Trying to be a good sport about liberal culture
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The last election has brought on essays bemoaning the conservative disconnect from popular culture and the need to somehow reconnect with it. The means of this reconnection are hardly ever stated, though there is the implication that conservatives would need to “evolve” on certain social issues in the hopes that its economic viewpoint will be taken seriously by a population whose social way of life doom it to be dependent on government support.
As plans go, this one is nearly as clever as trying to promote weight loss by opening a cake shop. And it ignores the obvious reality that the only way that conservatives will be allowed to participate in popular culture is as the butt of a joke. Whether it’s Sarah Palin’s appearance on Saturday Night Live or Rush Limbaugh’s Family Guy appearance, trying to be a good sport about liberal culture is the strategy of a good loser playing into the prepared stereotype, rather than destroying it.
The culture is polarized. That means there is no place for conservatives in it except by playing the villain’s part, and the villain’s part, whether played with good humor or reluctantly, is not the winning part. But it’s also a mistake to call it the culture, when what we really mean is the culture created and perpetuated by a small number of corporations, their affiliated creatives and their affiliated press.
Take Girls, an HBO series that is one part nepotism and nine parts artificially generated corporate trend, that was recently the subject of several essays insisting that we take it seriously because it is “the culture”. How big of a slice of the culture is Girls? It’s on HBO, which means it has limited viewership and unlimited publicity. HBO exists to promote the illusion, not so much of quality, but of relevance. And Girls is a triumph of fake relevance. It is the show that you must consider relevant, because well… it’s relevant. Isn’t it?
The Girls Season 2 premiere scored 866,000 viewers. After multiple airings it made it up to 1.6 million. It wasn’t exactly a case of the entire country tuning in. Nor its entire female population or even its entire population of women in their twenties. And since HBO only exists as a desperate effort by the dying cable industry to hang on to its subscribers, its episodes are not available on iTunes, Hulu Plus or any of the other concessions to the age of internet broadcast entertainment.
Girls is doubtlessly relevant to the daughters of wealthy urban liberal families who find themselves with too much money and too little common sense. And it’s probably not even relevant to them since its larger audience share is with men over 50 and its median viewer age is 43. Is it relevant to the culture as a whole? Not really. And its perceived importance highlights the disconnect between the Low Culture of the free TV sitcom and the High Culture of the cable indie drama. Both may have a leftie agenda, but one exists to be consumed by overeducated professionals, many of whom also work in media, in the major cities, while the other is mass culture entertainment.
Trying to tackle, adapt to or duplicate leftie High Culture is a senseless and useless task in every sense of the word. Their only relevance comes from their trickle down effect into mass culture. It’s mass culture that is relevant, but though that Low Culture is mass consumed, it’s still created by the same sort of people who create the High Culture and packed with many of the same agendas.
The difference between them is in tone and the perception of importance. Elites imagine that what interests them is important, because they are important. What interests the masses is less important, because they are less important. Important people and their important programs influence the culture or even are the culture. Unimportant people are not. In fact it’s the other way around.
Girls is not America. No television show is.. But the closest to America may be American Idol or Sunday Night Football, which dominate the ratings and reflect the culture far more than it ever will. That’s not something to celebrate either. Not when you consider that most entertainment emerges out of the bowels of a cultural and corporate establishment well to the left of the country at large. And unlike Girls, much of what it spews forth does slowly push the country to the left. But that also shows why trying to run alongside it in the hopes of staying relevant is a dead end. Not unless the goal is to go on being the villains, comic relief or otherwise.
Competing with the cultural establishment is becoming more viable as the structural barriers begin coming down. When the entire cable model dies, the internet will have done to broadcast entertainment what it did to the print press and what the book reader did to the publishing house. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that conservatives will be any better positioned to compete in the culture war than they were before. And they won’t be if they keep on worrying about the latest incarnation of New York and LA media High Culture.
There’s bad news and good news in all this. The good news is that the top-down model is shakier than ever before. The less centralized the culture becomes, the less it has to run through New York and Los Angeles’ incestuous media establishments, the fewer political gatekeepers there are. The bad news is that entertainment with fewer gatekeepers can also be worse than the left’s worst excesses. And the other bad news is that the new decentralized gatekeepers are more likely to be social media tastemakers crying racism for pageviews and denouncing thought-crimes on an hourly schedule.
The culture is more up for grabs than ever before, but it’s also a lot harder to corral. The problem is much bigger than buying a woman’s magazine or a television network or some airtime. None of those things really matter anymore. They’re like buying a telegraph pole to compete with AT&T. There is no shortcut to creating a counter-culture. The good news is that the bones of the counter-culture exist in the conservative movement. All that’s left is organizing them into a force.
Worrying about what HBO airs is futile. HBO is a dinosaur, but it has freedom of action and a great deal of media leverage. It is at that perfect intersection of media elites where things are important because everyone you know, who is in the same business as you, pays attention to them. That structural power to monopolize attention is becoming a lot harder to come by. In the long run HBO will be dead, but the problems of competing with a cultural establishment that is organized, trained and has the inside track will remain.
This isn’t about Hollywood. It’s about America. Creative industries tend to come with their own built in decay. That has been true for centuries and was probably true for thousands of years before that. It does not mean that the theater stage or the movie theater, the artist’s studio or the concert hall are bad places, but creativity tends to involve redefinition and a tearing down of the old to make way for the new. It can be a good thing, so long as a society has stabilizing values that it places above those of its entertainments, giving it something to believe in and giving them something to push against.
The entertainment industry is too big and powerful, but that will change. What will not change is that the nation is losing its values. And when a country’s values erode, then the critics and cynics, the poets and artists, the philosophers and raconteurs, don’t push against a pillar, but against a wheel, and discover that they can make the culture go where they want. They are not the real problem. The lack of stability is.
Changing all that will require thinking about more than what is wrong with Hollywood, but about what is wrong with America. Countering destructive entertainment with constructive entertainment is more doable than ever before. Building a consensus of conservative culture warriors is also doable. But the greater challenge lies not in the entertainment, but in the people. The agenda of the left has fit into a comfortable groove in a culture that has chosen the softer things over the harder things. It’s easy enough to create culture that fits into such lazy grooves, but harder to create ideas that challenge a nation to choose the harder path and the more difficult choices.