« Um... | Main | Faith-Based Public Policy »

Right Track / Wrong Track

Ed Kilgore describes Democrats as the "wrong track" party on cultural concerns and then elaborates:

We're the "wrong track" party when it comes to the cultural direction of the country, and we have to decide whether to bravely swim upstream out of loyalty to hip-hop and Michael Moore and Grand Theft Auto IV and Hollywood campaign contributions, or do something else, like at least expressing a little ambivalence about it all. Changing the subject is cowardly and insulting no matter how you look at it.
I agree that changing the subject is cowardly and insulting. And as I said of a similar idea from Robert Wright, if this is what it takes to get a party that doesn't make policy from the Gamma Quadrant back into power, it's a price I'm happy to pay. But on the substantive merits I think this is a bad idea, and I think there are perfectly good reasons what could have for not wanting presidential candidates to run as scolds-in-chief that have nothing to do with "Hollywood campaign contributions." Some of us, for example, like hip-hop. At least some hip-hop. Certainly I like Grand Theft Auto. It's not actually clear to me that Michael Moore (who I don't like) has anything to do with cultural decline. Why would I want to vote for a man who seems to genuinely belive that Vice City is going to inspire people to move to Miami and start stealing cars in order to better advance my career as a hit man? Or who doesn't understand that much as I love The Wire, I'm not about to start grinding in West Baltimore? Who doesn't grasp that, in general, it's not the purpose of art to edify and promote good values?

Now in the interests of full disclosure my father is a paid agent of the decadent Hollywood elite, so maybe my views on this should just be discounted. But the MPAA isn't giving me any cash. If any rich, rich movie stars out there want to support this blog and my apologia for your assault on mainstream American culture, though, here's a PayPal button:

November 12, 2004 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Right Track / Wrong Track:

» Talk About Cowardly from Oliver Willis
NewDonkey says

We're the "wrong track" party when it comes to the cultural direction of the country, and we have to decide whether to bravely swim upstream out of loyalty to hip-hop [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 12, 2004 3:36:51 PM


I do believe it would be in the best interests of Democrats to go after pornography, but to do it in such a way to make a schism in the Republican party. Most money off of porn comes from distribution and it goes to some very large corportations. Basically large hotel chains, cable companies, and sattelite networks. Have Lieberman or someone of his ilk make a big push to get porn out of most hotel rooms. Undoubtley a bad law and probably unconsitutional, but it would cause the Republicans to abandon their socail conservatives to serve business interests.

Posted by: Rob | Nov 12, 2004 11:42:28 AM

And of course someone should know there is no GTA IV before speaking on the subject.

Posted by: Rob | Nov 12, 2004 11:45:05 AM

Matt, I disagree because I think that the Democrats in general have done a horrible job of addressing the cultural angst that affects even them.

Look, I'm a 37-year-old married father of a 3-year-old boy who cannot possibly fathom voting for someone who, for example, seems a little too eager to send kids like my own in the violent Middle Eastern maw. But at the same time, I'm terrified at the idea that my kid is going to grow up in this culture. The culture on the whole seems bankrupt to me, and I'm not talking about abortion, I'm not talking about gay marriage.

I'm not looking for some sort of American Taliban, but dammit, why can't the Democratic party be the champion of, say, tougher enforcement of existing FCC rules? Why couldn't a Democratic president use the bully pulpit to express sadness at the fact that the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aquiliera have come to define sexuality in our culture?

We might dismiss this blithely and say that we need to focus on more pragmatic and immediate concerns, but these are the things a lot of people are worrying about. And when we fail to address them in any manner, we fail to be relevant to this angst-ridden aspect of people's lives.

Posted by: Bgno64 | Nov 12, 2004 11:52:19 AM

That's a little too nitpicky, Rob, since we're up to GTA V at this point, even if the last two have included subtitles in lieu of numbers.

Posted by: mark | Nov 12, 2004 11:52:49 AM

It is the overall ethos that is created with your references. None individually causes a problem, but all together cause a large problem!

Posted by: Noodles | Nov 12, 2004 11:55:56 AM

I'm reminded of Danny Goldberg's book about how the Democratic party is losing the support of young people by trying to mimic the Republicans' ceasless moralizing. Also, Kilgore mentioning "Grand Theft Auto IV" (which doesn't actually exist) is just the kind of obliviousness to youth culture that Goldberg warns about.

Posted by: aelph | Nov 12, 2004 11:56:05 AM

What gets me is that it's good old fashioned red-state bootstrap entrepeneurism that's responsible for the "decline of American morality". People don't get it - the reason Hollywood pumps out all this oversexed, violent, amoral crap is because IT MAKES MONEY. Despite what they say to the contrary, it's what people want - and it's the votes they make with their wallets that count. You moralists want to reduce the toxicity of our culture (which as a potential father scares the crap out of me): STOP PAYING TO SEE JERRY BRUCKHEIMER MOVIES. Start going to see wholesome family stuff and morally edifying dramas of the late 19th century Russian aristocracy. It's really that simple.

