Conservative Focus on the Negative

Considering ideological predispositions, there is one study I came across that I’ve never focused on before. I realized it allows for useful perspective on a particular distinction and on general confusion.

The study had to do with what people focus upon. The conclusion of the results was that conservatives spend more time focusing on that which they perceive as negative whereas liberals spend more time focusing on that which they perceive as positive. Now, that is beyond interesting.

It makes sense according to other research.

Conservatives are shown to on average have a higher fear/disgust reesponse. It’s easy to see this just by observing politics where conservatives often have long lists of all the things they are against. This was obvious with the Tea Party. It can lead liberals to calling them obstructionists.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be drawn toward the new and different, toward possibility and change. Liberals often push visions of hope wtih optimism and expectation about what good can be achieved. This was heard particularly in Obama’s first campaign. But conservatives see it as naive and moreso dangerously naive.

Liberals point out the positive results being blocked by conservatives. And conservatives complain about the negative results they fear from the agenda liberals push.

This made me wonder about the debate on the nature of conservatism. Is conservatism most fundamentally about defending tradition against change? Or is conservatism more primarily motivated by reaction to what it is against?

This could appear like simply a difference of emphasis, but it is an emphasis that might make a world of difference. A difference of emphasis could cause a drastic difference in political behavior and policy. This is what Corey Robin argues in his theory of reactionary onservatism. He actually argues that it goes past just emphasis, and he makes this argument by pointing how contemporary explanations of conservatism don’t fit the actual ideological history of conservatism.

What is intriguing about Corey Robin’s argument is that I don’t think he is claiming or even implying that conservatives are necessarily trying to be deceptive. Most conservatives probably believe the narrative told of conservatism as traditionalism.

The disconnect maybe just comes from the typical human challenge of self-awareness and self-understanding. Often, outsiders have more perspective to objectively assess a group or movement. This would be true for liberals as well, and I’d love to see a non-liberal write an equally compelling analysis of liberalism.

I have no desire to repeat Corey Robin’s argument here. Instead, I’ll follow a recent line of thought I’ve had about popular entertainment. What many see as liberal entertainment I’d argue is actually conservative in the reactionary sense. Two examples of this are film noir and action movies.

The argument for these genres being liberal is that authority figures often aren’t the heroes, sometimes the authority figures are challenged by or even disrespected by the heroes who not unusually are lone vigilantes. Furthermore, these movies often glorify what traditionalist-identifying conservatives claim to be against: sex, violence, etc.

The argument for reactionary conservatism, however, brings forth an explanation that seems to be confirmed by the study I mentioned above. These movies are conservative precisely for the reason that they are obsessively focused on all the issues that cause conservatives to feel fear or disgust. They are being invoked in presenting a sense of moral order or the need for renewal of moral order, even if only manifest in the hero fighting the good fight or standing by his personal principles.

This is where the confusion is brought to the surface. At least for conservatives, the best way to see what they are about is by looking at what they are against. Film noir and action movies probably will tell you more about conservatism than even the most scholarly tome written by a conservative thinker.

Back to Our Future: David Sirota on the 80s

I just noticed a reference to David Sirota’s recent book, Back to Our Future. It looks interesting. After reading some reviews and hearing some interviews, I decided to purchase the book on my Kindle. So far, I’ve only read the beginning and skimmed later sections. This post is more about my initial response, but it’s a very thorough initial response.

To put it simply, this book provides analysis of 80s culture’s impact on politics and how that impact continues.

In ‘Back to Our Future,’ the ’80s are alive and, well

Remember the ’80s? Greed. Narcissism. Size.

“Everything was big — really big,” Sirota writes. “Big hair. Big defense budgets. Big tax cuts. Big shoulder pads. Big blockbuster movies. Big sports stars. The Big Gulp.”

Let me begin with a summary of what defines the 1980s, according to David Sirota:

•Atari: Best-selling videos Missile CommandCombat and Space Invaders sold techno-militarism to a generation of future drone pilots.

•Rambo: Embittered vet refought America’s wars and “gets to win” this time.

Ghostbusters: The movie’s lesson: When government fails, these private security contractors saved us from interdimensional “terrorists.”

•World Wrestling Federation: Theatro-sport in which American good guys like Sgt. Slaughter body slammed foreign bad guys like the Iron Sheik.

•Mr. T: No matter what character this Mohawk-wearing strongman played, he represented racial stereotyping and threw it back in our faces.

The Cosby Show: The pre-Obama image of the “post-racial” brand, the Huxtables were the first black family to dominate TV.

•Ferris Bueller: John Hughes’ cheeky truant glorified “going rogue” years before Sarah Palin.

Air Jordans: Best-selling sneakers pushed the idea that we can each be superstars if we “just do it.”

The Yuppie: Upwardly mobile wealth-obsessed Alex P. Keatons rejected ’60s idealism for modern materialism.

“Greed is Good”: Gordon Gekko’s line from Wall Street became the decade’s most famous phrase — and its most enduring ethos.

