30 April 2020

Political Ideologies and Conservatism in Media - Here's Post #1000!

In the eleven years that we have been doing this, we have never missed a month without a post. We are coming down to the wire on this one in April, but not sure if you've noticed, but there isn't very many movies coming out right now. Nevertheless this is a golden age of streaming and watching crap, and we are consuming quite a bit of media from every available corner. There are a few things that have gone in my brain to make me think about politics and the nature of our two major governing ideologies. This is also a nice insight about what I've been watching and reading - Rod Chernow's Grant, HBO's Watchmen, FX's Mrs. America, Netflix's Waco, Jay Roach's Bombshell (2019), and Michael Bay's The Island (2005). Not too mention shifts in current Democratic and Republican ideologies. This will be a bit of a scattershot post. Are you ready to dive into what's been going on inside my brain?

I am going to try to make this largely non-political. I admittedly lean left, and there's no way to completely hide that bias, but I want to chat a little bit about how the media is far more conservative than we tend to credit it for. Part of this conversation then is how much dominant conservative groups espouse about the mainstream leftist media. Considering the preponderance of Fox News, right-wing radio talk show hosts, and as I will discuss, the general message of most American cinema, I'm not sure that is true. I do think that painting themselves as underdogs while having dominant media voices is not only a powerful way to position oneself, but a truly American one.

This country is built on being the plucky underdog. We love come from behind stories and that stems from the American Revolution. We were down 3-28 when the patriots of this country came back in the second half... Conservative media tends to have a "woe is me" attitude that emboldens its position. This is worth some discussion of political ideology.

We ought to leave behind Liberalism and Conservatism for a second, because in contemporary American politics those enlightenment-era ideologies aren't quite as clear-cut. Liberalism is more designed around emphasize civil rights, secularism, and yes, limited government. It is difficult to picture an era where that was an option, but it grew as a response to the oligarchies and monarchies of authoritarian kings. That of course is where conservatism originates - a strong authority that limits freedoms in favor of security and a singular head of state.

These original ideas have been mixed pretty thoroughly in the past three hundred years or so. I'm most curious about working out the role of government. Now, there are many different paths to political ideology, and it works best if we think of things not so much as binary left and right, but as a three-dimensional matrix where every possible belief exists as an infinite spectrum going in every possible direction. Thus, we've started to group conservatives in with juxtaposing ideas such as a government hands off approach to guns, but a very hands on approach to abortion. The inverse is true for liberals. Neither side has an actual ideology any more, at least one that can be justified by any universal truth. Both moreover simply favor familiar and established stances on issues long accepted by either party.

This of course hasn't always been true. Yeah, I've been reading Grant, the biography of Ulysses S. Grant, General of the Army for the Grand Old Republic and 18th President of these United States. It also centers around the formation of the Republican party, which seems insane now to be established around halting the expansion of slavery while Abraham Lincoln greatly increased the power of the Executive Branch. Simultaneously they seem to be both liberal in fighting for equality for all humans (err...male humans) while emphasizing a strong central authority. The liberalism of mid-19th Century Republicans was not unlike modern Democrats. While they believe strongly in egalitarian equality, they also believe that left to their own devices, private citizens will never provide this equality.

There's some heady contradiction there. It's as if the government is strong-arming its citizens to be nice to each other. During Reconstruction the South was divided into five Military Districts under jurisdiction of Union Generals in order to protect both the newly freed black population along with white Republicans who were persecuted and murdered without prudence or consequence. The government had to step in to protect freedom.

That's tough logic and one used to justify wars, security, and large standing armies by modern-day Democrats and Republicans alike. If the power of government is derived from the consent of the governed, is the role of government also to protect the governed from each other? Hence our ideologies start to conflict with each other.

We're running into that today amidst the on-going coronavirus pandemic. Donald Trump has put his party through the ringer by first placing individual response duty on the states in an effort to avoid responsibility, and then retracting that stance in favor of strong central authority when those states took stances opposed to his worldview. In the days since General Grant the Republican Party has slid far towards a more Libertarian stance, which emphasizes limited government and a completely free market. These were of course also early tenets of liberalism, which due to the tendency of parties to define themselves by opposition rather than intrinsic philosophy, has become at odds with the Democratic Party.

Modern Republicans favor an extreme individualized position. They don't want any taxes for government services and to survive on their own. That's an admirable stance, but one that feels ignorant in a world where gaps between the select few who can afford to survive on their own and the masses of people who require government intervention to survive gets wider and wider. This is of course not the only tenet of Modern American Republicans - the default is an emphasis on big business (not changed since Grant's time), traditional American values and concepts of religion, families, and households, and a general non-interference with their attempt to recreate that lifestyle.

