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December 07, 2012

Jonathan Chait: Why Yes, Liberals Do Competely Control The Media, And They Use It, Very Successfully, To Advance Their Political Agenda

I wrote about this a while ago, before the election, and somehow I wound up on an old post discussing it again. It's worth noting again:

When Joe Biden endorsed gay marriage in May, he cited Will & Grace as the single-most important driving force in transforming public opinion on the subject. In so doing he actually confirmed the long-standing fear of conservatives—that a coterie of Hollywood elites had undertaken an invidious and utterly successfully propaganda campaign, and had transmuted the cultural majority into a minority. Set aside the substance of the matter and consider the process of it—that is, think of it from the conservative point of view, if you don’t happen to be one. Imagine that large chunks of your entertainment mocked your values and even transformed once-uncontroversial beliefs of yours into a kind of bigotry that might be greeted with revulsion.

You’d probably be angry, too.

He makes a good case for the fact that Hollywood (= the news and entertainment media) has a monopoly on popular culture messaging — what the PoMos would call “hegemonic discourse.” This is dog-bites-man stuff to conservatives, of course, but even at this late date, it will come as a controversial claim to many liberals. Chait makes a point that usually falls to right-wingers to make: that Hollywood liberals are pleased to take credit for their power to change hearts and minds and therefore the culture when it suits them, but plead otherwise when it doesn’t.

The truth is, they really do have this power, and, as Chait avers, have triumphed completely. It is overstating matters to say that politics are a sideshow conservatives have to console themselves in the face of overwhelming defeat in the culture. But it’s not overstating matters by much. Chait tells of some fascinating research from Brazil and India speaking of television’s ability to radically alter social practices, simply by undermining traditional culture with a countercultural message.

More Chait:

For the most part, your television is not consciously attempting to alter your political beliefs. It is mainly transmitting an ethos in which greed is not only bad but the main wellspring of evil, authority figures of all kinds are often untrustworthy, sexual freedom is absolute, and social equality of all kinds is paramount. Within the moral universe of this culture, the merits of these values are self-evident. But to the large bloc of America that does not share this ethos, it looks like a smug, self-perpetuating collusion against them.

… This capacity to mold the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements, may or may not be unfair. What it is undoubtedly is a source of cultural (and hence political) power. Liberals like to believe that our strength derives solely from the natural concordance of the people, that we represent what most Americans believe, or would believe if not for the distorting rightward pull of Fox News and the Koch brothers and the rest. Conservatives surely do benefit from these outposts of power, and most would rather indulge their own populist fantasies than admit it. But they do have a point about one thing: We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite.

Drehrer goes on to discuss this further -- the left's complete domination of the imaginative arts -- and is worth reading (particularly for the quotes).

He also quotes another writer, a Christian discussing what might be called the Imagination Gap.


Cultures cultivate. A culture is more like an ecosystem than like a supermarket. And human persons, as encultured creatures, are generally less like independent rationally choosing shoppers than like organisms whose environment predisposes a certain set of attitudes and actions.

Cultures cultivate. Not that our activities are absolutely determined by cultural influences. We are rational beings, not just instinctual beings. We can make choices that go against the conventions sustained around us. We can lean into the prevailing winds, but only if we know how to stand somewhere solid. Only if we are not being carried by the wind. We need to be able to imagine alternative ways of perceiving reality.

Cultures cultivate, so if we want to offset the influence of cultural systems that distort or misrepresent reality, we need more than good arguments that analyze the distortions. We need cultural alternatives that provide opportunities for participating in a different way of telling the story of human experience.

For example, counteracting the materialistic reductionism of our time requires practices that convey to our imaginations the coherent unity of matter and spirit. Challenging the assumptions that human beings are best understood and best treated by social structures as autonomous choosers whose choices provide meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe requires settings in which submission and obedience to some order of things that precedes our willing is known as a delight and a blessing.

Distorted institutions and practices can’t be confronted only by arguments. They require well-ordered practices and institutions. Resisting cultural confusion is more than a matter of thinking outside the box. We need to be able to intuit outside the box. And to encourage well-ordered intuitions to those under our care, especially our children — because cultures cultivate.

I’m surprised by how often this simple fact is ignored by people who talk about cultural engagement. There are people who are honestly concerned about one trend or another in our social life, who regard those problems as the effect of bad arguments or bad intentions, and not, as they often are, as the product of some malformation or other in the shape of lived life. So they end up using malformed tools to repair the damage caused by the same malformed tools, thinking that better ideas, or a more clearly articulated list or priorities, or worst of all, the right political leadership, will fix things. To switch metaphors, they aren’t attending to the ecosystemic causes of those problems. They are applying more fertilizer or more water to plants that are suffering from a fatal amount of shade.

I've seen the same misunderstanding of my point here a few times, so let me clarify: No, I'm not telling anyone they need to "watch more TV" or "watch more movies," for crying out loud. We live in a Spectator Culture, not an Active Culture, and that's a bad thing. I certainly would not urge that anyone further embrace a bad habit.

I have myself too long lived the life of the Spectator. It's deadening to the body, mind, and spirit. Not just as a political matter, but as a human one or health one or psychological one, I'd advise anyone (particularly myself) to spend less time watching and more time doing.

Doesn't matter what objects follow those gerunds. Doing > watching, critiquing in almost all fields (except, I guess, murder, or other vices).

My discussion along these lines is not really directed at the average conscientious conservative as far as taking action. It's really directed at people who fund and organize conservative causes. It's a suggestion that perhaps we have enough think-tanks and alternative media of the same basic types and perhaps we need to start thinking about other important forms of expression we've been overlooking.

