[W]e set out to ask some prominent writers that we know, many of them conservative, about the relationship between conservatives and pop culture. Some of the questions we asked them were: Are conservatives bad at pop culture? Or, is that a myth? If they are inherently “bad” at pop culture, then why? More broadly, why do conservative writers and pundits appear uninterested in pop culture? Can you think of good examples of conservatives doing pop culture today?
So far, there have been three entries posted. The first, by Ed Driscoll, takes for granted that liberals run the show, reflects on the good old days when conservatives were part of Golden Age Hollywood, and calls for stories that embed political messages in subtext, as opposed to marring our entertainment with overt polemics. But the following two entries rightly question the underlying assumption that conservatism and pop culture are not simpatico. Lee Siegel:
As for popular culture in modern times having a left-wing agenda, secret or otherwise, that is a delusion bordering on a hallucination. What they regarded as the fascist potential of popular, mass culture, was a specter that has haunted left intellectuals for nearly one hundred years. See the seminal mid-twentieth-century anthology, Mass Culture, edited by Bernard Rosenberg, in which some of the most prominent left intellectuals in the country argued that film, television, and comic books serve to promote a right-wing agenda by manufacturing a false promise of happiness based on conformity to the capitalist status quo.
The truth is that high and popular culture in America, such as it currently presents itself, satisfies neither the liberal appetite for dissent nor the conservative desire for eternal verities. With some embattled exceptions, the pursuit of the almighty buck has consumed everyone in every cultural realm, from poets to producers. Even as they slug it out over the nature of American culture, liberals and conservatives are more and more determined by the same cultural conditions. No wonder both sides, hamstrung and helpless, scream so loud—though the tired old charge that culture is sneakily or conspiratorially liberal is the most foolishly abrasive of all.
Megan Basham name-checks Tom Wolfe and Whit Stillman, but also points to the underlying philosophy of entire trends as inherently conservative:
To wit, over the past few weeks I’ve been researching dystopian teen fiction, and I can tell you that the level of conservatism in this extremely popular and profitable genre is astounding. The Hunger Games, a story in which an all-powerful federal government assigns jobs and doles out meager sustenance to vassal districts, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Then there’s Allie Condie’s bestselling series Matched in which the authorities only allow citizens to eat preapproved, nutritionally balanced meals. Fatty and sugary foods are outlawed. This same book includes grandparents who are forced to ingest poison and “die with dignity” at age eighty so as not to become burdens to the state. At least a dozen similar YA dystopians have amassed huge sales over the last few years, yet no one is discussing how strongly their conservative cautions are resonating with teens.
One of my favorite movies of the last decade is the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. When I initially reviewed it for Playtime, my criticism was inflected with more bitterness toward the film’s conservatism than I’d intended. Or perhaps I unconsciously intended to take a swipe at the Right, and I regret using that film to do it. A lot of factors probably went into my acerbic tone. The Wachowski fanboys at the time were particularly nettlesome. I was (and remain) deeply suspicious of the Wachowskis’ ideological agenda, and it was hard for me to square Speed Racer with the crypto-fascism paraded around in the Matrix trilogy and (especially) their screenplay for V for Vendetta. On top of all that, 2008 was an election year, and the last full year of George W. Bush’s tenure as president of the United States; very little could have made me more antipathetic toward the right wing than their sickening, hypocritical, movable-goalpost apologetics on behalf of his disastrous administration and his misbegotten handling of the economic crisis that had just hit. The thing is, I have always, to some extent, identified myself as politically conservative, and the Bush years were a crash course in disenchantment with what that meant. So identifying Speed Racer as undeniably conservative was problematic for me, since I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be sympathetic to conservatism anymore.
In retrospect, I’ve changed a lot in the few years since. I’ve since seen Speed Racer multiple times, and it is more enjoyable on each viewing. I’ve also accepted the fact that my brand of political conservatism is out of step with how it is practiced by the right wing establishment; I’d probably identify as libertarian if not for the fact that I’m deeply suspicious of the triumphalist assumptions libertarians make about the endemically amoral market. Please don’t take this as some “I’m so unique and special” special pleading; I take my cue from others of my generation that I believe share many of my basic positions, and I hope that the edifice of the Left-Right divide will crumble once the whippersnappers — with their generationally redefined sense of “Left/Right” politics — assume their places at the helm. (I could be wrong, of course. Speaking in sweeping generalizations tends to yield that result. He said, speaking generally.)
