From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog: Culture, politics, and liberalism

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Culture, politics, and liberalism

There's been a fair amount of back and forth going on in the lefty side of the blogsphere about whether Democrats/liberals can/should make any effort to take on Hollywood/the entertainment industry in an effort to appeal to moderate voters. Amy Sullivan started the discussion in this post at The Washington Monthly:

These last few points are especially critical. In recent talks--including one this morning--I've been telling people that voters find it odd when Democrats bash big business and oil companies but turn a blind eye to the entertainment industry. Wouldn't their Hollywood funders rebel if Democrats spoke up?, someone asked this morning. Frankly, it wouldn't exactly hurt the party to have Susan Sarandon stand up and denounce the Democrats.
She was making the argument in larger context, but Matthew Yglesias latched onto the culture war meme and offered a response:

Amy Sullivan and Dan Gerstein team up to offer a litany of complaints about Democrats and Hollywood that I've been hearing more and more lately. Roughly speaking, it boils down to this:
• We need to recognize that these concerns about the culture are legitimate.
• We need to stop accusing people of advocating censorship.
• Democrats take on non-media corporations, so why can't they take on major content-providers too?
• The Hollywood campaign contributions aren't worth it.
Okay, fine. From where I sit, though, I kind of resent the implication (well, okay, it's not just an implication, they come right out and say it) that the only reason one might have for disapproving of the New Prudishness is a cynical hunger for campaign contributions. Indeed, it seems to me that it's the liberals on the other side who are playing the pure cynicism game here. What, after all, is the policy problem that Amy, Gerstein, Ed Kilgore, Hillary Clinton et. al. are purporting to solve here? Almost every major indicator of child well-being is getting better, not worse. The big exception is obesity, where the lobby to be taken on isn't Big Smut but Big Unhealthy Food. It's simply not the case that Grand Theft Auto has sparked a youth crime wave, or Friends an uptick in teen motherhood, or whatever else it is people are worried about.
Both writers extend their arguments well, and it would behoove you to read the whole post to get the nuance. I'm just trying to hit the highlights. In any case, both Amy and Matt offer a second volley. Amy's is here, Matt's here.

There have multiple follow ups here and there, but I wanted to highlight two of them in relation to my own personal feelings on the issue.

Digby at Hullabaloo has a well worded take that I will be quoting from extensively. I hope he doesn't mind.

This whole argument about pop culture reminds me of a conversation I had in 1977. I was sitting around with my friends and somebody put "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols on the stereo. Afterwards, I said I thought it wasn't really music --- to which a friend of mine replied that I sounded just like his parents when he first played the Beatles. I was only 21 at the time, so this hit me pretty hard. I never forgot it.

This "kids today" stuff has been going on for a long, long time. Anybody who was a kid in the 60's like I was, remembers endless sermons and lectures and handwringing about how the world was coming to an end because the boys were growing their hair long and the girls weren't shaving their armpits and marijuana was going to fry your brain like an egg. Before that, in 1956, there was the fear of "juvenile delinquents":


Yes, the public does wonder what we stand for. And in this debate it seems we can either stand for better V chips and Terri Schiavo's mother-in-law, or we can stand for this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I don't know about you, but that sounds like it actually means something. Even has a bit of a ring to it.

Look, I don't care if we legislate for "better" V-chips. (From what I have read people aren't using the one we have available, not because it's too hard, but because they just don't want to be bothered. But whatever.) We can express our empathy for how difficult it is to parent in this environment. We can bemoan the coarsening of the culture and try shame people to stop selling useless consumer items to children. None of those things are particularly dangerous in themselves. But neither are they going to be politically advantageous.
I think this hits it exactly right. There are a world of dangers if we take steps towards the "more regulation" side of the argument in an appeal to moderate voters, with drastically little real gain at the ballot box. At the same time, putting forth concession on the issue of free speech runs the potential of opening the floodgates to further and further concession that ultimately leaves the left holding onto nothing save the bag of empty promises given to win the concession. Digby goes on further in his post to compare the need to hold ground here to the way the gun lobby has held absolute ground on the 2nd Amendment, and he's right in making that comparison. I think this is one area where we should draw a line in the sand and hold our ground because the 1st Amendment should be every bit as important to us as a nation as the second.

