Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A requiem to a lost sort of cultural conservatism

Long-time readers know that one of my obsessions on this blog is the change in the conservative movement from deploring (back in the 90's) to now promoting trash culture. I find it strangely fascinating, and perhaps symbolic of the movement's, um, movement over the past decade or two. I was rewatching the pilot of The West Wing not so long ago and found myself bemused by a scene where a major religious right operative is spouting off about the availability of pornography being evidence of a society in chaos. It just seemed so dated to me, watching it a decade after the fact. Nowadays, Fox News is more likely to be hosting a porn star on one of its programs as it is to bash pornography. I'm not sure why that is--the best I can come up with is that conservatives just gave up on trying to improve the culture and now only care about cutting themselves off from it, financially speaking. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out over time.

Anyway, I think the final brick in this particular wall was laid today, with WWE CEO Linda McMahon defeating former Rep. Rob Simmons in the Connecticut Republican Convention for the office of U.S. Senate, and his subsequent departure from the race. McMahon is basically unelectable, so far as I can tell. Her company is basically the embodiment of trash culture, filled to the brim with bimbos, violence, a reductive view of masculinity as being something akin to Conan the Barbarian, etc. We all know what she's about and what she's peddling. But I recall a time in the early 90's when I was growing up that practically every parent with whom I came into contact (by the way, I grew up here) thought that pro wrestling was just awful, had all sorts of bad messages for kids, and might well have been some sort of portent of The End Times. Clearly, this is hyperbolic, and I don't really see the threat level that those other people saw back then, but I do think it's generally garbage that kids are better off not watching. I think most people would agree. So, why did McMahon win? Evidently because she's richer than the other guy. And evidently more "conservative". Putting up with trash in exchange for more money--pretty much sums up the Republican credo these days, I guess. I'm just looking forward to when Al Goldstein runs for something as a Republican. Then the cycle will truly be complete.

I do think the culture wars, such as they were, are ending. I should clarify what I mean by this. Do I think that the right and the left are going to make peace and get along? Probably not soon. And there are still some divisive social issues out there, i.e. teh gayz and illegal immigrants, that will polarize for some time to come. But these are outliers. Conservatives seem to have absolutely no interest anymore in what sort of society we're running, aside from the tax structure. This is, I think, a sign that the hyperindividualistic mindset of the Randists has become the default for conservative self-expression, which I find an unambiguously negative development. Social issues beyond the big three (abortion, gay marriage, and immigration) are pretty much out of the public debate at this point. I suppose you can say that liberals won these battles--people aren't really banning films anymore, not that it would matter, since you can get anything on the internet now--but my sense was that, aside from the hypocrisy and lying and holier-than-thou posturing, the right's objections to stuff like pornography and pro wrestling and profanity on television were based, on some level, on an actual regard for people. That there was a time when conservatives had some vision of a society where some things were held sacred and not subjected to the cycle of transgression, cynicism, and banality that can so easily wind up eating our souls if we let them. Maybe I'm reading this wrong, and I was much younger at this particular point so I'm sure the picture I got back then had a few distortions in it, but all this did have a powerful effect on me at the time. I don't for a second believe in censoring any of this stuff, but I do think that society should be in the business of drawing certain lines, and unless one's vision of a perfect society involves Paris Hilton being a legitimate celebrity, surely we all must, too.

So, despite my own avowed (and celebrated) liberalism, I've always had a certain streak of this sort of sentiment buried deep down. Cultural conservatism of a sort, though I'm not even sure that covers it. My values are fundamentally liberal--free speech, free press, and all the rest--but undergirded by a belief in the importance of community and a sense that, since everyone wants to give themselves away to something, it's important to create a society that is worthy of receiving them. This doesn't mean that I want to bring back improvised, illegal abortions or keep gays and lesbians from tying the knot--indeed, I am enthusiastically in favor of the opposite policies in both cases. But I have always been of the belief that society--and culture--are enormous influences on our lives and need to be monitored and pushed back upon occasionally. The culture wars, such as they were, used to be between cultural liberals who believed wholeheartedly in free expression and sexual liberation, and cultural conservatives who had some skepticism toward these enterprises. Now it just seems like, aside from a few residual and emotional issues, the right has just moved on and no longer cares (or thinks they can't change things). I'm not sure what this all means, but it really does feel like we're living in a very different era from the one portrayed in that decade-old West Wing episode.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.