Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Twittering of Sickly Voices

Some months ago, an acquaintance who likes to think of himself as a libertarian explained to me that The Incredibles was a devastating attack on the egalitarian pieties of the Clinton era. Beyond a brief, involuntary reflection on the well-worn parable of the blind men and the elephant, I didn't give it much thought. But now, thanks to Alicublog, I realize that this type of free-associative wishful thinking is central to the project of right-wing cultural criticism, and that the Corner is, in its own sad little way, a sort of conservatarian Frankfurt School.

As Thersites notes, Human Events Online is doing a great deal to advance this important work. Don Feder, for instance, has compiled a list of the best conservative movies of 2005; better yet, he helpfully explains what a "conservative movie" is:

Conservative films celebrate virtue. They tell timeless tales of individuals overcoming all manner of adversity to achieve true greatness. They’re about honesty, loyalty, courage and patriotism. They’re concerned with conservatism’s cardinal values – faith, family and freedom.
One of Feder's cases in point is Memoirs of a Geisha:
The heroine, Sayuri, is sold as a child to a geisha house. Her choices -- to become a menial and spend the rest of her life working off her contract to “mother,” or embrace her destiny. She chooses the latter only when the kindness of a handsome businessman makes her yearn for a way to enter his world.
It's interesting to learn what warms conservative hearts these days: A story in which a poor girl is given a choice between slavery and prostitution, and chooses prostitution in order to land a businessman. I'm not surprised at the sentiment, really...just the public admission of it.

The other day, Roy Edroso compared the conservative view of art to that of Stalinist Social Realism, as formulated by folks like Andrey Zhadanov and Gustav Klutsis. The comparison is a good one. It's also tempting, of course, to bring up Hitler's frolicsome campaign against "degenerate art." But the most obvious wellspring of conservatarian critical theory is Ayn Rand's Screen Guide for Americans, which advised Hollywood producers that "it is the moral...duty of every decent man in the motion picture industry to throw into the ashcan, where it belongs, every story that smears industrialists." So much for that I.G. Farben biopic!

Rand also complained about the "glorification" of depravity; no immoral or criminal person was to be portrayed as having any other reason for his or her condition than having made a conscious decision to do evil. There were to be no victims of circumstances, and, apparently, no lunatics. Abuse cannot breed abuse from generation to generation, nor can violence beget violence, for no other reason than that Ms. Rand bade it be so.

The dentist-drill whine of Rand's prose still echoes in today's manifestoes on Der Kulturkampf, though God knows her comparatively meager verbal skills are far beyond those of her descendants. In considering the genealogy of right-wing rhetoric, I'm reminded of Fitz-James O'Brien's From Hand to Mouth (1858), in which a defective magic mirror produces a distorted copy of a green bird:
It was a feathered cripple. It was all hump. It stood on one long attenuated leg. Its neck was tortuous as the wall of Troy.

This rickety, ornithological image produced itself in the mirror, in precisely the same fashion as did its predecessor, and, after gradually growing into substance, detached itself from the polished surface, and came out upon the table....

What the image cast by the third bird was like I cannot at all attempt to portray. It was a chaos of neck and humps and feathers. The reproduction, nevertheless, went on, and the prolific mirror kept sending forth a stream of green abortions, that after a little while were no longer recognizable as belonging to any species of animal in the earth below, or the heavens above, or the caverns that lie under the earth. They filled my room. Swarms of limping, wall-eyed, one-legged, green-feathered things hustled each other on the floor. My bed was alive with a plumed mass of deformity. They filled the air, making lame efforts at flight, and blindly falling to the floor, where they tumbled about in inextricable confusion....The fluttering of embryonic wings, the twittering of sickly voices, the ruffling of lustreless plumages, produced a continuous and vague sound that filled me with horror.
One descends from Ayn Rand to Ann Althouse and her ilk by a similar process. Where Rand prissily objected to those who "glorify failure" and "smear success," Althouse prissily objects to acting itself:
This year, we're supposed to care about Truman Capote and Johnny Cash -- I mean a pretentious actor impersonating Truman Capote or Johnny Cash. Last year, we were supposed to be excited about Liam Neeson pretending to be Alfred Kinsey and Jamie Foxx pretending to be Ray Charles.
Oh, the humanity! Personally, I'm not interested in Capote, but the mere fact that a movie was made about him doesn't convince me that some sinister cabal is trying to induct me into his cult. Nor does the fact that a movie is advertised in my vicinity make me feel that I'm "supposed to care" about it. Ms. Althouse strikes me as a passive, intellectually lazy, not particularly discerning consumer of pop culture, who wants to pass herself off as some endlessly imposed-upon victim every time some product of that culture fails to meet her weird and rather neurotic standards. Like many of her peers, she comes across as a child who's having a temper tantrum at the fair because the cotton candy is the wrong color.

Ms. Althouse objects to "pretentious actors," an odd epithet given the vital role of pretense in that art. Next, one assumes, she'll complain about "imaginative fiction writers." And in fact, she does:
Spare me your made-up characters and stories and tell me whatever you have to say about the world you observe.
Better yet, perhaps artists should restrict themselves to issuing simple declarative statements on the issues of the day, so that conservative consumers can avoid the pitfalls of subjectivity and aesthetics and get straight down to the business of chastising nonconforming thought. It'd be a bit of a blow against human self-expression, sure, but at least we'd be spared the spectacle of Jonah Goldberg wrestling with Spielberg like an egg-eating snake with a football:
[O]ne of the lessons of Saving Private Ryan directly contradicts the lesson [of] Munich. In Ryan, they let one German soldier go and they come to regret it. Similarly, when the young translator freezes with terror, his friend dies at the hands of a Nazi. Most people I know took the lesson of these scenes to be that ignoring or refusing to face up to evil will only lead to greater tragedies down the road. In Munich, the lesson is the reverse. Killing terrorists is foolish because to do so only "creates more terrorists" and replaces the bad guys with worse guys. I don't think these two morals can be reconciled.
That settles that, eh? As Krazy Kat once said of Ignatz Mouse, "Little filossyfer...always he seeks the truth, and always he finds it."


Eli said...

I suppose it is theoretically possible that there could be someone on this planet more blissfully and blithely devoid of self-awareness than Ann Althouse, but I sure as hell can't think of who it might be...

@whut said...

Isn't the best example of this the high-jacking of an absurd cartoon by the "South Park Conservatives" and the writer of that book?

Anonymous said...

Hmm... combined with the Captain Ed story above and the Joe Fattorini story below, we seem to have evidence of the future of the American mind. Marx said that one day all religious faith, patriotism, even human love would be replaced by total materialism, called the commoditization of all relationships. Instead, all those qualities are being made totally subjective. People simply decide what truths make the most comfortable (either egotistically or financially) without regard for internal consistency and then defend them with the mania of Panzerdivision Hitler Youth against all comers, and use the Internet to find those who share their peculiar prejudices. Then they band together to harangue the rest of reality into submission. The NRA wants you to own guns to defend against big government - but if that's a right-wing government, then you're a terrorist. The bourgeoise demand war, then refuse to fight in it, then hail the poor who do fight as heroes, then strip them of medical benefits when they get home. Total self-absorption. What a fantastic final outcome to the American experiment in liberty.

Joseph Dietrich said...

So a shorter Don Felder would read: "Movies that celebrate all that is good and wholesome in the world are ipso facto Conservative."