Posted by: Greg | Nov 12, 2004 12:04:46 PM

Thanks for posting my thoughts so well. As Pogo famously said, "we have met the enemy and he is us".

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Nov 12, 2004 12:08:57 PM

What Greg said. What Rob said. I'd be willing to bet GTA sales are just as robust in red counties as they are in blue ones. And the senior management and major shareholders of the producers and distributors of this stuff donate their spare change to Rethugs, not Dems.

That we get the blame for the decline of 'american culture' is yet another example of hideously bad framing on the part of Dems.

Posted by: flory | Nov 12, 2004 12:10:47 PM

Fact is the top money making movies of all time are G or PG. People are voting morality with their money. They're just being ignored.

Posted by: Warthog | Nov 12, 2004 12:15:57 PM


The problem is that there is a significant difference between your ability to bracket off entertainment from reality and the ability of the average American. It has a lot to do with class and education.

Make no mistake about it, there is a correlation between violence in our culture and supporting violence at the highest levels of power. There is a correlation between the increasing stupidity of our cultural products and stupidity in the voting booth. Which one is causing which is far harder to say, but it is undoubtedly silly to act as if entertainment has no ethical or educational obligations. The illusion on nonresponsibility runs, it seems to me, counter to the bourgeois traditions that have held up liberal democracy in the past.

Posted by: ludwig | Nov 12, 2004 12:20:13 PM

People don't get it - the reason Hollywood pumps out all this oversexed, violent, amoral crap is because IT MAKES MONEY.

This is the contradiction of traditional conservatism that I've never understood. Unregulated free markets are completely incompatible with conservative social norms. Markets go where the money is. If someone is willing to pay for porn, someone will make porn. The only way to bring about the social conservative utopia is with government regulation on the market. What's John Holbo's line again? Something like "You can't cheer 'go, go capitalist creative destruction' while trying to stand athwart history yelling 'stop!'"

Fact is the top money making movies of all time are G or PG. People are voting morality with their money. They're just being ignored.

This doesn't make sense. You're saying that because the market for G/PG movies is the largest that the market for R movies doesn't exist? That's idiotic, R movies make plenty of money, or Hollywood would stop making them, pure and simple.

Posted by: aelph | Nov 12, 2004 12:29:28 PM

I also agree with Rob that Dems should go after pornography. And go after sleazy sexuality as Bgno64 suggests. IMO, liberals are in a better position to attack trashy culture in general as the heirs of bourgeois elitism. Attacking trash without slipping into censorship is totally consistent with humanism and feminism.

Finally, of course GTA sells just as well in red states as in blue states. GTA may be a hell of a lot of fun, but it is arguably part of that complex web of relationships that led the nation to vote for the more brutal candidate. Whether I'm wrong or not (and I could very well be), Dems should have this debate.

Posted by: ludwig | Nov 12, 2004 12:30:52 PM

I think Digby had the best take on this idea, which boils down to "If you give a pig a pancake..."

Posted by: Sven | Nov 12, 2004 12:37:21 PM


That list is wrong, the current top 10 US grossers has 5 PG-13's in it including Titanic at No 1 and the R-rated Passion of the Christ at no 9. See here for the current list.

Posted by: David C | Nov 12, 2004 12:38:04 PM

There seems to be an implicit assumption here that liberals are powerless to influence the cultural track. Personally, I think we've just been very lazy. We expect the entertainment industry to propagandize our values passively, while the religious right has been taking the best innovations in film, music--even video games I think--and using these actively to propagandize their values. What's our competitive advantage?

The right has also managed to claim monopoly on time-tested ways to stir the human spirit: ancient scripture (Bible) and tribal identity (patriotism). The left has disarmed unilaterally on these two fronts, more or less on grounds that these are irrational and therefore sort of icky. But what could be more irrational than failing to accept the empirically proven value of these things?

So we disarm unilaterally on the one hand, and let our enemies have our best weapons on the other. Is it any wonder we've been getting beat?

I think that we need to view the entire "red state" region as a mission area, in the sense of a proselytizing religion, and start fighting for real to gain mindshare. It's not obvious to me why "Believe in Jesus or go to hell" is a more appealing principle than "Live as if this life is the whole deal."--which, by the way, is not "live like there's no tomorrow and like nobody else matters." There is a disciplined, sustainable middle ground of Epicurean moderation. The American exemplar ought to be somebody like Ben Franklin.

I was about to elaborate on how to do it, but let me just say it's a two pronged approach. One is to provide genuine, volunteer oriented help to those with problems (e.g. addiction, lack of job skills) that has a secular but non-governmental stamp. The other is, when possible, to cause the weak believers feel genuine shame about basing their values on evangelical claptrap, and to expose their leaders as charlatans by any means available (scandals, when possible, are especially good).

