Thomas Frank Week Continues!
Hello again, everyone. Sorry to have missed the crucial Day Two of Tom Frank Week just after declaring the week to be Tom Frank Week, but when I returned from Binghamton I came home to a very sick child who turns out (as we learned when Janet brought him in to the doctor today) to have pneumonia. And in this house, sick children take precedence over post-Marxist critiques of What’s the Matter with Kansas? All right already? So get off my case, people!! I only missed one day, dammit! Just sit still until I get back to the bit about corporate culture, will you?? Will you do that much?!?
Er, beg your pardon there. We’ve been, ah, kind of tightly wound around here lately.
OK, right then. Today’s installment is subtitled, What’s the Matter with Arguing that There’s a Contradiction Between the Right’s Opposition to Media Vulgarity and the Right’s Support for Media Consolidation? As I noted last Friday, Frank tries to argue that Sam Brownback’s support for the Telecommunications Act (and the massive media consolidation it enabled) runs counter to the right’s moral crusade against vulgarity: After all, as the industry critic Robert McChesney points out, the link between media ownership, the drive for profit, and the media’s insulting content should be obvious to anyone with ears to hear. “Vulgarity is linked to corporate control and highly concentrated, only semi-competitive markets,” McChesney says. And for many conservatives, “the radio fight was the moment of truth. If people are seriously concerned about vulgarity, this was their chance to prove it.” (74-75)
Last week, I said there were two things very, very wrong about this line of argument. Today, finally, I divulge them! And here they are!
WRONG THING ONE: the things Frank and McChesney don’t like about mass media are not at all the same things the cultural right doesn’t like about mass media. It should be obvious-- obvious, I might say, to anyone with ears to hear-- that radio, for most cultural conservatives, is not a site of vulgarity; for them, vulgarity issues from the MTV Video Music Awards and the Super Bowl halftime show, whereas radio gives them Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, James Dobson and Oliver North. So the idea that the right would join forces with the anticorporate left on this one, out of some common ground of opposition to vulgarity, is simply delusional.
Let me be exceptionally clear about this, so that I don’t invite any straw-man counterarguments about how I (and all my crypto-libertarian colleagues in cultural studies) fail to acknowledge that the mass media are owned by corporations. I know very well that the mass media are owned by corporations. But the problem with those corporations-- say, Clear Channel, perhaps?-- is not that they promote “vulgarity,” whatever that word might mean to you. The problem with them is that they consolidate great political power in very few hands-- and in the case of Clear Channel, those hands coordinate pro-war rallies and purge radio playlists of objectively pro-Saddam Fifth Columnists like Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks. That’s not about vulgarity-- that’s about right-wing control of media that advance right-wing politics, which is (once again with feeling) not at all the same thing. In other words, trying to rally the right against Clear Channel on the grounds that corporate culture is vulgar culture is, quite honestly, a fool’s game.
One more point on this front: the question before us here is not whether our culture is vulgar. Undoubtedly, some aspects of it are. For the record, I am personally opposed to any further exposure of Christina Aguilera’s butt, and I know that it takes me only a few minutes of watching Nick and Jessica or The Bachelor to lead me to wish that our species would be wiped from the face of the earth and replaced by enlightened and cosmopolitan giant insects (which is why I have never watched more than a few minutes of either-- but hey, if the giant cosmopolitan insects are reading this blog, I’m with you, guys). The question on the table, rather, is whether you can derive the meaning of a cultural object by discovering who owns its means of production.
AND IN THAT RESPECT (see, I learned a new, Sullivanesque method of breaking up long posts, thanks to some unsolicited advice from the Kerry campaign), the Frank/McChesney thesis takes us three theoretical steps back-- back to the days when we could simply say, “the ruling class owns the means of mental production, and thereby produces the ruling ideas.” This is not a trivial point, and it should not be left to the last remaining Marxist Theory Debating Societies on the fair campuses of our fair nation. It really has important practical consequences for how you understand the cultural right.
