Subverting the Cultural Occupation

article-jayz-obama3-1106In a recent National Review piece, Jim Geraghty pondered the alliterative question, “Can Conservative Comments from Celebrities Change the Culture?” He’s worried that by touting two celebrity quotes that espoused conservative values, the right is wading into the shallow waters of pop culture and degrading the serious business of politics. His concern couldn’t be more misdirected.

A few weeks ago, rock star/globetrotting activist Bono asserted that capitalism pulls more people out of poverty than aid does. As if this concept emanating from such a pop icon weren’t refreshing enough to conservative ears, hip actor Ashton Kutcher gave a Teen Choice Awards acceptance speech around the same time, in which he stated that opportunities for success arose from hard work and personal drive; it was an inspirational antidote to the left’s “you didn’t build that” message, delivered to a young, impressionable audience (this video of that speech has garnered over 3.6 million views).

The right, aware more than ever before of the importance of reclaiming the culture (although many simply pay lip service to that), pounced on these statements as hopeful signs that our ideas were beginning to breach the wall of the left-dominated cultural stronghold. This made Geraghty squirm:

I’m still chewing this over, and trying to decide whether this represents a necessary tactic in an era of celebrity-obsessed pop culture, or whether it’s just the latest version of the conservative tendency to instantly adopt and celebrate any celebrity who happens to echo some of our arguments.

After all, when we say it’s shallow and silly and superficial for Democrats to emphasize their Hollywood star supporters at their political conventions, and to hold campaign events with Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z and such . . . we’re not wrong.

Politics may be entertaining at times, but politics and governing are supposed to be distinct from entertainment. Not everything in life is supposed to be a fun show! Sometimes the country’s problems and potential solutions are complicated, detailed, involve trade-offs, and require a bit of thinking to evaluate.

It’s disheartening that after losing two elections to the most celebrity-obsessed and pop culture-connected president in history, too many on the right still dismiss this most critical element of political war. As I’ve written before, conservatives lost in the political arena last November because for decades the radical left laid the groundwork for it in the cultural arena, while we turned our backs on it. Disengagement isn’t how you win a culture war.

“If you’re going to try to transform every aspect of the public’s evaluation of public-policy decisions into a flashy, glamorous, sexy, exciting thrill,” Geraghty joked, “pretty soon we’ll see campaigns rolling out Katy Perry in a latex dress!” – which of course is exactly what the left did, and her candidate won (and if you don’t know who Katy Perry is, you’re part of the problem, not the solution).

Geraghty scorns the Perry-in-a-latex-dress-tactic as appealing to “people with no actual interest or knowledge of what’s going on in the political world,” and yet he grudgingly concedes that it works, and that we need our own “effective vote-getting tactics, especially with the young. But how likely are we to win if, through our own decisions, we legitimize the notion that campaigns ought to be duels of celebrities?”

It’s not a matter of dueling celebrities; for one thing, we don’t have enough celebs on our side to compete, and not one with half as much cultural influence as Perry. It’s not a matter of dumbing down political discourse; it’s a matter of embracing the reality that the culture is the battleground that matters now. We must recognize the power of pop culture and its primacy as a medium for disseminating, as Geraghty himself puts it, “conservative ideas, messages, and arguments to audiences that may otherwise never encounter them.”

Geraghty asserts that the Bono and Kutcher quotes may be “swell” (swell? He just lost everyone younger than 65), but the right shouldn’t be touting those pop icons as political authorities because they’re just showbiz stars.

This grossly underestimates the power of showbiz stars today. Bono and Ashton Kutcher are political authorities for countless millions here and abroad; their ilk are the only public figures that many young people trust and listen to, because they’re cool. Obama’s young, politically ignorant/brainwashed fans don’t admire him because they have carefully weighed the political arguments of both sides and rationally sided with his agenda; they admire him because he’s cool. They see him chatting with Letterman and Fallon, hanging with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and appearing on Saturday Night Live, and instead of feeling that this degrades the office of the presidency, it speaks to them. They see First Lady Michelle on Vogue covers and Nickelodeon and a rap album, and that speaks to them.

But Geraghty thinks we shouldn’t lower ourselves: “I feel like we sometimes forget conservatives recoiled from American popular culture for a lot of good reasons.” Maybe so, and look where that got us.

We’re tired of big corporations telling us stories about how bad big corporations are. We’re tired of seeing some of our religions mocked and demonized while others are protected by political correctness…

We’re tired of seeing our own military revealed as the bad guys behind the conspiracy, southerners depicted as ignorant hicks, suburban parenthood portrayed as soul-crushing conformity, and so on.