I remember my senior year of high school I was on the debate team and the topic for the spring semester was "Resolved: that communities in the US ought to have the right to suppress pornography." Most of the debate on both sides focused on the court ruling in Miller v California. Miller broadened the definition of obscenity to some degree allowing leeway for prosecution at local levels. As the Wikipedia entry linked above mentions, it also brought into place the following criteria that had to be met for a work to be considered "obscene":
  • the average person, applying contemporary community standards (not national standards, as some prior tests required), must find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  • the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law; and
  • the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
I could not argue the affirmative position on this topic to save my life. I ran through one tournament where by luck of the draw, I only debated the affirmative in one round out of six including eliminations. That one was against someone so clueless it would have been virtually impossible for me to lose the round. The main point I kept raising was what standard could possibly use to ascertain what "the average person" within a community is. Demographics isolate the individual characteristics too much. The person who falls into the median demographically is going to be skewed by outliers, as would the mean individual, though not as much unless there were significant numbers of outliers.

Today I think I'd have to add that there's a very real danger of manipulation of media and the message that augments this problem. One need only look at the way the Schiavo case was handled to see how grotesquely there could be a potential tyranny of the minority on an issue like this. Every poll conducted reflected that the will of the people was that the government butt out of the whole mess. That didn't stop the media from painting the issue like the nation was divided almost evenly, and congress, the state lege in Florida, and Jeb Bush behaved as though the supermajority favored them. What kind of havoc on the First Amendment would they wreak if any concessions were received on this point?

I think Daniel Munz hits on the real way this needs to be approached. He actually sides with Amy Sullivan to a fair degree. But one of this things he mentions really brought it to a head for me:

Back in January, William Saletan chronicled Hillary Clinton’s new rhetoric on abortion, noting that Hillary Clinton just endorsed a goal I’ve never heard a pro-choice leader endorse. Not safe, legal, and rare. Safe, legal, and never. Once you embrace that truth—that the ideal number of abortions is zero—voters open their ears. They listen when you point out, as Clinton did, that the abortion rate fell drastically during her husband’s presidency but has risen in more states than it has fallen under George W. Bush. I’m sure these trends have more to do with economics than morals, but that’s the point. Once we agree that the goal is zero, we can stop asking which party yaps more about fighting abortion and start asking which party gets results.
Isn’t the parallel dynamic here obvious? If anything, acknowledging voters’ concerns about violence in our culture makes it easier to talk about stopping actual violence. Once you acknowledge that our society has a problem, voters listen when you talk about what should and should not be done about it. It frees Democrats to say, “We can’t censor artists, but I agree that our society is too violent, and here’s what we can do about it: Gun control, aggressive anti-poverty measures, responsible and comprehensive sex education, universal health insurance.” It’s just like Saletan says: Once we agree that the goal is a less violent society, we get to start talking about which party talks and which party gets results.

Moreover, this kind of move helps liberals in a much broader fashion. Liberal domestic policies are premised fundamentally on the idea that we’re all in the same boat. We fight for economic security, not economic gain. We believe that the wealthiest have a responsibility to the poorest, and that we all have a responsibility to each other. Of course, I count myself a proud participant in this ideology, which is exactly why Matt’s argument just doesn’t connect with me. We spend countless energy fighting Bush’s Social Security plan, because it violates this value and creates an every-man-for-himself world in which life is - to borrow an apt phrase - solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Fine, but how is it that we can then turn around and applaud this very same vision in a cultural context? Make no mistake about it. When we refuse to acknowledge the violence that has so obviously gripped our culture, this is precisely what we tell American parents: “We are not in this together. You are on your own.” Could anything be more antithetical to core liberal values?
While I think he overstates the message being conveyed to American parents, the idea he presents extending on Saletan's analysis of Hillary's recent statements on abortion. I am an ardent pro-choice individual. But I personally would not have an abortion, were it possible for me to get pregnant. It's just something that I can't articulate very well but feel in my heart would be wrong for me. As such, I agree 100% with the position Hillary takes: that the goal should be zero abortions performed, but how the liberal/progressive viewpoint would get there is vastly different from the right wing perspective. One need only look at the fight over allowing pharmacists to refuse birth control prescriptions to people who request them to see that. The right would rather someone who took a stand on "moral grounds" have their right trump those of a person taking an action that would affect only themselves, nay even prevent their actions from having a direct effect others (via child support, etc.). Who's really taking the moral stand here?

In the end, Ezra Klein sums it all up best:

This isn't about video games, it's about an economy where both parents have to work, where their incomes are slipping, where their hours are increasing, where their benefits are eroding, and where kids are paying the price. And so signaling our understanding that kids aren't able, and shouldn't be able, to traverse this world alone is crucial to completing the critique. GTA and the rest are low-order examples in a large phenomenon -- they should be invoked, a la Daniel, to lend a concreteness to our argument, but they can't become our focus.
And that, as they say, is that.