Monday, February 11, 2013

Notes Toward Winning the Culture War

As my friend the late, great Andrew Breitbart was fond of pointing out, politics flows downstream from culture, and the results of the last election confirm that. Conservatives lost last November in the political arena because for decades the radical left laid the groundwork for it in the cultural arena. Politics is obviously a critical battleground, but unless and until we start thinking in terms of waging a vigorous cultural campaign, we will never win another presidential election. Following is a rough beginning of some thoughts toward that end.

There is no way the radical and insubstantial Barack Obama would ever have been taken seriously as a presidential candidate, much less be elected to two terms in the White House, if the left had not successfully infiltrated the key cultural realms – education, news media, and entertainment – and spent decades indoctrinating generations to reject traditional American values, feel shame rather than pride in our country’s history, and embrace their own enslavement to a big government, post-American, cancerous ideology rebranded as progressivism. That indoctrination runs so deep in too many American hearts and minds that not even the reality of four disastrous years under Obama was enough to shock them out of their irrational addiction to his hope-and-change snake oil. Deprogramming that indoctrination and seducing subsequent generations to a renewed vision of American exceptionalism means retaking the culture or creating a parallel one.

What does it mean to “retake the culture”? Let’s focus on entertainment or pop culture for the time being, because education and the news media are each broad and unwieldy topics in their own right. There was once a time – difficult as it is to imagine now – when Hollywood wasn’t overwhelmingly contemptuous of our country and the audiences in it, and the music biz didn’t revel in degraded spectacle. Taking back pop culture doesn’t mean reverting to that time, which in any case can’t be done, and it doesn’t mean stamping out anything we don’t like – that’s the way of the totalitarian left. It means breaking through the left’s monolithic hold on entertainment by creating more alternative voices in the film, TV, and music industries, voices that express and celebrate our values. It means seducing converts through the message delivery system, if you will, of quality art and entertainment. Easier said than done. If conservatives settle for making crappy independent movies and even crappier, heavyhanded political music, we will be easy to dismiss and will convert no one.

Speaking of conversion, the significance of pop culture isn’t limited to its impact on American youth; it affects our international standing as well. The critic Irving Kristol once said, “A world power, if it is to maintain its position, needs to generate respect for its culture.” Is America generating respect for its culture? Of course not. And let’s be clear: here and abroad, Hollywood is American culture. The world looks to Hollywood as the barometer of America’s moral and political character and direction. Generating respect for our country again depends on conservatives taking the helm of our culture.

The first step is simply getting conservatives to acknowledge the importance of the cultural fight, and convincing ourselves to embrace popular culture, not reject it as we are understandably inclined to do. Long ago we unwittingly ceded that arena to the subversive left, with the result that we find ourselves and our values assaulted and mocked mercilessly in the entertainment world. And how do we respond? Too many conservatives say, “I’m done with Hollywood. I don’t go to their movies. I cancelled my cable TV. I refuse to give them a penny.” Fair enough, but the problem with that stance is that disengagement isn’t how you win a culture war. Taking yourself out of the culture stream simply means that you end up as marginalized as the Amish. So we have to acknowledge that winning the cultural civil war requires that we get into the fray, understand pop culture, and commit to transforming it in ways that convey our positive values instead of the left’s nihilistic ones.

In the wake of the presidential election loss, conservatives have agonized endlessly about our “message.” We need to get our message across better, we say; we need to change our message, we need a more effective, compelling messenger. Well, the best way to get our message across now is through stories rather than political lectures, through values rather than political talking points. Nobody likes to be preached to, not even the left, which is why leftist message flicks like Matt Damon’s “Bush lied” anti-war movie The Green Zone and anti-capitalism Brad Pitt flick Killing Them Softly bombed in theaters. But people are seduced and changed by great stories, whether the teller is a screenwriter or a politician.

Hollywood has been called the greatest propaganda machine in human history. Maybe not for much longer. The rules are changing in Hollywood. Affordable technology and the internet are changing and democratizing the way films are made and distributed. We won’t have to depend on Hollywood gatekeepers anymore. The big studios are occupied with making “tentpole” pictures – blockbusters – and they’ve abandoned the middle ground to independents. So now it’s time for conservatives to fill that void, create production companies or back such companies, and start producing quality entertainment that represents us.

Is the culture war winnable? It’s possible but it’s a steep uphill battle that requires a shift in conservative thinking. As my friend, blogger and media consultant R.J. Moeller, says, when young conservatives want to have a political impact, they move to Washington D.C.; when young leftists want to do likewise, they move to Hollywood. That needs to change. Our side needs fewer think tank policy wonks and more talented filmmakers and television showrunners, more screenwriters and songwriters, more novelists like Andrew Klavan, more TV hosts like Greg Gutfeld.

One optimistic perspective we can take to heart is that, culturally speaking, the left is the “Establishment” now, to put it in 1960s terminology. We are the outsiders, the counterculture, the rebels with a cause. We need to revel in that underdog role and embrace the challenge. The future of American culture – indeed, the future of America – depends on it.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 2/11/13)