For the premise underlying Frank’s argument here is that somehow, the cultural right is justified in taking offense at America’s commercial culture, and wrong only to blame it on “the liberal elite” rather than on the corporations responsible for it. (As he says in the Salon interview, “I’m just trying to play up the flagrant contradiction. If you hate this stuff, talk about capitalism! Talk about the forces that do it!") Now, if I wanted to be all snarky and dismissive about this aspect of Frank’s work-- you know, the way he’s been about cultural studies for the past decade or so-- I would say something like what my Penn State colleague Jeff Nealon said a month or two ago: if only ordinary Kansans understood that the Madonna-Britney kiss was the work of Archer Daniels Midland, that Janet Jackson’s breast was underwritten by Monsanto, and that Eminem is but the name of one of Enron’s holding companies, movement conservatives at the grassroots would turn with fury on the real elite, the corporate elite that is poisoning our cultural groundwater!
But I wouldn’t say anything so snarky or dismissive, now, would I.
WHICH BRINGS US TO WRONG THING TWO. If it’s a political mistake to think that the cultural right will bond with the cultural left over media vulgarity, and it’s a political and theoretical mistake to think that vulgarity is simply an epiphenomenon of corporate ownership, it’s a Whole Nother kind of mistake to go after “vulgarity” in the first place.
On this score, the problem is that Frank really does think our culture is vulgar. Yeah, I know I took that question off the table five paragraphs ago, but now it’s relevant again. When he writes,
for . . . aggrieved “Middle Americans,” the experience has been a bummer all around. All they have to show for their Republican loyalty are lower wages, more dangerous jobs, dirtier air, a new overlord class that comports itself like King Farouk—and, of course, a crap culture whose moral free fall continues without significant interference from the grandstanding Christers whom they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years (136),
he really means it. We live in a crap culture whose moral free fall continues without significant interference from anyone.
Perhaps you think he’s just paraphrasing a position with which he himself does not sympathize? OK, that’s charitable of you (Augustine and Aquinas would approve!), and I have to admit that for a while I thought so too. But the argument returns again and again throughout the book-- in its closing paragraphs, of course ("Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?"), but also as part of its analysis (about which I’ll say more in another installment) of how right-wing culture wars are designed to fail:
Even when it is judged on its own terms-- as a struggle over values, patriotism, national honor, and the correct way to worship the Almighty-- the backlash has pretty much been a complete bust. Culturally, it has achieved almost nothing in the past three decades. TV and movies are many times coarser than they were in 1968. Traditional gender roles continue to crumble. Homosexuality is more visible and more accepted than ever. Counterculture has been taken up by Madison Avenue and is today the advertising industry’s stock-in-trade, the nonstop revolution that moves cereal and cigarettes by the carload. (121)
This is a very difficult passage, mixing things that Frank is clearly opposed to (counterculture’s incorporation by Madison Avenue, which was the subject of his first and much of his second book) with things that . . . uh . . . things that . . . well, things that we’re not quite sure what to make of. For surely Frank can’t be serious when he says that TV and movies are many times coarser than they were in 1968? Ah, but he is serious, and on this count it’s worth asking him whether he’d trade the corporate vulgarities of (for example) True Lies, The Lion King, or Die Hard VI: Die Even Harder With Still More Vengeance (all of which suck, by the way) for the world in which Southern television stations would censor Star Trek for that famous interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura (which, when you think of it, is especially weird, since-- only one year after the Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia, striking down state “miscegenation” laws-- it displaces the US’ first televised interracial kiss to the 24th century). And is Frank serious about those traditional gender roles and all that acceptance of homosexuality? He can’t really be suggesting that cultural liberalism on those fronts is to be regretted, or ascribed to coarseness and vulgarity?