 – – – 

My discovering this book was serendipitous. I happened upon a reference to it the other night. A few hours prior, while at work, I had been talking to a coworker about all things apocalyptic, the Japanese nuclear plant problems being the starting point of the conversation. She mentioned something about a tv show and I was reminded of how many post-apocalyptic movies there were in the 1980s when I was a child. Between that and evil children movies, a child of the 80s was almost inevitably warped in the head.

Sirota makes this connection to the present nuclear situation in Japan:

I’m a child of the ’80s, and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning.

I don’t know that Sirota discusses the post-apocalyptic genre, but it seems to fit in with his overall analysis. The nuclear accidents back then made nuclear apocalypse an increasingly real possibility which was imaginatively portrayed in various entertainment media. As a GenXer born in 1975 (the same year Sirota was born), I’m well aware of the impact of 80s culture.

Sirota takes this a step further and says this impact is continuing as if the 80s somehow stunted America’s natural development. The country was going in one direction with the civil rights movement, environmentalism and other things, but then the 80s came and a different attitude took over: hyper-individualism, capitalist greed, paranoia of government, aggressive militarism, ultra-nationalism, racial fear-mongering, class war, culture war, radicalization of religion, etc. Americans haven’t yet collectively recovered from the trauma of the 80s. There were the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and it’s been the 80s ever since. An endless nightmare as if Reagan were still president.

As explained in the USA Today article:

[T]he ’80s speak to us today for one simple reason: “Because it’s still the ’80s. The calendar doesn’t say ’80s, but we’re still looking through an ’80s mind-set.” Think Charlie Sheen. Think Lehman Brothers. Think McMansions.

As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The ’80s set the stage for our lives today, Sirota says, and he explains it best in his introduction: “Almost every major cultural touchstone is rooted in the ’80s. … The Sopranos was an update of an ’80s Scorsese flick (Raging Bull and later Goodfellas).The Wire was Baltimore’s own Colors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a Los Angeles-set Seinfeld. American Idol is Star Search.” And so on.

[ . . . ] “The reason you see so many remakes is not just because nostalgia resonates,” Sirota says, “but because (’80s movies) are still culturally relevant.”

Part of his argument relates to his realization that most people aren’t political at all, or rather don’t consciously identify as political, don’t consciously think out their political views. And, even those who are consciously political as adults, usually didn’t identify as being political when growing up. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that everyone has political views. Even children, when asked, can offer views on political issues. We all gain our political views from somewhere. Sirota thinks that pop culture has a greater impact on our minds and worldviews than we normally realize. He even goes so far as to see it playing a role of pseudo-propaganda in some cases and outright propaganda in other cases. This can be seen to some extent as part of the normal enculturation process, but the 80s were anything other than normal… and, in the process, a new norm was created for American society.

From a Denver Westword interview, Sirota said:

So I’d been reading some social research, and one thing that’s been coming up is that pop culture and entertainment — especially for children — is just as formative to how we see the world as news; as children, this entertainment that’s packaged as non-political, it can be as reality-shaping as reality is.

How Your Taxpayer Dollars Subsidize Pro-War Movies and Block Anti-War Movies

All the buzz in the entertainment/tech world about the blockbuster new video game Homefront brings back memories of the 1984 film Red Dawn — and rightly so. The creator of Homefront is none other than John Milius, the writer/director of the 1984 film that later became the deliberate namesake of the most famous operation in today’s Iraq War. But it should also bring back memories of the larger militarist themes that continue to define our entertainment culture — themes that ultimately bring up the direct but little-examined connections between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry. It is the legacy of those connections, first intensified in the 1980s, that continue to embed militarism in seemingly non-political products like video games and action movies.

As I show in , much of the video game industry was subsidized by the military and military contractors, and many of the earliest games were consequently martial in thrust. Think: Atari Combat and Missile Command, which then grew into a larger video game world that, as one Konami executive said in 1988, “takes anything remotely in the news and makes it a game.” You could see that in Nintendo’s Iran-Contra era game Contra just as you can see it in today’s hits like Call of Duty. And in almost each of these games, the ideology of militarism (i.e. military action solving all problems) is reiterated and reinforced.

Same thing when it comes to the Pentagon-Hollywood relationship since the 1980s — only in that case, we’re now seeing military officials quite literally line-editing scripts to make them more pro-military.

– – – 

Several points stand out to me in Sirota’s analysis.

First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.

Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence. This hero worship also led to our culture of idolizing celebrity and wealth (a celebritocracy borne out of a distorted vision of meritocracy).

From the USA Today article:

“A lot of the changes that happened (in the ’80s) weren’t good,” Sirota admits. “The deification of celebrity, for instance. The individual. Michael Jordan could soar above all the rest. It wasn’t about the team anymore. That wasn’t so good.”

[ . . . ] “It was the outlaw with morals. The guy working on the inside for the common good,” Sirota says. He says that trend translated to sports, pointing to a poster of bad-boy Barkley. “He broke the rules but he was a good guy.”

As for ’80s greed, the examples are endless both then and today.

He cites Michael J. Fox’s The Secret of My Success (1987) as glorifying the ’80s goal of “working your way up to huge sums of wealth.”

