I went to sleep before Jordan Horowitz, a producer for “La La Land,” had to announce, “There’s been a mistake” – that “Moonlight” had in fact won the Oscar for best picture.
Reading Twitter the next morning, it took a while to figure out what happened. It sounded like Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway – the final presenters of the night – had done something so bizarre that men in white coats should have escorted them off the stage.
But it turns out they weren’t crazy, they were victims of the greatest screw up in Academy Award history.
The first thing to say is that Sunday night’s bizarreness fits into a more general trend of universal weirdness. It’s as if at some point we took the wrong exit into a parallel universe, and the bungled Oscars are just the latest example that we’re strangers in a strange land (as John Podhoretz joked on Twitter, “The Man in the High Envelope”).
Maybe there’s some weird version of the Beetlejuice curse, where if you say “that’ll never happen” three times, it happens.
Maybe there’s some weird version of the Beetlejuice curse, where if you say ‘that’ll never happen’ three times, it happens.
This certainly seems true in sports, where decades-long rules of the universe have been rescinded. The Chicago Cubs exorcised the spirit of the billy goat, the New England Patriots came back from a Super Bowl deficit everyone “knew” was insurmountable. And Cleveland, violating all biblical prophecy, is now a sports powerhouse.
In politics, the first obvious sign that the world was off its axis was the Florida recount in 2000. But the unraveling has been accelerating. A black guy named Barack Hussein Obama will defeat Hillary Clinton and be elected president? “Never happen.” Donald Trump, president of the United States? “Never happen.” How many times have the polls been wrong now? The pundits? The economists? Google “Brexit,” or “financial crisis” and you’ll see.
Maybe the experts aren’t clueless, they just don’t realize that for some reason we live on Earth 2, where these things are normal.
But there is an explanation that doesn’t rely on parallel universes, magic or someone poisoning the water with crazy pills.
Perhaps the second law of thermodynamics explains it. Well, not the sports victories, but the political and institutional screw-ups.
Steven Pinker recently wrote a wonderful little essay (for edge.org) on how people need to better appreciate the second law. Specifically, they need to understand that if we don’t actively work to keep chaos at bay, entropy wins. “Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there.”
“The Second Law of Thermodynamics” Pinker adds, “is acknowledged in everyday life” whenever we say things like “Ashes to ashes,” “Things fall apart” and “Rust never sleeps.”
Complicated things are… complicated. If you don’t work very hard at keeping them running, the natural order of the universe is for them to break down. Planes don’t “want” to fly, bikes don’t “want” to stay upright and people, markets and institutions don’t always want to behave the way experts in Washington want or expect them to.
This is a particularly useful lesson for Hollywood to learn — and not just when it comes to award-show planning. I’ve lost count of the number of movies and televisions shows that work on the assumption that the government is superhumanly competent. Say the wrong word into a cellphone in Jason Bourne’s universe, and within seconds, a van full of hyper-competent assassins will appear out of nowhere. Big corporations, too, not only have people killed, but they’re really good at it.
There is the occasional concession to reality. In “Wag the Dog” the government is hapless — but Hollywood producers, the sort who put on the Oscars, can accomplish anything.
The real life producers dispelled that myth. As they say on the Internet, the accountants in charge of the envelopes had only one job – and they butchered it. And the producers of one of the most watched, most important (and self-important) cultural events in American life, never thought to have a protocol in place in the event someone hands a presenter the wrong envelope.
I guess someone said, “That’ll never happen.”