We are mocked and demonized precisely because decades ago our side began shunning pop culture as unserious and demeaning, and we abandoned it to the left, who shrewdly filled that void. It’s also the very same reason we find ourselves losing at the ballot box, and will continue to do so until we engage the left on their cultural turf.

That doesn’t mean we should engage them in the same way – we shouldn’t be about dumbing down the level of discourse, but about elevating it. We shouldn’t be about emotional manipulation, but about enlightening ideas. We shouldn’t be about preaching, but about seducing converts to our values. The way to do that is primarily culturally, not politically.

We cannot afford to be dismissive of how crucial pop culture is in the larger political scheme. Even when our politicians win – which will happen less and less often as long as we are in denial about this – they too often disappoint or even betray us. We cannot look to them to turn this country around. Instead, America will change course only when our values and ideas begin to subvert the occupation of our cultural territory.

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  • Jason

    We have to engage in a cultural war. What nonsense that we should disengage with popular culture. We dislike popular culture because it has become left leaning, not because it is cheap. Popular culture is vital, it is what will win those who pay little attention to politics. Be honest, would you rather see a balance of popular culture, with right wing films and right wing memes, or just keep it as it is? It’s not degenerating ourselves, if anything it is advancing ourselves. Evolution is about being able to adapt to change, and adapt we must or we are gone.

    • Seek

      I hardly can think of a more noxious and tyrannical notion than applying the Fairness Doctrine, or some equivalent, to the production of cinema, TV, plays and other cultural expressions.

  • Paul Marks

    Popular culture (it is a mistake to call it “pop” culture) is important. For example why do most young people support women soldiers in combat? Because all their lives they have seen fictional portrayals of female combat people (on shows such as Stargate and so on). Do not laugh – what people see as children and young adults matters. What people see (on television and so on) as children has an effect on what they believe as adults. It is NOT iron clad determinism (agency – free will, does exist). But there is an influence….. For example, people who are pro life are normally shown as freaks and monsters in media entertainment shows – that has an effect.

  • Chezwick

    Couldn’t agree more with Mark Tapson. Pop culture is just one MORE battleground of a larger war of ideas. Who can deny the effectiveness of Hollywood in instilling patriotism during WWII. And who could deny the destructive role Hollywood has played in our popular culture over the last 50 years?

    • WW4

      I might deny it, Chezwick–but only for the sake of argument.

      The industry of popular culture follows advances in technology. In the 1950s-early 60s, with technology expanding and relative peace and prosperity, popular culture took off. Then, with the tumult of the 1960s–assassinations, war, Leave it to Beaver didn’t feel quite as true. The culture began to look for alternatives to the status quo. What followed was a renaissance of art, music, cinema. It was idealistic, big-hearted. What’s the Beatles’ main message? Love one another.

      But that idealism doesn’t last, and the tumult continued. Culture became confrontational, disillusioned, and hedonistic. Hard rock, disco, The Godfather. Until we became weary of “rebellion,” hippies grew up and began investing, and the big culture producers merged into the mega-corporations we still have today. Blockbusters were everything, now, because they represented the best ROI. Music got slick, mechanized, corporatized….

      My point: popular culture is a mirror. You can’t convince someone who is not ready to be convinced. It IS influential–no question–but it is not a root cause. So when you say “Hollywood is destructive,” well, the culture is destructive. Hollywood is good, bad, indifferent–all three. It has the same purpose as any other industry: to turn a profit. How do you turn a profit? Give people stuff they want.

      • Chezwick

        Do you honestly believe that Brian de Palma and the producers of ‘Redacted’ made that movie to “turn a profit”?

  • Mo86

    We long ago lost the popular culture. That’s why we are where we are today. Can we get it back? I honestly don’t know. I highly doubt it.

    • davarino

      We have to do it right. The right has tried to play in this field before, trying to do what the likes of John Stewart does, but it came off wierd. I think it came off wierd because they maintained their “check pants republican” aura, as opposed to fighting for liberty and freedom for all Americans, not just those who believe exactly like “us”. Thats what the left does. They portray themselves as fighting for the regular everyday guy, even though they are not. The right has to get in there and fight by exposing the left for what they are, haters of freedom.

      • Mo86

        Well said.

      • WW4

        One way to do it right is to use humor, but not in a mean-spirited way. The popular image of conservatives is already that of mean-spirited, selfish people, and prominent figures like Limbaugh and Coulter add fuel to the fire.

