there are multiple characters who seem to succeed, no matter how little they work or how unmotivated they are. It’s not unlike those who flaunt their lavish lifestyles on Instagram, which is often fueled by inherited wealth that they did not work for or earn.

That kind of system wouldn’t just leave Hank Hill aghast. It would completely undermine his world, his identity, and his ethics. Whether he would resort to putting people through walls instead of just kicking asses is difficult to determine, but the bigger picture is clear. The American Dream in his world is intact whereas its reversing course in “F is for Family.”

To some extent, this reversal is consistent with how the world has been trending since the late 1990s and early 2000s. People have become increasingly cynical and trust in institutions is declining. Thanks to the media and the internet, it’s getting harder to hide the harsh realities of a world where just doing the right thing isn’t enough anymore. Despite taking place before the internet, “F is for Family” perfectly reflects this reality.

The face of that harsh reality.

It creates a dynamic that’s bound to create more Frank Murphys and fewer Hank Hills. People are told that the American dream is still in their grasp. They just have to be like Hank, playing by the rules, working hard, and not taking shortcuts. Those who buy into that dream aren’t just let down. They’re outright punished.

Frank didn’t become a profanity-spewing rageaholic overnight. As perfectly depicted in the show’s opening credits, the various machinations of this unfair system just kept hitting him and no matter how hard he worked or how much he sacrificed, he never got closer to the American Dream. If anything, it just kept getting farther away.

Both “F is for Family” and “King of the Hill” have plenty to offer in terms of insights. Their respective worlds may take place in an animated world where former presidents and future serial killers can show up, but such exaggerated dynamics help each show convey a certain message that fit perfectly within the context of a certain time.

The idealism in “King of the Hill” and the satirical deconstruction in “F is for Family” paint conflicting pictures of the American Dream. Both still glorify it as an ideal, but each present a different understanding of how it plays out. Within the comedy, there are genuine, relevant messages worth considering.

For many people in the real, non-animated world, the American Dream still matters. Many still work as hard and as passionately as Hank Hill and Frank Murphy. It’s hard enough when those efforts go unrewarded, but when doing the right thing becomes a liability, it’s hard to call it a dream.

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Filed under Current Events, F is for Family, human nature, King of the Hill, philosophy, political correctness, psychology, television

On Fascism (And Why It Fails)

Brace yourself and temper your outrage because I’m about to talk about fascism. No, I’m not talking about the kind of fascism that teenagers whine about whenever they have a strict teacher in high school. I’m not even talking about the kind of fascism that that certain people attribute to college professors, LGBT rights, Hollywood, the NRA, the Catholic Church, and Negan from “The Walking Dead.”

Today, I’m going to talk about actual, real-world fascism and how it functions. I’m also going to talk about why it tends to fail in the long run and why it’s become such an empty term. Now, I know that means putting a big target on my ass and daring the more vocal parts of the internet to take a shot. I like think my ass is harder and more durable than most so I’m prepared to take that chance.

I know people like to throw the word fascism around like middle fingers in mid-day traffic, but it does have a definition. That definition has been twisted and amended many times over the past half-century, so much so that the word evokes so many different connotations.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using the definition from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. It offers a fairly concise assessment of what it entails.

A political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

Under this definition, America and most developed countries are not fascist. No matter what some kale-eating hippie or Jerry Falwell wannabe theocrat may claim, the systems and laws in place are antithetical to fascism.

Western countries have codified laws and traditions that value individual rights, protect minorities, and restrain central government power. Now, that’s not to say it’s perfect in practice. There are plenty of examples, historical and contemporary, that of inequality and oppression by the government.

However, those examples are more a product of misguided groups of people and inherent systemic corruption. To call an entire system fascist because of those instances would be like calling an entire swimming pool dirty because a few people spit in it. With fascism, the entire pool is spit so there’s no need for cherry picking.

Thanks to the cruel mistress that is history, we have a few well-known examples of true fascism that even vegan hippies can agree on. By most objective measures, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany are the alpha and omega of all things fascist. If fascism were music, these two would be Elvis and the Beatles.

These governments were repressive, authoritarian, corrupt, and powerful. They could do whatever it wanted to its citizens and act however it wanted on a national stage, not giving a damn about public support of any kind. There was no hesitation to lie, cheat, and mislead the people. In these governments, people are either pawns or cogs in a machine. The very notion of freedom might as well be as fanciful as a unicorn fart.