But another 1987 movie perhaps summed up the era best. Wall Street (which co-starred Sheen) lives on because of three famous words uttered by Michael Douglas: “Greed … is good.” The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, was released last year. Still relevant. Bernie Madoff, anyone?

“The young of the ’80s didn’t want to save the world,” Sirota says. “They wanted to get rich. It became the norm, and it’s the norm today.”

Third, Sirota explains how all of this was disconnected from reality. It had become a collective myth that couldn’t be questioned. He gave some examples about the enemies the media and government demonized during the 80s.

The US government was using propaganda about the Godless commies for the purpose of justifying the building up of the military-industrial complex, but the US government had plenty of data in their own reports that the Soviet Union was technologically inferior by far and was destroying itself trying to keep up with US technological advancement. The US government knew the commies were no real threat, but the myth of a powerful enemy was necessary and desired. To have a powerful enemy, gives a nation a sense of meaning and purpose even if it’s an utter lie.

The other example shows how lies when repeated enough become collective reality. On some level, I suspect most Americans were aware that the commies couldn’t be used as a scapegoat forever. The Cold War was drawing to a close and so the search for a new great enemy was already beginning. The new enemy to be feared was Islamic terrorists (which was already at that time starting to become the new standard enemy in American entertainment).

In our fighting the commies, we had at times aligned with radical Islamic fundamentalists and theocrats. I think many people realized that this would eventually lead to blowback, that our allies once we were finished using them would turn against us. More importantly, we just needed an enemy. If we had to create that enemy by funding, training and arming radical Islamic fundamentalists, by overthrowing democratic governments and supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East, then so be it. Creating enemies is no easy task. It takes a lot of money and time, a lot of effort and planning, a lot of destruction and loss of life. But what the 80s have taught us is that endlessly fighting enemies of our own creation is something worth fighting for.

 – – – 

Here is another related factor that Sirota may or may not touch upon. The attitude of seeking enemies was an all-encompassing way of making sense of the world and hence of making public policies.

Worst of all, the demented paranoia of the 80s even led to the American people becoming the enemy. There was evidence of this mentality from earlier times such as with COINTELPRO from the decades prior, but the 80s brought it to a whole new level. COINTELPRO only targeted specific groups. The War on Drugs, however, targeted the entire American population. In many ways, it was worse than even McCarthyism. The War on Drugs has done more damage than probably any other public policy in American history. I doubt there is any US policy that has led to more people being imprisoned, more people having their lives destroyed, more increase in violence, more increase in a corporatist elite profiting off of the suffering of others, more targeting of the poor and minorities. My God, even Prohibition wasn’t this damaging. The War on Drugs has been going on for decades which has only led to an increase in drug use and drug-related violence. Now, the War on Terror (funded by the black market for drugs) has ratcheted up even further this paranoid oppression and authoritarian fear-mongering.

The 80s created a schizophrenic mentality. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the supposed even greater enemy of commies, terrorists, and drug dealers. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the enemy that is hiding within. Any American potentially might be a commie, a terrorist, or a druggy (or a gangsta, or a welfare queen, or an illegal alien, or an eco-terrorist, or a radical liberal). Everyone potentially was an enemy. No one could be trusted. It was everyone against everyone. A society of trust and cooperation was a thing of the past. The role of the government in helping average Americans was seen as evil and the power of the government to hurt the enemy was seen as good.

So, spending on social services and infrastructure (what conservatives like to call socialism) were reduced as the military-industrial complex (along with the alphabet soup agencies) continued to grow (along with the debt). Both fiscal and social conservatism were ironically used as part of the propaganda to increase the power of the ruling corporatist elite. Fiscal conservatism!?! Give me a fucking break! Neocons like Reagan believed in fiscal conservatism in the same way a pedophile priest believes in God. Even if their belief is genuine and earnest, those negatively effected would hardly find much comfort. I don’t know if a laissez-faire ideology correlates to reality any more than Christian theology. What I do know is real are the impacts that those who believe in such things have on the real world and on real people. And the enduring results of 80s culture of greed ain’t pretty.

 – – – 

What appeals to me about David Sirota’s view is that he is putting this all in the context of the larger history of the 20th century. The 80s concretized a particular worldview of culture war that continues to this day, and it continues to be grounded in mainstream culture. He explains this well in giving a summary about his book:

The book really has four basic sections. There’s a section about how the 1980s redefined our memories and our ideas of the 1950s and the 1960s, basically by remaking our memories of the 1950s into this idyllic time of calm and prosperity, and remaking the 60s into things that are bad, things like chaos and assassination — and so that ’50s vs 60s battle is still something that influences groups like the Tea Party and so forth, and it really divides along political lines.

[ . . . ] You know, the 1980s really was the time when there was this conflation between entertainment and real — Reagan was constantly referencing movies and pop culture in his speeches; you know, he’d been an actor himself. And so people might say, oh, The A Team wasn’t a big deal, Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t a big deal — but The A-Team, this one one of the highest rated shows for preteens, this show with the premise of four, you know, private contractors on the lam from a government that can’t do anything right. This stuff has a real impact on how you think about your world.   

