I disdain the appelation "rant," because that implies the sort of Denis Leary thing where the ranter is trying to show people how edgy and politically incorrect he is. I'm just trying to show that I'm right.

My latest appears below. Click the red button for the rage archive:




or: Bring Back Pat Buchanan
December 12, 2002

At National Review Online, two TV programs are currently reviewed. Matt Feeney writes of Tony Soprano as if the popular mobster were a creation of Henry James: Tony "recognizes at several levels the claims that morality makes on him," says Feeney. "He has simply bought into a way of life that forces him to reject those claims... He has enclosed himself in an elaborate edifice of self-justification precisely because he recognizes, at some not-so-deep level, how wrong he is." On another page, S.T. Karnick meditates on Monk, citing G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Conservatives have had great fun over the years denigrating the tendency of leftist academics to read great meanings into pop cultural ephemera. While wooly-headed professors were teaching Madonna, for example, Allan Bloom railed that rock music "ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education." As late as 1998, the Cornell Review decried "courses which claim to seek relationships in television shows" (as a partial explanation, expectedly, for Bill Clinton's high approval ratings).

Yet not only TV shows but also rock bands are now food for thought among the columnists at the website of the venerable National Review. Opportunities for conservative spin are not neglected -- Feeney presumes that "Bourgeois morality" is "much derided in our smarter circles," while it appears Karnick finds Monk a slap at supporters of the Americans with Disabilities Act -- but the Right's longtime contempt for serious pop culture studies has apparently been suspended, at least for members of the Elect.

How came it so? One reason may be that younger folk of all political persuasion are infatuated with pop, and they just want to write about it. Previously, conservative magazines didn't breed reviewers, they hired them. Critic John Simon's politics seem to be mixed, but the savagery of his denunciatory style made him a natural for National Review in the 70s and 80s. Then, in the 90s, John Podhoretz, son of the pre-eminent neocon Norman and a lifelong movie buff, began doing film reviews for Insight magazine. His columns sported a little meter that measured the left-to-right political content of the films under consideration; I always imagined this was how Podhoretz got the Moonie pub (and his Dad) to let him write about movies in the first place. But while cautioning doctrinaire readers against left-wing content, Podhoretz fils wrote with obvious enjoyment of his subject. And it may be this opened the floodgates for the Feeneys and the Karnicks.

There's another possible explanation, though. Remember the "Culture War," that allegedly epochal brawl between the buttoned-down Right and the porn 'n' rock Left, frequently cited by National Review before it, or anyone else, had a website? At its height, Pat Buchanan declared from the stage of the 1992 Republican Convention that, just as U.S. Army troopers had "taken back the streets of L.A., block by block," after the Rodney King riots, "so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country." Seven years later, after Clinton beat his Impeachment rap, Buchanan's comrade-in-arms Paul Weyrich famously announced that the Right had lost that War. In think-tanks and other conservative redoubts, Weyrich is still disputed, but in the streets the defeat is widely acknowledged.

Trawl the warblogs and you will find, along with cries for war (not the Culture kind) and the Second Amendment, meditations on movies ("Steven Den Beste has an awesome series of posts critiquing the premise of the movie, Reign of Fire"), music, TV shows, even colleagues' hot wives. Across the blogosphere conservatives are unafraid to let their pop culture cred show -- and they are observably delighted when comedians, cartoon characters, and other entertainment vendors show sympathy for their views. Instead of sulking because Hollywood hates America, the New New Right gleefully dumpster-dives pop culture for endorsements.

Is the Culture War over? Well, some cling to it, some stump for a more pacific version of it -- Rod Dreher, for example, embraces a "crunchy conservatism" based on a kind of Tory Quaker ethic. But the fierce energy of the original crusade seems to have faded.

Instead, we have a new paradigm of divisiveness: Red vs. Blue, "eagles" vs. "traitors." We all agree that porn is o.k., but hate each other for our various stands on the U.N., the environment, and light rail transport. The war of words is no less savage, but with pop culture out of the way, we can maul each other on purely partisan grounds.

And what of pop culture itself after the War that was, allegedly, fought for it? It bleeds, friend, it bleeds. There are a few choice specimens, but from their lofty heights the decline is mighty steep. Music sucks. Movies suck. TV sucks. Avril Levigne is "punk." Steven Spielberg is an "auteur." Follow the career of Andy Dick from "News Radio" to "Less than Perfect" to see just how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable (in any other sense but the financial) pop culture has become in the wake of the War.

And I think I know why: because we all began to agree. We achieved a general consensus, and there was nothing to fight over and no one to fight with. And without that dynamic tension, pop culture became soft and fluid, a sea of emollient, a warm, gooey bath that lulls us out of our very consciousness. Even gangsta rap ain't nothin' but a flava, a small, bracing splash of tarragon with which jaded palettes spice their pablum.

So here is my plea: bring back the Culture War. Bring back Donald Wildmon and Public Enemy. Bring back Pat Buchanan and Kurt Cobain. Bring back Tipper Gore and Twisted Sister. Because it's beginning to look as if the real benefit of that War was not in the winning or losing, nor for the Right or the Left, but in the fighting, and for the dear, degraded pop culture itself.

© 2002 Roy Edroso