Column: It’s the end time for Trumptimes, and never a better time to trade politics for culture
Andrew Breitbart, who founded the far-right website Breitbart and who died in 2012, coined an aphorism: “Politics is downstream from culture.” In other words, cultural commitments come first, political ones second.
If this is a useful maxim, it’s high time we asked: Why do we keep drinking the dirty downstream water? American politics in 2020 has been a filthy swill, suffused with corruption, madness and soulless cruelty. For the new year, let’s resolve to savor culture as beauty and intelligence, and call an end to “culture war” follies.
But first we have to understand Breitbart’s maxim. However odious the man was, the line resonates.
Even trivial-seeming cultural preferences can lay the groundwork for politicking — look no further than the Disco Sucks phenomenon of the 1970s. This was the ragtag “movement” in which white rock music fans in the heartland rose up, sometimes violently, against the new dance music, which was associated with cities, queer culture and people of color. At heart, Disco Sucks was a hazy form of what has hardened over the decades into contemporary white nationalism.
Likewise, the obsession with healthy, unprocessed food that gripped coastal residents in this century, and found an evangelist in former First Lady Michelle Obama, came across to some in red states as nanny-state condescension that required reaction. When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) ran for president, he swore that his wife as first lady would bring French fries back to school lunches.
As for clothing and cars, opportunities for showdowns abound. People who drive hybrids and wear hemp, the cliche goes, vote left; in the reciprocal stereotype, people in tactical athleisure-wear piloting jacked-up pickups vote Trump.
Or say you like the chic, practical wardrobe of Rachel Maddow of MSNBC: that’s a lefty style. If you prefer short, tight dresses in candy colors (think Ainsley Earhardt of Fox News), you’re on the right.
And after years of having the meaning of such choices supercharged by social media, standup comics and especially the ideologues of the far right, people now get far more incensed about cultural artifacts — ATVs, veganism, the national anthem, avocado toast, etc. — than they do about public policy.
Pundits, scholars and the unfake media insist that what’s needed to cool off the passions and divisions of Trumptimes is better political reporting and civics education. But what if what we need instead is a richer culture?
I watch cable news and use social media, but, come on — as culture, these things are pretty thin gruel. To the extent they can be considered theater or literature, they have a limited range of characters, predictable costuming, unsubtle dialogue, minimal emotional range and palette, and near-zero musical or visual artistry.
If we’re scrounging for morsels of sensory-emotional experience on CNN and Twitter, we’re not getting fed. We’re being culturally underserved.
The internet destabilized the arts in thousands of ways, and beginning about 15 years ago social media, including YouTube, rolled in to supplant film, novels, and even music and fashion as central to identity-formation.
But YouTube tutorials and social media brush fires are not poignant, robust creations. Viewed via Instagram or a Twitter thread, a campaign or a crisis might have the outlines of something interesting, even operatic, but it can’t slake our thirst for the complete narrative. It inevitably lacks the unity, coherence and emphasis that make art different from, more telling than, life.
It seems fair to say we are starving for what the 19th century British cultural critic Matthew Arnold called “sweetness and light” — the beauty and enlightenment that can only be found in literature, theater, music and art.
Though Arnold would disagree, high culture does not have a monopoly on sweetness and light. Bob Dylan’s latest ballad, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” seems to do it for me these days. And Joshua Redman, the Pretenders and the Weeknd also released powerful and surprising tracks in 2020.
Culture as culture, rather than a lever in a political war, can be found everywhere. Chess, the books of John le Carré or old zombie flicks can also help crystallize who you are and ignite your curiosity or promote your well-being. Last week in this space I recommended the Hallmark Channel, with its soothing and moving stories that play cherished American memes in major chords.
We’ve had to make a meal out of politics-as-culture for way too long. But that doesn’t work forever. As the nation’s white whale, Donald Trump, leaves his place of prominence, here’s to an America with more nuanced heroes and villains. Lord, do we ever need wilder soundtracks, bigger canvases. Paintings, poetry, a dance craze or two. When theaters and stadiums open up again and we get concerts, museums and plays back, I hope we’ll recognize how deprived we’ve all been by both the pandemic and the phony culture war, and fill them all up.
In the very last weeks of an extraordinarily demoralizing political period in American history, it’s time to give other quarters of the brain and heart some attention. How hard can it be? It’s not homework. Art gives pleasure and expands perspective. If politics are indeed downstream from culture, the water is bound to be clearer, cleaner and crisper at the river’s source — and that’s where we should drink.
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