As Pop Culture Leans Left, Does it Really Matter?

Writers on Strike in Boston
Jaime Paglia (creator of Eureka), Rob Kutner (writer for The Daily Show), and Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) at the Writers Guild of America Rally in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass., on Friday, December 14th, 2007. Photo from Brad Searles

Last Friday there was a rally by striking writers in Boston. Joss Whedon, the Creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the big names at the event. A friend of mine asked me if I had ever seen the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy gets pulled into a demonic sweatshop. Basically it goes like this -- runaway kids are kidnapped from Skid Row, dragged into this netherworld sweatshop, worked until they are nearly-dead, and then spit back onto the streets of Los Angeles. Ever Buffy, she busts the place up and frees all the captives. My friend mentioned it because he thought it was a great example of the left presence in pop culture, since in a key scene Buffy uses a hammer and sickle to kick the demon guards asses, striking a bad-ass Stakonovite pose in the middle of the fight sequence for good measure.

Not content to just write about this (and avoiding doing other more serious things), I set out to find this video. Well, it turns out my friend had it on DVD, so voila, the fight scene in question:


While we were talking, I also remembered a Simpsons episode that had always stuck with me. At some point the Simpsons take in an Albanian foreign exchange student Adil Hoxha (possibly the son of the unrepentant Stalinist, and onetime inspiration to a small segment of the U.S. left in the 1980s, Enver Hoxha?) As it turns out the kid is a spy -- code name Sparrow -- who is there to try and get nuclear technology (since Homer does work at the nuclear power plant).

The scene that stuck with me was one where Adil gets into a big argument about the injustice of life in U.S. with Lisa (an otherwise sensible character on the show). Homer tries to break things up by splitting the difference between the two sides. When he gets to Adil's position he says "Maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers." I always used to think that it was really amazing that the Simpsons could say stuff like that on TV. I figured that they were able to get away with things (such as their commentary, during the 2000 election, on the fact that the Democrats and the Republicans are basically the same) because it's a cartoon.


Now, with most young people getting their news from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion there is more grounds than ever for arguing that pop culture is tilted to left. What my friend and I couldn't decide, was whether it made a difference?

whats the matter with kansas

In particular, it made me think about the argument in Tom Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas?. Frank is one of my favorite writers of the past 15 years. I got hooked after reading an essay of his called "Hip is Dead," which led me to Commodify your Dissent, a collection of essays from the magazine The Baffler which he edited. The anthology is really genius -- finger on the pulse of the 1990s economic and political trends. And the only downside to Frank's success is that he stopped publishing The Baffler because he's been so busy (oh, and that fire that burned down their office in Chicago probably had something to do with that too).

Anyway, in What's the Matter with Kansas? one of the most interesting points that Frank makes is that despite all the hysteria infused into the far right's discussion of "culture war" issues like abortion, gay marriage, or women's rights, they never actually seem to win what they say they are after. The 10 commandments aren't in every school house in the land, women continue to work in large numbers, queer visibility and acceptance continues to expand, and abortion is never really banned (although access to abortion has been substantial curtailed--falling faster under Bill Clinton's tenure as president than under either Reagan or Bush the father -- no data are available past 2001).

Frank argues that the formula works great for upper class economic conservatives, who are in some sense waging an intra-party class war (which somehow manages to strengthen their working class targets' loyalty to conservative politics). The harder these social conservatives (primarily white and working-class) are hit by deregulation, privatization, and off-shoring the more it stokes their drive to ban gays from the military (and everything other facet of public life), to burn Hollywood to the ground, and to retreat to home schooling children in the literal interpretation of the Bible.

They stick with it because they do make real gains -- witness the rightward shift in U.S. politics in the past 25 years, not to mention the fact that every major party candidate for President in 2008 falls all over themselves to talk about God and values and family. The fact that they don't ever get the final victory -- banning abortion, prayer in school, etc. -- is just more evidence of how liberal elites still run the country and that the conservatives need to keep fighting harder. Almost as a consolation prize, losing proves they were right all along.

This brings me to the left and pop culture. I worry sometimes that we suffer from some of the same dynamics as the far right. We take solace in the fact that Steven Colbert gets to stick it to George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner (too rich not to show -- see below). We are comforted by the fact that we're right about Iraq being an illegal and immoral war (and we're right on health care, education, and so many other issues). The evidence is everywhere -- hell even mindless teen dramas like The OC feel like they can take take swipes at the right wing or point out the lunacy of fighting a war in Iraq so we can keep driving SUVs and rushing headlong into the face of global warming.


But how does all this move us towards our actual real-world political goals (leave aside socialism -- lets just start with ending the war, getting healthcare for everyone, and rebuilding the Gulf Coast)? I sometimes worry that all this cultural acceptance is our booby prize. We get to have witty TV, with ever so subtle allusions to ravages of capitalism. Michael Moore can even win an Oscar. But we continue to fall further behind when we turn off the TV or put down our books and walk outside. Worse still, maybe this type of cultural "resistance" is what helps to stabilize the system, giving fodder to the right wing that they can use to stir up social conservatives.

How I got from the Simpsons and Buffy to this I'll never know, but I'm embarrassed to admit I feel like I am making the same argument that the slippery Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently made in a highbrow piece I found on the web while searching for more thoughts on left culture. He wrote:

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

Are we in the same dreadful spin-cycle as the home-schooling, book-burning evangelicals? Is this a 21st century, pop culture version of Waiting for Godot? Help me out here!?!?

Too much?