        Reagan used humor in a disarmingly gentle way. So did William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman. Three very different personalities, but able to sort of poke a hole in a liberal balloon without seeming condescending. Where is the wit? The humor? The hope? Conservativism is now just one big, put-upon victimology.

        • davarino

          My example is Walton and Johnson on AM radio here in Texas. I think they are national so you should be able to get them. They have four different characters, one is gay, one is black, another is redneck, and the fourth is a white guy. You have to hear it to appreciate it, but they make fun of the left and the right when they are wrong and you cant help but laugh and agree with them. Its like they dont care between dem or repub, they care about whats right and logical, and it plays well. Its not pretensious and predictable.

          • WW4

            That sounds great; I’ll check it out!

    • Seek

      O tempora, o mores! — my foot. I’ll take Jennifer Lawrence over Donna Reed in a New York minute.

  • Steeloak

    Part of the reason conservatives don’t do well in the culture wars is because all the arenas of the culture war are owned by the left and we are not allowed to play on an even field. As long as conservatives try to play on the enemy’s field, we will lose. We need to develop our own culture, which we are already doing through the internet, talk radio, cable tv and social media. Quite frankly, Liberty is Cool – statism is not. The old tired establishment is now the left and young people are waking up to it. Lots of people are feeling “burned” by the “cool” president they voted for and I suspect 2016 won’t be so good for Democrats.

    • WW4

      Stop the lame excuses. If it’s good, it sells. If it sells, it wins. Those are the main rules. Secondarily, If it’s funny, it works. If it’s thoughtful, it gets critical kudos. That’s how the culture industry works. South Park, for example, is crass, but it has a strong libertarian streak and is immensely popular and influential.

      But if you try to make mere propaganda, it doesn’t work–whether it’s some liberal revisionist thriller (take your pick) or pompous dreck like “Atlas Shrugged.”

      • Steeloak

        Obama proved that lies sell – at least once, and lies about others sell too – at least once. He also proved that someone whose only talent is reading well from a teleprompter can be marketed by savvy propagandists to a gullible public. The problem for him comes when reality smashes into fiction for all the world to see – Syria for example, proving that ultimately substance trumps style, coolness, and popularity.

        • WW4

          non sequitur

          • Steeloak

            My premise is that Obama is an amateur poser who faked his way into office by appearing “Cool” and “Hip” and by hiding his past, his associations with radicals and his true agenda. My conclusion is that he himself has proven all of that true, as his proven lack of ability has demonstrated. How is that a “Non- Sequitur”?

          • WW4

            Because the discussion was about conservatism and popular culture, not Obama. Anyway, was there anything really “hidden” about Obama? Prior to his first election news cycles were devoted to Bill Ayres and Rev. Wright. There’s loads and loads of stories about his birth certificate and college records. We knew all these things–we just didn’t care. Twice. Stop making lame excuses.

            You can call him a poseur, and I’d have a hard time arguing that–other than that you can’t say he’s not a savvy politician. He is cool and hip, as far as presidents go. He got the youth to vote. And if he is a poseur, frankly, he wouldn’t be the first poseur in the Oval Office.

          • Steeloak

            Obama is not a savvy politician – Bill Clinton is. Clinton knew how to read the changing winds of politics and instantly adapt like a chameleon to the political colors of the moment. Obama is an ideological hack who insists on his way as the only way. It was only through the savvy Chicago Alinskyite Marxist crowd who created and marketed him that he was able to be elected. On his own, he is nothing.

          • WW4

            I tend to agree that Obama was first elected on goodwill according to the image he presents, lifted up by the national Democratic establishment as the alternative to Hillary, essentially on the strength of a few good speeches. But then, what is George Bush without the family connections or the teleprompter? I don’t even mean disrespect to the man, but without the family he’s not exactly an exceptional human being, either. Sarah Palin, perfect example. She was mayor of a town marginally larger than my high school when her state GOP establishment did the exact same thing with her as the national Dems did with Sen. Obama–and many people would have preferred her as the main candidate! At least Obama went to the same schools as the to-the-manor-born. You see it cuts both ways.

    • Seek

      Paul Weyrich tried this “parallel universe” strategy back in the Nineties — and with less than sterling results.

      • Steeloak

        I don’t know about that, but I do know that part of the Republican’s problem is that they need more men of strong principles like Ronald Reagan and fewer John McCains. More Lee Atwaters to show them how to be cool and win and fewer Karl Roves that run campaigns like accountants.

