Conservatives And The Culture Wars

March 6, 2014

There’s a lot of talk among conservatives these days about the culture. The late, great Andrew Breitbart knew that political victories would always be fleeting, but cultural changes have a tendency to stick around. Worse, as the culture goes so goes the politics. The subject of culture, specifically pop culture, in American politics and society is being debated in conservative circles but the discussions, while often interesting, tend to be somewhat circular. For starters, nobody can really agree with what needs to be done. There are a lot of slogans about “taking back the culture” but those slogans are misplaced. The culture was never really conservative. We can not “take it back” though we can certainly make impressions upon it.

There was no Golden Age of Conservative Culture. There have been huge stars who wore their conservatism on their sleeves, most notably John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. The brilliant director John Ford was an unabashed conservative. Today first-rate actors like the mighty Robert Duvall, Nick Searcy, Jon Voight, and Vince Vaughn are out of the political closet. Hollywood used to produce many films that celebrated America and patriotism, particularly during World War Two. In the early 1940s, Hollywood was “doing its part”, as they say, by making war films that showed America in the best possible light. Compare that to the Hollywood films that were released during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, where the Americans are routinely portrayed as evil, insane, or incompetent. The Hurt Locker won the Best Picture award a few years ago for its portrayal of an American bomb squad leader in Iraq who acted out of a perverse love of the risk of death. Less successful, the movie White House Down featured the military-industrial complex (those people who make the tanks) as terrorists. Today, the Liam Neeson action film Non-Stop has, as its main villain, a 9/11 family member and former soldier who become terrorists because they don’t think America has been proactive enough in stopping more terrorist attacks.

It’s certainly true that pop culture is distinctly Left wing when it ventures into political realms. But Progressivism has always been at the core of the creative arts. Was Hollywood conservative in the 1940s?

The clip is from 1948’s State Of The Union, directed by Frank Capra and starring Spencer Tracy as an industrialist (a Republican, no less!) who runs for President. The clip is too brief, and I wasn’t able to find the entire thing, but it gives a taste. The entire speech reads like it came straight out of the Communist Manifesto or Obama’s last State of the Union speech; it’s a litany of liberal pipe dreams. Free healthcare, affordable housing, you name it. No tax cuts, please, we need the government to provide. And this from the director Frank Capra, long known as a conservative Republican despite the Leftist tilt of classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

It seems to me that conservatives need to understand that we will probably never be the dominant force in the culture. But there are still ways to win cultural battles, and there are ways not to win cultural battles.

The way to achieve victories in the culture war is to engage the enemy. Listen to the music, watch the television shows, go to the movies. When you find examples of Leftist rhetoric, don’t scream for boycotts that never work. Engage the enemy. Talk about the culture, offer arguments against the culture, be a happy warrior. This is the lesson of Andrew Breitbart, and is being carried on by his acolytes like Chris and Dana Loesch, John Nolte, and Ben Shapiro. Don’t shrink away from the Left; fight them happily. When Jon Stewart mocks conservatives, mock Jon Stewart. Point out who he is and what his agenda is, because most people don’t know that he even has an agenda. Get his beliefs out in the open. Give serious examples of the arguments he downplays with sarcasm and scorn. Many people in this country do not follow politics closely. They get their politics from the likes of Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel. They are hearing one side of the argument, and contempt for the other side. You can point out why Letterman’s joke wasn’t funny, or why Colbert’s interview was skewed, but only if you know what they’re saying.

Conservatives should not only talk about the culture, they should create it. Conservative themes resonate deeply when they’re done well. Too often, they’re done poorly. I’m sure the members of the band Madison Rising are great guys, but their songs are Nickelback-worthy anthems full of sloganeering. “In The Days That Reagan Ruled”? “Right To Bear”? “Where Was The Media Then”? I’m conservative and even I don’t want to hear these songs. You never see a liberal band writing a song called “Barack Obama Is A Great President” or “Hillary Is My Honey”. Nobody wants to be hit with a brick, whether it comes from a liberal or conservative. For some reason conservative artists feel that they need to make conservative art. They don’t. They need to make good art. Their conservatism will bleed through into the music or movies, but nobody will care if the music or movie stinks. Create your art with no agenda other than creating great art. If you let your heart and soul come through your art, your conservatism will come through as well. If your art is good it will find an audience. It may be a small audience, but if it touches one person who spreads the word, you are reaching out and engaging in the culture. You don’t have to be bigger than the Beatles to make an impact. Think global but act local is a slogan that actually applies here.

But too many conservatives are doing the exact opposite. Read through the comments at Breitbart’s Big Hollywood site and you’ll see it. Conservatives are actively boasting that they will never go to another movie until Hollywood starts making pro-faith, pro-family movies. The contempt for Hollywood’s Leftists is not only palpable, it crosses the line into outright ugliness. The comments on a recent post about HBO’s “it” girl, Lena Dunham, descended into the most adolescent name-calling you can imagine. Dunham, a talented writer and avowed Lefty, was called “a pig”, “a sow”, “ugly”, “fat”, and “retarded” among many other epithets. She was mercilessly mocked for her appearance, her weight, her tattoos, and her willingness to shed her clothes on the show Girls, which she created, writes, and stars in. Nobody in the comments actually engaged with Dunham, her ideas, the culture she promotes, her writing ability, her acting, or anything else that was actually important. Several comments boasted about refusing to watch any show with her in it. A few years back, in response to a post about an anti-Bush statement made by Paul McCartney, commenters responded with a slew of “I will never listen to the Beatles again” diatribes. How does that win the culture wars? It makes you sound like cultural idiots.

