Inventing Enemies

People love to lament how fractured and divided the United States is today. “We’ve never been more divide” is about as historically inaccurate a thing as a person could ever say. A large percentage of this nation used to be held in perpetual bondage by “citizens.” We fought a civil war. We assassinated, bombed, and lynched one another. This last sentence was only 60 years ago– within the lifetimes of many Americans. We’ve been more divided. It only seems like we have not been.

Why does it seem like we are more divided? The most common refrain I hear is that social media amplifies our political bubbles and creates these furious negative feedback loops. There is some truth to that, though I’d guess many of the people who say this never listened to Rush and the rest of conservative talk radio in the 1990s. They were the social media bubble before social media existed. Their political discussion was often devoid of any dissenting opinions or inconvenient facts, full of the sort of quips and degrading namecalling that our current meme culture is built off of. The GRU stand on the shoulders of giant trolls.

The truth is that American political discourse has always been plagued by a tribal mentality. Some of this is motivated by a lust for power. Others seek a sense of cultural belonging. Still fewer are engaged in (a possibly imagined) competition in the marketplace of ideas. There are real and important reasons for us to disagree on policy and politics. But for many of the people and publications you read, this is all much more transactional. As it was with Rush and Ann, they are selling you, the partisan news consumer, what you came here for. Confirmation that your views are superior and that your fears that the “other side” is out to get you are well founded. No matter the topic, they will find a way to make it about politics.

I could not invent a better example of this than Armond White’s review of Serenity in the National Review. White’s review of Steven Knight’s romantic thriller with a twist that even M. Night Shyamalan might have hesitated to write, is as much about what he perceives as liberal, millennial groupthink as it is about the film. Take this passage for example:

When the cool kids laughed at Baker quoting Shakespeare, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” the conservative–liberal, classical–modern problem came clear. Serenity — a film about a man chased by his conscience — is Knight’s dream narrative. Baker differs from professional media pundits, and nonprofessional bloggers, who get off on excoriating others for their differences; he tries to make sense of his own destiny.

I have no idea if this scene White described ever happened (I have serious doubts), but I do know that this sort of characterization is total horseshit coming from the guy who heckled 12 Years a Slave at an awards ceremony. Was that representative of conservative boomers, Armond? Does your boorish behavior highlight the conservative-liberal “problem”? And it is especially absurd when published by NR Online.

All of the National Review’s film reviews are done in the transactional way I described above. All film and culture exist as a prism to view the titanic struggle between good (conservatives) and evil (liberals). For all the handwringing about how liberals dominate Hollywood (or academia), it is only conservative outlets that are incapable of engaging culture (or scholarship) without putting on their partisan blinders.

David Sims review of Serenity in The Atlantic undercuts White’s hackneyed characterizations and illustrates the wide gulf between how liberal-leaning publications talk about culture and how conservative ones engage such topics. Despite being on the other side of White’s simplistic dichotomy, Sims does not “get off on excoriating others for their differences” or mock the plot and hero. Instead, he offers that what starts off as a potentially hokey plot (a reimagined Santiago from The Old Man in the Sea meets American Sniper does have all sorts of potential for hokeyness) instead becomes a complex and potentially ludicrous piece of entertainment that is worthy of your time and thoughts. Not one word about how this plot is liberal or conservative. No condescending caricatures of reviewers who might feel differently because they are from another generation or political affiliation. No attempt to claim for one side ownership of loving the classics and that the other side thinks they are antiquated relics (I know no educated liberals or conservatives who mock Shakesphere or think his works are irrelevant today). Instead, you get a review that explains some very basic plot elements, characters, and context. You know, a movie review.

The way the Atlantic and the National Review handle movie reviews more or less sums up the liberal-conservative dichotomy in the culture wars that have plagued American society since the 1960s. Pop culture, like humanities scholarship, cannot survive inertia. It constantly moves, providing new insights and explanations of our constantly changing world. Conservative culture warriors despise change. They hated the insistence by professional historians that there were women and non-white men whose stories and contributions to history were worth knowing. They didn’t do this through scholarship that debunked or complicated the supposedly liberal research. Instead, they simply tried to use money and political power to keep it out of books and the schools. They cannot stand the loosening of sexual mores you see on tv and in the movies. When the marketplace rejects their crummy “wholesome” alternatives (no one wants to watch your childish trash, Kirk Cameron), they do not try harder to make complicated stories that say something new or interesting about the human experience. They simply complain about liberal bias and opt out. Do you see a pattern? Academia, pop culture, media, technology, marketing, public schools, government–everything has a liberal bias!

The truth is that conservatives have largely abandoned the field. They were not pushed out. There was no purge of conservatives from academia, media, or pop culture. Instead, the ossified view modern conservatives have of these fields along with self-selection have seen their influence steeply decline. Feel free to do the hard work of researching how liberal New Deal and post-war policies had negative consequences on millions of Americans, the way Thomas Sugrue did in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, but be prepared to understand that racism played a determining role in that process (or vigorously defend, with facts, why this is unimportant). There are conservative arguments to be made, but they require engaging all scholarship, including those that mention how gender, race, or sexuality intersect with policies and institutions. Indeed, there are scholars making sound, conservative arguments now if you know where to look. The National Review even publishes some of them!

But more often than not, the conservative movement’s best publications are still plagued by the sort of transactional hucksterism that has made Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and now Donald Trump fabulously wealthy and powerful individuals. And the worst of them publish nothing but frauds. Read any piece by Victor Davis Hanson, Dennis Prager, or Conrad Black (a convicted fraud, accused tax cheat, who *shockingly* loves Donald Trump so much that he wrote a fawning book that tells readers what an honest business guy Trump is and how being involved with the WWE was all part of some grand strategy by Trump to know and understand the common man so he could successfully run for President…). They are rarely anything but strawman attacks on an imagined left done in the service of making them more money. I find this especially rich from Hanson, given the way he pretends the classics faded from the curriculum because of jet-setting professional academics more concerned with being PC and making money than in promoting the classics in the curriculum. No classics professor is making private jet money. None of them.

Also, classics professors were bemoaning the decline of Greek and Latin studies in 1890. I can tell you exactly how and why they declined in the curriculum, and it has nothing to do with PC culture or post-modernism. But what do I know? I’m just some liberal historian of education…

There is not a liberal bias to reality. Nor is there a grand conspiracy to keep conservatives out of our culture, media, or scholarship. Conservatives have to start valuing these things and contributing to them again if they want more diversity of thought to appear. You want to read research that starts with a fundamentally conservative question? Do the hard work and research it yourself. Stop asking us to do it for you.

One thought on “Inventing Enemies

  1. Netflix is currently running ‘Get Me Roger Stone’ in our area – I decided to watch. I was pretty well resigned to the notion of what the film was about. I was unprepared for the blatant admissions of several, (now Federally indicted & some formally charged.) Fifteen minutes in, I was sickened by the crassness, the unabashed glee and wanton virulence with which Stone & others have infected and reshaped American political systems in their image. Disgusting! I could not stomach watching the entire film. Motivated by greed and fame, even infamy isn’t a bad thing in Stone’s eyes.
    Only by irradiating all aspects of their insidious, malevolent control of American politics, can any dialogue of value & substance be attained, in my opinion. Until then, Liberals & Conservatives will continue to hold forth dialogue, but in their own distinctive vacuums.
    Division? America has been cleaved to death.

    Like

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