The Simpsons and Methodological Caution

This clip from The Simpsons has been making the rounds online lately:

Looks a lot like 2020, doesn’t it? But the fact is, the clip comes from the season-four episode “Marge in Chains.” It originally aired on May 6, 1993, almost three decades ago.

The apparently prophetic scene has caught the attention of MSM outlets, and Bill Oakley, one of the episode’s writers, has even jokingly admitted to the cartoonish prognostication.

This is all good fun, and it was in that spirit of silliness that a friend sent me the clip several days ago. Here was my duplex reaction:

Allow me to explain. I watched the clip and laughed. And then I thought: You know, if I were a historian several centuries from now who came across this clip and didn’t know its date, here is what I would almost certainly write about it:

The cartoon’s overt allusions to the COVID-19 pandemic and anxieties about an invasion of the United States by “Murder Hornets” clearly establish a firm terminus a quo in the spring of 2020.

And that kind of frightens me—and, I hope, chastens me. By no means am I advocating for radical skepticism, but it seems to me that this is a call to caution concerning how certain we claim to be about historical touchstones. I’ll leave us all to think up our own concrete cases for application of this chastening.

(Backs away slowly…)

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