BROKEBACK BACKLASH?

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.

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CULTURAL CRITICISM, LEFT AND RIGHT

A series of dust-ups in the media about the media this summer – from the flap on Kos about an ad with women mudwrestling to Jon Stewart’s arguments with Bernard Goldberg, Zell Miller, and Rick Santorum about whether the culture has coarsened – has gotten me thinking about the different ways liberals and conservatives consider and critique what’s in the movies and on TV.

One clear but too-often-obscured distinction is between criticism and calls for censorship. Rick Santorum gets at this in his book when he insists in his book that “If it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral.” If one accepts Santorum’s frame – which is also Catherine McKinnon’s – then the question of what should be in the media and the question of what should be censored from the media are – at least in particularly agregious cases – mapped onto each other. Too often, progressives answer other progressives’ media criticism as if it were an implicit call for censorship, rather than as the “more speech” which the left has traditionally and rightly seen as the answer to bad speech.

Liberal and conservative approaches to media criticism are also distinguished by choice – or at least prioritization – of boogeymen from amongst sex, violence, bigotry, et al. And, arguably, by the question of how much we should care at all.

But related, and – I think – more interesting – is a distinction I haven’t seen discussed: Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses? By asking the question and making the distinction, I guess, I’ve already pegged myself in the liberal camp that says that the distinction is a meaningful one and that what’s endorsed is a more worthwhile ground for consideration or condemnation than what’s exposed. That’s not to say that it’s possible to present images or actions with neutrality – only that it’s possible to present the same ones with a whole range of meanings and judgments.

If we’re concerned about sex, we can worry about whether sex happens on TV or we can worry about whether the sex on TV is portrayed as a good or bad (or healthy or unhealthy, or cool or uncool) thing. If we’re concerned about sexism, we can worry about whether people are portrayed being or acting sexist on TV or we can worry about whether that sexism is presented in a favorable light. In each case, I’d say that if you see the thing as an evil (my take: sexism is, sex isn’t), your time and energy is better spent worrying about how good or bad that evil is portrayed to be than about how often it appears on the screen.

That’s why the fixation on nudity on TV is doubly conservative – conservative for the contention that human sexuality is what media consumers should be guarded against and conservative for the concern over the naked image itself rather than the social meaning with which it appears. Sure it’s easier to keep a tally of naked breasts than of positive portrayals of behaviors you think are negative, but the tendency of right-wing critics to go for the former approach seems to be about more than convenience. And that approach – grouping together breasts shown breast-feeding, breasts shown in an intimate moment between spouses, and breasts shown on a child being molested – leaves them looking that much more like middle-schoolers.

Among the problems with an approach to media criticism which fixates on what viewers are exposed to rather than what they see endorsed is that it lets pass all kinds of social meanings which are problematic but not explicit. Whatever your values, your chances of seeing them spread in society are affected more by G-rated movies than Playboy.

My nomination for most bizarre use of a violent piece of art in an advertising context has to be the one we drove by recently with several images from Guernica. It was only on the way back that I was able to catch the text: (roughly translated) We sell the largest burgers of all. That’s right. The advertising pitch is essentially, remember all those cattle massacred (representing humans massacred) when they bombed the city in the Spanish Civil War? Well we scraped them up and put them on your plate.

Any of our meat-eating readers find that appealing?

The gang at the Prospect’s convention blog (inter alia) have been carping about (inter alia) the Convention’s music selections for each speaker. None of the ones they mentioned, though, irk me so much as the pairing of the Beatles’ “Revolution” with Howard Dean. Come on, guys. It’s a song about being afraid of revolution. And certainly, for better or worse, Howard Dean was never quite as revolutionary as his strongest backers or critics made him out to be. But it seems safe to assume that the song was chosen to suggest that he’s an insurgent. And to do that was a counter-insurgent song is an insult to the audience’s intelligence nearly on par with Reagan’s citing “Born in the USA” as an articulation of his brand of patriotism. Anyone who’d like to try to convince me that there’s a subtle point being made about the revolutionary danger posed by Bush and feared by Dean, or the tension between Dean’s conservative record and his more radical rhetoric, or the fear of the Democratic establishment towards Dean, is welcome to try. I wouldn’t suggest it though.

Otherwise, I’d say Dean’s was a solid speech, even if some of the lines make less of an impact for those of us who’ve heard them from him several times before. The same goes for Ted Kennedy, on both counts. Of course, there can only be one Barack Obama.

