As Pop Culture Leans Left, Does it Really Matter?
Last Friday there was a rally by striking writers in Boston. Joss Whedon, the Creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the big names at the event. A friend of mine asked me if I had ever seen the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy gets pulled into a demonic sweatshop. Basically it goes like this -- runaway kids are kidnapped from Skid Row, dragged into this netherworld sweatshop, worked until they are nearly-dead, and then spit back onto the streets of Los Angeles. Ever Buffy, she busts the place up and frees all the captives. My friend mentioned it because he thought it was a great example of the left presence in pop culture, since in a key scene Buffy uses a hammer and sickle to kick the demon guards asses, striking a bad-ass Stakonovite pose in the middle of the fight sequence for good measure.
Not content to just write about this (and avoiding doing other more serious things), I set out to find this video. Well, it turns out my friend had it on DVD, so voila, the fight scene in question:
While we were talking, I also remembered a Simpsons episode that had always stuck with me. At some point the Simpsons take in an Albanian foreign exchange student Adil Hoxha (possibly the son of the unrepentant Stalinist, and onetime inspiration to a small segment of the U.S. left in the 1980s, Enver Hoxha?) As it turns out the kid is a spy -- code name Sparrow -- who is there to try and get nuclear technology (since Homer does work at the nuclear power plant).
The scene that stuck with me was one where Adil gets into a big argument about the injustice of life in U.S. with Lisa (an otherwise sensible character on the show). Homer tries to break things up by splitting the difference between the two sides. When he gets to Adil's position he says "Maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers." I always used to think that it was really amazing that the Simpsons could say stuff like that on TV. I figured that they were able to get away with things (such as their commentary, during the 2000 election, on the fact that the Democrats and the Republicans are basically the same) because it's a cartoon.
Now, with most young people getting their news from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion there is more grounds than ever for arguing that pop culture is tilted to left. What my friend and I couldn't decide, was whether it made a difference?
In particular, it made me think about the argument in Tom Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas?. Frank is one of my favorite writers of the past 15 years. I got hooked after reading an essay of his called "Hip is Dead," which led me to Commodify your Dissent, a collection of essays from the magazine The Baffler which he edited. The anthology is really genius -- finger on the pulse of the 1990s economic and political trends. And the only downside to Frank's success is that he stopped publishing The Baffler because he's been so busy (oh, and that fire that burned down their office in Chicago probably had something to do with that too).
Anyway, in What's the Matter with Kansas? one of the most interesting points that Frank makes is that despite all the hysteria infused into the far right's discussion of "culture war" issues like abortion, gay marriage, or women's rights, they never actually seem to win what they say they are after. The 10 commandments aren't in every school house in the land, women continue to work in large numbers, queer visibility and acceptance continues to expand, and abortion is never really banned (although access to abortion has been substantial curtailed--falling faster under Bill Clinton's tenure as president than under either Reagan or Bush the father -- no data are available past 2001).
Frank argues that the formula works great for upper class economic conservatives, who are in some sense waging an intra-party class war (which somehow manages to strengthen their working class targets' loyalty to conservative politics). The harder these social conservatives (primarily white and working-class) are hit by deregulation, privatization, and off-shoring the more it stokes their drive to ban gays from the military (and everything other facet of public life), to burn Hollywood to the ground, and to retreat to home schooling children in the literal interpretation of the Bible.
They stick with it because they do make real gains -- witness the rightward shift in U.S. politics in the past 25 years, not to mention the fact that every major party candidate for President in 2008 falls all over themselves to talk about God and values and family. The fact that they don't ever get the final victory -- banning abortion, prayer in school, etc. -- is just more evidence of how liberal elites still run the country and that the conservatives need to keep fighting harder. Almost as a consolation prize, losing proves they were right all along.
This brings me to the left and pop culture. I worry sometimes that we suffer from some of the same dynamics as the far right. We take solace in the fact that Steven Colbert gets to stick it to George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner (too rich not to show -- see below). We are comforted by the fact that we're right about Iraq being an illegal and immoral war (and we're right on health care, education, and so many other issues). The evidence is everywhere -- hell even mindless teen dramas like The OC feel like they can take take swipes at the right wing or point out the lunacy of fighting a war in Iraq so we can keep driving SUVs and rushing headlong into the face of global warming.
But how does all this move us towards our actual real-world political goals (leave aside socialism -- lets just start with ending the war, getting healthcare for everyone, and rebuilding the Gulf Coast)? I sometimes worry that all this cultural acceptance is our booby prize. We get to have witty TV, with ever so subtle allusions to ravages of capitalism. Michael Moore can even win an Oscar. But we continue to fall further behind when we turn off the TV or put down our books and walk outside. Worse still, maybe this type of cultural "resistance" is what helps to stabilize the system, giving fodder to the right wing that they can use to stir up social conservatives.
How I got from the Simpsons and Buffy to this I'll never know, but I'm embarrassed to admit I feel like I am making the same argument that the slippery Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently made in a highbrow piece I found on the web while searching for more thoughts on left culture. He wrote:
The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’
Are we in the same dreadful spin-cycle as the home-schooling, book-burning evangelicals? Is this a 21st century, pop culture version of Waiting for Godot? Help me out here!?!?