President Lisa


One day – this much we know – Lisa Simpson will be president. Of course, it is Simpsons canon that her reign comes right after Trump’s, so maybe this moment will be eight years from now. But on the other hand, who even knows how long Donald Trump will hang on for? When Trump becomes president, will he scrap term limits? After he builds that wall, will he, like that other great wall-builder the First Emperor Qin, spend all of his time consumed in his quest for the secret to eternal life? And with modern science, who knows how successful he will be?

One thing, I think, is clear: whenever Lisa Simpson becomes president, it will be too late. Lisa Simpson started out as a bright, sensitive little girl but as The Simpsons has dragged on and on she has become something other than that: Lisa Simpson has become something rather closer to God. There is no topic under the sun, no political or religious controversy or anything like that, to which Lisa Simpson does not have all the answers. Though born of the rank, giddy idiocy of her father, Lisa is the pure light of reason – the Donny Do, to Homer’s Donny Don’t. The hope of President Lisa is therefore a Messianic hope: the hope that reason itself will one day sweep down from heaven and illuminate the Dionysian irrationalism of American public discourse, kill all the monsters and win over all the swing voters. The hope that we would finally have a president who would do what we already know is right for everyone, who would sort out the schools, and reform the healthcare system properly, close Guantanamo, and stop all the drone strikes, and pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices, and everyone will thank her for it, and Fox News will close and we will never have a bad president again.

But the Messiah always comes too late. In truth Lisa Simpson does not have all the answers – she only seems like she does, because she’s the mouthpiece for the views of her creators. The real life Lisa Simpson would be like that little girl who appeared on Andrew Neill recently, telling him that since he doesn’t support the sugar tax, maybe he wasn’t educated properly enough in health and well-being. She’s exactly right, she’s completely internalised all the values she’s ever been lectured on, and she’s got all the relevant stats about seat-belts in front of her. But she’s also horribly, deeply wrong. She’s got all the rules, but none of the understanding. She can’t think critically about how they might ever be applied in real life – because she’s eight, of course she can’t do this, she’ll have to have lived in the world for a bit longer first.

President Lisa, of course, will not be eight; she will be thirty-eight (this is what we’re told in the show). Perhaps, we can imagine, by the time little Lisa Simpson has progressed from the second grade, to Harvard, to whatever position she is supposed to have held prior to becoming president, she will have gained a depth of wisdom to supplement her know-it-allness. But still her presidency will come too late. She’ll have all the answers… but what are answers? Responses to questions which have been ossified as facts: responses to questions which someone asked a long time ago, which hang around as ‘knowledge’. And that’s the crucial problem, really. Leadership isn’t about possessing all the answers and acting on them accordingly, it isn’t about making reality conform to some schema you’ve drawn up in advance. It’s about thinking on and through uncertainty.

This is why the Messiah always comes too late: the Messiah brings with them the divine law of God, the absolute and final canon of correct ideas. But where was this canon when we were struggling, suffering, living? And besides which, now you’ve got here, everything has changed: this law doesn’t apply anymore, this one is something no one has thought acceptable for decades. The Messiah can get lost! In truth human thought does not need a canon of absolute, unchanging correctness: indeed we probably don’t need to know anything at all, or at least not in the overdemanding, philosophical sense of ‘knowledge’. Rather, all we need is to be able to reflect on the things we don’t know (or that we believe we don’t know, that we are unsure about). This is what human problem-solving capacities are all about.

So what’s the lesson? President Lisa is a mirage. The best president won’t be the Simpsons character who knows everything; it will be the Simpsons character who knows nothing, but is nevertheless capable of recognising their idiocy and reflecting on it. I’m ready for Donny Don’t in 2016.

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