I was just reading that Reagan considered Family Ties one of his favorite shows and offered to be in an episode. Sirota considers that show to have been central. Many young conservatives took inspiration from the Alex P. Keaton’s rebellion against his liberal former hippie parents. Alex stated a classic line when he complained about his parents being arrested for protesting nuclear weapons:

“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”

With all the angry right-wingers, fear-mongering fundies and cold-hearted neocons these days, it’s hard to remember there was a time when a Republican could be portrayed as being a genuinely kind, lovable character. With all the horrifying results of trickle down economics, all the rampant crony capitalism following deregulation and all the cynical class war against the working class, it’s hard to imagine that fiscal conservatism once upon a time could’ve been shown as almost quaintly charming in it’s innocent naivette. It’s understandable that many at that time were persuaded, inspired even, by Michael J. Fox’s role:

The world has changed. The contemporary equivalent of Alex P. Keaton would be Eric Cartman from South Park. In the episode “Die, Hippie, Die”, Cartman sees hippies as dangerous vermin to be exterminated.

“Every time one of these ex-hippies comes prancing in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads and pretend we care about people.”
~ Alex P. Keaton

“For the past several days I’ve been noticing a steep rise in the number of hippies coming to town.… I know hippies. I’ve hated them all my life. I’ve kept this town free of hippies on my own since I was five and a half. But I can’t contain them on my own anymore. We have to do something, fast!”
~ Eric Cartman

Alex as the charming fiscal conservative has morphed into Cartman the not-so-charming bigoted conservative. And yet both capture some basic essence of the desire of many contemporary conservatives to rebel against society (a corrupt, lazy and generally inferior society that deserves being rebelled against).

The radicalization of the conservative movement is one of the oddest phenomena in US history. There were always radical elements in American society, but something about Goldwater’s campaign allowed the radicals to take over the entire conservative movement. Now we have Cartman-like pundits on the radio and on cable. They still rail against mainstream culture despite having become so much apart of mainstream culture that they now help to shape it. That, of course, doesn’t stop them from acting like victims as if hippies were somehow still a dominant force. The right-wing mindset is forever stuck in the past which blinds them to the present. To the right-winger, Cartman’s paranoia is the reality they live in.

Alex P. Keaton continues to be relevant more than a couple decades after Family Ties ended. Having gained power, the conservatives inspired by the likes of Alex may now feel disgruntled by their failure which has inevitably followed from their success. But that doesn’t stop them from believing, doesn’t give them pause, doesn’t cause them to doubt their ideology. It remains relevant because the True Believers keep it relevant:

Still, it’s tempting to conclude that Keaton’s near-iconic status requires more explanation. Last summer in the New Republic, Rick Perlstein, the left-leaning author of a book on Barry Goldwater, argued that, even now, after years of Republican rule, the “culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side.” Having been “shaped in another era [the mid-1960s], one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered,” conservative culture—Perlstein had in mind everything from “Goldwater kitsch” to Fox News—still feeds on this antagonism, reflecting a sense that righteousness is always at odds with the decadent mainstream.

Alex P. Keaton fits this vision perfectly. Throughout the show’s run, he was on his own: His parents were liberal, his sister was a ditz, and his one conservative ally, Uncle Ned, was a fugitive and then a drunk. Still, he persevered.

Conservatives nowadays have plenty of Uncle Neds who may seem like frauds and failures to those who don’t share their capitalistic idealism. Still, conservatives persevere.

 – – – 

Not only do they persevere, their becoming disgruntled has made them even more rabidly motivated. And big money has given their minority voice a big megaphone. This is what the Tea Party is or has become, arguments aside about how it began. Tea Party leaders and icons, such as Beck and Palin, represent this tendency toward nostalgia that Sirota writes about (Back to Our Future, pp. 27-8):

Now, during the Obama presidency, the Tea Party opposition is an exact analogue to the Reagan vanguard, all the way down to the latter-day roots of its very name—in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the The New York Times labeled what were then the first contemporary antigovernment/antitax revolts “modern Boston Tea Parties.” Not surprisingly, the goal of today’s Tea Party protesters is a return to the politics of the fifties-worshiping, sixties-bashing 1980s.

Tea Party protesters and their leaders in the conservative movement acknowledge this intrinsically in their choice of language and extrinsically in their most unfiltered declarations. For example, an essay posted on the website of Freedom Works, the organization that sponsors Tea Party demonstrations, says protesters are enraged by “the sense that the country that they grew up in is slipping away right before their eyes.”

[ . . . ] Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s media field general, says it is about “real outrage from real people who just want their country back”—and he’s very clear that “back” means before The Sixties™. In one recent diatribe, Beck praised Joe McCarthy for “shin[ing] the spotlight on the Communist Party” in the 1950s. In another, he insisted “fifty years ago people felt happier” than they do today because today “we have less God,” prompting his guest to agree by saying, “Something happened in the 1950s where everything went down … that’s when they started taking God”—“they” being the hippies, “God” presumably being a reference to mid-twentieth-century courts barring prayer in school.