I understand the mentality. Why support, with my hard-earned dollars, actors, musicians, and writers who hate everything I stand for? But there’s a difference between refusing to see Non-Stop because it’s blatant Leftist agitprop and refusing to see Schindler’s List because it stars the actor from Non-Stop. I agree completely with most conservatives that Sean Penn is an absolutely odious human being. He’s also a truly gifted actor. Will I go see a movie about Hugo Chavez that stars Penn? No. Would I go see a non-political film with Penn in the lead? Sure, if it’s good.

Big Hollywood guru John Nolte often discusses the “Left wing sucker punches” in films. It’s that moment when a character suddenly makes a Sarah Palin joke or spouts some anti-Tea Party rhetoric in a film that is otherwise apolitical. Conservatives can only make inroads to the heart of the culture when we confront these moments, as Nolte does. It doesn’t mean we have to spend our money or go to movies that are blatant exercises in Left wing buffoonery (like, say, Brian DePalma’s Rendition). But we will never be able to punch back against the Left if we withdraw. See the movies, listen to the music, watch the television show; then argue the merits with your families and friends. Point out the Progressive fallacies and sucker punches so that they are out in the open, and happily argue why those moments are wrong. Drag the Leftist agenda into the light and destroy it. You may not hurt the box office of the movie, but you will make people think about what they’ve seen. Progressive messages work because they are presented with no counter argument, and for far too many people it sinks in because the rest of the movie is so enjoyable, or because the song has a great melody. By pointing out these messages, by discussing them, and by arguing with facts and logic why they are wrong, you’ll be returning fire in the culture war and making your voice heard.

Conservatives need to seed the culture, not cede it.

Advertising, American Style

March 4, 2014

During the Winter Olympics, two advertisements that were in very heavy rotation presented contrasting and stark visions of America. Ironically, both ads were from General Motors but the underlying philosophy behind the ads appealed to two strikingly different demographics, even though both were aimed at luxury car owners.

The first of the ads, called “Poolside”, features the actor Neal McDonough, known for his excellent work in Band of Brothers and Justified. In the ad, McDonough rattles off a creed of American exceptionalism. We’re not like the rest of the world, content to put in a day at work and stop off at the cafĂ©. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers,” he says. Americans work hard and play hard. We’re “driven” to push boundaries, to create, to explore, to never be satisfied. The Wright brothers, Bill Gates, Muhammad Ali, and Les Paul are all cited as examples of the American spirit. We are such an exceptional nation that we pushed ourselves to go to the Moon and then became bored because outer space was no longer a challenge. “It’s simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible.”

The ad has been misunderstood. Critics, invariably from the Left, claim that it’s an ode to conspicuous consumption. McDonough is playing a rich guy with a great house, large pool, beautiful wife and kids, and a Cadillac ELR in the driveway. He extols Americans to take shorter vacations and work even harder. The critics miss the point. McDonough says early in the ad that Americans don’t work this way for “stuff”. We work this way because it’s who we are. The “stuff” comes as a result, not because it’s a goal.

The commercial promotes hard work, belief in yourself, and the old-fashioned notion that people make their own luck and that they succeed or fail based on a combination of attitude and effort. The ad could have been scripted by Horatio Alger.

Compare this to another GM ad that was running at the same time, this one for the Chevy Tahoe.

In the Tahoe ad, a young couple arrives home from a night out and asks the babysitter how things went. “They went right to bed,” the young girl replies. The mother then drives the girl home in her Chevy Tahoe. As they drive, the girl takes notice of the opulence of the vehicle. She runs her fingers along the stitching on the leather interior, notes the satellite radio, the various high-tech screens and push-button controls. When they arrive at the babysitter’s house, the woman says “Forty, right?” as she breaks out her wallet. The babysitter pauses, looks over the interior of the car again, and smugly says, “Ummm…sixty.”

Here is Entitlement Nation in the guise of a girl barely in her teens. She’s just come from a job that was, by her own admission, easy. There is an agreed upon price for the job but the girl decides she wants more based on how much the young couple have. In the America of the Neal McDonough ad, the young mother would have replied, “Here’s the forty dollars we agreed on. I don’t appreciate your pathetic attempt at grabbing more of the money that I’ve earned and you didn’t. I am going to make sure that all of your clients understand that you’re a self-entitled little brat who can’t be trusted to honor an agreement. Your compensation is based on the attitude and effort you bring to the table, not on the type of car we can afford. Get out of my car. Good luck ever finding another babysitting job in this neighborhood.”

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. But just a bit. The fact is that these two advertisements do convey radically different, and competing, philosophies of life in America. In one, you succeed based on your spirit and effort. In the other, you demand success from the spirit and effort of someone else. It’s the difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement; it’s the difference between the Conservative view of America and the Progressive view. It is the difference between a free nation and one where we shackle ourselves to government largesse. These ads represent visions of our future. The choice is up to us.

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