What’s more, the key component to political conservatism (as I apply it) is being slow to change. Which is not to say averse to change or against it. I’m willing to be persuaded by reason and data; but I’m going to make my opponents fight for it. I’m going to take the time to consider the options, facts, and arguments; I’m going to test them as aggressively as I can. I don’t mean knock-down, drag-out fights or massive walls o’ text on Internet forums (mostly because I simply don’t have the time or energy for that anymore). What I mean is that if I’m going to evolve, it’s going to take a very long time. Much like the process of natural selection. That’s a reality I accept. It’s the world according to Speed Racer.
In theory, the races in Speed’s world are collegial affairs: good, clean, healthy tests of skill, ingenuity, strategy, and adaptability. In practice, they’re often rigged; sometimes luck goes bad; sometimes your headspace is too cluttered to do your best. Competition is not inherently elegant, positive, and beautiful; nor is it inherently messy, negative, and ugly. The film captures (perhaps inadvertently) how difficult it is to find a place to start from and a goal that makes the journey worthwhile; it also dramatizes the basic unfairness of how things so often work, and how hard it is to change the game. Speed is a traditionalist who believes in family (communal) values, clean fights, and equal opportunity… while still upholding the virtues of talent, individual ambition, and maintaining one’s edge. Despite the fact that he lives in the fast lane, Speed doesn’t evolve overnight; every bit of his quest presents its own challenge. His goal isn’t just to win for winning’s sake; he has emotional, political, personal goals as well. Where he ends up is not just in the winners’ circle; he has completed a spiritual journey; he’s progressed toward his ultimate goal. It takes time, but it’s time well spent, even with the headaches of nailbiting derbies.
Similarly, that is how I qualify what I mean by politically “conservative.” I don’t equate being “conservative” to being reactionary, traditionalist, or against progress in any way. Quite the opposite. I think genuine conservatives are heartily in favor of progress; what separates the conservatives from the hidebound dogmatists is that conservatives simply want to embrace change on their own terms, and with careful consideration. Rather than simply defining progress against the status quo, I think a true conservative tries to imagine the ramifications of any significant (or minor) change in terms of a truly positive impact on the future. This may entail changing the game altogether — who knows? The point is that I prefer change to be slow, incremental, and meaningful. I want to grapple with and understand it as best I can. And I do believe in continually moving forward. More than anything, I think that accepting competition as a baseline for reality means that one must always wrestle with competing ideas, desires, prejudices, and judgments within oneself. It means that I will probably never (or, at least, very infrequently) arrive at a conclusion that will always stand true and tall and unassailable. Even the most steadfast ideas I hold will be tested, assaulted, chipped away, and remolded. In the end, they may be more strongly reinforced; they may be unrecognizable; they may be eroded entirely. But they will never, ever be exactly the same. As absurd as it sounds, this is, in part, a conclusion to which I’ve been led by watching and thinking about Speed Racer.
What this shows is that conservatism is alive, well, and undergoing continual evolution in pop culture. I doubt that the Wachowskis would consider themselves to be anything remotely resembling conservative; yet their best film embodies one of the most considerable achievements of contemporary pop art in articulating a politically conservative philosophy. Not only does the film express a conservative attitude, but is one of the cultural artifacts that has led to me re-embracing (and re-defining) my own sense of political conservatism. I’m not sure that the most relevant question is, “Are conservatives bad at pop culture?” I don’t know what is the most relevant question, but I think that pop culture is what we make of it. Instead of asking conservatives if they’re “bad at” pop culture, perhaps we should simply ask how we can reclaim it. Not by “retaking” Hollywood or setting up separate-but-(un)equal ”counter-establishment” (as James Piereson is quoted as putting it in Smith’s original post for the symposium); certainly not in discharging John Nolte-esque jeremiads at all the perceived slights by and hypocrisies of the Hollywood Left. Conservative pop culture surrounds us at every moment; we may not recognize it as such, but perhaps that’s because we’re not being creative enough in either our interpretation of our cultural artifacts or our understanding of conservatism’s basic principles.
A hope that I entertain (perhaps foolishly, given its utopian hue) is that the more creative we can be in interpreting and participating in our culture, the more our political differences might be mitigated. Not erased, not entirely reconciled. But if we can all agree that we’re getting something meaningful out of — and therefore putting something meaningful back into — a shared culture, we might achieve a moment in which our political divide can once again become a political debate: a conversation (however heated) that might be fruitful, rather than rancorous; progressive, rather than deadlocked. If the writers of V for Vendetta can make a masterpiece that celebrates competition and family values, I’m pretty sure that liberals and conservatives can at least call an armistice in this interminable, so-called “culture war.” Our culture doesn’t belong to one or the other of us; it belongs to us all, whether we like it or not. If we’re going to compete, let’s at least try to enjoy ourselves. A convivial race, perhaps? Loser buys the pizza.