Belaboring the Obvious

Friday, May 26, 2006

It Should Be a Verb...

... to be "wolcotted." After slicing and dicing Stanley Kurtz's extended lament on why, oh, why can't fiction have real conservative ideological purity, James Wolcott concludes with this little bit:

If this is what Kurtz and his kind are like with The Da Vinci Code, I don't want to be around to hear the caterwauling that may occur should Oliver Stone's World Trade Center become a hit. It'll be like karoke [sic] night among the coyotes.

There's certainly way, way too much emphasis on politics in Hollywood (mostly, Hollywood runs on money and egos, not politics).

And yet, I think conservatives complain about this failure of Hollywood to mimic their values because they just don't get it. Conservative ideology is, well, boring. Their stories don't, by and large, have much dramatic content, and ideological purity of any sort kind of puts the vise grips on dramatic tension and character development.

What conservatives like Kurtz seem to want in a movie is a sort of blend of Stalinist propaganda about stout farmwives' love for their tractors and a "Towering Inferno," starring not sort of liberal and easy-going Paul Newman and the iconoclastic Steve McQueen, but, rather, actors with real conservative creds, like Ron Silver and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ahnold, given his previous typecasting, gets to be the tractor. Lord knows what Ron Silver would play. Probably himself. Both would go up in dramaturgid flames at the climax, if not literally, then metaphorically.

A bit more seriously, this whole notion of molding the culture of a nation to the will of ideologues is the stuff of conservative fantasy. It's also a bit too Leni Riefenstahlish for the average American. Kurtz says: "Conservatives have forgotten just how precarious our position is. One cable news channel, talk radio, and the blogosphere do not an invincible army make. It only seems that way because we also have nominal control of the reigns [sic] of power. But lose our foothold in government, and conservatives are up a creek."

What this sort of appeal tells me, first, is that conservatives do, indeed, think of the culture war as a real one (by choosing the phrase, "invincible army"), requiring military tactics such as psy-ops and propaganda, and second, that they're just about the only ones in the country thinking this way. This also tells me that they have no faith in the power and beneficence of their own ideas as intellectual constructs, and that they really do think that there's no way to stay in control of the hearts and minds of Americans without resorting to the sophisticated trickery of public relations and control of the cultural outlets. Incredibly, this is a military mindset--a "seize the radio stations first" mentality, which, for some rather obvious reasons, doesn't overlay very well on multitalented and multicultural America.

Conservatives, in part by having smeared everyone in the media with the "liberal" label, have dominated the political discourse for twenty-five years, and it just might be that after that amount of time, the public has finally figured out that they've been fed horseshit by the right wing for ages, and now, after six years of the Bushbots, in the White House and the RNC and in control of Congress, they're finally getting a chance to see real conservatism in action. It's left a bitter taste on the collective tongue of the people.

The real problem? Contemporary conservatism, which has morphed old line conservatism with the religiously rigid and culturally authoritarian right wing of the party, thus giving the latter much more control over the political process than its relative minority rightly deserves, is now in trouble, mostly because it has run on slogans, rather than real policy based on facts and intended to benefit the greatest number of people. Traditional values, family values, the flag-waving, all were intended to have the same effect on the voter as an advertising jingle. In fact, there was no more power behind such slogans than their advertising effect. They sounded good, they tested well in focus groups, they resonated with voters, but the policy implementing them was non-existent or was so bad it stunk up the place.

But what really has Mistah Kurtz's knickers in a twist is not that Americans have not embraced conservatism culturally, but that it's yet another sign of them losing power.
That's more important than any conservative artistic fealty to the ideology (now, how's that for an oxymoron?):

Conservatives need to face the fact that our position in this culture is genuinely precarious. If we lose our hold on power, we’ll scream bloody murder on our outlets at everything the other side does. Yet those screams may only confirm our helplessness. The deep cultural dimension of our political battles makes an ordinary transfer of political power far more consequential than it was in the days when America had a bipartisan foreign policy and a broad cultural consensus. We can dream about forcing Republicans to the right and then riding back into power two years later, but one big loss could easily turn conservatives back into a marginal cultural force for some time.

In the `60s, there was a funny and appropriate phrase now apropos in describing the current left/right cultural dichotomy: cream rises. Creativity, original thought, all those right-brain qualities that go well beyond the merely clever and the doggedly dogmatic are expressed on the left because they feel the intellectual freedom to think in new ways. Conservatism's essence is a resistance to change. What are the "traditional values" that the right wing so treasures? Freedom to think independently? Not on your life. To conservatives, social and intellectual conformity is a virtue. Their "traditional" values (white male hegemony in politics, a social hierarchy based on wealth, a foreign policy wholly dependent upon implicit or explicit economic and military threats) are, to them, the good values. Someone who challenges that ancient paradigm, or, god forbid, makes fun of it, is simply rude and has embraced an unacceptable ideology--no matter how creatively or artistically or independent of ideology the rude might make the statement.

That's why Kurtz is turned inside out about "The DaVinci Code." It doesn't embrace acceptable dogma. It may not be great movie-making, but that's not the point--it doesn't toe the conservative line. It challenges the more fantastic and magical aspects of Christianity. It's not ideologically pure. In terms of the popular culture, it may not have been wonderfully written, but it does give the average person a different view of something they generally take for granted. Maybe, "The DaVinci Code" is no more to Christianity than Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" was to the Mafia, but they are both stories that found expression in popular film and have been generally well-received as pieces of entertaining fiction.

Kurtz wants to make entertaining fiction into deadly dogma. And if he can't find anyone with the limited talents necessary to do that, he wants the entertaining fiction to go away, because he thinks it's harmful to conservative, Christian ideology.

Kurtz misses the point. Conservatives generally aren't powerful forces in the popular culture because their ideology--and their need to conform to that ideology--make true creativity virtually impossible. If there's been any cultural marginalizing of conservatives these days, it's because conservatives have done it to themselves, shown themselves to the average person to be, in practical, cultural and political terms, at best irrelevant, and, at worst, dangerous. Far-right conservative political ideas, thanks to Bush and Co.
, have been taken to their logical extremes, and the public sees, quite clearly, the damage those ideas have caused. Conservative notions of acceptable culture strike the general public as akin to the sterility and artificiality of the underground society in Harlan Ellison's _A Boy and His Dog_.

Cream rises. Bad ideas go to logic prison. The manipulations of conservative propaganda are now about as welcome as anal herpes. Conservative vision is cataracted, to the extent that its vision isn't already restricted by the walls of its own rectum.

That's why the far right has done so badly, even after being treated so well by the media. Its ideas were lousy, right from the start. Its vision of the culture was warped and stilted and depended on nostalgia for a time which never existed. It has always been a minority with a big megaphone. Its heroes have really been the villains of society. And now, the Stanley Kurtzes of the radical right are worried about losing power, of becoming marginalized. True to form, they think it's all about getting the correct message out. They still think it's about PR and properly milking the creative teats of popular culture. They will never acknowledge that their message is mindless and their philosophy intellectually bankrupt, and that contemporary conservatism is hopelessly antithetical to the creative impulse.


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