Episode 617: Strivers, Sycophants, and Nincompoops

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we listen to and discuss Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin.”

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Ben Adams, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather, spurred by (a lack of?) news out of North Korea and autocracies everywhere, overthink The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s comedy about the days before and after the dictator’s death.

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7 Comments on “Episode 617: Strivers, Sycophants, and Nincompoops”

  1. yellojkt Member #

    The cult of the Empire goes back to a 2002 article written by Jonathon V. Last titled naturally enough “The Case for the Empire”


    Since then, many other people have jumped on that bandwagon, sometimes as a troll, sometimes as an expression of contrarian political beliefs.

    The mocking of Nazis has a long history going back to Charlie Chaplin whose “The Great Dictator” came out in 1940 long before the worst atrocities of the Nazi regime had even started so it gets double points for prescience. Since then there was Hogan’s Heroes which I watched endlessly in syndicated afternoon reruns completely unaware of the ironies of all the Germans being cast by Jews.

    And no discussion of mocking fascists is complete without mentioning the Mel Brooks Producers Extended Universe which has managed the hat trick of being a movie, a musical, and a movie musical, a feat matched only by a few other properties like “Hairspray.”

    But there is real dearth of works acidly mocking the Soviet era of Russian history. While it would be easy and glib to blame this on sympathetic liberal media, there seems to something else at work. The Warren Beatty “Reds” was a loving epic length (perhaps the last movie released with a real intermission) tribute the most myopic apologist for Russian failures ever.

    Even in Cold War farces like “Dr. Strangelove” the Russians are presented as different but no worse than the bumbling idiotic Americans. And in red meat conservative movies like “Red Dawn” they are shown as cunning, cruel, and competent.

    On political Twitter there is a variety of troll known as a Tankie which is a sincere apologist for socialism and communism which goes beyond even the glib “***True*** communism has never been tried.” variety of naivete. Tankies not only defend Soviet era atrocities they weaponize whataboutism to attack American institutions.

    Which brings me back to the question of how a system which endured so long and created so much misery has escaped the gaze of satirists except in the most perfunctory way?


    • John C Member #

      I wonder if the dramatization problem with the Soviet Union is that they were so thoroughly banal. You don’t have a charismatic or dopey leader, the high-fashion uniforms and clear iconography, the populist attempts to connect the regime with ancient legends, or flamboyantly silly military drills. It’s just a bunch of back-biting old men running a crappy country into the ground surrounded by a military in utilitarian uniforms.

      Comic books have tried to do this, by the way, from some nobody superhero fighting spies from “Aissur” in the late 1930s to 2003’s “Superman: Red Son” and it’s recent animated adaptation, coincidentally starring Jason Isaac. It has generally flopped for the same reason that it flops in James Bond: For a Western audience, they can’t both be terrifying and impotently watch their doomsday scenarios stopped by one guy over the course of twenty-two pages.

      The only way I can see to successfully present a satirical version of that is pretty much what’s presented here, using the in-fighting nature to tell a kind of multi-generational saga framed as (essentially) a workplace comedy.


    • Three Act Destructure #

      I assume that it’s because while there are positive forms of socialism (especially those that do not resort to centrally planned economies), it also needs very little critiquing because it has so rarely been implemented and its failures tend to be the result of intervention from capitalist countries rather than from systemic implosion.

      On the other hand, capitalism is more wide-spread, more dangerous and more inherently self-defeating.

      I’m reminded of the “kitchen debate”, when America and Russia competed on a global stage to show off which country had the better lifestyle. The Russians brought some second-tier consumer goods and a lot of heavy manufacturing showcases.

      The Americans brought a stage with a hilariously fake version of an “affordable” home, including a fully automated, push-button kitchen that featured a 1950s Roomba. In case you’re wondering, the Roomba was an RC car being piloted by a guy hidden in a closet.

      If I’m looking at these two visions of the world, and I’m an artist who wants to say something meaningful, then it’s pretty easy to figure out who to satirize.


  2. Liffer Member #

    What can OTI do for us? Well, Mother’s Day is coming up, a lot of traditional gifts are now off-limits/unavailable, and OTI makes great gift guides. So, any suggestions (with or without affiliate links…) to help the mothers in our lives feel special and appreciated during this time?


  3. Mike O #

    Is this a “official enemies of the state department are bad” episode? I have enough of that from twitter, tv, film, videogames, etc.
    Until North Korea murders 10% of the US population as the US did to N.K., and many more millions across the globe as the US does, I’ll hold them to a higher esteem.


  4. John C Member #

    I think Matt hit the nail on the head, talking about how systems need to be designed around mitigating abuse. Every once in a while, I hear someone talking about how we need to tear down systems so that we can all live in peace, and they all seem to aggressively want to ignore how one handles…like, y’know, warlords. Without a unifying organization that provides oversight on the use of power, those “ad hoc voluntary security forces” have something of a tendency to start fighting each other and trying to conquer their neighbors.

    Similarly ignored in the broader culture, when we talk about totalitarian governments, is how similar the structure of a Stalinist regime is to, say, a large corporation. We have a petty, self-absorbed strongman at the top with cronies getting great treatment, while the rabble struggle under terrible conditions and barely able to feed and house themselves, with protests crushed and covered up. And, everybody is asked to buy into the idea that they should be willing to give up everything in their lives for the sake of the glory of the organization. Is that the Soviet Union? Tesla? North Korea? Amazon? We could try to make the argument that the difference is in the death count, but I feel like the victims of industrial disasters, violent strike-breaking actions, and employees not being able to earn enough to survive might disagree with that premise.

    To Ben’s point about Amazon running out of podcasting equipment, I can’t find it now, but there was one early “how to weather long-term quarantine” article, which made the point that, if you’re a white guy under thirty-five in the tech industry, you’re almost certainly going to want to start a podcast and you should just stop there. Which, I think says all that needs to be said.

    My version of “unprecedented” has been the story about Italian people singing at each other from balconies and other “good news” that’s literally just people doing mundane and stereotypical things BUT UNDER QUARANTINE. It feels like the coronavirus equivalent of “woman works three full-time jobs and walks twelve miles to provide for her family without a car, but problem solved, because someone gave her a car!” feel-good stories that completely miss the bigger story that people live like this.


    • yellojkt Member #

      I waited about a week too long to check the functionality of my ten-year-old webcam which turned out to be DOA. There were no webcams available in the US at any price. Fortunately I found an app to turn my cell phone into a webcam so now I can Zoom with kool kidz.

      I’ve also heard reports that free weights sold out everywhere as people tried to stock isolation home gyms. It’s interesting how thin the supply chain is for specific items which aren’t even consumables like toilet paper.


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