Thus the foundation of liberalism has been split. Republicans managed to grab the self-sufficient small government emphasis and the Democrats latched on to the secular, global understanding that the world exists outside your backyard. I am very curious how we move forward after Corona if Trump continues to favor strong deference to Federal power while individual Democratic states want to do their own thing. To further compound this, what happens when the smaller state governments exercise greater control over lives, bodies, and economies than the Federal Authority that desires non-interference?

See how ideology is broken down? There is no ideology anymore. Small or big government philosophy shifts based on what is most convenient to the party in power at the time. Democrats who had strongly opposed strong Federal Power in the Reconstruction Era fell apart from FDR to LBJ as Federal Aid programs exploded and the New Deal and Great Society created a Civil Rights Welfare State that still shapes politics today.

And what about the Nazis? What about those damn Nazis? Fascism is clearly conservative - the strong emphasis on nationalism, values traditional to one's country, and strong central authority are all conservative talking points. The socialism of National Socialism wasn't really liberal socialism at all, in that one favors strong government to protect the downtrodden people while the Nazis did not have a great Civil Rights track record. What happens, then, when these viewpoints are co-opted by Klansman and neo-Nazis today who support Republican isolationist and anti-women movements?

Well, that made me think of HBO's Watchmen. Alan Moore's original graphic novel, Watchmen (1986) crafted a unique niche by distilling philosophies into the worldview of fictional superheroes and then letting those personalities bounce off each other until the world was destroyed (or saved). The nihilistic Comedian, Manichaean Rorschach, the utilitarian Ozymandias. It's fun.

In HBO's version, set 34 years after the original graphic novel, we see some of these same people, but I'm most curious about Rorshach's legacy. Lip service was given to Rorschach's original ultra-conservative views, but the follow-up sees the logical conclusion in the Seventh Kavalry, a white supremacist organization that adopts Rorschach's mask. Okay, let's catch you up.

Originally, Rorschach's whole deal was that he was a tortured little kid who wore a black and white mask that would mesh but never mix, leading to what looked like a constant Rorschach blot on his face. Alan Moore took inspiration from Steve Ditko's Question and Mr. A who were both Randian conspiracy theorist detectives. Did you know Steve Ditko was a rabid objectivist? Yay! Objectivists believe in the superior heroic individual, the idea that you are right and everyone else is wrong. It's very emotionally fulfilling but doesn't leave much room for caring about other people.

Rorschach thus is supposed to be a satirical superhero. He's a crimefighter with no regard for the gray area of crimes and exists only in guilty or innocent, right or wrong. Black and white. Somehow he became the most popular Watchmen character, but really that's no accident. It's difficult to understand that the world comes in shades of gray and we might not always be right. It's comforting to have definitive answers to big complicated problems. For immature folks, particularly boys, that's an easy philosophy to fall behind. You don't need to care about anyone else - there is one truth and only you can find that out.

This slides in well with Rorschach's conspiracy theories, which in both Watchmen turn out to be true. As a general rule I don't believe in conspiracy theories. The worst theories, like Flat Earth or 9/11, have an overwhelming evidence to support what is generally believed to be true. The most intriguing theories, like the Kennedy Assassination cover-ups or George Soros just can't exist in a world of constant leaks.

Anyway, belief in conspiracies have become part of the Republican doctrine. There is always someone more powerful out there out to get you but only you know the truth and can save the rest of the world. It's bizarre how these things have all coalesced together. In HBO's Watchmen the natural progression of Rorschach is a more reactionary path, where the Seventh Kalvary discover his conspiracy is very much true and thus give his writings much credence. This deontological thinking natural extends to the black and white races and when only one can be good and one evil, the white Seventh Kalvary make the only choice that makes sense to them.

Mrs. America presents significant cognitive dissonance when choosing a political ideology. It centers around Phyllis Shlafly's attempt to block the Equal Rights Amendment from passing in the 1970s. Such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution would guarantee legal equality across the genders. Spoiler alert, we have no such amendment, but the show is more focused on the great irony that an extremely competent and charismatic housewife fought against this bill.

Here's another arbitrary political center piece that got caught up in ideology, misplaced by what either party thought was right. Conservatives fear change, they believe the woman's place is in the home and Mrs. America presents all sorts of slippery slope arguments as to what may happen when that supposed delicate balance is disturbed. It also presents how misogyny and racism make common bedfellows. On the progressive side, though, the women fighting for Equal Rights are presented as nearly all young Democrats, although some like Betty Friedan are older and have been fighting to exist as their own individual selves with autonomy over their bodies and rights for a long time.

Both sides have great difficulty unifying. There are enough big personalities at play that everyone wants their turn in the spotlight in addition to their common goals. The Democrats especially have an extreme range between the Black Panther sympathizing African-American contingent, the more moderate women who believe they need men to be their advocates, and the bra-burning hippies. Nothing is black and white here, despite the races involved. There is a wide spectrum and not all women fit into neat boxes of ideology. The most surprising aspect is how much a group of women in the show fight to remain complacent by their husbands' sides.

