Yesterday I came across an article about Russell Simmons on Salon’s website, and it occurred to me how dramatically the Culture Wars have changed in the past few years. For most of my life this type of missive against a sexually explicit video would have come from a conservative organization like Focus On The Family or the American Family Association. But if you peruse conservative websites, you won’t find Simmons’ video mentioned, aside from a brief blurb on Fox News.
I know that a lot of people will say that race changes the dynamic of the controversy, and that’s true. But it had me thinking: what happened to the constant barrage of conservative outrage against media that offends their sensibilities? Why are liberals nowadays so much more effective at communicating their outrage at the scandal of the week?
Think about it. One of the predominant narratives since the 50’s has been the tension between conservatives and media that they feel mocks and insults their worldview. The examples are countless: Elvis’s hips; The Beatles saying they were more popular than Jesus (rock music in general has been a constant source of consternation), as well as movies like The Last Temptation Of Christ and Dennis Franz’s scandalous butt shot on NYPD Blue. The last big cultural firestorm I can recall was the supernatural dangers of Harry Potter.
I’m sure that readers can think of much better examples that I’ve listed, and that’s the point: for decades, conservatives had a 24/7 outrage machine going. Liberal outrages tended to be more short-lived, and most of them could be neutralized with accusations of political correctness. Just to confirm my hunch, I checked out the above websites (as well as the Family Research Council and World Magazine). I couldn’t find any recent articles about an offending musician or TV show. That’s amazing!
I figured this puzzle warranted some thought, so here are my current theories:
1. For conservatives, the Culture Wars have shifted to more substantive terrain.
I know that sounds strange, but if you look at the websites above, you’ll see that (for the most part) they’ve moved beyond the trivial. They’re focused on questions that impact our lives at a deeper level: gay marriage, gay rights within the Boy Scouts, and religious expression. Even though I disagree with their position on these issues, they’re a big jump from warnings about which movies to avoid or whether the Dixie Chicks have betrayed America.
2. The Wars have shifted because Conservatives no longer assume America shares its values.
I’ll admit I’m iffy on this one. Certainly conservatives still speak as if they do assume this. The Tea Party’s rhetoric is founded on it. But I think that Al Mohler’s post-election column hits closer to what’s really going on in the conservative psyche. It doesn’t seem as though they truly believe that that they have a Moral Majority anymore. As a result, their activism has been focused on a big-picture attempt to plead their case for a conservative worldview. Whereas it used to be enough to accuse TV shows of promoting the “homosexual agenda, ” nowadays support for gays is so widespread that they have to backtrack and try to justify their animosity towards gays. Focusing on the big stuff means letting the little battles go.
3. Big Media is more in tune with their values.
Back in the 2000’s I noticed that most of the flash points in pop culture revolved around the behavior of young women. The age of misbehaving rock stars was over, and it had been replaced by gossipy outrage over Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsey Lohan. Even then the scale of controversy was trending down. Whereas conservatives used to worry about Led Zeppelin spreading Satanism, now they were worried about Paris Hilton’s blase materialism.
Perhaps it’s a temporary phase, but we seem to have arrived at an era of Domesticated Media: Rock is dead, rappers stopped singing about killing cops, and the biggest movies are superhero movies that affirm traditional story lines of masculine heroism, responsibility, and good vs evil.
When celebrities do get in trouble, it’s usually because of a poorly thought out tweet, and they always apologize profusely. Liberals scorn Anthony Weiner’s sexual misadventures as zealously as they do, if not moreso. Whereas drug addiction used to be glamorized, now shows like Celebrity Rehab show addiction in all its pathetic, camera-hungry glory.
4. Media fragmentation isn’t conducive to conservative outrage.
A few months ago a Facebook friend of mine posted a petition trying to get network TV to clean up its prime time shows. It was the kind of thing conservatives used to love getting behind. Instead her fellow conservatives gently dismissed her efforts, pointing out that sex and violence are so widespread that getting four channels to fall in line meant nothing if a thousand more channels were broadcasting salacious fare at the same time. The difference was that my friend was a homeschooling mom who never subscribed to cable. She’s still living in an Old Media world. Nowadays the audience for any one show is smaller, and the cultural influence of those shows is also smaller.
Same goes for music. Beyonce is probably the biggest star of the moment, but her influence pales in comparison to Madonna or Nirvana’s.
5. Media fragmentation makes it easier to ignore the unwanted noise.
Epistemic closure is a bane of our times. It’s a big reason why it’s so difficult for the Left to engage the Right; each side consumes its own news and entertainment, so a person can easily get by without ever being exposed to the ideas and values of the other side. Services like Netflix mean that my homeschooling friend has the capacity to just bring up the latest family-friendly offering for her kids any time she wants to. No one is stuck having to choose between the network options.
In terms of the culture wars, this means that conservatives are often only exposed to controversial media when a sympathetic news source writes an article about it. The more organizations like Focus On The Family emphasize politics and advice columns, the less controversial media they are exposed to.
6. The scattershot nature of the web is much more conducive to liberal outrage.
To me the biggest contrast between liberal and conservative activism is their attention span. Liberals get revved up for presidential elections while conservatives keep their energy up for off-year elections, too. Liberals are prone for small-scale squabbles within their ranks, while conservatives find it easier to ignore shortcomings and close ranks for a common cause. Evangelicals ignore Glenn Beck’s Mormonism because he’s rallying the troops, so to say. They don’t care if he’s going to hell; he’s useful for their needs.
Liberals, on the other hand, parse whether Caitlin Moran is feminist enough, or whether the Newsroom communicates liberal ideas effectively. I’m not debating the merits of these dialogues. My point is that both of these were quick but testy discussions that garnered the desired results (i.e. apologies and promises to behave better and write more effectively). Then liberals are on to the next internal debate.
I think a lot of this happens because modern media is ADD by nature. Controversies rarely last more than four days, let alone a week, and celebrities are so conditioned to the “offend-apologize-pray for forgiveness cycle” that it’s an extremely effective means of getting your message out when you’re upset (provided your target self-identifies as liberal.) Conservatives don’t have this apology culture because they’re willing to forgive the most flagrant transgressions.
7. Conservatives have decided that it doesn’t matter if they lose the Culture Wars.
Conservatives are predisposed in long term battles. They’re still fighting to shut down Obamacare; they’re still trying to turn the clock back against gay acceptance. They’re still fighting to get Roe V Wade overturned or gutted to the point where an abortion is impossible to acquire. They lose these internet scuffles or ignore them outright, so the liberal tendency towards the short-term infighting plays into their hands. Conservatives know they are faced with a demographic crisis, so they focus on redistricting to neutralize minority growth and having more kids so they can groom future true believers. Even though there are many passionate holdouts, many conservatives shifted their focus from fighting gay acceptance to persuading the faithful to stay strong.
From the conservative point of view, who cares what policies Obama advocates if they can stop them cold? Who cares about the growing minority population when they can rig state elections so they stay in power and make it harder for minorities to vote? Focus on the Family doesn’t need to heap scorn on Beyonce because they’re fighting a bigger fight. And while liberals fuss over whether Caitlin Moran is a true feminist, conservatives are learning that the Legislative Wars matter more than the Culture Wars.