I honestly don’t think he is; I’m certainly not going to accuse him of treason in the war of position against All Bad Things (racism, patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism, theocracy, late late late capitalism, bagism, and dragism) when I know that he’s on the side of the angels. I mean, I’m aware that some of the Baffler crew were unduly influenced by the work of the late Christopher Lasch, but I don’t believe that any of them are really nostalgic for the traditional gender roles and pre-Stonewall closets of 1968. All I’ll say is that this passage is confusing and confused.
AND SO, DEAR READERS, I would urge you to take seriously our corporate culture’s fitful ventures into cultural liberalism. Not because the Madonna-Britney kiss was subversive (it wasn’t, and pace Frank, it wasn’t “lascivious” either), but because there’s a sense in which the forces of secular modernity really are liberalizing, both for good and for ill. Remember, when we lefties think about vulgarity, we think about the reification of human life, the reduction of every human interaction to the cash nexus; but when the cultural right thinks about vulgarity, it thinks about Six Feet Under, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Harry Potter. (And don’t imagine for a moment that the six-temptations-of-potter can be ascribed simply to corporations trying to make money!)
And I would also urge you to join Frank and McChesney in opposing the corporate control of cultural expression and the accelerating consolidation of mass media-- but I would urge you not to do so in the hope of stamping out “vulgarity.” As an internationally-renowned American composer said to me recently, after reviewing Frank’s arguments against our crap culture, “a left campaign against vulgarity? Fuck that shit!” I don’t think I can improve on that.
Good points, Michael.
I do think that many Americans’ distaste for “vulgarity” in our culture extends beyond the bounds of Howard Stern and NFL halftime shows. Janet Jackson’s nipple is just the, um, tip of the iceberg. I think there is the sense more broadly that culture has become extremely base and this extends from 13-year old girls being trained to dress like seductresses to the single-entendre jokes of “mainstream” programs like The Drew Carey Show.
Why is this happening? Duh, sex sells. And among our corporate masters, the bottom line is the bottom line. This is connected to the central thesis of Frank’s book, which is that the backlash movement regards the accumulation of wealth by all non-illegal means as a virtuous activity. It’s not the consolidation of media that coarsens our culture. It’s the drive for profits.
Does the drive for profits also drive the right-wing rhetoric (or at least lack of left-wing rhetoric) we associate with media consolidation? Sure. Reminds me of a wonderful cartoon in Spy magazine—wish I had saved it—of a painter painting a portrait of a City Father-type with the word “ASSHO” painted beneath his portrait. Outside the canvas, the painter is asking the very same City Father, hand outstretched, “Can I have some money to finish my painting?”
It is entirely against the self-interest of News Corp / Disney / Westinghouse / GE / Clear Channel / Time Warner to present Noam Chomsky on their airwaves.* Sean Hannity may be odious, but he does advance their interests, in the same way The Bachelor does: by putting more money in their pockets.
So I think Frank may have gotten this important detail wrong, but his broader thesis is still sound (I think—I am still reading the book).
* Usually: as Michael Moore reminds us in The Corporation, the rich man will sell us the rope we will use to hang him, if he thinks he can make a buck on it.
OT: Has Will Bunch been reading Berube?
P.S. Very best wishes for your son’s speedy recovery.Posted by on 09/22 at 05:52 PM
Posted by bellatrys on 09/22 at 06:15 PM
Thanks, Wanda/wtfwjd? Jamie is sleeping soundly and peacefully at the moment, or I wouldn’t have embarked on the full-dress corporate-culture argument this evening. And I too think Frank’s broader thesis is sound: Tom Frank strikes me as a really sharp, savvy lefty who may be reinventing a couple of left wheels, one or two of which are square. But to say this is also to say that the academic/cultural left, myself included, should have done a far better job of disseminating, popularizing, and “translating” Stuart Hall’s Gramscian analyses of the new right--
And I remember that Spy cartoon very well. It’s within arm’s reach, in fact, somewhere in my desk drawers--Posted by Michael on 09/22 at 06:17 PM
BTW, I just recently read Hiding The Elephant, the book on Harry Houdini and magic tricks, and MAN! the gaucherie and gawdawfulness and spectactular tack of the turn of the last century is something we just have no idea of these days. I had some idea, being a fan of Victorian novels, and LMA gives some idea of what these “entertainments” in the Big Sinful City were like, but the combination of tech and tack is in the “Thousande Elephants!” league.