        • moneekwa

          It’s not even that. The Dems have this “hip” and “cool” thing down to a science. I have a public sector union job and I assure you, I see it daily, they also have this self-hate of whites or Americans that lets them at once feel self-imposed guilt, and then feel good about themselves for hating what they are. Obama got re-elected in part, I am convinced (I was observing at a polling place), due to voting fraud, and in part because our “bread and circuses” population thrives on sound bites and “reality” shows, and were too lazy to see though his lies. It needs to become cool to be a patriotic American. Good luck accomplishing that as a party that most young people see as, at best, old-fogeyish, and at worst evil and racist (despite the fact it was the Dems that had a monopoly on the KKK back in the day). You can’t realistically expect young people to embrace ideals that require effort. Most of them aren’t going to do the research, that’s “doing too much”, whereas a sound-bite from their favorite popstar icon is taken as gospel truth. This Syria thing has some Hollywood figures admitting they feel betrayed by Obama. Many won’t say so because to criticize him makes you “racist” but their heart-felt opposition to his war-mongering could make this an ideal time to gain some points there. I would vote for my neighbor’s goldfish over Obama or Hillary. They are traitors, but who cares in a world where it’s “cool” for Americans to hate America? It isn’t a “light” topic. We were supposedly, Bush said, winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan, but the fact we were simultaneously losing the hearts and minds of the upcoming generations seemed to go unnoticed, and now it may be too late.

  • Sheik Yerbouti

    The media today is run by people who fully subscribed to the “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” mantra decades ago. That message has infiltrated society completely through media. But tuning in has also sold other destructive messages. Consider the lack of racial advancement in the US when it seemed to be normalizing for a while. The Drop-Out mentality was cultivated and led to a massive expansion of gimme programming that left people with nothing to do but Tune-In. And Tune In is exactly what they did. It became a useless cycle where leisure was held in higher regard than the work that made it possible. Now we have a couple of generations who see only the beginning and the end product with virtually none of the steps in between getting air time. Remember when shows actually portrayed people working? These days the “work” environment is portrayed as a soap opera or as pure comedy. Who’d take something like “jobs” seriously with that kind of media-driven “education”. Time is compressed in the media. By the time people realize it, they have already blown their opportunities. Much like modern conservatives have done with their relationship with media in general.

  • Infidel4Ever

    Sadly, Mr. Tapson is right on. I was one of those who dismissed pop culture as “unserious” and irrelevant. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t know how we can regain all this lost ground but I agree we must try. It won’t be easy given how dominant the left is but for the sake of the nation, we must try.

  • WW4

    Geraghty says:

    “Politics may be entertaining at times, but politics and governing are supposed to be distinct from entertainment. Not everything in life is supposed to be a fun show! Sometimes the country’s problems and potential solutions are complicated, detailed, involve trade-offs, and require a bit of thinking to evaluate.”

    This ignores the massive popularity of conservative media, much more popular than liberal media, which entertains under the guise of politics. Conservatives don’t like “complicated, detailed, trade-offs,” they like bombast and snark. Rush Limbaugh is pure entertainment. The popular Fox programs (O’Reilly, Hannity, etc.) are very close to pure entertainment. With some exceptions, these are not serious venues for political discussion.

    But they portray themselves as serious. That’s a big part of the problem, and why they make such easy, rich targets for guys like Stewart and Colbert, who make no bones about being comedians/satirists.

    The fact is, conservativism doesn’t have advocates who understand how to present the philosophy in an original way. But they sure have a lot of people who attack liberalism. They sure have a lot of people who can “deconstruct” Obama’s “hidden” motivations. Why? Because it doesn’t take an ounce of original thought. Even Rush Limbaugh, the first and the best, the guy who invented all this–he’s not really an advocate. He spends most of his time preaching to a choir on liberal hypocrisies.

    Who’s the person to popularize conservativism? Who can fire the imagination about conservative solutions? That must be the real trick, because clearly, people who can attack Obama as a leftist are a dime-a-dozen. Everyone is looking for another Reagan–but there was only one. Ron Paul fires up the popular imagination a bit–but he gets marginalized (sometimes justly). Who’s the Milton Friedman?

  • Chris Shugart

    Mass media is enemy ground. That’s a given. But conservatives could learn something from Will Rogers. In his time there was no one more popular. He jabbed the political establishment without a hint of self-consciousness and with an occasional pinch of self-deprecation. The GOP establishment is probably not up to this task, as they’ve lost their sense of humor. I’d love to see a conservative in the pop culture mix who’s not afraid of bruising a few egos. But you need to be willing to take a punch if your going to throw one.

