Monday, May 06, 2013

Can Conservatives Reclaim the Culture? Did We Ever Have It In the First Place?

I print below some intriguing points to ponder and discuss from NRO's Jonah Goldberg's latest newsletter. (If you'd like to sign up for NRO e-mailed newsletters, use this link.)

Conservatives and the Popular Culture

Speaking of pop culture, dated news pegs, and forced transitions, a couple of weeks ago I was on a panel at Hillsdale College. It was sponsored by my friends at Liberty21, a scrappy new think tank.

The topic: "Can Conservatives Reclaim the Culture?"

First, I am not sure that conservatives ever claimed the culture in the first place. Sure, in retrospect it almost always seems like the past was more conservative than the present. But that doesn't mean the conservatives were dominating the culture in the past. It might mean that we've just gotten even more liberal since then.

But we can debate all that another time. The thing I wanted to get to is that I think the way the Right talks about popular culture is deeply flawed. If conservatives are going to persuade non-conservatives to become more conservative -- which is nearly the whole frickin' point of the conservative movement -- then going around wagging our fingers at every popular movie and TV show is probably not the best way to do it.

One way you persuade people to become more conservative is to explain to them how conservative they already are and build out from there. Persuasion is hard when your main argument is: "You're a complete idiot and everything you think you know is ridiculous and/or evil."

Moreover, there's a Jedi-like Manichaeism running through youthful liberalism: The Light Side is liberal; the Dark Side is conservative. It's like with little kids; tell them some food is good for them or that some dish has vegetables in it, and they'll preemptively hate it and refuse to eat it like a jihadi at Gitmo dodging a spoonful of peach cobbler. Tell college kids that something is conservative and they'll immediately assume it's not for them. We can spend all day talking about how stupid this pose is, but that won't do much for the cause.

The better way is to identify things that are popular and celebrate the conservative aspects of them. For instance, as I've written before, whenever a sitcom character gets pregnant, the producers make sure to talk up the character's "right to choose." But, at least since the painfully unfunny show Maude, the character always chooses to keep the baby, and once she does she acts like a pro-lifer. She talks to the fetus. She cares about what she eats. While NARAL considers what is in her belly to be nothing more than uterine contents, the mother-to-be gives those contents a name and acts like it's already a member of the family. I understand a big part of the pro-life agenda is to make abortion illegal. I get that. But if you could get more people to think abortion is wrong it would A) be easier to make it illegal and B) less necessary to do so.

Or just think about crime. Going by what liberals say they believe about the criminal-justice system, never mind the War on Terror, they should be denouncing vast swaths of what Hollywood churns out. Cops play by their own rules. Good guys use outright torture to get valuable information in order to save lives. But with the exceptions of 24 and Zero Dark Thirty I can't think of a time when the Left seriously complained about any of it.

Now if you point this out to some liberals, they'll say that's because "it's just TV" or "it's just a movie." But you know that if a TV show or movie came out demonizing gays, they'd be screaming bloody murder.

My point is that the Left has quietly surrendered the argument over big chunks of the popular culture, and because they don't complain about it, conservatives don't press our advantage. We spend too much time reacting to liberal bait and liberal cues. We act like the opposition, being more against them than for anything of our own. One small place to start is to understand this is our culture too.