I don't think you're wrong, exactly. But I think its strange to argue that there is 'too much' Buffy, or blogs, or protests - rather than that there isn't enough organizing to build power beyond those signs of resistance. Losing the Simpsons or Buffy or the Daily show won't get us closer to having public housing in NOLA, even if having them doesnt really help.

keeping the bar high

I agree we don't want to lose Buffy or the Daily Show -- a far cry better than the Three's Company and 20/20 diet of my formative years. My point was more that we don't want to just settle for the symbolic victory, which I feel like in these hard times, people are sometimes willing to do.

We are so desperate for hope that things can get better we look for signs in less typical places -- in this case a shifting cultural center of gravity. I agree with you that its more what we're for, building power to win the material concrete victories. But I get a little creeped out by the thought that this kind of "resistance" or "subversiveness" just makes the medicine go down smoother.

I was talking to a local union president the other day who referred to it as a situation "when winning is losing." In his case he was talking about a victory, preserving health care parity between new hires and veteran workers, that came with such costs (reduced benefits and higher copays for everyone) that evaluated with a different yardstick it was a step backwards.

I guess I wonder when we are generally moving backwards, how do we evaluate success or failure, victory of setback? Is the yardstick different as compared with other times in the left's history when we were on a path of forward progress?

Is it our job as radicals to keep the bar high, and if so, how?

Yes and no

I agree that pop culture does provide a consolation prize to liberals, while stirring up social conservatives. Most of the pop culture stuff is harmless. Not all of it, The Simpsons, Buffy, The Daily Show; they carry out a kind of Bernard Shaw function of court jester to power. Helping the masses laugh at oppressive murderering is non-threatening. Some things like popular black artists from poor backgrounds can, on occasion, be more threatening and steps are taken to marginalize them if somehow their voices break through the dense institutional and commercial filters.

But about Thomas Frank, I have to disagree. I'm not a big fan of his and have only read the 'Kansas' book. I hated it the first time I read it. After going back over it, I disliked it less because he did do a good job of breaking down what you described in your commentary, the hall of mirrors Republicans use to never win and thus never stop fighting. But 'Kansas' still irked me. I knew it was because Frank was taking such a liberal view on race but I couldn't quite put my finger on the specific problems of his argument. Then I ran across Tyrone Simpson's critique of the book, which crystallized my angst:

To declare that we are caught in the maelstrom of an internecine cultural war that has spilled into the electoral realm, though not a particularly intrepid thesis at this time, is certainly a correct one, and thus not a point that
warrants contention. Moreover, Frank adroitly fuses fresh flesh to this observation, demonstrating how since the formidable anti−abortion protests of the "Summer of Mercy" in 1991, Kansas has been a paradigmatic example of this working class cultural revolt. What demands contradiction, however, is Frank's bold attempt to revise the racialized motivations of this now 50−year war out of existence and the rather meager way in which he attempts to do so. Though he repeats throughout the book that this epic struggle is a product of what many saw as the "world's sheer gone to hellness since the sixties" − a perdition whose flames were significantly stoked by black protest − he curiously submits that "one thing [Kansas] doesn't do is [anti−black] racism." To accept this claim one must be able to imagine that a state that boasts an 88% white population (whether it be New Hampshire, Utah, or rural Texas, black, brown, and yellow people stay clear of these places for a logical reason) would not scowl or quiver if it got even the slightest sense that its homogeny (or should I say, hegemony) was in jeopardy. Without such an active fantasy life, Frank's assertion is sufficiently forceful and bewildering to make progressive readers fumble their Mochaccinos...As I have been suggesting here, Frank's misperception of race relations in his home state particularly stings at the viscera because it attempts to write black grievances only out of the cultural war. If the holy
quadrumvirate of race, class, gender, and sexuality provide the raw materials of the Great American Backlash, it is only the first factor that Frank elects to partially disavow. He gives clear evidence that Kansan conservatives can be anti−Semitic (in this era of passionate bible−thumping it would be difficult for such prejudices to remain dormant − if they ever were), sexist (one female activist sees woman suffrage as a sign of moral decline), and homophobic (it is a Kansan who crisscrosses the nation with the placard, "God Hates Fags"). In addition, in the moments when Frank's moral voice is most pronounced, he consecrates the Backlash as a legitimate working class response to the greed, pedantry, and secularism of liberal Americana.
Yet the matter of anti−black sentiment, in the vivid world that Frank's narration paints here, dissolves before the reader's eyes like a dying myth that a haunted community, now courageous, has been finally able to lay to rest. How are all other issues in play but this one?

Simpson goes on to build a strong case against Franks anti-racist view of Kansas. The book's analysis of the Great Backlash also fits conveniently into the progressive wing of the Democratic Party's framework of politics, generally. As does Frank, progressive Democrats argue that conservatives are being duped into voting against their interest via a manufactured culture war that includes many things but not race. The book was recommended to me by progressive Democrats and after reading it, I knew that this was probably a large part of why they gave it such high praise.

Democrats operate with the swing vote mentality. This is code for attracting so-called independents, code for white moderate Republicans which is code for taking pains to not be identified with certain issues. The main one being white racism. The Dems do not hesisitate to throw black voters under the bus if it means they might be able to attract 'swing voters'.

Frank's culture war thesis is built upon and it's popularity is hinged on the exclusion of race as an explanation for the Great Backlash. This kind of pandering is insulting and racist. On top of that, it doesn't work as the attraction of the swing voters leads, at best, to the election of increasingly conservative Democratic candidates.

So while culture does serve as a stalking horse for the right wing and a weird placebo for liberals, Frank's argument is flawed and suggests fundamental misconceptions as well as a persistent liberal racism that is a loser all around.

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