The “where’s my elephant?” theory of history

Isn’t that what we’re all asking in our own lives?

According to my dad, there are two major theories of history. The first, the “conspiracy theory,” holds that there exists a shadowy elite behind all the various outrages which constitute the whole grim story of mankind, deliberately manufacturing evil to suit their nefarious designs. The advantage of subscribing to the conspiracy theory is that if you were to find some way of unraveling the conspiracy, you would be able to make everything all better.

But the second theory, which my dad personally would always say he subscribed to, is the “cock-up theory,” holds that all the bad things that happen are essentially just mistakes: that it is human to err and so, ultimately, nothing can ever really improve. Incremental gains, sure, can sometimes be made, but someone is always bound to cock things up again.

My dad tended to raise the cock-up theory against my naïve attempts at teenage dinner-table Marxism, since he assumed that any sort of central state intervention — under which he included any attempt to make things better for people using politics — was likely to result in more cock-ups. So I guess the distinction between these two folk historiographies has always bugged me.

Which is why I'm going to sketch a third one. Call this the “where’s my elephant?” theory of history (I got this phrase from someone who follows me on twitter who goes by “JamesFerraroFan”).

The “where’s my elephant?” theory takes it name, of course, from The Simpsons episode in which Bart gets an elephant (Season 5, episode 17, to be precise). For those of you who don't know the episode: Bart wins a radio contest where you have to answer a phone call with the phrase, “KBBL is going to give me something stupid.” That “something stupid” turns out to be either $10,000, or “the gag prize”: a full-grown African elephant. Much to the presenters’ surprise, Bart chooses the elephant — which is a problem for the radio station, since they don't actually have an elephant to give him. After some attempts at negotiation (the presenters offer Principal Skinner $10,000 to go about with his pants pulled down for the rest of the school year; the presenters offer to use the $10,000 to turn Skinner into “some sort of lobster-like creature”), Bart finds himself kicked out of the radio station, screaming “where's my elephant?”

The story is picked up by the news (Kent Brockman: “Isn't that what we're all asking in our own lives? Where's my elephant? I know that's what I've been asking.”), which leads to the presenters being threatened with the loss of their jobs, which leads to them to obtain the elephant for Bart. Bart has won his joke prize, but now he must deal with the joke's consequences. Predictably, the elephant proves impossible for the Simpson family to keep — it costs them a huge amount of money and does a significant amount of damage to local real estate. In the end, they give the elephant away to an animal sanctuary. A few seasons later (in the episode in which the Simpson family hosts Apu’s wedding in their back garden), Bart is barely able to remember that he even had an elephant at all.

In short then, the “where’s my elephant?” theory holds the following:

  1. If you give someone a joke option, they will take it.
  2. The joke option is a (usually) a joke option for a reason, and choosing it will cause everyone a lot of problems.
  3. In time, the joke will stop being funny, and people will just sort of lose interest in it.
  4. No one ever learns anything.

So what evidence is there that the question “where’s my elephant?” has somehow been in the background throughout the history of our species, the driving force behind all human events?

Well, here’s one somewhat news-relevant example: On Friday, the UK will officially leave the European Union. In a sense, this event will conclude the almost four years of political turmoil that have raged in my home country following the June 2016 Brexit referendum. But of course “in a sense” is doing quite a bit of heavy lifting here. In truth, the agreement to withdraw passed by Boris Johnson's government only really settles a few formalities about what will happen the day the UK ceases to be an EU member state, with much of Britain's future relationship with Europe still to be agreed upon (questions of how trade will work, how the borders will work, etc.). Given the difficulties still to come, it is no surprise that the conservative Tory party — which most recently campaigned on a platform of pretty well ending Brexit, and indeed politics in general, forever — have moved to ban the word “Brexit” after January 31. Brexit will remain with us — and yet, even as it continues to happen, it will be forced into feeling like a distant memory, the after-image of some unpleasantness we no longer wish even to understand.

And perhaps it was the same with Boaty McBoatface. In hindsight, everyone should have always known that people were going to vote for Brexit — because a few months before the referendum, a poll to name a new vessel owned by the British National Environment Research Council was topped, following a social media campaign, by the suggestion “Boaty McBoatface”. In the end though, the public were denied the opportunity to call a research vessel something manifestly very silly, with the then-Science Minister Jo Johnson (Boris’s centrist, anti-Brexit brother) intervening to ensure that the boat would be called “RRS Sir David Attenborough.” “Boaty McBoatface” still became the name of something — but only one of Attenborough’s remote-controlled submersibles. As with Brexit, the Boaty McBoatface poll saw the public voting en masse for the joke option, the option no-one ever expected them to choose — in part, one suspects, simply because the people in charge had not thought to plan for what would happen if they did so.

