Jonah Goldberg’s Just Dead Wrong

Yesterday at National Review was a piece by Jonah Goldberg, who’s one of the best commentators on politics and society in the country today. But sadly, Goldberg dropped the ball in a major way with his latest.

The piece is entitled “Leave Hollywood to the Liberals,” and the upshot of it is that conservatives shouldn’t attempt to engage in the culture by making a move into the motion picture business. We all know that movies are to the entertainment culture what aircraft carriers are to the Navy, but Goldberg says it’s a waste of time building aircraft carriers…

“We need to buy a movie studio.”

Amid the umpteen conferences, panels, meetings, and informal conversations in the wake of the presidential election, this idea has been a near constant among conservatives who feel like the country is slipping through their fingers. Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee combined raised just more than $1 billion, and all we got are these lousy T-shirts. Since conservatives are losing the culture, goes the argument, which in turn leads to losing at politics, maybe that money could be better spent on producing some cultural ammo of our own?

It’s a bad idea.

Goldberg says he recognizes that Hollywood is totally awash in leftism. And he quotes the lefty commentator Jonathan Chait in admitting there is an effect from that fact…

In August, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting essay arguing that the rightwing culture vultures of the 1990s were essentially right: Hollyweird really was eroding traditional conservative values. A committed liberal, Chait is grateful for this effort: “We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite.”

Chait makes a strong case. But just as there’s a problem with conservatives drawing straight lines from the silver screen to social decay, there’s a problem with drawing similarly unwavering lines to progressive triumph.

Hollywood produces culture, but it also takes its orders from it.

But his case gets weaker as he makes it. Goldberg notes that for all the clownish gun control admonishments we get from the celebrity class, Hollywood can hardly make an action movie that doesn’t feature gunplay – which is homage to the fact American culture is very largely gun culture regardless of what Hollywood would prefer. And he also brings up the example of the endless parade of anti-Iraq War movies which bombed. And he furthermore points to a 2012 Pew poll which found a majority of Americans who think man-made global warming is bogus despite a constant barrage of Hollywood films about how global warming will make for the end of the world.

The conclusion is pretty weak…

The point isn’t that Hollywood has no influence. It’s just that its influence is agonizingly hard to predict or dismiss as unthinkingly liberal. Studies of All in the Family found that viewers in America, and around the globe, took different lessons from the show based on their politics and cultural norms. Despite Norman Lear’s liberal best efforts, many found Archie Bunker more persuasive than his “meathead” sociologist son-in-law. HBO’s epic series The Wire was a near-Marxist indictment of urban liberalism and the drug war, making it quite popular among many conservatives and libertarians. The popular BBC series Downton Abbey is shockingly conservative in many respects. The aristocrats are decent, compassionate people, and the staff is, if anything, more happily class-conscious than the blue bloods. And yet, as far as I can tell, liberals love it.

Obviously, the market is a big factor. No doubt many Hollywood liberals would like to push the ideological envelope more, but audiences get a vote. And that vote isn’t cast purely on ideological grounds.

The first reason he’s completely off-base is: where does Jonah Goldberg get off telling people what to invest in? Discouraging economic activity is something for the Left to do, not us. We should be encouraging folks to spend money and chase a profit. That’s what capitalism is all about – and if conservative filmmakers can’t make a big profit but manage to tell a nice story, then they still ought to be commended for their art.

Where Goldberg is also wrong is in the idea that just because the market might reject the most obnoxiously left-wing cultural messages, that doesn’t mean it won’t be affected by those messages.

All those anti-Iraq War movies lost money. That’s certainly true. But the overwhelming weight of the messaging carried in those movies, with absolutely no pushback entered into the cultural bloodstream from our side, ultimately took its toll. In 2004, one of the things George W. Bush had going for him was that the American people regarded him as an honest man who meant well. But after 3-4 years of non-stop attacks on Bush in the culture, and particularly coming out of Hollywood, not only was Bush a liar and a thief and a monster but that he had destroyed the country.

That feeling was pervasive. It didn’t just hit the low-information voters whose only engagement with reality comes from John Stewart. It pervaded even high-information Republicans. Because if you watched movies and TV during Bush’s presidency and in particular his second term, you couldn’t avoid being bombarded with those anti-Iraq movies which had warmongering military-industrial complex bad guys lying us into committing atrocities against nice Muslims, and you also couldn’t avoid being bombarded with messages about how our profligate, wasteful, greedy and immoral American lifestyle was going to bring about the end of the world.

By 2008, we were ripe for someone like Obama after years of constant battering in our culture. And yes, most of the vehicles for that message were not commercial successes.

But just because a movie gets killed at the box office doesn’t mean nobody sees it. Within a couple of years of a movie’s release, most of the country ends up seeing it no matter how terribly it did at the theaters.

Why? Cable TV. If it’s not seen on HBO or Showtime or Starz, it’ll be seen on TNT, AMC or USA. Sooner or later it’s going to be seen.

Which means the country is awash in left-wing cultural messages. Not so much right-wing cultural messages.

