Politics & Policy

Our Conservative Popular Culture

Does the Left really have a monopoly on storytelling today?

In the film Obvious Child, Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a stand-up comedian who specializes in making jokes about her private parts, with the occasional foray into fart humor. She is about to go onstage. Her friend offers her some encouragement: “You are going to kill it out there!”

Donna replies: “I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow.”

Donna’s talking about her abortion appointment.

Get it? It’s funny because it’s true. Or if you’re like me, you think it’s not funny because it’s true.

Many critics think it’s funny. One dubbed it “far and away the most winning abortion-themed comedy ever made.” Of course, as an artistic genre, that’s setting the bar pretty low, like serving the best gas-station sushi in the state of Oklahoma.

Since it opened last month, the film has grossed less than $2 million. Compare that to 2007’s Juno, a brilliant film widely seen as pro-life (at least among pro-lifers), or Knocked Up, a raunchier romantic comedy also hailed by abortion foes, both of which grossed more than $140 million domestically. Obvious Child, then, seems less like the cultural watershed its friends and foes make it out to be and more like a barely successful art-house flick.

That’s worth noting given that the film’s writer and director, Gillian Robespierre, was motivated in part because films such as Juno and Knocked Up “rubbed [her] the wrong way.”

Dinesh D’Souza had a similar motivation in making America: Imagine the World Without Her, a new documentary love letter to his adopted country. He’s often described as the Right’s Michael Moore, but he’s aiming higher, hoping to contend one day with Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone in the feature-film business. He tells National Review that “the Left knows the power of telling a story.” Stone and Spielberg are “much bigger than Michael Moore. They don’t make liberal films — they just make films, and they have a point of view. I want to make films with a different point of view.”

D’Souza’s absolutely right about Spielberg (though too kind to Stone). One of my biggest complaints about contemporary conservatism — in and out of politics — is that it has lost sight of the importance of storytelling.

My late friend Andrew Breitbart liked to say that politics is downstream of culture, meaning that any truly successful political turnaround needs to start by changing popular attitudes. Adam Bellow, a storied editor of conservative books, has a similar conviction and is trying to launch a conservative revolt in the world of fiction.

I wish them great success. Still, I think there’s something missing in this ancient conversation on the right (conservatives have been making such arguments since the 1950s — if not the 1450s, with the publication of the Gutenberg Bible). Conservatives refuse to celebrate, or even notice, how much of the popular culture is on their side.

Sure, Hollywood is generally very liberal, but America isn’t. Judging by their campaign donations, Hollywood liberals are very supportive of abortion rights. But there’s a reason why sitcoms since Maude haven’t had a lot of storylines about abortion. Indeed, nearly every pregnant TV character treats her unborn child as if it’s already a human being.

The Left may be anti-military, but such movies tend to do poorly, which is why we see more pro-military films. Similarly, it’s a safe bet that Hollywood liberals loathe guns. But you wouldn’t know that by what they produce. Not many action stars save the day by quoting a poem. Most Hollywood liberals probably oppose the death penalty, yet they make lots of movies where the bad guy meets a grisly death to the cheers of the audience. The Left rolls its eyes at “family values,” but family values are at the heart of most successful sitcoms and dramas.

One explanation is that while it is true that culture is upstream from politics, reality and, I would argue, morality are upstream from culture. Good stories must align with reality and a sense of justice. They can be set in space or Middle Earth, but if they don’t tap into something real about the human condition, they will fail. As Margaret Thatcher used to say, “The facts of life are conservative.”

Confirmation of that, I think, can be found in liberal Hollywood’s failure to be as liberal as it wants to be. And that’s definitely funny because it’s true.

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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