Conservatives often complain that the machinery of entertainment and popular culture is controlled by liberals, which is basically true. So periodically, one of them tries to encourage the rest to get behind a project to produce a right-wing culture, to get conservative ideas into the collective consciousness in more subtle and lasting ways than another "Why Liberals Are Destroying America" book from Ann Coulter or Brent Bozell. The latest of these pleas is an essay by publisher Adam Bellow in the National Review, which has the distinction of offering fiction, in the form of books(!), as the most important means of doing so. While the essay is overwrought at many points and self-contradictory at others (he says of the left, "Political power eludes them," then later laments their "decades-long march through the institutions of government, academia, and popular culture"), Bellow makes some interesting points even as, I think, he shows why this is such an uphill climb for his ideological brethren.
The problem is summed up in this passage:
The funniest thing I've seen in years was Ben Affleck's 2008 Saturday Night Live parody of Keith Olbermann, the über-serious MSNBC pundit who was then at the height of his influence. Look it up on YouTube if you missed it. Affleck captured Olbermann to a "T," and what made you literally suck in your breath as you watched was the skit's transgressive nature. You just couldn't believe a liberal actor was taking on a liberal journalistic icon in this way. Yet anyone could see that the target was ripe for a takedown.
Was that really the funniest thing he's seen in years? Literally? It sounds more like it was a well-crafted takedown of a figure he disliked, but mostly politically satisfying, as opposed to knee-slapping. But that's only part of the battle in creating popular culture. Bellow's reaction made me think of the movie Bob Roberts, directed by and starring Tim Robbins, about a right-wing version of Bob Dylan. It was supposed to be a biting satire, but if you laughed at any of the movie's jokes, it was because you felt obligated to, not because they were actually funny.
So liberals can get this wrong just as easily as conservatives can. But perhaps because they try to produce culture less often (more on that below), when conservatives do they do they usually fail, if not commercially than certainly artistically (the Left Behind books may be marketing genius, but as literature they're ghastly). For instance, conservatives periodically try to duplicate the success of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report; remember Fox's The ½ Hour News Hour? Be thankful if you don't.
As I've noted before, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work as well as they do because they're not shows written and performed by professional liberals who happen to be comedians, attempting to use humor to score political points; rather, they're shows written and performed by professional comedians who happen to be liberals, using politics to produce comedy. It's a really important distinction.
That doesn't mean that popular culture written for a political purpose can't have an impact; to see how it can, all you have to do is look at the endless legions of 19-year-old frat boys (many of whom later won seats in Congress) who had their own selfishness validated as a profound philosophy by Atlas Shrugged. But culture created to serve ideology is never going to become just the culture, because by serving a political cause it almost inevitably ghettoizes itself.
Bellow is sensitive to this danger, but says conservatives don't have any choice but to start in their own constrained domains. "We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth" to promote conservative fiction writers, he says. But he can't resist the siren call of victimhood that turns the penning of a crappy spy thriller into an act of titanic courage and conscience: "Today's conservative fiction writers are not in danger of having their fingers hammered in a labor camp. But their self-publishing efforts do represent a modern analogue to the dissident samizdat movement, and they are deploying the same weapons in defense of your freedom of conscience. Can we really afford to ignore them?"
Maybe, maybe not, but his case that the time is ripe to build an arsenal of conservative fiction that will roll over Americans' hearts and minds is more than a little strained. On the basis of a couple of criticisms of political correctness that could have been offered any time in the last quarter-century, Bellow concludes that this is conservatism's pop culture moment:
In short, the tide is turning. People are getting fed up with the humorless enforcers of the Left. This represents a golden opportunity for conservatives to reach people who otherwise couldn't be reached, and even to make some converts for a change instead of simply talking to ourselves, which is basically what we've been doing since we hived ourselves off into our own politicized media bubble.
The problem is that conservatives love their politicized media bubble. It's so nurturing and warm and supportive. Unfortunately, it also produces all kinds of pathological beliefs and behaviors, from the Benghazi obsession, to the insistence that climate change is a giant hoax, to the "unskewed" polls proving that Mitt Romney would trounce Barack Obama in 2012.
If Bellow can find a conservative writer who's also the next great American novelist, more power to him. But he'll start at a disadvantage, because artists are just more likely to be liberal. As a group, liberals tend to be more open to new experience and tolerant of ambiguity—traits that might lead one to be more creative—while conservatives tend to be more conscientious, but also more rigid. That's why artists of all types have always been more likely to be liberals—challenging tradition, exploring new ways of seeing—and always will be. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, and maybe Bellow can help create a community of writers that produces work that would make both William Faulkner and Milton Friedman weep with gratitude. But it sure won't be easy.
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