The difference, of course, is that the Boaty McBoatface vote was trivial enough to be dismissed, but then-Prime Minister David Cameron had held the Brexit referendum in order to resolve an internecine conflict within his own party, which made that act of voting for the joke option significant enough to trigger a constitutional crisis.

How the Pentagon managed to forget that people will inevitably choose the joke option while talking to President Donald Trump is beyond me.

Similar forces were at work when Donald Trump was elected towards the end of the same year. In part, “similar forces” here mean a resurgent nativism, but it’s also significant that for more than a decade, the idea of “President Trump” had been used as a punchline by comedies like The Simpsons. “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican,” quipped Seth Myers at the 2011 White House Correspondent's Dinner, “which is surprising, because I just assumed he was running for president as a joke.” Trump was never supposed to become the president; the mere idea of him doing so somehow upset the order of reality, and that was a huge part of his appeal. In almost exactly the same way, Boris Johnson, Trump’s UK analogue, first rose to prominence via his appearances on the BBC panel comedy show Have I Got News For You?, where he excelled at playing a blustering, upper-class twit Tory MP character called “Boris Johnson.” By the mid-2010s, Johnson was widely presumed to be a future Tory leader — but only because people had first had the idea “what if Boris Johnson was the Prime Minister?” pop into their heads as a joke.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Trump (allegedly) decided to have Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani assassinated because Pentagon officials tacked on the option of doing so in a briefing to “make the other options seem reasonable”. How the Pentagon managed to forget that people will inevitably choose the joke option while talking to President Donald Trump is beyond me.

In my dad’s “conspiracy theory,” the driving force behind history is malice; on his “cock-up theory,” history is propelled by incompetence. But according to the “where’s my elephant?” theory, history is shaped by something rather more positive: desire. Specifically, the desire operative behind the “where’s my elephant?” theory is the desire for transgression. Humor, after all, exists at the limits of our world: the comedian Stewart Lee’s theory of clowning says that the purpose of jokes is to set out, and thus legislate, the boundaries of acceptable behavior. To make the “joke option” a reality, then, is to transgress the limits the joke itself sets out.

Sometimes this can be joyous. Consider this oral history of the time the dog ate that guy's donor heart on the teen drama One Tree Hill, which happened (it seems) because the writers came up with it as a joke option, then essentially baited themselves into choosing it for real. But more often (and certainly when it comes to things more consequential than teen dramas), it’s a disaster — because now that the joke option has actually happened, it's no longer locatable at the margins of possibility, so it’s no longer particularly funny. Then all you’re left with is something that there were previously very good reasons not to let happen — and everyone is going to have to adapt around them. No wonder a public that was already bored enough with reality to vote for something as ridiculous as Brexit lost interest pretty quickly when it turned out that Brexit was in fact a very hard thing to do.

So how should we respond to all this? Well, one major reaction to both Brexit and Trump was a sort of renewed call for everyone to be simply a lot more sensible. But this is strategically very stupid, like thinking the solution to your kid loudly demanding ice cream for breakfast is to offer them broccoli instead. Probably the closest we’ve yet come to using the “where’s my elephant?” theory for good instead of evil was in Britain in 2017, when we almost managed to get Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn elected prime minister using memes.

Back then, the idea of a Corbyn premiership seemed, if not completely ridiculous, then at least fantastical — in large part, because the media had spent the past year and a bit making it seem so (indeed, Corbyn was only ever let onto the ballot for the 2015 Labour leadership election as a sort of joke option in the first place — endorsed by members of Parliament who never thought he would win). Unfortunately, by 2019, the quite-good 2017 result had lent the idea of “Prime Minister Corbyn” the smack of realism, and Labour was unable to capture the same utopian joy.

Perhaps though there is still a clue here. If the “where’s my elephant?” theory is broadly correct, and history is driven by desire, then, well, not all of our desires are simply aimed at transgression for its own sake. In the “where’s my elephant?” theory, the world-spirit is rendered as Bart Simpson, perennially a 10-year-old scamp (if we wanted to historicize the historiography, perhaps we could speculate that the “where’s my elephant?” theory is the product that makes it impossible for everyone, regardless of age, to grow up).

Bart can, yes, be mischievous and destructive, but not all his desires are anti-social ones. He is the kid who gets the principal fired after his dog runs loose in the school vents; who makes 900 dollary-doo collect calls to Australia; who responds to the command “go to bed” by going, instead, “to bread. ”But he is also a sweet boy who needs his family’s love and wants his mom and dad to be proud of him — the Bart of episodes like “Marge Be Not Proud”. If we are doomed to be Bart Simpson, then we must figure out how to be that Bart Simpson, instead.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.