Thursday, November 11, 2004

Overvaluing Values

In the upcoming Sunday New York Times, journalist Frank Rich offers yet another incisive critique of the American body politic with the satiric wit and astute commentary that have marked almost all of his recent efforts. Rich urges caution to those who have been quick to accept the characterization of the results of the presidential election as symbolic of an underlying paradigm shift in the mindset of voters - from traditional concerns to the cult of values. I think Rich is on to something, and as evidence, I point to the prevalence of this meme in the circular universe of the right wing echo chamber. Less than a week after the election, Karl Rove himself was making the rounds on the Sunday circuit reflecting on the prominent role that "values" played in this election. According to Rove, values trumped all other concerns. The very fact that Karl Rove says it is so, should lead most to presume the opposite is true. And it is - as a closer look at the numbers would suggest. Mick Arran sums up what was my initial gut reaction to the electoral results:

The election...was about what everybody said it was going to be about for months: national security. Rove had Junior and His Snarling Veep Road Show play every conceivable variation on the Theme from Fear: The Movie in every key precinct in every swing state, sometimes so often that Bush could probably have called everybody in his limited, loyalty-oath-sanctioned crowds by their first names. Over and over: Kerry won't protect you, Kerry is indecisive, Kerry doesn't understand this is a war, Kerry wants to hand your security over to the UN, Kerry wants to ask Europe's permission to protect the nation, and on and on and on like a broken record, the same phrases, the same lines, the same lame gags.

Look at the convention. There was no talk about 'values' or the gay marriage amendment or prayer in schools. There wasn't even all that much talk of religion except in carefully couched, coded language. What did they talk about? What words were repeated endlessly by every speaker, particularly Giuliani? Terror. Terrorist. Terror. Fear. Attack. Terrorists. Destruction. Fear. Destroy. Weapons of mass destruction. Terror.
National security, fear and uncertainty were the forces that propelled Bush to victory, not a cultural backlash or a national renewal of cultural conservatism. In fact, according to Rich, the trends actually favor the Democratic Party, or at the very least the culture that the "values voters" are supposedly amassing to assault.

There's only one problem with the storyline proclaiming that the country swung to the right on cultural issues in 2004. Like so many other narratives that immediately calcify into our 24/7 media's conventional wisdom, it is fiction. Everything about the election results - and about American culture itself - confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerry's defeat notwithstanding, it's blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide. Kerry voters who have been flagellating themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worthy of "The Passion of the Christ" should wake up and smell the Chardonnay.
The reasons are many, but there are two factors that support Rich's thesis whish are worth mention. The first is that, despite the righteous indignation on display, the iconic leaders of the values crusade themselves are also some of the most flagrant transgressors of moral uprightness.

The blue ascendancy is nearly as strong among Republicans as it is among Democrats. Those whose "moral values" are invested in cultural heroes like the accused loofah fetishist Bill O'Reilly and the self-gratifying drug consumer Rush Limbaugh are surely joking when they turn apoplectic over MTV. William Bennett's name is now as synonymous with Las Vegas as silicone. The Democrats' Ashton Kutcher is trumped by the Republicans' Britney Spears. Excess and vulgarity, as always, enjoy a vast, bipartisan constituency, and in a democracy no political party will ever stamp them out...

The Los Angeles Times reported this summer that Paul Crouch, the evangelist who founded the largest Christian network, Trinity Broadcasting Network, vehemently denied a former employee's accusation that the two had had a homosexual encounter - though not before paying the employee a $425,000 settlement. Not so incidentally, Trinity joined Gary Bauer and Fox News as prime movers in "Redeem the Vote," the Christian-rock alternative to MTV's "Rock the Vote."
The second is that the corporate champions of the conservative values movement are often the purveyors of all things morally depraved, base and coarse.

If anyone is laughing all the way to the bank this election year, it must be the undisputed king of the red cultural elite, Rupert Murdoch. Fox News is a rising profit center within his News Corporation, and each red-state dollar that it makes can be plowed back into the rest of Fox's very blue entertainment portfolio. The Murdoch cultural stable includes recent books like Jenna Jameson's "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star" and the Vivid Girls' "How to Have a XXX Sex Life," which have both been synergistically, even joyously, promoted on Fox News by willing hosts like Rita Cosby and, needless to say, Mr. O'Reilly. There are "real fun parts and exciting parts," said Ms. Cosby to Ms. Jameson on Fox News's "Big Story Weekend," an encounter broadcast on Saturday at 9 p.m., assuring its maximum exposure to unsupervised kids.

Almost unnoticed in the final weeks of the campaign was the record government indecency fine levied against another prime-time Fox television product, "Married by America." The $1.2 million bill, a mere bagatelle to Murdoch stockholders, was more than twice the punishment inflicted on Viacom for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." According to the F.C.C. complaint, one episode in this heterosexual marriage-promoting reality show included scenes in which "partygoers lick whipped cream from strippers' bodies," and two female strippers "playfully spank" a man on all fours in his underwear. "Married by America" is gone now, but Fox remains the go-to network for Paris Hilton ("The Simple Life") and wife-swapping ("Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy").

