Culture Clash

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

All told, it has been a pretty good year for cultural conservatives. The New York Times, the primary target of conservative opprobrium, disgraced itself in scandal, the Fox News Channel continues to crush its cable competition, hipsters like Dennis Miller and Colin Quinn have defected to the right, corny Jay Leno is beating tart David Letterman in the ratings and a conservative revolt forced CBS into pulling a miniseries on the Reagans because its opponents said it was biased against the former president.

Not a bad run. But some conservatives think these events amount to more than just a winning streak. They see signs of a geological shift in the culture tipping the balance from the left to the right.

For decades, conservatives controlled the political agenda, even to the point of hijacking the nation for two years to concentrate on a popular president's moral lapses. The cultural agenda, however, was another thing. Though the country seemed to be tilting right politically, popular culture, if anything, seemed to be speeding toward increasing liberalization. Madonna and Britney Spears; Eminem and hip-hop generally; "The Daily Show," "South Park" and "The Man Show"; "American Pie" and dozens of other raunchy or violent movies that dominated the box office; even tattooed athletes -- all testified to the power of America's free-spirited, contrarian strain. Conservatives could point only to the success of the now-canceled series "Touched by an Angel" as evidence of a largely untapped right-wing audience.

Not anymore, we're told. With the victory over CBS, conservative Internet gossip Matt Drudge boldly declared this to be the "second century of the media ... where it's much more of a people-driven media."

One could certainly point to Sept. 11, 2001, as a cultural watershed that has transformed the nation. But American popular culture after 9/11 looks much like American culture before that fateful date. Still, there is unquestionably something new and important afoot in the culture.

The conservative declaration of victory is itself part of a large, complex process that gives the impression of a cultural revolution without actually effecting one. It is the phenomenon of a phenomenon -- a great postmodernist gambit in which the buzz about something overwhelms the thing itself. It works, because what rivets and energizes the media doesn't have to be a real, measurable change in the cultural landscape, but the idea of a new phenomenon on that landscape. The media are in the phenomenon business, and if they turn the phenomenon into a revolution, so much the better.

One can see this postmodernist process at work nearly everywhere in the culture. Take "The Osbournes." Most everyone in America today knows who the Osbournes are, has read about them, heard about them or seen them on commercials or hosting award shows. But when you examine the ratings of their MTV television series that generated all the notoriety, you discover something remarkable. Even before its recent dip, almost no one watched the show. In a nation of roughly 280 million people, "The Osbournes" gets an audience of just about 3 million viewers, or slightly above 1% of the populace. So how does one account for the family's near-universal recognition?

One might conclude that the program existed not to be watched but to be written about or discussed. The show was an excuse to create a phenomenon, of which the Osbournes and those who marketed them were the beneficiaries. They were popular for appearing to be popular.

Frankly, one can say the same thing about almost everything in America today, save for films and television programs that do appeal to a sizable audience. Though this process is little remarked upon, it has profound implications for the culture, suggesting a psychological shift at least as important as the supposed one after 9/11: that watching entertainment now seems less gratifying than knowing about it.

In the context of cultural politics, the implications are no less profound. Everyone who follows the media knows that we live in an increasingly conservative society. Everyone knows that conservative talk radio is a dominant force and that Rush Limbaugh alone attracts 20 million listeners weekly. Everyone knows that the Fox News Channel -- on which I am a contributor -- has drained millions of viewers from the broadcast networks. Everyone knows that millions of Americans mobilized against CBS' Reagan miniseries.

Yet, everything that everyone knows in the preceding paragraph is absolutely false. In sheer numbers, conservative talk radio is still a relatively small phenomenon, and Limbaugh's aggregate audience of 20 million -- if you assume that most of his die-hard fans listen to him daily -- is probably closer to 4 million or 5 million. Fox News is unquestionably a cable success story, but, excluding major news stories, at best it attracts an audience of 2 million -- not even in the same league as the least-watched broadcast news report and a blip on the larger demographic screen. After more than a week of constant, highly publicized agitation, CBS reportedly received 80,000 e-mails protesting the Reagan miniseries, not exactly a populist wildfire.

Here's the truth: Even after 9/11 reputedly turned us into a nation of flag-waving patriots, even after Fox News Channel torpedoed the liberal media, even after the drumbeat of Limbaugh, even after Dennis Miller decided to forgo humor for attacks on Bill Clinton and even after the Reagans were saved from liberal calumnies, the country, according to both a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll and a Pew Research Center poll, is almost exactly evenly divided between those who lean left and those who lean right. Evenly divided. All of which means that the conservatives haven't made a huge dent politically and, again from the looks of things, have made less than a dent culturally, especially since political and cultural proclivities do not always lean in the same direction. There are an awful lot of Republicans, evidently, who like Eminem and "South Park."

So, why all this talk of conservative ascendancy? In a sense, it's pure invention. What conservatives have been able to do is deploy the same postmodernist techniques that celebrities have been using for decades, and for the same purpose: to make the buzz into the buzz. Like the Osbournes, conservatives take their little triumphs and package them as phenomena, which the media -- including the conservative media -- eagerly retail to the public. Blogger Andrew Sullivan, for example, calls the new cultural trend "South Park Republicanism" because "South Park" has taken its whacks at political correctness and other liberal shibboleths. But whether or not there is such a thing as South Park Republicanism, the idea is media-genic because it suggests something big is happening that the media want to be in on. You just whisper it into what critics of the right have called the "right-wing echo chamber" -- of conservative talk radio, Fox News, various conservative publications and now conservative blogs -- and it turns into a roar that the mainstream media cannot ignore. In short, the new cultural revolution is a sound-effects machine.

Nearly 40 years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term "pseudo-events" to describe things like premieres, photo ops and publicity stunts: They have no inherent value and exist only to be covered by the media. The right wing has now devised a pseudo-politics, of which the "conservative revolution" is a primary feature. It may look like the real thing, sound like the real thing and, most important, be covered by the media as if it were the real thing, but it is essentially just a way to gain media attention, which is usually enough to convince people that it is the real thing. If the objective of cultural politics is to win adherents, the objective of this postmodernist pseudo-politics is to convey the idea that you have already won adherents -- that the revolution has already occurred and power has been transferred.

American culture is a constant, continuing transaction between new and subversive ideas, forms and entertainers that originate at the margins of the culture and then eventually get mainstreamed while the margins continue to serve up the new. This is a liberalizing process, but it isn't necessarily confined to a liberal audience because all but the most Neanderthal and anhedonic of conservatives are just as likely to enjoy these entertainments as left-wingers are. Still, it means that the popular culture, at least, is unlikely ever to become conservative in any meaningful way unless liberalism is so widely embraced some day that conservatism becomes the radical, subversive alternative to it.

Until then, a few conservative swipes at CBS or a few million viewers at the Fox News Channel or even a few "South Park" fans who identify themselves as Republicans won't signify a shift in the cultural balance of power. They simply provide excuses for the media to label it as one.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World