Tue. May 29
Acculturated Symposium: Are Conservatives Bad at Pop Culture?
Editor’s note: This piece introduces a symposium in which a variety of writers and thinkers weigh in on the relationship between conservatism and pop culture. Look for further contributions on this topic throughout the week on Acculturated.
Are conservatives bad at pop culture? Erik Kain, who blogs for Forbes, thinks they are:
And it’s not as though no good conservative art or literature has ever been produced. It’s just that today’s conservatives have lost any sense of proportion or subtext. Everything is so overt and over-stated. I think that The Lord of the Rings is a basically conservative text. It’s just not explicitly conservative and doesn’t say anything nasty about Obama.
Today’s conservative pop culture is reactionary, which is fitting I suppose. There was a mockumentary conservatives made a couple years ago that attempted to not very cleverly spoof Michael Moore. But an attempt to beat Moore at his own game is probably going to fail, if only because it’s little more than preaching to the choir (and this isn’t even to say that Moore isn’t deserving of his own criticism – the left is actually very good at leveling its own critique at Moore.) It’s the same in politics: conservatives aren’t so much interested with their own ideas about governance as they are about responding to and obstructing the ideas of their opponents.
And perhaps that’s the crux of the issue. Conservative art mimics conservative politics rather than the other way around. And so it can never really be art.
That’s a bold claim and one that, on its surface, makes sense. Conservatives have a reputation for being anti-pop culture. They seem to spend more time bashing pop culture than either praising it or creating it. Conservative traditionalists see pop culture as low, degrading, and a symbol of moral degeneration. Some boast that they do not watch movies or that they do not they listen to music that isn’t classical. Even jazz is considered too pop for some—and don’t get them started on hip-hop. Other conservatives are rightly critical of Hollywood’s endemic anti-American elitism. Earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter ran a special issue on Hollywood and politics, which featured a column by Ann Coulter called “Why America Hates Hollywood.” Here’s an excerpt:
Let me give you the plots of two true crime episodes I recently watched, back-to-back, on ID TV. The show was titled Unusual Suspects – “unusual” only if it were a Hollywood production. In the first, a woman was raped at home, stabbed through the heart and her house set on fire. The police looked at suspicious white guys in her life. Then, in the last five minutes of the show, DNA proved that her rapist/murderer was a Hispanic who wanted to have sex with a virgin. In the second, a married couple and their son were stabbed to death in their sleep. Various white guys were arrested, but all were let go when their DNA didn’t match or they had airtight alibis. Then it turned out to be a random Hispanic kid who committed the murders as a gang initiation.
In other words, the exact opposite of a Law & Order plot. I like watching beautiful rich people with fabulous Manhattan apartments killing one another as much as anyone. Maybe more. But why do ALL the wealthy white people, Christians, Southerners or WASPS in these scripts have to be racist, misogynist snobs? Whatever happened to diversity? Hollywood learned to stop stereotyping black characters. Can’t it learn to stop stereotyping the rest of America?
Not to brag, but I’ve been to America. The natives do not need coaching in tolerance, certainly not from beautiful airheads who are paid like Enron executives to lecture us — the child-molesting, greedy racists — about learning to be decent human beings.
America may hate Hollywood’s elitism, but Americans still love and consume vast amounts of pop culture.
When it comes to pop culture, conservatives act like outsiders looking in (curmudgeonly outsiders, in some cases). I can kind of understand why they’re less than pleased with the current landscape: the institutions that shape America’s cultural conversation — Hollywood, the music industry, the media, the academy, the arts, etc — are dominated by liberals. But rather than penetrating the liberal cultural establishment, the conservative movement erected its own institutions. James Piereson pointed this out in a 2010 essay for The National Interest titled “Conservative Nation.” He wrote, ”Conservatives have in this way created their own ‘nation’ within the nation, replete with its own culture, institutions and prominent personalities.” Those institutions — think National Review (1955), the Heritage Foundation (1973), and the CATO Institute (1977) — which were founded during the heady days of the Cold War, were often more concerned with politics, policy, and economics than they were culture, let alone pop culture.
In the forthcoming June issue of The New Criterion, Piereson elaborates on the point he made in “Conservative Nation,” writing:
Nor have Republicans had much success in penetrating leading cultural and educational institutions on behalf of ideas that have wide support among voters. College faculties and editorial boards are more resolutely Democratic and liberal today than they were in the 1960s. Republicans have so far been unable to parlay their considerable electoral success into commensurate influence over cultural, journalistic, and educational institutions. Conservatives, in fact, have done something altogether different: they have created their own newspapers, magazines, think tanks and research institutes, and colleges and schools to circulate their ideas. They have, in effect, formed their own “counter-establishment” through which they communicate with their supporters and wage ideological warfare against Democrats.
Here at Acculturated, we are less interested in politics than we are in how the virtues — like creativity, beauty heroism, responsibility, joy, and generosity, to name a few — play themselves out in the popular culture. The virtues transcend politics and, we think, the best pop culture transcends politics as well. Pop culture is the realm where human stories unfold and reach a mass audience. When conservatives or liberals adulterate the pop culture with politics, then those stories suffer, plain and simple. But when those stories are emotionally honest portrayals of human life, with all of its emotional highs and lows, then there is nothing better than to lose yourself in them.
Emotional truths help us get to moral truths, and that’s where the virtues come in. Neither conservatives nor liberals have a monopoly on these virtues, but the conservatives certainly believe in their value in enhancing the human experience and are vocal about it. The good news is, the pop culture is packed with those virtues and audiences respond to them. If you don’t believe me, just think about the painful maturing process that Judd Apatow’s characters undergo. Or the themes of heroism and loyalty in the Harry Potter books. Or any number of things that we’ve covered on this blog.
This is all by way of context. The bottom line is that Kain’s provocative blog post intrigued us and so we set out to ask some prominent writers that we know, many of them conservative, about the relationship between conservatives and pop culture. Some of the questions we asked them were: Are conservatives bad at pop culture? Or, is that a myth? If they are inherently “bad” at pop culture, then why? More broadly, why do conservative writers and pundits appear uninterested in pop culture? Can you think of good examples of conservatives doing pop culture today?
The responses that we have received from people like Glenn Reynolds, Ed Driscoll, Megan Basham, Lee Siegel, Diane Ellis, Mark Judge, James Poulos, and others, were enthusiastic, impassioned, insightful, and so very different. Each makes for excellent reading. It makes us wonder if conservatives are more interested in pop culture than they’ve been letting on. If they are, it’s time for them to come out of the closet. It’s time to start a conversation about it. We hope that this symposium can contribute, in some way, to that conversation.