Wednesday, September 22, 2004
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.