Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Liberal Media (and Other Urban Legends) [23 Sept. 2014]

In 2003, Eric Alterman published a book titled with the rhetorical question, What Liberal Media? His subtitle was (and remains), "The Truth About Bias and the News," and his topic was the news media. Still, the point holds far beyond the news: "the media" as a large set are certianly not Leftist, and not even all that Liberal.

            * The "Liberal Hollywood/Liberal Media" accusation, when not just a canard, is based in the fact that many media people are liberals. That fact is significant. As the old rule of thumb says, "Consider the source." More important, though, is the proverbial wisdom, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating, which translates out of outdated British into "The test of a desert is what it tastes like" — and means here that what counts a whole lot more than who's producing the media "product" is what that product is and how it functions socially and politically. What really counts isn't source but content; you have to look at the content of the wide range of media to which people in media-saturated cultures are exposed.
            * Most important for the US and other strongly capitalist countries is the bombardment by advertising: nowadays up to eight out of thirty minutes on a high-earning show like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show are taken up by commercials; and almost every commercial has at least the touch of the subtext, CONSUMPTION IS GOOD; CAPITALISM IS GOOD. BUY! Even if all of news programming has been taken over by rabid Bolsheviks, most of the message of the media still reinforces Capitalism.
            * The very form of traditional genres has political implication. E.g., the plot arc of traditional romantic comedy leads to the domestication of young people by bringing them into a crucial reinforcement of the status quo: marriage. At the end of a traditional romantic comedy, "A new and better world coalesces around a central couple," to slightly paraphrase  Northrop Frye, but not a world that is radically different. This will continue to be true with gay rom-coms leading toward gay marriage (as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, early on and repeatedly, gay marriage is conservative).
            * The very form of the police procedural and Law’n’Order movies reinforces Law’n’Order — and hypocritically or paradoxically undermines law insofar as recent cop dramas endorse cops’ violating the Bill of Rights and reinforce the ideal of the Cowboy Cop/Dirty Harry sort vs. a stick-in-the-mud like Joe Friday on the old Dragnet. And few shows nowadays celebrate defense attorneys like Perry Mason, or a Public Defender. We can argue whether the Right-wing or the Left is more likely nowadays to condemn "jack-booted storm troopers" of the law, but for sure the encouragement of violations of civil liberties is not part of the Liberal agenda.
            * There are anti-war movies; there are, however, a hell of a lot more movies and video games and such that celebrate the military and warfare. More generally, conflict resolution in many films and video games and TV shows is handled by violence, usually without much counting of the cost of violence. From time to time, members of the US Republican Party have complained of "Liberal Democrat [sic] Wars," with some justification; but, still, celebration of the military and, let's say, fondness for force have, generally, not been Liberal.
                        And there is another point with the media, especially war narratives and "action" movies: much of the action is the very casual killing of young men; and easing the acceptance of the guy population as cannon fodder — or maybe drone targets nowadays — makes militaristic thinking more easy. Consider the film The Drop (2014). The film succeeds, and I watched it not as a student of film but like a normal human being and let the movie have its way with me: watching the film with "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith," and, more relevantly, watching and listening with the suspension, for the moment, of my real-world ethical code. In that state I was quite concerned watching The Drop about the safety of a pit bull puppy, and feared for its well-being — but didn't care much when men were killed.
                        Whole genres of films and television shows pander to "the male gaze" and way too many movies and TV shows luxuriate in images of women suffering. Casual handing of the deaths of young men is no better — and both are common, and neither is Liberal.
            * The most basic premise of paranormal/supernatural films is, obviously, belief in the existence of the paranormal (etc.), often accompanied by a denigration of stodgy, commonsensical, and/or scientifically-minded folk who are skeptical of phenomena "beyond our ken." Such exercises in imagination are often entertaining and always, and necessarily, are useful as exercises in imagination. (The muscle analogy is over-used but true enough: a well-toned imagination is as important as well-toned muscles.) Still, there are some people who take the paranormal and supernatural much too seriously — and science-fictional premises like hostile, abducting aliens as well — and carry over into the real world a gullibility for hocus-pocus and suspicion of science, scientists, intellectuals generally, all egg-head authority figures, and common sense.
            * Usually with deaths in drama, "The rest is silence." However, when they open their mouths on the topic, so to speak, most dramas endorse the idea of some sort of afterlife. You may get a film where the funeral features the great poem from Koheleth, "For everything there is a time and a season" — but not even a Biblical quotation on Hey, when you’re dead, you’re dead ("I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them that they are but beasts. For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same lifebreath, and man has no advantage over the beasts […]" [Ecclesiastes 3.19]). Religion and Liberalism can go together nicely, thank you — "Episcopalian Liberal" and "Jewish Liberals" are clichés, not oxymorons — but religiosity and faith in a "separable soul" with afterlife help conservative causes more than that clichéd "liberal agenda."
            * A fair number of movies and TV shows, and some news stories, feature macho assholes with little consciousness that they’re assholes. E.g., authoritarian coaches in sports films, the Drill Instructor with a butt-of-iron but heart-of-cold in old war movies: fairly often such characters are macho assholes, don't know they're macho assholes, and are not recognized in the works as macho assholes. Indeed, my well-to-do, well-bred students at Miami University (Oxford, OH) generally lacked the phrase and concept, "macho asshole" and thought "macho" an unambiguously positive term and much macho asshole-itry as normal and, among coaches and some athletes and such, even normative, admirable behavior.
            * A hierarchical system is usually taken for granted in many works, most blatantly in my viewing experience in the setting up of the Star Trek: Voyager series. The inheritors of the STAR TREK franchise had a chance to come up with a whole new way to run a starship with Voyager, and what did they do? They reintroduce a chain of command, just with a woman as captain and the rebellious sorts integrated into it. Hierarchy and deference to rank is more (small "c") conservative than liberal.
            * Many movies and TV shows are borderline pornographic in celebrating "Life-Styles of the Rich and Famous," with poor folk and workers and other such riff-raff invisible. Workers as such usually show up in Satire or Comedy, and worker issues, such as unions are pretty much invisible. Newspapers have Business Sections; I can’t recall a Labor Section.

