Monday, December 27, 2004

MINISTRY OF CULTURE. Ah me, the culture wars again. It is generally hard to figure out what Reihan Salam is trying to say, due perhaps to the dilatory influence on his prose of (Please, please don't let him near a copy of Vice magazine.) But he is sufficiently clear in his trifurcated essay on culture wars, in which he suggests that, to reclaim the culture, conservatives (by which he seems to mean the Republican Party) must
...break the stranglehold of Big Media by reversing copyright laws that stifle free expression. Strengthen the hand of the innovative entrepreneurs behind peer-to-peer networks, spread-spectrum radio, and other technologies that have the potential to restore creative power to individuals and communities. Over time, you’ll see a more diverse media culture that will be far more in tune with -- here it comes -- our shared values. Larry Lessig’s notion of a "free culture" has a lot to offer conservatives vexed by the cultural hegemony of a narrow corporate elite.
This is meant to mark a distinction, I guess, between the Pat Buchanan types who want to "take back our culture," as Buchanan famously put it in 1992, by armed military intervention, and those like Salam, who want to use cool technology.

We might call this perspective "managerial." The part of actual culture -- you know, books, movies, songs, that stuff -- is left hanging as Salam concerns himself with the dissemination thereof by a "Benevolent Despot." We do get a feeble hint of what he and others in his less-miliaristic faction of culture warriors have in mind as to the content end. Among the very few of Salam's supporting documents that are fully available online (which is odd, considering his faith in the creative commons) is a Ross Douthat essay declaring that bitching about bad culture is a loser's game, and that conservatives have to go beyond preaching-to-the-choir, Michael Moore Hates America -type gestures, such as he saw at the American Film Renaissance Festival, and "roll up their sleeves and start writing some entertaining television shows and movies and books of their own."

So all that remains is for somebody to write good conservative entertainments. You Douthat, and Salam Reihan and his P2P hipsters will do the rest!

When you read stuff like this, you have to wonder if any of these guys have ever played in a rock and roll band or tried to write a story or a poem or done anything that was purely creative. They perhaps believe that we all show up at weekly meetings where the latest meme is announced, and go forth and sing about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and other Satanic things that will achieve our dark end of corrupting the culture.

Maybe they think that way because that's the only way they are able to think about anything. Maybe, being would-be managers rather than creators of art, they don't know what makes people want to be artists. They only know that such people are useful to them, and believe that, just as you can get actors to perform in commercials and musicians to make crappy pop records and draughtsmen to provide illustrations for corporate brochures, you can enlist artists to make conservative art. When a Christian commenator on Douthat suggests that conservatives "build a cultural infrastructure that will rival the political one that has contributed to so much success at the ballot box," you are hearing the voice of the manager, ordering HR to round up some talent.

The joke is that there are certainly plenty of very fine artists who could do something "conservative" enough without being bribed. Whit Stillman, for example, has made some films (Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco) that would seem right up their street. Stillman hasn't made a movie since 1998. Where's Rupert Murdoch? Where's Sun Myung Moon? These guys could bankroll a full-blown Hollywood production for him.

Maybe they actually do have some idea of what artists are like, and know they mightn't necessarily get from them a result they could approve. Even Sam Goldwyn and Harry Cohn had trouble with the talent, and they weren't even commanding that they make movies showing the folly of the estate tax. Conservatives who strongly approve, for instance, The Incredibles, which they seem to see as some sort of Ayn Rand allegory, usually fail to note that the film was made by Brad Bird, whose Cold War fable The Iron Giant was so annoying to conservative sentiments that the New York Post actually ran an editorial denouncing it ("Hollywood is taking up the cudgels to maintain the left-wing fiction that those who hunted Communists were hopelessly paranoid").

Creative types are famously pesky that way. And so, if Salam is any kind of harbringer, we may expect to see more culture-war managers devising ever more intricate distribution schemes, economic models, and business plans for right-wing cultural product, and waiting for that killer screenplay about The Joe McCarthy Nobody Knew to turn up, summoned by the invisible hand of the marketplace.

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