This kind of nostalgia now slashes its way through today’s politics and policy debates, and its lack of connection to specific issues betrays its eighties-crafted anchor in intergenerational conflict.

[ . . . ] “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower,” Bob Dole told Politico in a discussion about 2012 presidential candidates.

The language—“back,” “real people,” “deviating from,” “slipping away,” “the way it was,” “different country than I grew up in,” “legacy,” “better time”—underscores the fierce yearning for a fantastical authenticity and conformity of old-time fifties America, sans the real-world downsides like lynch mobs, religious bigotry, burning crosses, chauvinism, union-busting, and smokestack pollution that plagued the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not Tea Party leaders are specifically pointing to the actual 1950s is less important than that the broader movement is advocating that bigger, 1980s-manufactured concept of The Fifties™.

The tragedy, of course, is the elimination of the kind of moderate Republicanism that once played a pivotal political, cultural, and legislative role in the real 1950s and 1960s. Conservatives today accept no compromise positions on taxes, national security, social issues, or anything else, because to Republican leaders, conceding such middle ground is akin to aiding and abetting the hippies—an unthinkable proposition, but not just to them.

That passage caught my attention. I’ve been thinking about the Tea Party for quite a while now. Last year I started to write a post about the documentary Generation Zero. The documentary created quite a buzz at the time (at least, on Fox News), but it is mostly unknown outside of the Tea Party crowd. I only heard about it because of a blog I follow which focuses on the topic of generations. The documentary is based on the generation theory of Strauss and Howe.

I never finished writing my post about Generation Zero. I felt like I was missing some element to bring my thoughts together. Sirota’s analysis may be that missing element. It wasn’t a bad documentary per se. However, it did fall into this mythology of everything wrong with America is the fault of the hippies.

Sirota is correct that the nostalgic worship of The Fifties has become popular again. And Sirota is correct that this nostalgia is disconnected from reality, from the actual history of the 50s. John Oliver of The Daily Show did an awesome clip (Even Better Than the Real Thing) which utterly lambasted this naive vision of the past that is favored by right-wingers.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with looking for the positive in the past. But one can’t learn from the past by turning it into a Hallmark movie or a Norman Rockwell painting. One particular detail that caught my attention in the above passage is Bob Dole’s saying that, “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower”. If only Republicans were genuine about their reverence for the good ol’ days, many liberals would be more than happy to cooperate. In the good ol’ days of the first half of the 20th century, liberalism was triuphant and politicians were usually unwilling to publicly denounce liberals for fear of their political careers being destroyed by doing so. As Eric Alterman pointed out in his book Why We’re Liberals (p. 4):

It may shocking to some to discover that for much of the past century, the term liberal suggested, in the words of historian John Lukacs, “generosity nay, magnanimity; not only breadth of a mind but strength of soul.” A liberal was someone “free from narrow prejudice,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Even the enemies of liberalism sought legitimacy within it. In 1960, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article by the philosopher Charles Frankel in which he observed that it would be difficult to locate a single major figure in American politics who could not find a favorable remark or two about American liberalism. Indeed, he wrote, “Anyone who today identifies himself as an unmitigated opponent of liberalism…cannot aspire to influence on the national political scene.” Frankel noted that even politicians who indulged in attacks on “liberals” were usually sufficiently cautious in their criticism to attach qualifiers to the word, lest they be accused of antiliberalism themselves. Southern conservatives, for instance, complained about “Northern liberals,” often insisting that they themselves were liberals in matters of social welfare. Even Joe McCarthy usually restricted himself to attacking “phony liberals,” leaving open the inference, as Frankel put it, “that he had nothing against genuine liberals, if only he could find one.”20 Later the same year, “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert A. Taft, claimed the liberal label for himself, stating—accurately, as it happens—that he was in reality “an old-fashioned liberal.”21 The party’s successful 1952 presidential candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also on board: “To be fully effective,” Ike explained, “we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress.”22 As late as 1968, voters heard this moving tribute to the virtues of liberalism: “Let me give you a definition of the word ‘liberal.’…Franklin D. Roosevelt once said…It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him. ‘A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.’” The speaker? That famous liberal presidential candidate: Richard Milhous Nixon.

Eisenhower was more progressively liberal than most Democratic politicians are today. So, these right-wingers aren’t being genuine when they reference the past as if, prior to the hippies, all of American society was ruled by the far right. Today’s Republicans, unlike Eisenhower, aren’t moderate about anything. Moderate Republicans are an endangered species. How can the right-wing loons of today bring up Eisenhower’s name when the right-wing loons back then thought Eisenhower was a commie (and mainstream Republicans back then thought such right-wingers were radicals and extremists). You’d be hard pressed to find even a self-identified liberal in contemporary mainstream politics who would make the type of statements Eisenhower made such as (Letter to Edgar Newton Eisenhower, November 8, 1954):

“You keep harping on the Constitution; I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Consequently no powers are exercised by the Federal government except where such exercise is approved by the Supreme Court (lawyers) of the land.