When it comes to shameless exploitation, we’ve got nothing on previous centuries. Somewhere around I’ve got a book that talks about the “entertainments” that were whipped up in London following Captain Bligh’s return, with topical plotlines and exploding volcanoes (because everyone knows that an adventure story is better if you have death-defying escapes from natural disasters, even in the Enlightenment.) And then there was the guy, regimental piper, who came back from fighting in Afghanistan where he got a medal, but couldn’t find a job, so went on the music hall stage taking part in “musical tributes” to the forces of the Raj, to sold-out crowds, reenacting the scene of his wounding.
I have this dream of doing a book that would be a cultural history of kitsch, with sections on religious kitsch like the glow-in-the-dark tabernacles of 17th century Europe, and ernst discussions of the problems of discerning what was kitsch and what wasn’t, in long-vanished cultural contexts (I’ve read someone seriously arguing that the Venus Callipyge *wasn’t* intended to be a ribald visual joke, frex) and wherever possible, to include contemporary Jeremiads about how everything is going to the dogs these days, kids don’t obey, fashions are immodest, and it wasn’t like that in *my* day! I have found examples from ancient Egypt, feudal Japan, the High Gothic era in Europe, Restoration Britain, and many more.
It would also feature, pointedly, the fact that much of what we now consider “high” culture, like opera, was considered “low” culture when it first came out, and happens to have outlasted its initial context and been reconfigured for a new audience. This, too, is nothing new…Posted by bellatrys on 09/22 at 06:29 PM
Not to spam your blog, but one’s appreciation for the *range* of Western Culture is deepened immeasurably by singing not just the more famous motets and madrigals of Dowland et al, but such pop hits as “Come, sirrah Jack, ho! Fetch some tobacco!” and that one with the German mercenary trying to pick up the Italian lady that makes unkind use of ethnic stereotypes and dialect humour, not to mention explicit dialogue that would make the FCC reach for the smelling salts…Posted by bellatrys on 09/22 at 06:35 PM
On a complete and utter tangent, IJWTS you owe me. Big. I started snickering and so my husband was curious and I read aloud to him the part about Christina Aguilera’s butt and The Bachelor. He is now ‘entertaining’ me with cut lines from the cover of Cosmopolitan for insects.
26 Ways to Polish your Carapace
Mating on the Wing: How to get him to follow you back to the nest
You really do owe me.
MKK--yes, I knew he was weird when I married himPosted by Mary Kay on 09/22 at 06:57 PM
I am not married to Mary Kay, but I’m rooting for the big bugs, too.Posted by PZ Myers on 09/22 at 07:05 PM
Great, now we’ve lost PZ, who will surely find sound biophysical reasons to exhort people to vote for those giant Starship Troopers bugs (who are not the least bit cosmopolitan, I should point out) in Minnesota and thereby swing the state to Bush. How can we stop PZ from stumping for the giant bugs? Only-- I hope against hope-- by pointing out that Christina Aguilera is One of Them! Look at the length of her thorax, people!!Posted by Michael on 09/22 at 07:14 PM
bellatrys, are you suggesting that “The Janet Jackson Halftime Nipple Dance” may be regarded as high culture in centuries to come?
