Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Film, Politics, Television > The Intractable Problem of Conservative Pop Culture

The Intractable Problem of Conservative Pop Culture

The now-permanent conservative insurgency in Western democratic political culture is becoming characterized by its increasing extremity. Recently, one of the main hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination decried college education as the bastion of “snobs”, the longtime talking-point cannon of American conservatives has apparently overstepped his usual boundaries of acceptable misogyny in the midst of the current self-destructive anti-contraception mania on the right, and the Conservative Party of Canada’s pitiless electoral gamesmanship finally caught up to them. In light of all of this, it’s worth considering what, if anything, the culture-warriors of the right are contributing to our popular culture in general.

The immediate answer is “Not much”. Cultural products that openly identify themselves with political movements of either stripe are rarely of much worth. The purest distillation of Tea Party conservativism to come down to us in pop culture since the dubious movement’s inauguration immediately after Barack Obama became President is likely the widely-panned box office failure Atlas Shrugged, which is spawning a sequel despite its abject rejection by nearly everyone but the most ardent Objectivists.

What else is there? We can point to the mainstays of small-c conservative mass culture like down-home country music and the CBS primetime programming docket of straightforward gender-role sitcoms and law enforcement and military propaganda in the dramas, certainly, but even these genres can become ideologically diluted by a desire to appeal to a larger audience. Take a recent episode of the reliably reactionary Criminal Minds in which a greedy demagogue buttresses his mayoral run by manipulating an impressionable member of his campaign staff into igniting a racial panic among suburban whites through a series of home invasion murders staged to look like the work of minorities. It was, basically, a firm critique of the sort of xenophobic rhetoric against cultural difference in all of its forms that animates the conservative movement in the United States, and it came from a TV show that tends to trumpet the hard-right line on crime at every opportunity.

It feels like this conservative subcultural surge is likely to come to a head in the soon-to-be-released remake of John Milius’ 1984 Red Scare wish-fulfillment epic Red Dawn. A favourite amongst movement conservatives who screen the film at their conventions and shout “Wolverines!” along with the guerilla teenagers as they murder Communists, Milius’ tribute to the martial ethic is the closest thing to metaphorical art that American conservatives can really claim as their own. Even then, Red Dawn is more camp than classic, widely mocked for the unsubtlety with which it expresses the emotions behind its political message as well as for the overheated absurdity of the message itself (anyone who seriously thought that America was in grave danger of a Soviet invasion in 1984 had drunk enough of the arch-conservative Kool-Aid to become physically ill).

But Red Dawn is theirs, unlike movies that are claimed by conservatives but not crafted by them (like The Lord of the Rings, made by progressive Kiwis with funding from liberal Hollywood, or March of the Penguins, which is French, for Pete’s sake). Milius may fatally reveal himself as a gun-toting reactionary, but he’s no hack, precisely; he co-wrote Apocalypse Now, made Conan the Barbarian, and show-ran HBO’s flawed but nicely-crafted Rome. His Red Dawn smartly locates its anti-Commie hysteria in the film-history scheme of the classic Hollywood western, repeatedly equating the invading Reds with the untrustworthy red-men of the cowboys-and-Indians potboilers of the past. Like many conservatives, Milius proves to have an unfortunate soft spot for the offensive stereotype, foolishly assuming that if bleeding-heart liberals disavow something, then it simply must be worth a right-flank defense. But the seductive crafting of his onscreen hysteria is what has made it so appealing to the hysterics that populate the modern right. You cannot say it doesn’t deserve its ideological accolades, unlike the apparently inept Atlas Shrugged.

Will all of this be reflected in the remake, starring the blond Aussie beefcake from Thor and helmed by a career stuntman and second-unit director of overfrenetic action flicks? It seems mildly unlikely, as the remake’s pedigree seems more likely to be one of furious unideological violence with the occasional fascist knee-jerk thought tossed in. It cannot be pretended that Red Dawn, of all cultural products, represents some sort of conservative intellectual golden age, but compared to the moral and intellectual rot at the core of contemporary right-wing thought, it at least demonstrated the courage of its convictions. The main problem with conservative takes on popular culture is that the basic constituents parts of creativity – openness of thought, a collaborative mindset, lack of dismissive moral judgement – are the very qualities that are firmly rejected by conservatives as socially-destructive liberal indulgences to be rooted out and eliminated in order to restore the stronger, more traditional social order that they crave but has never really existed.

Andrew Breitbart in mid-freestyle

This rigidness of thought combined with a roiling anger and disdain for difference in all of its forms was embodied in certain public figures on the American Right, and troublemaking blogger Andrew Breitbart’s surprising death this past week, when combined by Rush Limbaugh’s execrable slut-shaming of an ideological opponent, may be the harbingers of a sudden implosive deflation of the current vogue for aggressive conservative intransigence. Another likely crushing electoral defeat at the hands of the right’s latest Antichrist, Barack Obama, may accomplish the sudden realignment of conservative priorities that Andrew Sullivan longs for, or it may calcify the activists even more in their anti-social belief system. Either way, until conservatives can learn to engage more freely with the components of creative inspiration, they will continue to cede ground to what they view as the essentially liberal products of mass culture, and to cede the wider social territory to their perceived enemies as well.

  1. billycstephens
    March 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Thoughtful post. What we call conservative “art” (I guess Ayn Rand counts, since conservatives say it does) tends to be so overtly political that it is more propaganda than art. Of course any art that doesn’t recognize the complexity of the human spirit is probably going to be bad.

  1. November 12, 2012 at 10:07 am
  2. June 14, 2014 at 6:21 pm
  3. October 16, 2015 at 4:03 pm

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