The latter won't reach everyone, but we have to face our big disadvantage. People who go to Bible study weekly (or more often) really do feel superior and believe they are on a morally right path. It is essential to cause them to begin to doubt it. The most effective approach is not going to be to make them empathize with subcultures they find alien (gays or Wicca, say) but to expose them to moderate Christian alternatives as a start on the path to a more universalist worldview.

By the way, all of this would be very hard work, and I despair of any serious effort to take up such a project. I'm just saying that that the religious right has put a lot of work into the opposite project, and we can't just be lazy and expect the disembodied spirit of Enlightenment thought to come charging in like the cavalry to save us.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Nov 12, 2004 12:44:23 PM

I'm with the free market explanations/reasoning here. Free market capitalism is antithetical to just about every cultural value the evangelical community holds dear. Just how someone can complain about the destruction of small town values and then go buy GTA or Bad Boys II at Wal-Mart -- and not see the connection -- is beyond me.
At the same time, the really entrenched evangelicals do see this connection. Look at PAX telvision, Christian rock, a growing community of born-again movie production companies. The evangelicals have responded to mainstream culture by creating a subculture of their own -- like punk only with much, much more money and Jesus.
These people need Hollywood as a propaganda and promotional tool. Bashing "godless Hollywood" is probably the most effective tool in the PAX sales departments marketing arsenal.
How can the Dems win the cultural issues? I say progressives need to shed a little light back on this Christian culture. Every 18 year old should know that a vote for Bush is a vote for Christian rock in regular rotation on MTV.

Posted by: frame | Nov 12, 2004 12:54:26 PM

Fuck this shit. I mean, why pussyfoot around the edges of what people really want in their national discourse:

But these sensational crime stories are never what they seem to be on the surface, and to dismiss them is to ignore a window into the popular psyche. Laci Peterson disappeared at the end of 2002, when the country was in the throes of the war debate. The case was classified as a murder investigation in March 2003, just as we went to war. The bodies of Peterson and her child washed ashore on April 13 and 14, just days after the fall of Baghdad.

In short, the Peterson case runs exactly parallel to the war, and you might say it has served as a kind of populist release valve, a way of escape. On one hand, you've got death and mayhem on a large scale in a strange, faraway place, and no end in sight. On the other, you've got death and mayhem on a small scale -- where the characters are simple and somewhat familiar, the judicial process is so familiar it's become a cultural ritual, and the question couldn't be clearer: guilty or innocent?

News isn't binary, and anyone can follow both the Peterson news and the war. Still, one story has Middle America riveted, while the other flits strangely in and out. And that might tell us something about the will of the people.

The first party to rollout a Peterson Platform has 2008 sewn up.

Posted by: Sven | Nov 12, 2004 1:04:46 PM

We do know that the creators and programmers of the GTA series are based in the pit of perversion that is... Edinburgh, yes?

Posted by: ahem | Nov 12, 2004 1:19:28 PM

I don't disagree with any of the above points about the way the free market is a tool which conservative voters put into the hands of exactly those people and agendas which religious voters complain so often about in vain. But that connection will not be recognized as long as progressives refuse to acknowledge the decision-making context of religious believers as a valid one. It's not that we need to start condemning Sex in the City; it's that we need to respect the sense of limits which might lead someone to validly criticize Sex in the City. Bgno64, Rob, and others are right that there is plenty of room for egalitarian values to push their way into the context within which many conservative voters make up their minds (via attacking pornography, etc.), and by so doing peel off a few red-staters from the Republican party, folks that aren't incipient theocrats, but want to create a particular kind of environment for their kids to grow up in just the same.

Sure, one can point out incoherencies in the conservative position; that's easy. But writing it off because of such is progressive suicide. (More here.)

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox | Nov 12, 2004 1:20:17 PM


" it's that we need to respect the sense of limits which might lead someone to validly criticize Sex in the City"

"Respect" is a very ambiguous term. What does that mean, that we can't use counter-arguments against religious arguments? That we can't make an epistemological point when countering a religious argument ( if we are allowed to counter religious arguments )?

Are there any argument that we can deem invalid?

Let's say I'm an evangelical Baptist and I say gays should be put in prison. Now, show me how you would want liberals to handle that, to respect the sense of limits as you say.

