I’m not sure if the left’s “not getting” Eastwood was just their lack of humor (and its harder to laugh when your own ox is being gored). Some may be generational. My husband and I looked at each other uneasily as he began. Soon, we laughed out loud. Simplifying the choice – did Obama’s approach work or didn’t it – is an old man’s pragmatism. And we are getting old. Also, we remember Newhart’s telephone routines fondly. That helped.
Television may be a blip in the history of popular culture. Instapundit links to Chris Hayes’ speculation that lower viewership comes from the popularity of other options: C-span, YouTube and even network streams. Certainly fewer watch the networks. But it’s been 60 years of a communal culture and clips will long rattle around. Pop culture reflects, but it also molds. Shakespeare brilliantly defined character but also the Tudors. Lincoln may not have found the King of Siam’s elephants helpful, but, in a less fascinating display of universal human nature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin usefully countered the desire in British mill towns to send ships and supplies to the Confederacy. Any political group that abdicates that ground has left themselves vulnerable.
The twentieth century has not lacked bad ideas advocated by effective artists. It is hard to watch Mission to Moscow without exploding at the screen. We may understand the need in 1943 for such propaganda, but we don’t have to like it. Still, then, some did; some do. And that argument was obvious – making it vulnerable to historical fact. Subtle art (and scholarly books) continue to posit communism’s virtues and capitalism’s flaws. One fulfills material needs, with energy and time to pursue spiritual ones. (Would any sane person rather be poor in North Korea than in South?) The other . . . well, we know what it does. In the end it murders. Some arguments may be baloney, but that baloney gives us an elevator where Carl spots a back-pack, unabashedly sporting images of Che and Trotsky. Most wouldn’t give a second thought. Young, idealistic – those are words even a Republican businessman might use.
The fact is, the twentieth century proved one policy wrong. If ideal means abstract, it fits. If it means ideal, well, hardly. Union bosses negotiated contracts with politicians. The results were what you’d expect if the negotiator has no skin in the game (or, at worst, could even gain from giving the “opposition” what it wanted). The old open marketplace constraints didn’t apply; cities are now recognizing their necessity. Of course, we naturally suspect too much reapportionment of others’ property. California cities may be bankrupt and the nation in unimaginable debt, but we aren’t Cambodia and not likely to be. If what I just said shocks you or seems hyperbolic, I suggest our popular culture has weakened our understanding of causes and tragic effects witnessed in the last century.
One characteristic of such discussions (certainly Noam Chomsky’s) is that excesses of a communist regime were necessary responses to the west. The cause of Cuba’s problems – like those of countless others – wasn’t their policy but our intransigence. Indeed, in Mission to Moscow Russia’s treaty with Germany is excused as caused by the insufficiently supportive West. Such arguments are natural when responsibility is not internalized but external, political: not what can we do (or what did we do) but what did the Kulaks do (and have). It’s always zero-sum game with these guys; it’s always someone else’s fault and someone else made me do it. It’s always grievance.
Sometimes its less dramatic. Take the distinction between The Fugitive as series and as movie. The earlier series emphasized duty and survival, the common good set against self-preservation. The movie became a politicized (and paranoid) screed against big pharma. (Effective, of course – Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones can be effective as David Janssen on the smaller screen could not. But that’s effect, not moral tension.) All in the Family was “meant” politically; its blowhard father replaced Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver. Some saw this as a sign of women’s liberation from paternalism, but the mothers were also weaker. Not paternalism but the family was downgraded. Televisions became cheap and time expensive as both parents worked – families seldom watched together. (My daughter’s friend watched Beavis and Butt-Head with her father, but I considered that peculiar.) Of course, the networks offered more – two participants in the Republican convention came from the inclusive Northern Exposure, appropriately considering its emphasis upon quirky self-reliance. I like the Bellisarios- these attract my conservative (and mature) friends.
Business doesn’t have the natural drama of, say, NCIS. But, indulging myself with a few reruns, I noticed the prominence of that work-a-day world in Perry Mason, one of my vices. Quintessential late fifties television: it’s ironic but not cynical, respectful of institutions but not sentimental. We watched it as a family; decades later, a bit estranged from those left, this is a faux connection to time, place, people. The emphasis upon the rule of law, its study of human nature and search for truth remain. Again, I’m struck by the importance of a man’s handshake and his word. It demonstrated courtly civility; beneath civility often lies integrity. The plots, of course, include the weak and the dishonest – the man or woman who appears to be one thing but is another.
Probably influenced by Foster’s numerous posts, I was more conscious of the importance of business in a broad sense: engineer and industrialist, businessman and merchant, miner and rancher. These are central and work itself is respected – whether in a small shop or a large business; whether man or woman; whether murdered, murderer or defendant. The defendants often lie or mislead Mason for even the innocent are weak. But, in the end, truth will out – what is and what appears become one. If cheapened furniture goes out under a proud old trademark, the customer is cheated and the integrity of the company betrayed. A business, like a man or woman, has (or doesn’t have) integrity.
In the early episodes, the formula – time allotted to introduction, character development, courtroom drama, resolution – becomes standardized. Characters, however, are not so predictable – they reflect the complexity of human nature. Later series, noting what rivets an audience, reach farther and farther to achieve astonished surprise. But they often sacrifice complexity – we see the stock villains of Restoration comedy. These are often big pharma, polluters, dastardly politicians, hedge fund managers, international businessmen – stock villains we might expect in a Restoration Comedy. Romney may be a tough sell for generations marinated first in popular culture & then academia. Few indulge themselves in Perry Mason reruns. Three days of testimonials are already treated with irony by those for whom “businessman” has connotations so damning they obscure.
But it isn’t that Romney belongs in the fifties – it’s that the fifties continued in America – people built businesses and went to court and invented products. And he lived in that world. It is the base on which our country grew: manufacturing and services, selling and buying, creating and refining. These made our lives more productive and safe; generally more pleasant and longer. And we built on what others had built. And part of that, expended in advertising and taxes, supported the media and academia. They did so even when those shows and those classrooms didn’t merely question but often denigrated the sources of the money on which they prospered. An emphasis upon the open marketplace encourages such an attitude. But those profits and those uses have built up layers between the two. And so we see caricatures of the Republican Convention by the left – a left with less and less connection to that great body of Americans engaged in business, doing rather than observing, risking rather than kibitzing.
Our culture’s vitality will dissipate if we don’t value the energy and drive, invention and risk-taking of business. It needs the restraints of the rule of law and competition – crony capitalism cheapens it, dissipates its energy.
Indeed, dissipates sums up Obama, Obama’s policies, Obama’s words, Obama’s world. But, possibiities remain – all those inventions in energy production and all those medical breakthroughs we hear might happen. They may happen in a world that encourages them. A work-a-day world.