Okay, so by now you've probably spied some of my liberal sympathies. I honestly have trouble seeing both sides, but I do worry about the government overstepping its boundaries. It gets at that conspiracy thing. Have we let the fear of pandemic override our sensibilities towards liberty? Is a belief in the free market and personal freedom a truly liberal stance? Much of that comes down to simple trust in government, that they will relinquish power when the strife is over, they have our best interests at heart, and that they exist to protect the civil rights of the governed.

This becomes difficult because Republicans have crafted a narrative that has eroded this trust while simultaneously creating only one trustworthy figure - Trump. It's difficult to see strong belief in the leadership of anyone else. He rode to power on three tried and true methods: immigrant fear-mongering, goading conspiracy theories that make his downtrodden followers believe a secret truth exists that only they are privileged to know, and the constant women-hate that fuels conservative men and women alike. The leader of government constantly presents government as an intrusive, gun-stealing, mask-wearing, economy-busting demon that wants to infringe on liberty when it in fact exists to protect that liberty. In giving up free thought and common sense to a demagogue, though, his followers have crafted an unassailable central authority to rule them. What is the cost of socialist protection? At the end of the day is it any different than a war-mongering dictator? Rule of one or rule of many?

A lot of conservatism comes down to simply not caring about other people and focusing on the individual. Liberalism seems to believe that other people have feelings and needs that exist outside of your own. That's mostly at the heart of both ideologies. When conservatives are doing well, there is a natural thought of "Why can't other people do well, too? It's their fault." In recent memory this has morphed and morphed and affected one big genre: comedy.

At first you might think that of course comedy leans liberal, SNL, The Daily Show, and comics are generally thought of as extremely liberal. That's all punching up (mostly) at institutions for their own hypocrisy. But I have been watching a lot of old comedy as well, and it strikes me how much we think "Oh, you could never say that today!" It's also bizarre to me that many 90s comedians like Kelsey Grammar, Tim Allen, Adam Sandler, and Norm MacDonald lean conservative, or are out and out Republican. Comedy is difficult when you have to care about who you are insulting. For the record, I love all four of these guys. But there is a significant amount of "Oh, why aren't things the way they used to be?" feeling out of all of them and more. Even Jerry Seinfeld gets into a little bit of this and who knows why, he's like the cleanest comedian ever.

I have seen this objectivist stance bleed into pop culture more than even liberals and especially conservatives would like to admit. It's not only that Rorschach, despite Alan Moore's intentions, becomes the hero of Watchmen. You can see it everywhere. Batman succeeds in the Christopher Nolan films by superseding the rule of law through private enterprise. Tony Stark does the same. The government is incompetent and dangerous in Marvel films, literally full of secret Nazis.

The age old tale of one lone man, usually white, fighting against a shadowy corporation or hostile nation is a very old story, but one that remains extremely popular in contemporary cinema. I talked last summer about how the Old White Man Fights for his Family trope is a HUGE thing over the last few years. But there was one film that got me really thinking about this, which I saw the other day. Don't ask me why I watched it, but for the first time I caught Michael Bay's The Island.

I don't blame you if you've never seen it, it's really not great, but it is truly a conservative thinkpiece. Ewen McGregor and Scarlett Johannson have an apparently idyllic life in a post-apocalyptic socialist paradise where all food and housing is provided, the central authority monitors food intake and personal health, and everyone wears the same thing and works the same job. Little do they know that they are all actually just living organ donor clones for their wealthy counterparts in the real world.

From there it's a conservative checklist. There is a grand conspiracy. There is one man who knows the truth and is able to break free and release his world from the socialist nightmare. Scarlett Johannson is there as lip service to strong women but actually exists as a trophy without agency. It's a fascinating dive. The latter half of the movie is largely one big chase scene and it does buck the typical Michael Bay trend in that the military is the bad guy, although to be fair, they seem to be duped by the big bad socialist commander of the "utopia" created to supplicate the clone organ donors.

In the hands of another director The Island could have been memorable cinema and people may have read into it deep enough to understand its conservative propaganda. But at its bones is the fact that this is basic story structure. Not every movie is like this, of course, plenty end with an individual learning to work in a team, or to break away on a secular journey to find new adventures in the world. But that savior, individual breaking away from the constraints of a homogeneous society reeks of objectivist privilege. I look at 1999 as the year where every movie was like this - The Matrix, Fight ClubAmerican Beauty, even Office Space. And yeah, I'm bleeding blue, but I'm not in favor of this kind of restrictive society. The key liberal cornerstone has always been individual civil liberties. Conservative media tends to bypass this though, when imaging the liberal fantasy society where the government controls every aspect of our lives.

That was a long rant but it had been building up for quite a while. I typically avoid politics here, but this is just honestly how I see things. I would be very curious about your viewpoints and if I'm way off base. What do you think about any of this? Support your local food bank. Here's General Grant.

Ain't no corona in whiskey!

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