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Nov 12, 2004 1:26:52 PM

1. What has Michale Moore to do with cultural values at all? Has questioning the government become a negative cultural value? Is hip hop more depressing than Britny Spears? If people don't want to see violent movies, they need to remember seeing them is optional. How is it that liberalism is responsible for violent movies? The right wing is the one that thinks killing people is a good answer for a multitude of problems. Seems to me that the right wing value is: if it makes money, do it. I believe the cultural value that bothers most people is not that of the entertainment industry which is actually controlled by the taste and judgment of people, but the one this country has clearly adopted: Business and business profits are the most important values that the nation holds. I think people sense this, and it results in the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with the everyman for himself philosophy which has become standard, personal responsibility in the sense of taking care of #1. People can't questions the economic system which feels so natural, so they blame it on gay people or Michael Moore (whose major sin has been to poke holes in the fabric of their worldview).

Posted by: Cathy | Nov 12, 2004 1:32:50 PM

This is one of the most asinine ideas I've heard since the election. Revive the Democratic Party with what - the specter of Tipper Gore?

First, any attempt to move to the right on what amounts to censorship will fail - the Republicans will outflank us every time, waiting to decry or ban something more and more innocuous. Every move towards the center - even on issues that matter like fiscal and defense policy - has been deflated by a Republican charge to the right. If Kilgore thinks that THIS time we'll beat them by caving in, he is hopelessly deluded. Better by far to stick to our guns, and add some spine and some moral authority to our beliefs. Say that the government has no business regulating what we see, read, and listen to - and have the courage to say that with some conviction.

The Republicans win because they define the terms of the debate, not because they've got the issues on their side. They spin bigotry,
state-sponsored ignorance and censorship as moral imperatives. Why can't we put some righteous indignation behind equality, education, civil liberties, and freedom from state interference?

As long as we keep backing into the mushball middle - and I love Kilgore's invitation to "ambivalence," that'll play big with the values crowd - we'll have the worst of both worlds. We need to start acting like Democrats again.

Posted by: C Mas | Nov 12, 2004 1:32:53 PM

Oh, good fucking grief, folks. The easiest way to knock down an argument you don't agree with is to cast it as an easy to knock down straw dog at the far extreme, and that's what you all are doing here.

There are plenty of moral/cultural issues upsetting both religious and secular people that plenty of Democrats also either are or should be pretty steamed or at least uncomfortable about. For example, a pop-cultural approach to sexuality that frequently reduces women to sex objects should offend both conservatives and Democrats who care about equity for women, not to mention anyone who has a teenage daughter. Yeah, we disagree radically with conservatives on what a better world should look like (they'd say chastity, we'd probably say a more equitable society for women and celebration of women's sexuality outside its functional value for men's entertainment and better sex ed), or what the solutions should be. But the fact that we disagree with them on the answers doesn't mean we shouldn't agree with them that there's a problem. Unfortunately, Democrats have fallen into a trap where, because we don't like conservative answers to social/cultural issues of concern we cede the whole issue, rather than pitching our competing responses. This not only lets conservatives win these issues without a fight and hurts us politically, it's also a abdication of moral responsibility in some cases. No one thinks having an abortion is good for women, but because the conservative response is so reprehensible, liberals haven't done as much as they could to support progressive policies (economic, sex ed, cultural, what have you) that could prevent women and teenage girls from having to experience that in the first place. If we actually admitted that we also think at least some of the things conservatives and parents are upset about are a problem, and then pitched progressive solutions that reflect our values, I'm betting a significant share of folks would think our responses are better than the conservative line (basically just censorship and abstinence). But we're not giving them alternatives here.

At the very least, Democrats should be more welcoming to members of the party who are concerned about moral issues in entertainment, culture, what have you, and take a page from the Republican playbook to highlight these folks in public forums so that voters see Democrats don't hate their values and stand for an amoral society, regardless of what the party's membership as a whole feels.

Posted by: flip | Nov 12, 2004 1:43:08 PM


I'd say, "Why do you want to put gays in prison?" They'd respond by saying, perhaps, that the Bible tells them so. I'd reply by saying, "Where?" Then we could get into an argument about interpretation, an argument that presumably would lead to their articulating concerns the moral health of the nation, etc. Would I cave in on putting gays in prison? Of course not. But is it impossible to talk with people who want to put gays into prison? Someone of them, surely; those that reject the liberal order entirely will simply have to be shut out of the process, for all the rest of our sakes. But not all of those who espouse that view are unwilling to talk liberally about things; some of them are just overreacting to the fear that the guv'mint will force their local elementary school gym teacher to introctrinate their kids in the mechanics of gay sex. A stupid fear, one might suspect. But when you live in a context in which you feel like you're fighting a cultural tide, such overreactions are understandable, if not necessarily defensible.

If anything, I think recognizing the legitimacy of the sort of limits within which many Americans wish to live actually increases progressives' ability to articulate a different cultural standard, because who knows, you might even occasionally find common ground to stand on (as flip points out). Whereas the more usual liberal shying away from this whole morass leads to Senator Kerry condescending pleading "Gosh, I want you to know just how much I respect your values." That's not real respect; that's how you talk to a child, not an adult.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox | Nov 12, 2004 1:48:02 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.