“I admit that the Supreme Court has in the past made certain decisions in this general field that have been astonishing to me. A recent case in point was the decision in the Phillips case. Others, and older ones, involved “interstate commerce.” But until some future Supreme Court decision denies the right and responsibility of the Federal government to do certain things, you cannot possibly remove them from the political activities of the Federal government.

“Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

“[ . . . ] I assure you that you have more reason, based on sixty-four years of contact, to say this than you do to make the bland assumption that I am surrounded by a group of Machiavellian characters who are seeking the downfall of the United States and the ascendancy of socialism and communism in the world. Incidentally, I notice that everybody seems to be a great Constitutionalist until his idea of what the Constitution ought to do is violated–then he suddenly becomes very strong for amendments or some peculiar and individualistic interpretation of his own.

 – – –

So, what exactly are conservatives today reminiscing about? Where did they get their revisionist history from?

Sirota argues that much of this revisionist history and 50s mythologizing came from the 80s. That is the origin of the problem we now face. The 80s is the source of much revisionist history because the 80s is the point where the country started heading back toward some of the worst elements of the past. An example of this is how bigotry was championed in the 80s and was put in deceptive packaging to make it more socially acceptable. This racism has been disguised in the language of culture war and class war, but the underlying racism is obvious for anyone who has their eyes open. Most recently and most obviously, there has been a resurgence of this racism which can be found in the Tea Party. As Sirota wrote in his book (p. 212):

In light of the blitz, to blame Obama for seeking “to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race” is to yet again avoid blaming the real culprit: the white America that since the 1980s demands reticence on race from all black public figures as the price of public support. Sure, as a purely tactical matter, you can credibly argue that Obama’s Cosby-esque deal with white America is a self-defeating Faustian bargain. Survey data show roughly six in ten whites openly admit to believing in at least one bigoted stereotype, and a recent study showed that when asked about health care legislation, a significant number of whites expressed less support for the exact same bill if it was coming from President Obama rather than from a white Democratic president. A black leader who tries to circumnavigate that intense bigotry by avoiding race may be emboldening the bigotry inevitably coming his way. Similarly, American politics is increasingly steered by a largely white Tea Party movement whose supporters are, according to polls, disproportionately motivated by racial resentment. An African American leader who goes out of his way to downplay that right-wing racism to the point of rebuking former president Jimmy Carter for criticizing it—well, that only helps the Tea Party opposition play its duplicitous dog-whistle games.

I was already aware of this. I have a post about the study done where Tea Party supporters admitted to having racially prejudiced views. Of course, this is nothing new… but I guess that is why it’s so disheartening. One of Sirota’s basic points is how we as a nation are atavistically mired in our own dark past. We are stuck in this manner because the distorted 50s mythology has appealed to what has been a white majority in this country, and the appeal becomes stronger as whites increasingly lose their majority status. In the words of Sirota from the article, “The Motto of Mad Men”:

As one tea party leader told The New York Times: “Things we had in the ’50s were better.”

To the tea party demographic, this certainly rings true. Yes, in apartheid America circa 1950, rich white males were more socially and economically privileged relative to other groups than they are even now. Of course, for those least likely to support the tea party—read: minorities—the ’50s were, ahem, not so great, considering the decade’s brutal intensification of Jim Crow.

But then, that’s the marketing virtuosity of the “I Want My Country Back” slogan. A motto that would be called treasonous if uttered by throngs of blacks, Latinos or Native Americans has been deftly sculpted by conservatives into an accepted clarion call for white power. Cloaked in the proud patois of patriotism and protest, the refrain has become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by impending demographic and public policy changes.

I’m not sure how many people understand the way this came about. I’ve met many conservatives who seem to have a dim awareness that the world was once different when they criticize the Democratic Party as being the party of racists because it used to have it’s stronghold in the old KKK South. What conservatives forget, in making this criticism, is that the Republicans are now the party of the South. Republicans purposely gained the South by using the Southern Strategy which was an often overtly racist strategy. It began with Nixon, but became even more important with the campaigns of Reagan and Bush Sr. From Sirota’s book (p. 18):

The magma of resentment politics that had been simmering underground since the late 1970s exploded during the stretch run of the 1980 presidential campaign. In August of that year, Reagan channeled white rage at the civil rights movement by endorsing the racist euphemism states rights, an endorsement that came during a speech to a Confederate-flag-waving audience in the same Mississippi town where three civil rights workers had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

I remember reading last year about Reagan’s campaign. I was shocked and amazed by the bravado of so blatantly referencing a violently racist past just for the sake of winning an election. You can’t get any more cynical than that. As I recall, the speech that started off his campaign was that very speech given at that town which was famous for having previously hosted the Ku Klux Klan’s murdering of civil rights workers. That was the beginning of the Republican Party and conservative movement we know today. That is the past America that conservatives feel nostalgic about.

 – – – 

I find myself simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by this history of American culture. I’m generally interested in any analysis of generations. It’s very strange how whole generations can get caught up in a single worldview, especially with our mainstream media today which offers everyone the same entertainment and news.