Could be, could be…
Wanted to correct my assertion above that Frank’s central thesis is that “the backlash movement regards the accumulation of wealth by all non-illegal means as a virtuous activity.” That’s not quite right—it’s only an element of what he touches on, not the central thesis. But the idea that personal wealth is an indicator of hard work and moral virtue seems to have gained hold, though it’s a fairly new notion in the middle American mind, as far as I know. I suspect that it expresses a justification of more primal, often racist, thoughts. These comparisons are to be made between oneself and those poorer, never with the more affluent. For this reason it is important to have an underclass, so the middle class may look down on them, and say “why should I share with those lazy sots what I worked so hard for” without ever looking up to the true elite class and asking “is s/he really working that much harder than me? How’d s/he wind up with so much?” It’s even better/easier if the underclass is swarthy—they’re easier to identify and differentiate oneself from, and better yet if they exhibit obvious signs of moral inferiority such as drug addiction, teen pregnancy &c.*
* preceding is non-post-ironic
Michael, glad to hear Jamie is doing well. I think of that Spy cartoon often—I think it says a lot about the relation between power and art (or media, in this case). Nice that these blogs have no patrons (other than good people like yourself). How long will it last, I wonder?Posted by on 09/22 at 07:14 PM
Before I read the piece I want to send a big get-well to Jamie. I had two serious bouts with the thing myself, and hope his is the less serious sort.
Unsolicited medical advice: 1) deep diaphramic yogic breathing exercises (after he’s well); don’t be an upper-chest breather, and 2) wash those hands a dozen times a day, a good hospital scrub of 30-60 seconds, minimum.Posted by on 09/22 at 07:44 PM
Posted by Mary Kay on 09/22 at 09:45 PM
Posted by Charlie Bertsch on 09/22 at 10:50 PM
Some advice from my friend Plato:
“It is only this long because I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”
I’m probably paraphrasing and possibly even misattributing but you get the idea. Trawling through blogs every day I reach yours with anticipation and the certainty I’ll find a couple of good chuckles. And then I scroll to see just how much I ground have to cover to find them, and I despair.
In fact, I wrote a poem for you:
One massive endless column of text
Stands in the blogosphere. In it,
Submerged, a fractured pomo sensibility
Lies, whose crooked smirk, and snarky
Style, and perpetual sneer belie
That its author well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped in the steely resolve
Of our leaders who mock us,
And on the heading these words appear:
“My name is Michael Berube, Blogger!
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the margins
Of that collosal text, boundless and bare
The manic meandering blogosphere stretches far away.Posted by on 09/23 at 02:04 AM
I’ll say this much, that was shorter than Finnegan’s Wake.Posted by Max on 09/23 at 05:30 AM
Wandathere will probably be academics in future ages (perhaps arthropod scholars, trying to understand mammalian folkways) arguing that all the controversy and passionate defense as well as condemnation of the Baring of the Nipple proves that it *was* a moment of high, if avant-garde, culture in the 21st century, up there at least with the Parisian Banana Dance of an earlier generation…Posted by bellatrys on 09/23 at 06:49 AM
Well, I kept it under 2000 words. Not even close to Finnegans Wake! Thanks for the poem, Spypop-- you are (officially!) the first person to respond to this blog in verse, and surely the first person to use “Michael Berube, Blogger” in iambic pentameter. Much harder than “Ozymandias,” I think.Posted by Michael on 09/23 at 07:22 AM
Great conversation. This is semi-tangential, but I can’t help wondering if “vulgarity” itself isn’t a concept that needs to be “unpacked” (as those pomo cultural studies types like to say). We have “vulgarity” as Frank seems to be using the term, which is basically synonymous with sexual explicitness. I have no problem with you taking Frank to task on his weird position vis-a-vis that kind of “vulgarity"--I don’t think he intends to sound like a prig, but in that one paragraph you cite he does veer close to conflating the very real advances in sexual and gender equality/liberation with “coarseness,” and that’s troubling.
