In one of the memorable scenes in Stripes, the protagonists played by Bill Murray and Harold Ramis are going through orientation exercises with other newly enlisted Army privates. One by one, the soldiers tell their stories, until we get to the beady-eyed Francis, who goes by “Psycho” and who warns new acquaintances, “If I catch any of you guys in my stuff . . . I’ll kill you.” Even the strait-laced Sergeant Hulka rolls his eyes at all this: “Lighten up, Francis.”
The line came to mind while reading a piece in Salon last weekend. Leftist historian and journalist Thomas Frank penned an article about the passing of Harold Ramis. He acknowledges Ramis’s comic genius but warns his ideological fellow travelers that they’re wrong to see Ramis as a defender of their values, calling Caddyshack “a piece of crypto-Reaganite social commentary.”
Lighten up, Frank. Do we really need to politicize every Baby Ruth in the swimming pool?
I’ll concede that I agree with Thomas Frank on his main point: Today’s Left is deluded if it imagines kinship with the anarchic anti-authoritarian streak of Ramis’s best work. But Frank’s complaints about Animal House, Caddyshack, and Ghostbusters are misguided, and they reveal the blind spot that runs throughout his books and articles.
I’ll get to the three movies he mentions in a minute — but let’s also look at one Ramis film that Frank skips: Groundhog Day, the celebrated 1993 comedy that has turned countless religious leaders into movie critics (Jonah Goldberg’s assessment has become an annual tradition here at NRO). I understand why Frank avoids it. It came out well after Ramis’s late-’70s, early-’80s heyday, when he was changing American comedy, movie after movie; also, Groundhog Day doesn’t fit the “outsiders skewering those in authority” template.
But it would have been interesting to have Thomas Frank wrestle with the message of Groundhog Day: Redemption is earned by respecting the humanity of others. The movie’s plot device — forcing protagonist Phil Conners to relive February 2 over and over and over — lets us watch the main character evolve. In the end, Phil learns to abandon his reflexive cynicism and condescending attitude toward small-town America; we see him become a better human being as he becomes a part of the community.
Will Thomas Frank ever wake up from his own Groundhog Day, in which he wonders why normal Americans just get on with the stuff of living instead of joining his dreamed-of progressive revolution?
For more than two decades, Thomas Frank has put his eloquence into making the same sophomoric cultural critique. I first became aware of Frank in the early 1990s, reading his magazine, The Baffler, which I considered a highbrow indie-rock fanzine. Like so many of us cliché hipsters of that era, Frank lamented the lowbrow tastes of the masses. But when the masses came around to digging Sonic Youth too, Frank continued to lament. Applying cultural theories of Marx-via-Gramsci, he saw that whatever subversive messages once existed in “alterative music” had been corrupted by society’s ubiquitous consumerism. Frank didn’t want us indie kids to celebrate any victories until the capitalist system itself was smashed.
With that as background, it might not surprise you that Frank can’t simply enjoy the pranks and pratfalls of Animal House because it reminds him of the bad behavior on Wall Street. (The fictional Delta House was based on real-life stories at Dartmouth, which graduates a high number into the financial-services industry, don’t-cha know . . . )
Ghostbusters is so offensive to Frank on its face that he doesn’t bother to explain what is so objectionable about it. The rare film that celebrates small businessmen (albeit quirky, ghost-busting small businessmen) and casts as its villain an EPA bureaucrat, Ghostbusters is, in Frank’s words, “Reaganism . . . fully developed.”
Caddyshack skewers stuffy country-club Republicans, but alas, the working-class Danny Noonan does not wage a “caddies of the world unite!” class war. He finds an unlikely ally in Rodney Dangerfield’s tacky über-capitalist character, Al Czervik. Frank moans that “the side [Danny] eventually chooses is the same one that millions of real-life blue-collar workers were also choosing in those confused days.”
This gets back to the theme of Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which looks down on conservative voters who, in Frank’s estimation, are acting contrary to their economic self-interest.
Frank fails to allow that these individuals might actually know their long-term interest better than he does. After seeing what happened to Detroit, can you really blame today’s Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga for rejecting the UAW? As workers flee California for Texas en masse, on what basis are Americans to believe that higher taxes, more regulation, and more unionism are a viable governing strategy for the 21st century?
At least Frank does recognize that the Left no longer owns, in his words, “the imagery of subversion and outsiderness.”
With their suspicion of the political elites (and those crony capitalists who collude with D.C.’s power brokers), it is members of the Tea Party who remind us of the lovable underdogs who made up the Delta Tau Chi pledge class in Animal House. And it is the likes of Thomas Frank who want to delegitimize their dissent — and park them on the couch next to Mohammad, Jugdish, Sidney, and Clayton.
I don’t want to go overboard here and repeat the mistake of politicizing what should be simply entertaining. Harold Ramis was no tea-partier. As I understand it, he identified with the antiwar Left of the 1960s and wanted that to show through in his work in Stripes. The military brass in that film is depicted as incompetent and uncool. In that sense, perhaps, Stripes was “anti-war.” But here’s the thing: It was also unabashedly pro-America in a way today’s Left no longer tolerates. In Stripes, we were flawed, but our Communist adversaries were evil. We might be the wretched refuse, but we’d wear it as a badge of honor. And in the America of Ramis’s imagination, we inevitably got the last laugh.
— Brad Lips is CEO of Atlas Network.
EDITORS’ NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial publication.