Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Long Post, But Read It

Digby gets it right. I know it's a long post, but it's worth reading, plus, I haven't figured out how to link to just this post on his blog. I'm working on it, I promise. Just read.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Believe It

This whole argument about pop culture reminds me of a conversation I had in 1977. I was sitting around with my friends and somebody put "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols on the stereo. Afterwards, I said I thought it wasn't really music --- to which a friend of mine replied that I sounded just like his parents when he first played the Beatles. I was only 21 at the time, so this hit me pretty hard. I never forgot it.

This "kids today" stuff has been going on for a long, long time. Anybody who was a kid in the 60's like I was, remembers endless sermons and lectures and handwringing about how the world was coming to an end because the boys were growing their hair long and the girls weren't shaving their armpits and marijuana was going to fry your brain like an egg. Before that, in 1956, there was the fear of "juvenile delinquents":

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It's just our bringin' up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset;
We never had the love that ev'ry child oughta get.
We ain't no delinquents,
We're misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won't give me a puff.
They didn't wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin' lizards! That's why I'm so bad!

Officer Krupke, you're really a square;
This boy don't need a judge, he needs an analyst's care!
It's just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He's psychologic'ly disturbed!

My father is a bastard,
My ma's an S.O.B.
My grandpa's always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess!

Officer Krupke, you're really a slob.
This boy don't need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society's played him a terrible trick,
And sociologic'ly he's sick!

Gee, Officer Krupke,
We're down on our knees,
'Cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease.
Gee, Officer Krupke,
What are we to do?
Gee, Officer Krupke,
Krup you!

And that was in the golden age of "Leave It To Beaver" and "I Love Lucy."

All these people who are so afraid of what their kids are doing and thinking are just like my parents were. Afraid of the new world they'd built and were leaving behind for their kids. And so it goes.

Ed Kilgore writes today on the subject:

If there's a problem, and at least some sorts of tangible public-policy solutions, then the argument that this is "all about politics" loses some of its sting. But of course, you "can't take the politics out of politics," so yeah, Democrats should look at this politically as well. And Amy is absolutely right that Democrats tend to view "cultural issues" as limited to abortion and gay marriage and other Republican-dictated agenda items, and Gerstein is absolutely right that such issues are often just the ways voters use to figure out whether politicians actually believe (a) there are principles more important than politics, and (b) there is such a thing as right and wrong.

The whole hep Democratic world right now, from Howard Dean to George Lackoff to Bill Bradley right over to the DLC, says it's important that Democrats clearly identify "what they believe" and "where they stand" and "what values they cherish." If all the evidence--some scientific, some anecdotal or intuitive--suggesting that parents believe they are fighting an unequal battle with powerful cultural forces over the upbringing of their children is at all correct, then we have to take a stand there, too. It may matter a whole lot, if you look at the Democratic vote among marrieds-with-children--steadily dropping from a Clinton win in 1996 to an eighteen-point loss in 2004, a disproportionately large swing

Yes, the public does wonder what we stand for. And in this debate it seems we can either stand for better V chips and Terri Schiavo's mother-in-law, or we can stand for this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I don't know about you, but that sounds like it actually means something. Even has a bit of a ring to it.

Look, I don't care if we legislate for "better" V-chips. (From what I have read people aren't using the one we have available, not because it's too hard, but because they just don't want to be bothered. But whatever.) We can express our empathy for how difficult it is to parent in this environment. We can bemoan the coarsening of the culture and try shame people to stop selling useless consumer items to children. None of those things are particularly dangerous in themselves. But neither are they going to be politically advantageous.

Everytime we try to move in this "moderate" cultural direction that we think people will choose over the GOP vision, the more we appear to be a large puddle of lukewarm water. Because, let's face it. If you really think that the government should do something about popular culture because it's harmful then you really should step up to the plate and admit that you think censorship in some form or another would be a good thing. Because that's the only thing that government can really do to make a difference --- compel people to stop saying and selling and watching and buying.

And that's what the conservatives have to offer. Clear, simple, straightforward. They believe that this swill is harming society and they want it taken care of. They don't play around with studies and "oh I understand what you are going through." They offer a real solution. Censor the garbage. Impeach the judges. Fix the damn problem. The bully in their pulpit sounds a hell of a lot more competent than ours.

And, conversely, they have won the gun issue by being rigid absolutists about the second amendment and giving no quarter. In fact, I think that their rhetoric has been so widespread and so successful that we would benefit from making our argument explicitly about the first amendment in much the same way. Some people may just wonder why, if the second is sacred, the first shouldn't be also.

Now, I don't think that any Democrats really want censorship. They want magic. They want people to stop wanting what they want. And if that doesn't work, they want the manufacturers and producers to feel bad about what they are doing and stop providing what the people want. This is an unrealistic political goal. (It seems much more suited to religion than government and it makes me wonder, if religion is sweeping the nation in a new Great Awakening, why it is having so little effect?)

And there is the truly serious problem that these culture war issues are exploited by the right for the very reason that they are willing to offer these simple solutions to issues that we necessarily find complicated. They tie us in knots with this stuff. That's why we shouldn't walk into their trap time after time after time by trying to split the difference. It isn't working.

Kilgore says:

Gerstein is absolutely right that such issues are often just the ways voters use to figure out whether politicians actually believe (a) there are principles more important than politics, and (b) there is such a thing as right and wrong.

Why do we have to play the game on their "culture war" turf? Why can't we say that the principle of free speech is more important than politics (which I actually believe has the virtue of being true.) Why can't we say that it is wrong for people to impose their religious views on others? Are these not principles worth fighting for? Do they not have the ring of clear common sense? These seem like first principles to me.

Why people continue to believe that we can convince people that we "believe in something" by validating the GOP's calumnious rhetoric about deviant liberal culture I will never understand. I think we convince people that we believe in something by well ... believing in something. How about the constitution, for a starter?

Update: Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money makes a number of exceptional insights into this issue (read the whole post) but I think this one is particularly apt:

There's an additional problem evident in the way Sullivan frames the debate. One might ask why so many people are obsessed with culture, when the evidence for the influences attributed to it are so weak. Could it be that politicians and pundits like Sullivan continually tell parents that they should be obsessed with culture? This isn't just harmless misdirection, either. The national political agenda can only be focused on a fraction of the policy solutions being advocated. The more people are convinced that TV is causing certain social pathologies, the less likely they are to agitate for solutions that might actually be relevant to the problem (which, of course, is why the cultural conservative agenda is so effective for Republicans.) I would like liberals to point out that other liberal democracies have lower rates of violence and teen pregnancy despite their children being exposed to similar cultural influences, which suggests that other factors may be more relevant that pop culture. But according to Sullivan, you're not even allowed to point this out, because if parents believe what politicians tell them you're not allowed to say anything different.

It's the old Cokie Roberts line "It doesn't matter if it's true. It's out there."

And frankly, I'm not ever sure it is. Is there any hard data, other than the fact that married women are voting more Republican, that this culture clash is a voting issue? And even if it is, I think Lemiuex's observation is likely correct. Republicans are laughing themselves silly everytime we validate their winning misdirection strategy.

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