Stateside, a culture-war truce

Posted: Nov 23, 2001 12:00 AM
In a recent piece for the online magazine Slate, movie producer Lynda Obst ("Sleepless in Seattle," "The Fisher King") wrote, "If (Hollywood's) network, studio, and guild leaders are able to accomplish anything for the war effort or the Bush administration ... it is not for cynical reasons. It is because right now they are feeling, like you and me, heart-thumpingly patriotic." Wars, real ones, remind us that not every opponent is an enemy. In normal times, Don Nickles and Charles Schumer almost always disagree, often vehemently, but in these abnormal times, their differences are dwarfed by the necessity of standing united against terrorism and its enablers. In a Nov. 13 dispatch, Rick Lyman of the New York Times examined a related waning in one domestic conflict. He began, "One of the curious and possibly short-lived consequences of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 has been an apparent ceasefire in the cultural skirmishing that had previously pitted right against left and Washington against Hollywood." It's an interesting article, but from the onset it's a flawed argument. Lyman makes the same mistake as do so many others in seeing the culture war as a political "right against left" formulation. It just isn't. Some of Hollywood's fiercest critics come from the political left -- Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rep. Ed Markey, the late Steve Allen, et al. Conversely, one can easily find plenty on the right -- the Cato Institute leaps out as an example -- who are wholly unbothered by the havoc Tinseltown is wreaking on the popular culture. That said, Lyman was decidedly more clear-minded than some of those he quoted, especially Syracuse University pop-culture expert and soundbite dispenser Robert Thompson. "Up until Sept. 11," Thompson mused, "it was as though Hollywood was the whipping boy for almost any domestic problem that we had, from teenage pregnancy to school shootings ... But now you can't make the kind of arguments that you used to be able to make without allying yourself with the terrorists." This appeared to be too much even for Lyman, who added, "Conservatives might detect a little liberal opportunism masquerading as patriotism in that position." Allow me to expand a bit. This is the same Thompson who once said that the putrid MTV show "Jackass" "appeal(ed) to a sophisticated group of people." This man is not just an opportunist, he's a fellow with a paper trail of stupidity. Longtime Manhattan media figure Kurt Andersen, the co-founder, editor, or both, of such outlets as Spy magazine, New York magazine, and most recently, took a somewhat subtler shot at critics of the entertainment business. "Like so much cultural noise and chatter and froth pre-Sept. 11," opined Andersen, "most of what passed for the culture wars was a luxury of peaceful and prosperous, fat and happy times: a kind of ritualized, dopey, endless, WWF-style battle between Hollywood and Washington ... Since the America that we now find ourselves fighting a war to defend is the ultratolerant America of free expression and eccentric ideas and -- figuratively and literally -- rock 'n' roll, it would be awkward for the Joe Liebermans of the world to push their censorious agenda." To a significant extent, Andersen contradicts himself. His dripping sarcasm betrays his belief that the cultural war was largely trivial, yet now he's relieved that the war on terrorism has redounded to the disadvantage of "the Joe Liebermans of the world" and their -- groan -- "censorious agenda." Although I doubt that Andersen will grasp what I mean by this, in this debate Lieberman is actually a moderate. He recognizes what the extremes do not: The thing we call America historically has embraced freedom of speech (SET ITAL) and (END ITAL) self-restraint -- in other words, virtue. When the two are not in proper balance, which they certainly aren't in today's popular culture, this city on a hill shines a bit less brightly. It is the Thompsons and the Andersens of the world who are at the extreme. Nothing, nothing at all, will shake their determination to see the walls of traditional values torn down, replaced by a cultural nihilism loyal to no moral code. And they will callously use current events to press that agenda. Mark my words: In the coming days, the extremes will begin describing anyone committed to positive cultural change as "Taliban," "bin Laden-like," etc. Such is the loose language of the cultural left guided by the principle that ends justify means. One hopes and prays the message will fall on deaf ears.