That said, I do have to say that I often find myself subscribing to my own pet hell-in-a-handbasket theory, which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with--well, decency--but not “decency” in the 7 deadly words sense, I mean just being a decent human being and treating other people with a modicum of respect. Simply put, an awful lot of our popular culture these days seems to be a celebration of cruelty and ugliness...the best term I can come up with is “Asshole Chic.” Somehow over the last 35 years, our notion of “countercultural” has shifted from mind-expansion, liberation, transcendence and peace-flowers-freedom-happiness to smackdown, bling-bling, TV shows with names like “10 Things I Hate About You,” and an endless parade of sour, pissed-off straight white guys making millions of dollars by whining about how unfairly the world treats them.
That said, I have no intention of falling into what bellatrys so aptly calls “The Awareness Of The Decline And Fall Of Absolutely Everybody.” This too shall pass. And in the meantime, all you have to do is look into the interstices of pop culture to find a lot of exciting and soul-nourishing, and, yes, beautiful stuff out there, high- and low- and middlebrow and everything in between. And even better, much of it is quite vulgar--in the best possible way.Posted by on 09/23 at 09:37 AM
Posted by on 09/23 at 11:30 AM
Where were the Moral Christians when Fox aired “Married by America”? I tuned in to what I thought would be the last episode--the proposal, followed by an on-air wedding. Instead, unmarried couples were sent off to a resort, booked into the same room, sharing the same bed. Holy cow! And then the show went on to eliminate people, so it wasn’t about getting them married after all. After the show made them sleep together! I was amazed that the Moral Christians weren’t picketing Fox and Murdoch. So it seems they don’t really care about coarseness and vulgarity unless they’re told to.Posted by on 09/23 at 12:02 PM
Dammit, I thought “bagism” was a good thing. Now I’ll have to recalibrate my sensibilities again.
Great post.Posted by Sean on 09/23 at 12:13 PM
You’re misreading Frank. I have to fast here, but in the Kansas book he is implying
1. That the Right uses its attacks on vulgarity in an opportunistic manner, to rally its troops as it were who are disturbed by the liberating potential of secular modernity. The Right in the end, doesn’t care about vulgarity, but doesn’t even realize that it doesn’t’ care, its political investments are power grabs—strategic insofar as they can reach and touch our most abject reactions.
2. That the “transgressive” nature of mass cultures is about false liberation—it can be a creative field to repsresent what is essentially “perverse desublimation” according to Marcuse. The image of “liberation” as sold by the Matrix trilogy commodifies freedom.Posted by Catherine Liu on 09/23 at 09:49 PM
And you’re underreading him, Catherine. Really-- I didn’t make up those passages from his book. Look at ‘em again, more slowly.
As to your two points here: after Michael Powell’s FCC crusade, and the phenomenon of CBS being fined $550 million for that peek at Janet Jackson’s breast, are you really sure you want to say that the “vulgarity” thing is just a ruse by which the Right cons the rubes? Before you say that the right doesn’t care about vulgarity and doesn’t know it doesn’t care (false consciousness with a vengeance!), ask some conservatives what they think they think. And then go back and try to figure out just what Frank is talking about when he’s talking about “crap culture.”
As for the transgressive nature of mass cultures, once again with feeling: nowhere on this blog, or anywhere else, do I say that people are liberated by their participation in consumer capitalism. That would be silly!Posted by Michael on 09/24 at 06:14 AM
As you quoted from Frank:
“Counterculture has been taken up by Madison Avenue and is today the
advertising industry’s stock-in-trade, the nonstop revolution that moves
cereal and cigarettes by the carload. “
Are you sure that this means that counterculture has “won”? Or, given the
agenda into whose service it has been placed, is it a better bet that the
“revolution” has simply been co-opted and absorbed? Revolution, in and of
itself, is not necessarily a good thing, no matter how rotten the overthrown
status quo, if what you get in its place is a dumbed-down rehash of the old
order. It certainly looks that way. Or, to put it in a somewhat more “snarky
and dismissive” fashion, doesn’t the quote above simply imply that the
revolutionaries have sold out for a corner office and expense account?
Isn’t the argument pretty much over when both sides are worshiping the same god,
and are now limiting their argument to proper genuflection protocols?