The only recommendation I'd make to the average conscientious conservative, who is not in a position to fund, organize, or staff a media organization, is to please lay off me when I'm attempting to broaden the cultural front. There are some people who are pretty sure that the only things that should concern a conservative mind are:

1. The details of particular short-term political strategy and messaging, and how to sharpen such messages;

2. The details of grassroots organization and politicking; and

3. Political philosophy.

With all due respect I don't even think most people believe those are the only things (apart from the Constitution and Bible) a conservative mind should be engaged in. I just think some people don't have much interest outside of such things, and get snippy when the conversation turns to things they're not interested in.

In any event, I'm kind of sick of the Talk About My Thing Or I'm Going To Throw A Snit-Fit attitude. Go somewhere else, then. There are plenty of blogs and talk radio shows that talk about these three things exclusively. Stop trying to shape the world so it fits you. The world outside of you is permitted to take different shapes.

I keep making this observation, but I think it's worth making several dozen more times: Although conservatives pride themselves on "Not worshipping the government" and "having interests and lives outside of politics" -- as contrasted with liberals -- in fact, if you consume conservative media, you will find our media completely rubbishes that claim, because the expressly conservative media is almost entirely about government and politics.

Even when the conservative media notes the occasional fiction book, the review is often largely about what the book says about politics or morality. That is, even in a review of fiction we seem over-concerned with the politically didactic usefulness of art.

No insult to Matthew Condinetti, and I should note it's not exclusively about those things -- I cite this just as a for-instance. I see this a lot. K-Lo will put in a positive review for an Adam Sandler-produced movie like Deuce Bigelow (yeah, I think I remembered she liked it), but will spend the bulk of her praise talking about how the movie illustrates Deuce's central decency and how that is a Good Message and... yawn.

Is it a funny movie? Does it achieve its goals? Does it entertain? Does it provoke? Those are the proper grounds for review of a film or book. Sure, given a conservative audience, you'd also want to note the objectionable material or positive messages in a sentence or two, to alert conservative-minded people about them. But such things are not properly the main grounds for appreciation of a fiction.

We are using the language of religious parable and political messaging to analyze things which are not religious parables and political messages. This makes as much sense as using one's as to what makes for excellence in a car for evaluating a motorcycle. When reviewing a motorcycle, you would not note that it lacks any trunk space, and cannot seat more than two persons (and those two persons will not sit very comfortably). Such things are understood and do not need be said, as a motorcycle is clearly not a car, does not have the features of a car, and does not have the same purposes or expectations of a car. It does not then make sense to evaluate a motorcycle by such criteria.

I suppose this is partly a personal taste, but the didactic is rarely interesting.

I can't fault conservatives for this because this mode of thinking is even more rampant among the Gramsciite left. Works of art are routinely praised -- or condemned -- not according to proper criteria of artistic worthiness but based upon whether the art in question advances a Davey and Goliath-level bit of sledgehammer political/politico-moral messaging. I have read a hundred reviews in which a popular film reviewer will grudgingly admit that a film is not all that good, but then end with a rousingly positive final paragraph urging you to see it because "such films deserve support."

What films? Bad films? Mediocre films? If you're recommending a film just for the sentiment "gay families are just like regular families," why not just be honest about things and write a review of that seven-word sentiment? And write, "I like this sentiment very much," and leave the movie out of it entirely?

Because that is what you're doing, of course; you're ignoring the actual film, and refusing to bring the normal toolbox of critical analysis to it, and simply reviewing the barely-even-a-sentence sentiment that "gay families are just like regular families." Just review that sentence, then. Don't pretend you're reviewing a movie. The movie is just a pretext for discussing the sentiment you approve of.

I always find this a very strange position, especially coming from liberals. Liberals are fond of saying that Art is Everything and "art for art's sake" and all of that. That is, the quality of the art is what's important, completely irrespective of the practical value of it or its usefulness in advancing some kind of social good. They say that, but they behave precisely contrary to that idea, evaluating any work of art with even the slightest political implication according to whether they like that implication or not.

But whether on the right or left, such "critiques" miss the forest for the trees. A film is usually about something a little bit more complicated and a little more human than a seven-word bumper-sticker sentiment. A good film always is, a good novel always is. This sort of reductivist approach just isn't interesting or worthy. At least not to me.

Don't we do some things just for fun? Or read some things simply because they're interesting, without any direct or indirect implication on our politics?

Is there something wrong with admitting that? Or do we have to pretend we're living every moment for Washington, DC?

So really I'm not asking anyone to watch Two and Half Men. Instead I'm arguing that conservative conversation and conservative imagination does not need to be -- and should not be -- all about conservative politics.

The conversation can and should be broader than that. It does not need to be so relentlessly focused on near-term political goals and long-term victory in the culture wars.

I think the truth will out, and the truth will out wherever it is actually pursued. Even if -- especially if, maybe -- it's pursued into places you didn't think it would be hiding. I suppose I'm suggesting a sort of Invisible Hand in imagination or intellectual inquiry -- a free market in ideas should wind up producing the best ideas, and if it doesn't, the market is rigged to guarantee bad results.

I think the market is so currently rigged -- first, by a venal monopoly which uses its market position in one market (the media, culture, the academy) to leverage a dominant position in another (the political realm). (Incidentally, that's one of the biggest no-no's in anti-trust law-- using a monopoly or near-monopoly in one area (say, a computer operating system) to leverage an advantage in another (say, an internet browser).)

But secondly -- and more importantly for our immediate purposes, because we can affect this more readily than the first point -- the market is deformed by a lack of competitors entering it, and that's because conservatives, for a variety of reasons, self-select away from it.

I think it's time to change that. In fact, I think the time to change that was some time around 1957, but it's definitely time to change that now.

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posted by Ace at 12:28 PM

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