And you wonder why the Republican Party or the conservative movement is cast as an old-white-guy club. That’s because Old White Guys are the least susceptible to a cultural message. Old White Guys who go hunting and fishing or who work 15 hours a day don’t watch as much TV or go to the movies as much as twenty-something females, or the teenagers advertisers blow millions of dollars in an attempt to attract.

We don’t engage in the culture like the Left does, and that’s why the Left is beating us with some of the stupidest, most inane and provably false political arguments ever introduced into our national bloodstream.

Why is it that when pollsters sample adults or registered voters, the poll always skews further to the left than when those pollsters sample likely or chronic voters? It’s because people who don’t pay an enormous amount of attention to politics or the news of the day are getting their information from the culture.

If you’ve never read Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah but you did see Argo, you would think that (1) the Iranian hostage crisis came about purely because we took out a democratically-elected Iranian president in Mohammad Mossadeq so that we could have a puppet in Iran who’d torture his people – which is so simplistic and twisted an explanation of the history leading up to the Iranian revolution as to make people less informed about history for having seen the movie, and (2) that the CIA agent who brought out the six Americans hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran had to “go rogue” in order to complete his mission because the higher-ups in the Agency wanted to pull the plug on it.

Argo tells a fun story, but as history it’s an embarrassment. Worst of all is a sound bite from Jimmy Carter while the credits roll, in which Carter proclaims that his government managed to get all the Americans home from Iran without compromising our principles, getting anyone killed or resorting to violence. Carter probably broke his arm patting himself on the back in making such an imbecilic statement; after all, it was his choice to send in a military operation called Desert One which was an abject failure resulting in the death of eight servicemen. That Desert One was aborted before we could shoot our way into the embassy, gather the hostages and shoot our way back out of Iran hardly gives Carter cover for claiming we didn’t resort to violence to solve the Iranian hostage crisis.

Naturally, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, who produced Argo, had no scruples about including such buffoonish and false claims in their picture. People who know the history of that crisis will recognize the inaccuracy; the general public whose only real exposure to that history is the movie will have no such perspective.

Argo is a good movie. But it’s also propaganda. Hollywood at times does a sensational job of mixing good art with propaganda. After all, consider that in the first Iron Man film, Al Qaeda is insufficient as a villain – so the real bad guy is an American businessman out to make a buck whose greed is such that he’ll throw in with the jihadists he ultimately controls. That idiocy doesn’t destroy the movie, but it certainly detracts from what should be a pro-American, pro-individualist message.

And the subsequent Iron Man/Marvel Avengers movies lead the viewer into what seems more and more to be a fascist reality whereby the use of superhuman heroes by an all-knowing, secretive and above-the-law government agency tasked with saving humanity is our only salvation. And Robert Downey, Jr.’s character is considered unfit for membership in the agency’s ranks because of his individualist mindset.

Kids watch this stuff during their formative years. How are you going to get them to believe in things like limited government, individual freedom even to do unpopular things, the rule of law and accountability when this is what they grow up with?

And Goldberg can’t say the market rejected the message. The Iron Man and Marvel Avenger movies all made big bank at the box office.

But he tries.

There’s a difference between art and propaganda. Outside the art-house crowd, liberal agitprop doesn’t sell. Art must work with the expectations and beliefs of the audience. Even though pregnancies are commonplace on TV, you’ll probably never see a hilarious episode of a sitcom in which a character has an abortion — because abortion isn’t funny.

The conservative desire to create a right-wing movie industry is an attempt to mimic a caricature of Hollywood. Any such effort would be a waste of money that would make the Romney campaign seem like a great investment.

This is simply not true. Liberal agitprop is generously and artfully inserted into commercially-successful Hollywood offerings all the time, and the difference between art and propaganda has long since been bridged.

What’s more, nobody is really advocating the production of right-wing propaganda in and of itself. The reason “we need to buy a movie studio” is that there are lots of stories our side can insert into the culture which could be both great art and great vehicles for our message through the culture. Goldberg would be correct if the best we can do is the disappointing and declining Atlas Shrugged franchise. But there is no reason to think that’s all we can offer.

Besides, the bar isn’t really all that high.

If Oliver Stone can offer a hagiography of Fidel Castro, why can’t someone on our side do one on George Washington? Which do you think sells better? A hint: Comandante grossed almost nothing. And Che and The Motorcycle Diaries, the two flicks made in an effort to capitalize on the stupid Che Guevara t-shirt fad, combined for less than $20 million at the box office. But they had seemingly endless runs on the cable movie channels, and most folks have at least attempted to sit through a few minutes of one of them (first prize to our reader who’s made it through all of The Motorcycle Diaries! Anyone? Anyone?).

Goldberg is right that left-wing propaganda movies aren’t great sellers. But a movie doesn’t have to do well at the box office to inject a message into the culture. And since our side doesn’t perform many such injections, it becomes tougher and tougher to educate the public on the quality of our ideas on Election Day.

Politics is a reflection of culture. The movie industry is a vehicle of the culture. Not to engage there is the real waste.



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