Thank you very much for this site--it is one of my favorites. I don’t miss a
post, and often forward pieces of it to friends and acquaintances. It looks
like a great deal of work, but I am glad you have seen fit to do it.Posted by on 09/24 at 07:14 AM
First time I read your blog. I haven’t read the Kansas book, but I read the Harper’s article that previewed the book as well as Frank’s previous book (which I loved for the attacks on management theory) and almost everything he has written since. From reading Frank’s articles and books, I get the sense that he does not this we live in a “crap culture” becuase of vulgarity per se, but because the vulgarity is just a way of selling things. For example, if the Madonna-Britney kiss had been a real transgressive act, intended to cause discussion of sex and gender roles, I don’t think Franks would have had a problem with it. However, since it was a way of selling a product (MTV, records, videos) it was therefore “vulgar” I think this type of vulgarity, meat to get ratings or selling things, not to push cultural envelopes, that Frank finds offensive, as do I. I am not a cultural critic nor a social scientis (I an an engineer, not a social scientist, Jim!) so this may seem an over simplified analysis, so I welcome to be set straight and learn something from you.
ThanksPosted by on 09/24 at 07:22 AM
Thanks, Paul and Sergio. Quick replies (I’m running off to my office hours): Paul, I think Frank is arguing that the 60s counterculture has been incorporated into corporate culture (that Nortel ad citing “Come Together” is especially grating, for Frank and for me too), and I think he’s basically right about this. But as I mentioned in my review essay on One Market, this seems to be yet another example of what Walter Benjamin called “the amazing conscriptive power of the bourgeois apparatus.” One sign that we’re living in a “post-avantgarde” culture, in other words, is that our avant-garde artists are given prizes and awards, and our counterculture heroes appear in glossy commercials.
And Sergio, Frank’s also right (for the most part) about the Madonna-Britney kiss. He’s also right that most of our popular culture is simply a means of delivering people to advertisers and products like “Madonna” or “Britney.” But he tends to gloss over the fact that right-wing outrage at “liberal elite” culture attacks a whole mess of stuff that liberals should want to defend against the homophobia and Comstockery of the right-wing values police. That’s all I’m saying. Some aspects of our popular culture are liberal-- they’ve helped to bring about a world that is vastly queerer than the world of 1968-- and we do no one any good by denying it.Posted by Michael on 09/24 at 07:46 AM
Steve - one thing which was very liberating for me (after I got over the initial shock and depression) was realizing that in *all kinds of ways* things have always been this bad, not just in the arts. The Right *depends* on this mythic version of a Perfect Past. People have always believed there was one - the Golden Age, when everyone was noble and virtuous and there wasn’t anything ugly or grotesque or stupid or brutal. It was always just back over the horizon, or else in the far-distant past, but always safely inaccessible.
Yet modern conservativism has taken Nostalgia for what never was and turned it into a prescription: things were perfect back then (there was no XYZ), if we only replicate the exterior circumstances (by getting rid of ABC or else by restoring DEF) then the world will return to that perfect state, and we will no longer be troubled by conditions XYZ.
It’s the Cultural Imperialist Triumph of Madison Ave taken to its logical extreme. “Are you losing your Appetite? Take Doctor Strong’s Iron Fulvate Nostrum, desist from Artifical Stimulants such as caffeinated beverages, and you will find that YOU ARE A MAN ONCE MORE!!!”
