I did not watch the 2013 Super Bowl and probably will not watch this year’s contest, either, being as I am more or less the effete Manhattan-dwelling, Whole Foods–shopping, theater-going caricature, though I’ve never been to one of those Georgetown cocktail parties that our more populist comments-section denizens are forever going on about. Okay, National Review did host Rand Paul at Café Milano once, but I don’t think that’s exactly what they have in mind.
I do like Super Bowl commercials, though, and the 2013 game included one that was practically a video essay in Kirkian conservatism. I refer of course to the Allstate advertisement featuring Dean Winters in his role as the insurance mascot known as Mayhem, which ends with a motto to warm right-wing cockles: “Mayhem has been, and always will be, everywhere.” The commercial begins with Mayhem tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden — “Not to brag or nothing, but I’m pretty much the most amazing apple ever” — thereby launching his chaotic career through history: The lion turns to chomp on the lamb, a meteorite wipes out the dinosaurs, the naïve Trojans get suckered by Odysseus’s horse, the proud tower at Pisa turns out to have been built on a weak foundation. Mayhem deadpans one word — “Moo” — and knocks over a lantern, burning Chicago, and we are treated to a highlight reel of private tragedies caused by Mayhem: cars crash, homes burn. In the final scene, Mayhem takes a hungry bite out of that forbidden fruit while the rumbling voice of Dennis Haysbert assures television viewers that Mayhem is eternal, omnipresent, inescapable.
Property insurance is an inherently conservative proposition, not in the ideological sense but in the sense of prudently seeking to mitigate risk. An eleven-minute Mayhem compilation, with its insistent reminders that “Mayhem Is Everywhere,” is in its way as conservative as anything you will find in the speeches of Ronald Reagan, and in some ways more so: President Reagan was, at least in public discourse, as sunny an optimist as you could hope to encounter, as indeed a political candidate needs to be. “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone,” he said, “I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts.” Great stuff, but what conservative can listen to those lines without thinking that our worst fears and our doubts have done a great deal to ensure our survival and to lead us away from foolishness, buffoonery, and catastrophe? Conservative optimism is a limited proposition: Bad things will happen, the Garden of Eden is long behind us, the future is uncertain, and while it is more fun to be the grasshopper, it is wiser to be the ant.
It is significant that the bitterest political battle of the past several years has been fought over insurance. Conservatives insist that people have a responsibility to protect themselves and their families against future risk, and that the government’s role in helping them to achieve this is limited. Progressives fundamentally reject the idea that this is a private responsibility — What do you imagine “Health care is a right!” means, if not that? — and further, with their insistence upon the logical and temporal impossibility that insurance be provided against things that already have happened — What do you imagine that “coverage of preexisting conditions” means, if not that? — reject the idea of insurance itself. Conservatives believe that Mayhem has been, and always will be, everywhere, and progressives believe that they can regulate it away.
Conservatives often lament that the culture is lost, while Adam Bellow recently argued in National Review that a conservative cultural counterrevolution already is in the making. The point, he writes, is not to create cultural propaganda that mirrors that of the Left but to create excellent works of literature that unobtrusively incorporate the conservatism of their authors:
As the founder of Liberty Island, a website that publishes fiction by conservative authors, I have read a great deal of this material and can attest that yes, their stories and novels do have political themes. But these themes are not presented for the most part in a way that is preachy or subordinates the story to the “message.” Instead the authors craft dramatic situations and pick heroes and villains that serve more subtly to advance their point of view.
I do not find much to argue with in Mr. Bellow’s essay, but I would add this: The most profoundly conservative works of popular culture in recent memory were not produced by conservatives and certainly were not conceived of as conservative projects. In fact, many of them were produced by people one assumes are hostile to conservative views.
Quentin Tarantino, for example, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democrats over the years, and was a maxed-out Obama donor in 2012. Mr. Tarantino has (mostly) not been loved by conservatives; Armond White, writing here, listed his Inglourious Basterds as one of 20 films that “effectively destroyed art, social unity, and spiritual confidence,” and “constitute a corrupt, carelessly politicized canon.” John Simon dismissed Pulp Fiction in the November 21, 1994, issue of National Review as hollow and shallow, concluding that “from Mr. Tarantino’s anything-goes filmmaking to true art is still quite a distance.” In his review of Kill Bill, Michael Medved rehearsed a familiar complaint: “Even though fantasies may not kill or maim, they still can corrupt and degrade.”
Mr. Simon criticized Pulp Fiction on artistic rather than philosophical grounds, as is proper. But consider the story that frames the film’s complicated plot: Jules, a mob hit man, among the most fallen of men, experiences a miracle and explicit religious epiphany, and resolves to go forth and sin no more. But though he may be through with violence, violence is not through with him, and he finds himself at the film’s end with a gun in his hand and a dilemma in his soul. Reflecting on the (made-up) Bible verse that he had been in the habit of reciting before gunning men down, he explains his situation to the stick-up artist who has fecklessly put himself into his pistol sights:
I’m thinking maybe it means you’re the evil man, and I’m the righteous man, and Mister Nine Millimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the Valley of Darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man, and I’m the shepherd, and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. But that s*** ain’t the truth. The truth is, you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.
The significance of that was not lost on David Kahane, National Review’s imaginary man in Hollywood: “Vincent Vega, the unbeliever, dies unredeemed in Butch Coolidge’s bathroom, while Jules, who accepts the reality of miracles, grants absolution . . . and is thus saved.”
It is unlikely that Mr. Tarantino set out to make something conservative any more than did the people who write Allstate commercials. Propagandistic entertainment, from the left or the right, generally fails as it approaches specificity: Consider that raft of dopey anti-war movies a few years back that nobody went to see, or the silly anti-Bush stuff in the Star Wars prequels, or the failed attempt to create a conservative answer to the Jon Stewart show with The Half-Hour News Hour. Conservatism, as Kirk understood it, is not ideology but “the negation of ideology.” Great works of art — Mr. Simon’s “true art” — and good insurance commercials, for that matter, command our attention because they speak to the truth, whether the speaker is Mayhem or Macbeth. Didacticism is an enemy of art, and as such it should be in artistic matters rejected by conservatives, whose allegiance should be to aesthetic standards rather than to narrow political and cultural agendas. If we understood culture the way Matthew Arnold did, we would not be surprised to find themes pleasing to conservatives even in the works of Mr. Tarantino or Allstate’s advertising writers. In a way that is not always obvious, they cannot help but be conservative, as great storytellers have been from Aesop’s day to our own, intentionally or not.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.