We live in interesting times. Boomers are losing power as GenXers are coming into power. Whites are losing majority position as minorities are gaining majority position. Religious fundamentalism and politicized religion is becoming less popular as religious diversity and non-religiousness are becoming more popular. We’re in a new century with a media of the likes never before seen. The world is becoming globalized and Americans are trying to find meaning and purpose in a time when everything is shifting.

Not everyone responds to this change with a positive attitude and an open embrace. But I, for one, am ready to leave the era of the 80s behind.

 – – – 

Note: I think that is all I have to say right now. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts once I read more of the book. Maybe I’ll continue my thoughts by eventually finishing my post on the documentary Generation Zero.

Avatar: Imagination & Culture

I finally went to see the movie Avatar.  It took me a while to convince my friend to go with me. He doesn’t usually like SciFi, but I think he enjoyed it.  I can understand why this movie has made so much money.  I’m glad I saw it and I’d be happy to watch it again.

I want to say something about the larger meaning and impact of this movie, but first I’ll point out my immediate response to it as entertainment.  Even though it was mostly what I expected, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of its production.  It was a truly immersive experience.  It did, however, take me a while to get into. 

First, I don’t often watch 3D movies and it was initially odd trying to get forget the rectangular screen framing the 3D effects.  In a normal movie, it’s easier to forget the shape of the screen itself.  That wasn’t really an annoyance per se… just something I was aware of.

The second thing was that the indigenous people of Pandora were essentially just very large blue Native Americans.  Their language and facial features all had elements of the Native American people (along with bows and arrows and weird large horse-like creatures).    I eventually just had to accept that large blue Native Americans could actually exist on other planets and just go with the story.

I’ve noticed that other reviewers have pointed out that the story isn’t all that original.  That is true to an extent.  White soldier goes native and helps the natives fight the evil invading military.  There are many other movies with a more original vision of an alternative world, but the central conceit of the movie (the avatar bodies) was an original twist.  I don’t care if a story is all that original as long as it is told well.  Most stories aren’t original.  Even the story of Jesus isn’t an original story and that has never lessened its popularity.

So, was the story of Avatar told well?  I think so.  I was immersed in the world.  The character development was limited, but I genuinely cared for the fate of the characters and I was saddened when the large tree was destroyed.  The movie probably would’ve been better if done as a trilogy.   But, even as is, I was more than satisfied.

The real reason I wanted to write a review is because of thoughts I had of its larger cultural context.  I have heard that conservatives really don’t like this movie.  Even the Vatican made an official statement of criticism.  I’m not surprised.  I don’t think it’s an overestimation to say that this movie will have some impact on the collective attitude of our society.  It is a movie that is full of messages and conveyed in a very entertaining and compelling way.

As an adult, this movie is impressive even if only for the special effects… but, to a child or young adult, this movie is the type of experience that could help shape the mindset of an entire generation.  The youth today are already very liberal in most ways because of various demographic shifts.  Conservatives dominated most of the twentieth century with their formulation of the cultural war.  Conservatives have been very good at controlling the cultural narrative and the group that controls the narrative controls all social and political dialogue. 

Liberals have been challenged in recent decades.  The conservatives managed to reframe progressivism as socialism and communism, as big government, as intellectual elitism.  But liberalism was never entirely limited to progressivism or not any simple notion of progressivism.  The liberal vision was never solely or centrally about creating a new society.  Rather, the liberal vision was about basic human rights, about empowering the common person.

Avatar has deep resonance with struggles that have been going on throughout US history and world history.  I’m just about finished with my second reading of The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen.  If you want to understand why this movie matters, read some of Jensen’s writings.  Avatar is, in some ways, a simple story but it is also a story that is communicating some basic truths about our culture.  The evil military guy may seem like an exaggerated stereotype.  However, I would argue that he is a fairly realistic portrayal of a certain kind of person.  Jensen goes into great detail about US history and there have been plenty of military (and non-military) people who have had the same basic attitude and who have said very similar things.  Sadly, this character isn’t an exaggeration.  There really have been (and still are) people like him and they really did try to get rid of any culture that got in the way of their ideology or profits.  For certain, the US government’s treatment of Native Americans wasn’t an isolated event(s). 

In the early 20th century, the workers union movement was connected with the beginnings of the civil rights movement.  These progressive movements were led by working class people.  For example, the Wobblies fought against unfair pay and immoral working conditions.  What was interesting about the Wobblies is that they didn’t refuse blacks and women from joining.  It was a truly egalitarian progressive movement that happened decades prior to Martin Luther King, jr.  And, yes, the Wobblies were violently put down by the government.

The first World War undermined this movement even further because patriotism has a way of redirecting public outrage to convenient foreign enemies.  In place of these progressive movements, arose the renewed KKK.  The KKK was different in that its membership was mostly middle and upper class.  The KKK was a gentlemen’s club and not an organization defending the common man… although it did play off the dissatisfaction and anger of the common man.  This was the beginning of the conservative movement as we now know it.  The beliefs of the KKK are essentially the same as the beliefs of present rightwingers (patriotic nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, traditional family, white culture/supremacy, and Christian fundamentalism; it was the KKK that was behind the early attempt in getting Creationism taught in public science classes).  The story of the conservative movement has been that of true Americans fighting for the American Way, the American Dream.  This “America”, of course, was a bit exclusionary toward a large portion of the population, but it appealed to all the people who mattered (i.e., those with power). 

