Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Myth of Liberal Hollywood

Back in August New York magazine's Jonathan Chait published an article titled "The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy is on Your Screen," which contended that a liberal view of the world pervades Hollywood and its product.

What was remarkable about the article was not the sentiment, but the author and forum. Jonathan Chait, after all, recently authored a noteworthy critical analysis of supply-side economics, The Big Con: Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America--and whatever else one may say about it, New York magazine is not The National Review or The Weekly Standard. (Indeed, the first sentence of the Wikipedia article about Chait pointedly describes him as a "liberal commentator.")

Naturally, the piece excited some critical comment, but that such an argument should have appeared in that forum at all--that this image of Hollywood's liberalism should be so enduringly pervasive--is astonishing.

Granted, it may seem that nothing would be more natural than for Hollywood to be a bastion of the left. It is, after all, a center of the arts, peopled to a significant extent by those who have chosen self-expression and the creative life over the "practical" world of the 8-6 job, and situated in one of the country's biggest and most cosmopolitan metropolitan areas, out on the west coast in youthful, forward-looking, forward-thinking California. And as all this might lead one to expect, some of its most well-known personalities do indeed speak unfashionably leftish opinions (as Sean Penn and George Clooney and Bill Maher do).

Yet, Hollywood is also a place dominated by gigantic multinational corporations (like the Time Warner Company, News Corporation and General Electric), and a hugely wealthy elite who are living out the American dream of fortune and fame, and prone to believe they are doing so because they are deserving of every bit of it, and others aren't--or at least, prone to be content with the status quo and complacent about "playing the hand you're dealt" because, after all, their hand was a Royal Flush.

These are people who live within an enclave of privilege, who have often been born to it and never known anything else (the preponderance of working actors, directors and writers with significant familial links to the business can give the impression a caste system is at work)--or if they did come from humbler places, may be all the more dismissive of life's difficulties for it, because, after all, didn't things work out for them in the end? People whose income makes them investors and employers, and leads to their association with others of the same socioeconomic level but from quite different walks of life--like the actress who marries a financier. People whose particular way of making a living (not least the outsized claims for talent, conspicuous consumption and flamboyant display that make up so much of publicity) steeps them in a "leisure class" culture, to which they are all too susceptible (as demonstrated by their propensity for alternating between lavish excess, and spectacular bankruptcy). People who are, like everyone else, not unknown to become more conservative as they get older (or simply richer); to run their lives into the ground and, after hitting rock bottom, decide they've found Religion (usually, a severe form of it), or simply learned the Hard Facts of Life (about which it is always easier to lecture others from the lap of luxury); and on occasion, be reached by the same events, the same trends, affecting and afflicting the rest of the country in which they were born and of which they remain a part (and which has itself been moving steadily rightward).

The results of all that are predictable. There is no denying that there are actors, directors, producers and writers of liberal sensibilities in Hollywood, but conservative political attitudes have never been scarce there, either, and support for the Republican Party certainly no rarity, even among its Big Names (as figures ranging from Clint Eastwood to Adam Sandler, from Kelsey Grammer to Vince Vaughn, from Dwayne Johnson to Jon Voight, from Joel Surnow to Mickey Rourke, demonstrate). And these are by no means silent or inactive. They routinely lend their celebrity (and give their money) to conservative causes, media and political events (like the Republican National Convention), and on many an occasion, run for political office themselves (like the previous two-term governor of California, and the fortieth president of the United States, political heights no liberal entertainer has come anywhere near). Between the extremes the "center" is less liberal than libertarian, in the sense Michael Lind describes in his writing on the "overclass," of which Hollywood's glitterati are most certainly a part. Naturally they are to the left of the American center on sociocultural matters like GLBT issues and the legalization of marijuana (which, admittedly, are all that those who equate politics with the "culture wars" care about)--but hew much closer to the political right on socioeconomic issues like tax rates and spending on welfare programs (much less often talked about).

The product we get reflects the fact. Take, for instance, the economic sensibility prevailing in film. As conservatives often complain, we do frequently see the business corporation cast as villain--but the bad guy is usually a bad apple rather than The System. At the same time, there is also lots of CEO worship, endless celebration of wealth and "success," and the mentality of the Horatio Alger story, reflected in such things as the transformation of the "IT billionaire" into one of the screen's most tired clich├ęs (such that, thanks to the man who brought us The Big Bang Theory, even the implausible Ashton Kutcher is playing one). David Fincher's The Social Network, so widely characterized as a "hatchet job" on Mark Zuckerberg, is actually just another sales pitch for the mythology, and along with the success of Iron Man on the big screen in not one but two major franchises, is essentially an update of that close relation of the Horatio Alger tale, the Edisonade.

That genre in which one might most expect to see teeth, the political thriller, similarly plays it safe with films like Syriana the exception, not the rule. The much more widely imitated Jason Bourne series does have its hero fighting his former employers--but drains the tale of anything remotely resembling political content, turning it into the spy film equivalent of Seinfeld, a "movie about nothing" (to paraphrase Roger Ebert). Meanwhile many of the thrillers that do espouse a clearer political position offer shallow orthodoxy, like The Kingdom or Vantage Point, while TV has offered NCIS, and the torture porn of 24, and the "allegory" of Battlestar Galactica, and . . . the list goes on.

And so on and so forth. Consequently, liberalism is a presence, but it is often of a limited, mild, muted or superficial variety (and always more evident in the sociocultural sphere than the socioeconomic)--with conservatism tending to fill in the spaces it leaves open, and frequently rather bolder and blunter in its expression. Indeed, looking at it all it seems that in Hollywood, as elsewhere, "postmodern" conservatism is king.

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