There’s no question that these fascist governments did a lot of damage and caused a lot of suffering. There’s also no question that their actions scared and traumatized an entire world. They revealed to a modern world that wars between despots and industrial powers was truly horrific. Most human beings tend to avoid such horrors. A massive world war was enough to make everyone hyper-vigilant of all things fascist.

It’s in this heightened mentality where I think it’s worth having some perspective about fascism. We hear pundits, politicians, and protesters throw that word around, as though it’s the rhetorical equivalent of an “avoid critical thinking” card. It’s an easy label to throw around, but it rarely sticks because actual fascism is actually pretty frail.

In a modern context, fascism is different from the kings and despots of the ancient world. In those times, corrupt and blood-thirsty kings could only get away with so much. A kingdom and a nation state, complete with modern infrastructure, are two very different things.

A king needs to only hold a kingdom together and fight off the occasional invader. A nation state has to deal with bureaucracy, social welfare, and legal issues. No matter how big a king’s castle is, there’s just no way to manage all that in a modern context. There needs to be some sort of system in place.

A fascist government tries to centralize that system and organize it in a simple, stable way that definitively benefits certain persons or groups. Nazis sought to benefit a favored race. Italian Fascist sought to benefit a favored class. The argument could be made that Stalinist Russia and the current regime in North Korea are fascist in nature. I would tend to agree with those claims.

The goal is almost always the same. A fascist government directly and overtly attempts to control and centralize power for a select group of elites. It’s for this very reason that fascism tends to fail in the long run or never succeed in the first place.

Now, don’t go cheering and waving American flags just yet. That’s not to say that fascism inevitably falls under the glowing light of freedom, democracy, and bald eagles. That’s a romantic idea that makes for great war movies and comic book characters. It’s not necessarily reflective of real-world machinations.

The biggest flaw in fascism is its attempt to control and manage an entire state. That’s not just difficult. It’s impossible for any ordinary human or groups of humans. Our caveman brains can barely control when we get horny. How can we expect to control an entire government, let alone one meant to benefit a specific group of people?

The short answer is we can’t. The long answer is that such centralization and power requires a lot of bullying, corruption, subversion, and back-stabbing. That’s why you have Nazi Storm Troopers and Stalinist purges. It isn’t just because powerful people get a thrill out of ordering rampant death. They need to scare, bully, and intimidate everybody into going along with their agenda and being completely loyal.

That’s a huge problem though because, as I’ve pointed out before, it’s impossible to know how truthful someone is. You can never know who is truly loyal and who is plotting against you. That’s why men like Joseph Stalin were obscenely paranoid, which guaranteed that allies and enemies alike would die by his hand. Without those allies, any system is inherently weaker.

On top of that problem, there’s also the issue of the terrified masses who live under a fascist thumb. Say what you will about whiny protesters complaining about weed, but at least they’re willing to tell the government what they don’t want to hear. In a fascist system, the impoverished masses will likely keep their mouth shut.

That may help a paranoid fascist get through the day, but it limits their ability to make it through the year. That’s because in a complex world, having incomplete facts tends to be a huge detriment. If nobody is willing to tell a fascist ruler that their rusty old trucks with canons are no match for drone strikes, then that’s going to be a problem.

That’s why, contrary to what the History Channel and video games may claim, fascist regimes like Nazi Germany were never close to winning the war. Between major blunders and micromanaging, there was never a scenario that didn’t involve time travel or aliens that would’ve allowed them to win.

That’s because a fascist regime can’t trust anyone, be it military generals or the public. At some point, the political ties break down and the system just can’t handle it. They can delay the collapse, but they usually can’t stop it. It’s remarkable that Nazi Germany lasted as long as it did, given all the assassination attempts.

It’s the dirty, but unavoidable secret of almost every fascist governments. They function only to live another day, rather than build a future. Some are better at it than others. Castro’s Cuba has managed to survive for over a half-century, albeit with significant support from other neighboring countries.

The same goes for North Korea. The only reason that country still exists is because China doesn’t want a failed state on its border. At this point, North Korea can only endure, but not build. As the old dynastic cycle in China often proved, a system concerned only with survival tends to collapse in the long run.

I say this not as a way to undermine the horrors that fascism has and could potentially unleash on this world. It is a real danger in a world that’s full of crazy dictators and obscene corruption. However, it’s a danger with an inherent weakness and an expiration date. It’s one instance where you can depend on caveman logic to win out in the end.

It may not inspire the kind of ravenous patriotism that Americans tend to enjoy. However, it does show that, despite protests the contrary, there’s a lot to appreciate about our current system. It’s not perfect, but it’s building towards a better, sexier future more so than any fascist government ever will.

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