Etc., emphatically including conservative and, for a long time, downright reactionary indoctrination on race and gender (Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Father Knows Best).

Where there’s a legitimate complaint, I think, is from religious folk. The Simpson family isn’t religious, but they do go to church now and then — and that’s unusual in TV and movies. To repeat what I’d like to make into a cliché about most characters in art until recently: "They don’t piss, and they don’t pray." And some of the films coming out that do have religious themes are pretty bad. As Justin Chang says about the film Persecuted, (2014), "At a time when the world offers no shortage of examples of what actual religious persecution looks like, for a film to indulge in this particular brand of self-righteous fearmongering isn't just clueless or reckless; it is an act of contemptible irresponsibility."
            Updating my formula: nowadays we have a kind of karmic balance between films with all manner of release of unprecious bodily fluids and other films where it seems that all they do is pray or get hung up on religious issues; few strike reasonable balances on people as animal animals, and animals for whom spiritual longings and concerns — "a religious capacity" — are at least a human "Mode" of thought based in "the natural capacities of the mind" (from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed ch. 1). 

As Peter Biskind taught us in Seeing Is Believing, an ideological back-and-forth has been going on in movies from at least the 1950s — and before, with films I've mentioned like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, but also Liberal films like Metropolis and downright lying "manifest destiny propaganda like They Died with Their Boots on. So why do we get that, uh, trope of "The Liberal Media"? I'll give the basic answer to that question with another question (hey — I taught for forty years): "Does a fish know it's in water?" Probably not, not unless it's a bottom dweller or flying fish or gets hooked or netted and hauled out. Most Americans are so immersed in capitalist, commercial, basically Conservative culture that we don't even see it. What people notice is the less orthodox Liberal stuff, and with the actual American Left — Democratic Socialists and beyond — having been (mostly figuratively) dead or at least spitting up blood from 1968 on, the Liberal messages sound pretty racy.

Recall that Bill Clinton and Al Gore are basically Eisenhower Republicans, as are many politicians today called "Liberal"; and then acknowledge that America is still a largely conservative country. Our media — generally, in its wide swath — reflect that conservatism, and reinforce it.

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