Last week’s Oscar ceremonies brought a crescendo – at least for now – to the animus heaped upon Brokeback Mountain, and upon Hollywood, by the right. Judging by watching Tucker Carlson tonight, professionally outraged conservative cultural critics have moved on to V for Vendetta.
But it’s worth reflecting on the clever packaging of that supposed backlash by the main organs of the conservative movement. Tucker Carlson offered an emblematic shtick: He hasn’t seen the movie, he has nothing against gay people, but “at some point, Hollywood should give up its mission as a kind of, you know, evangelist for a political persuasion and just shut up and make the movie.” Such an argument ignores the ways in which politics shape and are shaped by any art that engages with power, identity, morality, desire – that is, pretty much any art out there (this is a position that’s gotten me in trouble before). But more importantly, it’s fundamentally mendacious, as Bryan Collingsworth noted for people who refuse to see a movie because of content they oppose (or, as some would protest too much, they simply “aren’t that interested in”) to claim that their objection is to the politicization of film. Conservative critics who boast that they won’t patronize a “gay movie” suggest the logical implication that they go to other movies because they’re heterosexual movies. In a context of sexual inequality, there’s nothing apolitical about that. Just a political position that dare not speak its name.
What we get instead is a perfunctory faux backlash whose dimensions are effectively presaged by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? One is the sight of blue-state urban media elites rising to defend the ostensible sensibilities of imagined heartland Americans. Needless to say, Bill O’Reilly and company aren’t doing them any favors by projecting their antipathy towards their imagined “gay cowboy movie” onto the imagined faceless cornfield-dwelling masses. But speaking for an imagined heartland, like speaking against an imagined “political correctness” regime (for extra credit, do both at once), provides conservatives an excuse to fulminate against unpopular minorities while touting their own tolerance. It’s not that their intolerant, it’s just that they take offense at the hated liberals’ supposed intolerance of other people’s supposed intolerance.
Such targeting, too, is laid out well in Frank’s book: The enemy isn’t people who are gay. It’s the liberal elites who think they know better than everyone else. Such anti-elite animus has a much broader constituency than naked anti-gay animus (even gay conservatives can – and do – sign on). The people who made Brokeback Mountain are the same ones, Coulter and company insist, who want to reach down and take away all the guns, who want to reach up and pull down the Ten Commandments, and who make an annual tradition of warring against Christmas. Despite its own contradictions (as Frank ably argues, the elite theory requires suspending the media from the principles of the free market in which good conservatives believe so fervently), the anti-elite animus serves to tap into the real class resentment of working Americans while giving those in the real elite a way to decry what the hated liberals produce without admitting to actual prejudice. It’s a colossal cop-out. But it’s also a brilliant way to broaden the supposed backlash and deepen its political cache.
So what do we do about it? Broaden the class depictions of gay men and women in politics and popular media. And build a progressive movement that can push the Democratic party to offer an agenda that speaks to this country’s real class divisions as compellingly as the Republican party speaks to imagined class aesthetics. For a start.