Engaging Popular Culture


I’m an avid movie fan – not a total film freak, but I usually get out to see the major releases, especially during the summer and winter blockbuster seasons.  I thought I’d offer reviews of the big movies at HUMAN EVENTS throughout the summer.  Invariably, someone in the comments to each review has grumbled that we shouldn’t waste pixels on such frivolity, when there’s serious doom and gloom to brood over.

I beg to differ, and not just because it’s good to mix a little fun with the discussion of serious issues.  Popular culture is important.  Its impact on the many people who imbibe great quantities of it will not be lessened because conservatives sneer at their favorite cinematic beverages.

Culture is a form of language.  People use pop-culture imagery to communicate.  Complex ideas are easily shared when we can refer back to widely-shared cultural experiences.  This has always been the case, but modern media technology allows those experiences to be spread with astonishing speed and reach.  What percentage of the population actually read the most popular books before the 20th century, and how long did it take those books to find their way into the hands of readers?  How long did it take for tales spread by singers and story-tellers to circulate through widely scattered towns and villages, and how distorted did the tales become as they traveled over the horizons?

Now we’ve got movies that sell hundreds of thousands of tickets on the opening weekend, and are quickly discussed and disseminated through Internet forums, increasing the scope and endurance of pop-culture experiences.  We have television programs with millions of viewers.  The plots, characters, and memorable dialogue from these entertainments are swiftly written into our cultural software. 

This is particularly true with young people.  It is difficult to communicate effectively with them if you don’t know who Captain Jack Sparrow or the X-Men are.  In a sense, you’re not really speaking the same language as someone, if you don’t share their cultural idioms.  Imagine a computer program that speaks and understands perfect English joining in an online chat forum.  How long would it take for the cultural references shared and understood by all the human participants to utterly baffle the artificial intelligence?

Conservatives are often encouraged to begin making movies and TV shows, to provide their own cultural contributions.  There have been some recent successes along these lines.  It is also important to watch the far greater amount of pop culture generated with a liberal bent, to understand what themes and messages are being communicated to audiences. 

The Left places great importance on their control of popular culture – read Ben Shapiro’s new book Primetime Propaganda to see just how much effort they put into it.  They believe they made a wise investment.  For conservatives to wrinkle their noses in distaste, and abandon movie and television screens to the Left without a fight, would be cultural suicide.

Examples of pop culture’s political power are easy to come by.  A lot of very silly liberal memes have been pushed into the American consciousness through entertainment.  Global warming propaganda is an obvious example, along with the anti-colonialist strain of multicultural dogma, which holds that Western culture is uniquely inferior to the more authentic, spiritual, and wise cultures it has brutally subjugated.  The leftist caricature of evil, greedy corporations, which must be restrained and controlled by powerful, compassionate government, is plugged into the American mind through movies in which the evil corporations have hit squads, and their headquarters sit atop chambers of horror.

To this day, many people believe a number of things said by Tina Fey in comedy skits were actual utterances by Sarah Palin.  This isn’t just low-information voters – such mistakes are sometimes made by news reporters.  Popular culture can be powerful enough to over-write objective reality.

Liberals openly boast of the political messages seeded into even the most insubstantial entertainments.  Back when the Star Wars prequels arrived in theatres, George Lucas was fond of turning up at film festivals to boast of how they incorporated all sorts of Really Deep Thoughts about the horrors of the Bush administration.  Liberals were fond of quoting one of the few memorable lines of dialogue from these films, which was Natalie Portman’s observation that “this is how liberty dies: to thunderous applause.”  How much liberty has died since George Bush left office, and who has been applauding?  It’s important to understand what liberal directors think their movies are saying, in order to dismantle them with efficiency and good cheer. 

Even movies that have no real political agenda can become politically significant, especially when the Left doesn’t like them.  Battle: Los Angeles, recently released on home video, is an example.  Its characters express no political opinions – the humans are busy trying not to get killed, and the alien invaders do all their talking with guns.  It was nevertheless savaged by liberal critics, some of whom suddenly became experts in xenobiology and pronounced it less “realistic” than the last dozen Hollywood alien invasions.  It wasn’t the aliens that bothered these liberals, it was the depiction of the Marines.  The film’s admiring portrayal of their courage, adaptability, and determination in the face of an initially superior enemy was a political statement to the Left.

The discerning consumer of popular culture is learning a language spoken by a lot of people who have very little taste or patience for intricate political discussions.  A lot of those folks vote.  To reach them, it is helpful to understand the ideas transmitted to them through pop culture.  If you want to show them the truth, you must teach yourself to see the illusions placed before them. 

It’s even possible for conservatives to communicate effectively with Hollywood, if we become articulate critics of their output.  They are rapacious capitalists, you know.