The cultural and political influence of entertainment

I finally read Jonathan Chait’s August 2012 New York Magazine article “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy is On Your Screen.” Both John Stonestreet at BreakPoint and Justin Taylor pointed to it. Check out their posts for the broader cultural implications, especially Taylor’s for quotes from Chait’s article on the effects of television on the cultural expectations of families in Brazil and India. Rod Dreher’s response (hat tip: Stonestreet) is probably the best of them.

Here, I’ve excerpted from Chait’s consideration of the effects on entertainment on the political environment:

If you ask Hollywood liberals themselves about the liberalism of their work, the answer generally depends on how you pose the question. If you frame it in terms of social responsibility, they will happily boast about using their platform to raise their audience’s consciousness about racial tolerance or the environment or distrusting government officials. Pose the same question as an accusation of ideological or partisan bias—those are, after all, liberal values—then they will more likely deny it.

The denials generally take the form of a simple economic aphorism. The entertainment business is a business, so if its product leans left, it must reflect what the audience wants. One oddity of the Hollywood-liberalism debate is that it makes liberals posit the existence of a perfect, frictionless market, while conservatives find themselves explaining why a free market is failing to function as it ought to. (Here is the rabidly conservative Shapiro, sounding like Ralph Nader: “The market in television isn’t free … The issue is one of control. The corporations have it. The American people don’t.”)

The market in popular culture is free, but for the liberal defense—no propagandizing here!—to be true, studios would have to be single-minded profit-maximizing machines. Most of them aren’t. Making money is their main goal, but they do blend profit with their artistic sensibility, which is heavily influenced by their ideological perspective.

The history of Hollywood is a long tug-of-war between artistic conscience and the bottom line. Louis Mayer, fearing the backlash from William Randolph Hearst, offered $850,000 to the producer of Citizen Kane to suppress the film and burn the negative. The show Thirtysomething endured a series of advertising boycotts. One scene, with two gay male characters in bed together, cost ABC $1 million in advertising; another, of them kissing, cost an additional half million. Network president Roger Iger cited his “social and creative responsibilities,” and the executive producer noted, “I am grateful that ABC was willing to air the program at a loss.” Even some of the cheesiest and most commercial ventures feel the pull of social conscience. “We’re talking to young people every day, and a lot of responsibility comes with that,” said Doug Herzog, president of MTV. “We believe that through the medium of television we try to make the world a slightly better place.”

The need to appeal to the widest possible audience generally drives film and television to avoid displays of overt partisanship, while still smuggling in a message. Joss Whedon admitted this spring that he had written a scene into The Avengers in which Captain America deplored the “loss of health care and welfare” in America, only to cut it in the editing room. Nicholas Meyer directed a 1983 anti–nuclear war television special, The Day After, and later confessed, “My private, grandiose notion was that this movie would unseat Ronald Reagan when he ran for reelection.” René Balcer, the Law & Order producer, told one interviewer that he has laced his show with references to Bush-era abuses like the Patriot Act, but without naming Bush. “Our best shows,” he said, “make people question what’s going on.”

For the most part, your television is not consciously attempting to alter your political beliefs. It is mainly transmitting an ethos in which greed is not only bad but the main wellspring of evil, authority figures of all kinds are often untrustworthy, sexual freedom is absolute, and social equality of all kinds is paramount. Within the moral universe of this culture, the merits of these values are self-evident. But to the large bloc of America that does not share this ethos, it looks like a smug, self-perpetuating collusion against them.

In the last [2008] presidential campaign, Obama was labeled a “celebrity” by John McCain, and it’s true—he looked the part, from the straight-from-Hollywood narrative arc of his maturation to his familiarity with The Wire and the hip-hop on his iPod. But his campaign also mobilized younger voters by tapping into fears incessantly expressed in movies and television: cultural retrogression (Mad Men), greedy businessmen (The Simpsons), misbegotten wars (Syriana), environmental neglect (Wall-E). The right has no broadcasting device of comparable scope; it tells its stories mainly through avowedly political media like talk radio and Fox News. This makes the fears that torment conservatives today—overweening regulators, welfare layabouts, the government seizing our guns—not so easily recognizable to those not expressly ­familiar with the right-wing creed.

This year, some of Obama’s movie-star luster has worn off, yet the cultural landscape is the same, essentially congenial place. Here is one small but newly relevant example. The website tvtropes.org collects the basic rules of various pop-culture genres—for instance, a character in a horror film who announces that he will “be right back” is about to suffer a grisly fate. One entry notes that “merely possessing a Swiss bank account is proof positive that a person is up to no good” and that “in more recent stories, an account in an offshore tax haven, such as the Cayman Islands, may be substituted.”

In many quarters of the right, though, secretive finances and tax-dodging represent heroic rebellion against tyrannical government. (Reason editor Matt Welch recently defended Swiss bank accounts as a sanctuary for “panicked retirees trying to cope with new tax rules imposed capriciously by a revenue-hungry Congress and president in 2010.”) The automatic imputation of sinister motives to secretive tax avoidance by wealthy businesspeople is exactly the sort of thing the Screen Guide for Americans warned against. Now, of course, the Republican Party has nominated a presidential candidate possessing both a Swiss bank account and money in a Cayman Islands tax haven, and television and film have so deeply ingrained the popular distrust of these things that Democrats need only chant the phrases in order to make him bleed.

I know that there’s not much surprising here for many people, but I thought that the article and responses highlighted some interesting issues.

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