When it comes to this country’s Culture War, everyone’s a loser
Baine Street by Wallace Baine
Why is Hillary Rodham Clinton picking a high-profile political fight against video games? It’s that what politicians positioning themselves for a run at the White House do?
Probably. Attacking sex and violence in youth culture is a shameless pander to anxious parents, but it’s always an effective pander.
But Hillary’s head-on attack against the content of the game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" may mean that liberals are beginning to understand something about the raging Culture War: That it’s conservatives who’ve drawn up the rules of engagement to the advantage of their own side.
We’ve come to think of the Culture War in a very specific way.
Conservatives, armed with moral certainty, do the criticizing. Liberals, with a hair-trigger sensitivity to hypocrisy, counter-criticize. But that dynamic is a result of a stone-cold brilliant strategy by conservatives that has earned them the critical mass of support in recent elections.
In other words, liberals and progressives do not choose to be in the position of defending pornography, commercial violence and vulgarity. They’ re put into that position by conservatives who can run circles around them in the political arena. When only one side is bothering to define what decency is, the other side gets branded as indecent.
But here’s the thing about the giant, clattering monster of American popular culture: It’s neither liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democrat. It’s an omniverous, pillaging beast that never rests and never turns back. Criticizing it, or defending it, has little effect on its appetites .
In fact — and this is what scares conservatives more than even the prospect of Hillary as president — pop culture is the purest, most sincere form of democracy. In the voting booth, we often act on our pretentions and self- delusions, but in the cultural realm, we go after what we really want, political posturing be damned.
It’s another dimension of the conservatives’ shrewd political strategy that they’ve successly labeled liberals as elitists when it is they themselves who are fighting against the tide of American mass tastes.
Conservatives are right when they say pop culture tramples their values. But it tramples liberals’ values too. It is perfectly non-ideological in that way. Godzilla doesn’t bother to distinguish Republicans from Democrats.
Liberals need to wake up to the fact that the culture is not their friend. Sure, they often feel more comfortable swimming the channels of pop culture than do conservatives, but ultimately pop culture will make you a creature of its dictates before it will conform to your values.
This is why culture needs no defense from liberals.
This multi-tentacled, trashy, relentless culture of ours is, after all, the ultimate expression of the free market that is more fundamental to the Republican worldview than even Christianity. The conservative assault on pop culture will never succeed, because first, it’s a fight within the conservative movement itself, i.e., a struggle between God and mammon.
As long as liberals are the scapegoats for an out-of-control culture, the image of the conservative politician extolling both free markets and family values at the same time will never be seen in its proper context, as a self-defeating, hypocritical contradiction.
Even as the GOP continues to finesse that contradiction, fighting pop culture is a doomed undertaking because it means fighting technology, culture’s growth agent, and that’s a fight for fools. The rising profile of porn, to take the most vivid example of cultural depravity, is due less to sliding moral values and more to technological advances in disseminating the stuff. Porn is, after all, sex removed from human contact. Heck, porn is technology.
Of course, what liberals really want to do is to change the subject, something they have not been able to do since the glory days of "It’s the economy, stupid." Indeed, it’s critical to their political survival that they find a way to turn attention away from popular culture and to the environment, the war, economic policy, etc.
But to do that, they cannot keep rising to take the bait on such issues as "Desperate Housewives" and Janet Jackson’s nipples. And they must abandon their standard brush-off to conservatives whenever a cultural controversy raises its tawdry head, i.e. the "just change the channel" rationale.
It’s an article of faith among liberals that culture can’t harm you if you don’t participate in it, that if you’re vigilant in keeping trash culture out of your home and away from your children, you’re immune to its ravages.
On this subject, conservatives know better. No sane liberal, for instance, would insist that boycotting Rush Limbaugh gives him or her immunity from the ravages of extremism and simplistic blame-mongering that Rush has wrought in the political arena. In fact, the opposite is true. Yet many liberals think that’s exactly the case with things like pornography or gangsta rap.
The truth is that such things do coarsen and even de-humanize the general culture and as long as liberals are defending a culture that doesn’t deserve defending, they’ll forever be played by conservatives who are, ironically, more savvy about a culture from which they feel more alienated.
Conservatives cannot win the Culture War, but liberals can lose it. To avoid that fate, liberals are going to have to co-opt conservative rage (apparently the Hillary Clinton strategy) or ignore it. The most pressing fight liberals have now against pop culture is the terms of political debate itself. As long as "greenhouse gases" have to compete against "Desperate Housewives" in the cultural conversation, liberals and conservatives will both be the losers.
Contact Wallace Baine at email@example.com
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