Even the moving speeches of MLK had a hard time of challenging the conservative narrative.  Because MLK couldn’t change the popular narrative, the popularity of the civil rights movement mostly died with him.  Ever since, liberals have been trying to communicate their message.  Obama has been somewhat successful in awakening the progressive sense of hope, but he too hasn’t been able to find the narrative to empower this hope beyond speechmaking.  Conservatives are just better at creating and controlling the political attitudes of the general public.

Still, not all is lost.  Liberals seem more successful in using entertainment as a mode of communication.  This is where conservatives have failed.   The conservative ideology doesn’t fully appreciate the power (and the potential merits) of imagination, and the conservative movement did successfully limit creative freedom during the 20th century (Hollywood blacklists, Comic Book Code, etc).  The conservative response to imagination is simply to fear it.  Both conservatives and liberals understand the liberating potential of the arts and of popular entertainment. 

In the late 20th century, the conservative oppression of the Cold War started to lessen.  There was a tremendous explosion of cultural creativity that was combined with technological innovation.  The liberals found the media for their message in movies, and special effects allowed them to communicate their message in ever more compelling ways.  Star Wars was the first great use of movies to express the liberal vision.  Following that, Blade Runner and the Matrix began to remind Americans of the true power of the liberal vision.  The Boomers set the stage for all of this, but it took the GenXers to instill this liberal ethos into the very structures of our culture (e.g., the internet).

That brings us to the last decade when a new generation was coming of age.  This new generation is the largest generation in US history and probably the most liberal generation in US history.  The Millennials have grown up with liberal vision.  Harry Potter has become central to their identity, and the message of Harry Potter is very liberal.  Fantasy/SciFi in general is very liberal.  Our culture has been slowly shifting towards liberalism, but I think Avatar might be a tipping point of sorts. 

The improvement of special effects has unleashed the collective sense of imagination.  Movies may seem like mindless entertainment, but the power of imagination shouldn’t be underestimated.

All of this reminds me of an incident from a several years ago.  I went to hear a lady speak at the University of Iowa.  It wasn’t exactly what I expected.  The lady turned out to be a conservative Christian.  She discussed popular culture and the entertainment industry from the view of conservative Christianity.  She thought conservatives needed to use popular culture to communicate their ideology.  There isn’t anything necessarily wrong about this attitude, but my sense was that this lady’s view (and the conservative view in general) had an extremely superficial comprehension of the value of imagination and creativity.  Conservatives want to control entertainment for their purposes.  The best example is how the Mormons like to spend money making movies with good Christian values, but these movies of course are never very popular.

Liberals don’t need to use imagination and creativity to express their ideology… or at least not in the way that conservatives try to do this.  For liberals, imagination and creativity isn’t just a medium for their message.  It is their message.  The very act of imagining is inherent to the liberal attitude, the liberal view of reality.  This can be understood in terms of Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types.  Liberalism corresponds to the thin boundary type.  Thin boundary means that a person’s experience demonstrates less distinction between dreaming and waking, between subjectivity and objectivity, between imagination and perception.  Liberals don’t use imagination.  Liberals live in imagination.

After listening to the conservative Christian lady speak, I went into the University library where there was a showing of William Blake’s art and writing.  There couldn’t have been a better contrast between the conservative and liberal understanding of imagination.  In Blake’s vision, imagination was something with the power to liberate.  I don’t know if Blake was a visionary, but he was most definitely touching upon the visionary potential of imagination.  It was imagination as self-expression, as celebration, as defiance of all oppressive forces.

Avatar isn’t on the same level as Blake.  Even so, Avatar expresses the same liberal impulse.  There is ideology in Avatar, but it’s ideology as a vision of reality.   With liberals, ideology is expanded through imagination.  With conservatives, imagination is constrained by ideology.  Both may start with ideology, but go in different directions.  The liberal impulse wants to escape or transform ideology into something greater.  It’s not that conservatives don’t have a sense of something greater.  It’s just that to conservatives ideology itself is an expression of that sense of something greater.  Maybe it’s a difference between ideology as means vs ends.

Imagination has so much influence because it’s so easily dismissed.  Entertainment beguiles our conscious mind and sneaks past our rational and ideological defenses.  The most powerful stories are those that alter our very perception of reality.  We don’t see imagination.  We see through imagination.  And it’s liberals who understand this best. 

As such, Avatar is a vision of what imagination means in the world.  Imagination is potential.  We live in and embody imagination.  The world is alive with the imaginal.  To see this planet or any planet as an inanimate chunk of rock is a failure of imagination.  Killing life for profit can only be accomplished if imagination is first killed.  But imagination is an ever-present potential that can be reborn in any person.  That would seem to be the message of Avatar.