Matt Yglesias points out that most Americans don’t resent trial lawyers nearly as much as Republicans seem to think they do:

There are a lot more potential product liability plaintiffs than potential defendants — we all buy stuff, and relatively few of us own companies that make stuff. What’s more, if ordinary people really hated plaintiff’s attorneys, it’s hard to see how it would be possible to ever win these big jury awards that the “tort reform” crowd hates so much.

Indeed. And he channels Ruy Teixeira’s numbers to prove it. They’re encouraging. Not that long ago I was watching the old, bad movie The Devil’s Advocate whose premise is pretty much summed up in its plot, and whose end essentially argues that the devil’s scheme is to fill the world with lawyers so that sinners can get off easy. Personally, if I were devil, I’d follow Shakespeare’s advice and kill all the lawyers – all the better to remove all checks and balances and screw the masses, be it the profiled and wrongly accused or the victims of corporate malfeseance and crimminal wrongdoing the right loves to hate. Are there nasty lawyers out there? Of course. There are also a hell of a lot of nasty congressmen.

Ted Rall has become a popular boogeyman of the right of late, drawing fire on a regular basis for good and brave cartoons that speak truth to power. This is not one of them. It’s a cheap shot at a dead man which wrongly pins on him the blame for the crimes of a bunch of safe, wealthy, powerful men who’d like nothing better than to see the anti-war movement taking potshots at soldiers rather than the people who deploy them. This is not a time when the left can afford to be vengeful – and certainly not a time at which we can afford to blame the wrong targets.

I was all revved up to respond to this paragraph from Keith Urbahn on The Passion:

Charges of ?anti-Semitism? have been conveniently tossed around by those who object to the film?s portraying of Jews in a negative light. Ironically, many of these guardians of religious sensitivity are the same who defended the desecration of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the name of freedom of expression, and now with the tables turned, condemn the film as rabidly anti-Semitic and a breach of the norms of decency.

But it turns out James Kirchick, with whom I agree on few things, has beat me to it:

First off, there is a major difference in defending an art museum’s first amendment right to display whatever art it chooses, and advocating that the museum be forced to close the exhibit altogether. I defy Keith to find a statement from Abraham Foxman or any of the other major Jewish leaders he accuses, demanding that the government prevent Gibson from displaying his art, which is what Catholic leaders urged, and ultimately convinced, Mayor Giuliani to do in the “Sensation” episode. Second, as I remember, the “Sensation” exhibit was essentially an elephant-dung stained portrait of Mary, created by a Catholic. However tasteless that piece of “artwork” may be, it does not compare to a Catholic defaming a people of different faith.

Jamie makes the central point: that protesting the nature of a piece of art is not a parallel activity to protesting the freedom of an independant artist to create it or of a publically-funded institution to display it. Intentionally obscuring this line allowed conservative commentators to have a heyday claiming that the Ofili episode was yet another demonstration that liberals hate religion except when it’s aberrant and/or un-Christian. Keith risks echoing that line in the graph above – what exactly does it mean to say “now that the tables are turned”? Now that Jews rather than Christians are allegedly impugned? I trust that Keith doesn’t intend the nastier readings of that line – but it’s an unfortunate turn of phrase.

I do disagree with Jamie, however, on two points. The first, which is incidental, is that I agree with Jack Newfield’s account in this book that Giuliani’s stand against Ofili’s painting was much less about his bowing to pressure from the “Catholic leaders” Jamie references and much more about his ill-conceived gambit to pick up suburban votes for his senate run by sparking a controversy. Second, while I agree with Jamie that the Museum had the right to display “tasteless” art, I think to describe Ofili’s work as “tasteless” is an unfortunate mischaracterization of the piece – a mischaracterization which went largely unchallenged in the press at the time. Ofili was a Nigerian altar boy who set out to create a work to reconcile his African heritage and his Christian identity. The elephant dung was a traditional sign of respect which he incorporated into portraits of other figures as well. “The Holy Virgin Mary” was, in Ofili’s words, “a hip hop version.” I wrote more about this in the early days of this site in a post here (scroll all the way down), on a strangely fitting coda to the whole episode.

In related news, Drudge is reporting that Mel Gibson declined to appear in tonight’s Oscars because he was afraid he’d be booed. So much for redemption in suffering.