Michael - trying to figure out where commercialism begins and pop culture ends is a dismaying tangle, as is trying to figure out what is and is not “vulgar” vs “classy” - and I think if we had more ephemera from antiquity, we would have to rewrite most of our assumptions. Cheap souvenier gewgaws from the Middle Ages are another cultural shock - if you all haven’t seen this site, be prepared, there is a lot of vulgarity - and it was as disturbing to realize that the modern style of decor still preferred by some Italian-Americans and consisting of red wallpaper (flocked or not) and heavy gilt ormulu sconces etc, is simply the continuation of the decorating style that dominates at Pompeii (we can be grateful that the fad for black walls did not make it) as it was reassuring to find that there were ancient Romans like Vitruvius who thought it was gaudy and tacky and a tasteless display of wealth by the nouveau riche…Posted by bellatrys on 09/24 at 08:14 AM
Hey—I have a hard time understand your argument about Frank. You cite that “difficult” paragraph where Frank lists the right-wing culture-warriors’ failures and somehow interpret it as being against things like open homosexuality and nontraditional gender roles.
Of course television is coarser than it was 40 years ago; that seems self-evident. Just to cite a few examples:
* More nudity (OK, this is rare, but it can be seen)
* More profanity
* A lot more violence
* A lot more realism (married couples sleeping in the same bed, for instance)
* A lot more appropriation of underground culture (i.e. punk, rap)
Now, I think you and me and Frank and lots of other people appreciate more realism and less provincialism (like the kind that forbade interracial kissing on TV). But having more realistic and open-minded television shows goes hand-in-hand with swill like all of “reality” TV. That’s what the culture warriors are upset about. I don’t think any leftists got together and said, “We need a show like The Bachelor or Wife Swap!” or whatever they are; but the point is that the right-wing culture warriors perceive those shows as coming from a liberalized culture. But they come from a corporate culture. Corporations figured out a long time ago that empty homages to diversity and multiculturalism (people of color in your commercials but not in your boardroom, for instance) help bring in more customers! The people who are offended by interracial or same-sex couples are a minority. Their outraged complaints are outweighed by the newfound loyalty of new customers who see themselves represented at last in Target commercials.
The right-wing culture warriors are destined to lose the cultural wars but their Washington minions are winning on the economic front and have been doing so for years.
You ask if Frank would like to go back to the days of banned interracial kissing. I ask you: If you had to choose between pornographic ultraviolence shown on television paired with radical inequity OR economic parity for all paired with tame pop culture, which would you choose? Frank would choose the latter and compromise with the right-wing culture warriors to get it. I’m not so sure I would favor such a compromise, but if the choice is between the former and the latter I think I would choose the latter without hesitation.Posted by on 10/04 at 04:44 PM
Jamie, no, I don’t ask whether Frank would like to go back to the days of banned interracial kissing. I explicitly say that I don’t imagine any such thing. But I think we’re simply talking past each other here: you seem to have read my post and then replied by repeating those aspects of Frank’s argument I’m questioning.
Point one: “the right-wing culture warriors perceive those shows as coming from a liberalized culture. But they come from a corporate culture.”
I just don’t agree that you can get the religious right to see it that way. I honestly don’t think they’ll abandon their posts and drop the whole theocracy thing once they realize that Fear Factor and NYPD Blue were brought to you by Archer Daniels Midland. Moreover, I think the cultural right attacks some-- only some!-- aspects of popular culture that are, in fact, liberal and that liberals should want to defend.
Point two: “The right-wing culture warriors are destined to lose the cultural wars but their Washington minions are winning on the economic front and have been doing so for years.”
I agree with the second half and remain skeptical about the first half (I’m also not sure who’s whose minion here). Quite honestly, I don’t think Frank knows enough about the history of abortion and affirmative action law, and I think his claim that the right is destined (if not designed!) to fail on those fronts is glib. (I would also argue that abortion and affirmative action, like disability law, are not purely “cultural” anyway, and have demonstrable redistributive effects.) At the same time, his analysis of how the right’s failure (to date) on the cultural front paradoxically feeds its scorched-earth schemes of privatization and deregulation is just terrific. So in other words, I like the argument about “failure” on the right’s cultural wing but I think Frank too breezily dismisses the likelihood that the right might, in fact, succeed one of these days (as they have partially succeeded in the past).
Thanks for stopping by.Posted by Michael on 10/04 at 06:29 PM