None of this has prompted an uprising from the red-state Fox News loyalists supposedly so preoccupied with "moral values." They all gladly contribute fungible dollars to Fox culture by boosting their fair-and-balanced channel's rise in the ratings. Some of these red staters may want to make love like porn stars besides. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) An ABC News poll two weeks before the election found that more Republicans than Democrats enjoy sex "a great deal." The Democrats' new hero, Illinois Senator-elect Barack Obama, was assured victory once his original, ostentatiously pious Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, dropped out of the race rather than defend his taste for "avant-garde" sex clubs.
The fact that one arm of the Fox empire (the print and television news division) has been so successful at stoking and exploiting the culture wars, while the entertainment group has been tirelessly pushing the envelope in pursuit of the lowest common cultural denominator, is yet one more confirmation of the capacity of cognitive dissonance to smooth out all inconsistencies and contradictions. Fox viewers accept, without a critical eye, the notion that liberals are behind the moral decadence despite the shell game being perpetrated in clear view.

This paradox exists side by side with the truth in a state of suspended reality. Somehow, the prevailing conservative narrative which tells of a disempowered conservative class being subjected to the morally debauched assault on traditional family values at the hands of a vast liberal elite (comprised of the liberal media, Hollywood and the entertainment industry) is able to exist unassailed despite the complicity that so many conservatives play in the trajectory of our culture.

Mr. Murdoch and his fellow cultural barons - from Sumner Redstone, the Bush-endorsing C.E.O. of Viacom [which owns CBS, MTV and other properties], to Richard Parsons, the Republican C.E.O. of Time Warner, to Jeffrey Immelt, the Bush-contributing C.E.O. of G.E. (NBC Universal) - are about to be rewarded not just with more tax breaks but also with deregulatory goodies increasing their power to market salacious entertainment. It's they, not Susan Sarandon and Bruce Springsteen, who actually set the cultural agenda Gary Bauer and company say they despise.
That doesn't exactly fit the meme of the liberal media, but for good reason - it is just a myth. With the exception of Murdoch, these are the supposed liberal outlets - but they are in actuality owned and operated by corporate conglomerates helmed by self avowed Republicans. Add to this group, the rest of the non-Murdoch conservative media empire controlled by the likes of Conrad Black, Richard Mellon Scaife, Reverend Moon, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, talk radio and the countless conservative think tanks that churn out ready-made talking heads and talking points for media consumption, and it becomes clearer that the media is anything but "liberal."

To reinforce this point, it is important to note that even the so-called liberal bastion of Hollywood, and the entertainment industry in general, are themselves businesses, and big ones at that. Entertainment is the United States' number one export to the rest of the world, with sales totaling high in the billions annually. Entertainment, not oil, is our black gold. These businesses are run by large corporations, and are governed by corporate principles, like profit maximization, more than any liberal social agenda. Movies and television are produced with the intention of increasing revenues, as are almost all media ventures, and this is the foundation of conservative economic values.

As E.J Dionne noted in a
column in the Washington Post, while observing the problems Republican Senate candidate Pete Coors was facing over the hypocrisy in his salacious Coors Light advertisements (which I discussed at length here):

What is the most powerful force for permissiveness in the United States? It is not liberalism. It is the free market's use of sexuality to sell products. Children in our country are exposed to many more sexual images in television ads -- especially those selling beer -- than in raunchy magazines sold under the counter. The beer ads run heavily during sports broadcasts watched by sports-minded kids who love healthy competition, achievement, discipline and victory. Rather "conservative" values, no?
Rich then quotes Thomas Frank, the author of What's the Matter With Kansas?, in order to introduce the concept that despite the bluster, the values movement is often short on results - which is a reflection of deliberate strategy and ulterior priorities for the pious within the ranks of the political class.

"Values," Mr. Frank writes, "always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won." Under this perennial "trick," as he calls it, Republican politicians promise to stop abortion and force the culture industry "to clean up its act" - until the votes are counted. Then they return to their higher priorities, like cutting capital gains and estate taxes.

But it's not only the G.O.P.'s fealty to its financial backers that is predictive of how little cultural bang the "values" voters will get for their Bush-Cheney votes. At 78 percent, the nonvalues voters have far more votes than they do, and both parties will cater to that overwhelming majority's blue tastes first and last. Their mandate is clear: The same poll that clocked "moral values" partisans at 22 percent of the electorate found that nearly three times as many Americans approve of some form of legal status for gay couples, whether civil unions (35 percent) or marriage (27 percent). Do the math and you'll find that the poll also shows that for all the G.O.P.'s efforts to court Jews, the total number of Jewish Republican voters in 2004, while up from 2000, was still some 200,000 less than the number of gay Republican voters.
Rich's admonition and insight should be in the forefront of the collective mind of the progressive movement as it grapples with the means and methods to employ in order to reach out to "values voters" and Christian voters, as I discussed here. Perspective is needed, as well as an accurate appraisal of the trends and progression of various cultural phenomenon. There is a very real danger of overreaction and overcompensation to a problem that is not nearly as acute as some would have us believe. The identity of the messengers should clue us in on the worth of the advice. In addition, as we proceed to reframe our own policies in order to highlight the strong values that underlie them, we should also take the time to shine a light on the hypocrisy of many of the "values" standard bearers. That in itself is a values issue.

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