    • WW4

      Someone gets it! You are spot on in every point, particularly about sense of humor. Even farther, if you can find such a person/such people, mass media will no longer be “enemy ground.”

      And even if it were–it would be a “ratings draw.”

    • WW4

      People forget the most important figure in the conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, not only had a sense of humor, he could use it on his opponents without seeming derisive. And he took attacks to himself not with self-righteous outrage but with a head shake and a smile. This is a man who looked as his doctor after he’d been shot and said “I hope you’re a Republican!”

  • Durin

    A illustration of the need to “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” while also applying “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.” :)

  • popseal

    So called ‘pop culture’ always collapses in on itself. Beatniks’, hippies, new agers, and the current wave will break on the rocks of reality sooner or later. They can not be self sustaining as they always defy the laws of moral and social gravity. College classrooms now controlled by leftist and nihilists of every stripe are the real enemy, and I do mean enemy. Those sanctimonious, tenured fools destroy every one that buys their claptrap.

  • john_robinson

    Breitbart was right: it is ALL about the culture. We have to confront them there. If we can fill the low information voters’ minds with at least TRUTHFUL information, the country could be saved.

    • Seek

      Breitbart struck me as a Johnny-one-note hysteric.

  • Michael Hausam

    Culture is THE battleground for the war. The rest are merely battles. @MPHaus #HausRules

  • TheOrdinaryMan

    How do you elevate the level of discourse? You more or less have to start with the schools; but is there an even chance that conservative ideas and teachers are having an appreciable effect? Dumbing down the level of discourse is so…d–n…well, popular! Don’t see how conservatives can win, really.

  • cree

    The culture war has definitely been a tough fight. It’s a lot principles up against “if it feels good, do it.” If we are seeking results, what will a if you can’t beat them join them get us if we go down their road? Was Bono’s and Kutcher’s appeal cool or spot on reality that made a real difference? It would be true that Bono and Kutcher were “cool” before being credible to conservative principles. So if Mark is saying be cool but also being right works, he is on to something. However, how well does it work when credible proceeds cool?

    We should stay engaged within culture because we know from history society is much more content, stable and sure than all the short lived razzmatazz latest fads that are nothing but playing the game of what’s cool (like Obama’s Greek columns and punching the training bag on Oprah’s show, and…).

    As long as we are not the phony, pandering, deceitful clones of the left, yeah we should go for it; but to sacrifice principles to win the mush heads and the kool aid drinkers by emulating utopian do-gooder bleeding heart emotion controlled morons, we will be no better.

  • WhiteHunter

    We’re fools not to accept support from whatever source or segment offers it–especially from those whom “the young” listen to and admire, however few of those there are these days.

    The sneering condescension of the Party’s “elite”–“country club Republicans” like G.H.W. Bush, James Baker, and most of the RNC who are “embarrassed” by powerful, popular, groundswell movements like the Tea Party is a guaranteed formula for defeat; and at this point, we can’t afford any more defeats.

    The point is to WIN ELECTIONS, not to field candidates who are most comfortable “losing like a gentleman.”

    The Party’s stab-in-the-back of Katherine Harris when she ran for the U.S. Senate in Florida, and its idiotic embrace of RINO traitors like Specter and Chaffee “because their primary challengers can’t win” (according to Karl Rove, who had nothing to say when both Chaffee and Specter were defeated anyway by Democrat rivals in the general election) are the most important reasons why I throw every appeal from the RNC for unrestricted contributions straight in the trash as soon as they arrive in my mailbox.

  • lyndaaquarius

    America needs to follow Governor Palin’s wise counsel and ignore Karl Rove. Palin is the future,Rove is not.

  • GinoMachiavelli

    America will collapse as a country because melting pot has too many cracks in it.
    Soviet Union collapse was unthinkable just few years before it took place also.
    The causes of these collapses as old as times of Roman Empire which also collapsed.

    The upside is, it’s going to collapse around the ears of those, who worked so hard to cause it.

    Humans will need to organize themselves by respective priorities and values, and ability to defend them.

    Tower of Babel anyone? History is stubborn

    Hope I’m wrong.

  • Flowerknife_us

    Pop Culture is bought with trinkets just as the Dutch did with Long Island.

    Meritocracy Rules as our education system proves.

    Fundamental change= Thinking trumping knowing.