culture eats politics

I’ll cop to being guilty of prosecuting an ancient argument here, but I’ve been provoked. Nathan Rabin, in a consideration of An American Carol, attacks Michael Moore for ” the unconscionable ugliness of Moore targeting a seemingly dementia-stricken Charlton Heston to score cheap points in Bowling For Columbine. ”  Hold on a second: at the time that interview was filmed, Heston was the president of the NRA, the most powerful lobbying group in the entire world. When you hold a position as a spokesperson and leader for a political body, particularly one as successful and influential as the NRA, you make yourself the subject of political inquiry and political disagreement. That’s the gig. I’m not sure that Heston was “dementia-stricken,” but if he was, the fault lies not in Moore treating him like the political leader that he was but in the NRA for not removing him from that position if he wasn’t prepared to defend the organization.

Of course, going after the NRA is something liberals are expected to do, so there’s little percentage in it for someone like Nathan Rabin, who as a film and music reviewer essentially has to participate in the endless White People Cultural Competition (WPCC) that makes the AV Club possible. Part of the reason why we on the left lose so often is that Rabin is just one of a broad horde whose political convictions keep losing out to that cultural competition. To win at the WPCC, you’ve got to demonstrate your difference from people with essentially identical cultural leanings, upbringings, and material conditions. For that reason, you get to the kind of contrarianism where you end up  more interested in placing yourself above and apart from your ostensibly liberal peers than in achieving political victory, speaking the truth, or acting morally.

That’s a dynamic that I see over and over again– there are entire publications devoted to it– and there’s no question in my mind that it hurts liberal causes. As a wise man once said,  “if in order to be ‘interesting’ and ‘provocative’ your publication contains some articles in which heterodox liberals challenge liberal conventional wisdom and other articles in which conservatives challenge liberal conventional wisdom, then your publication is mostly publishing conservative content.”

That effect may be less explicit for publications like the AV Club, but the dynamic still exists, if sublty. The WPCC eats everything; at the extremes, it makes, for example, garden variety racism “ironic” or hip. When you live in New York or Chicago, and you’re surrounded by other people who are just like you– white, educated, young, anxiety-ridden, alienated from your work and your community, taught to distrust any straightforward moral or aesthetic convictions as pretentious– separating yourself from the pack isn’t easy. You can get their through the degree of your hyperbole when it comes to art. (If there was a white people’s Olympics, competitive The Wire appreciation would be the most hotly contested event.) Or you can get there through betraying the vague, toothless cultural liberalism that is an assumed part of the landscape.

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69 replies
  1. 1
    Chris says:

    Ahhh, Charlton Heston. Another one of these people who went completely nuts in their old age.

    I haven’t seen “Bowling For Columbine,” but Heston turned into such a fucking asshole in his latter years that I find it difficult to feel sorry for him even if Michael Moore did do anything uncool.

  2. 2
    Cacti says:

    There is a white people’s olympics.

    It’s called the Winter Olympic Games and they hold it every 4 years.

  3. 3
    Culture of Truth says:

    This is also why it was mean and unfair to ask Ronald Reagan any questions after 1983.

  4. 4
    ornery_curmudgeon says:

    There is also a welcoming and lucrative market for people to pretend be liberal … and then to attack liberalism, to portray it badly by acting poorly, or to stand in the way of an actual liberal.

    Even the New Republic knows we have LOTS of those.

  5. 5
    Culture of Truth says:

    targeting a seemingly dementia-stricken Charlton Heston to score cheap points

    Am I allowed to ask if he still owned guns?

  6. 6
    Martin says:

    White People Olympics is an awesome idea, btw.

  7. 7
    Carlos says:

    Man, I wonder if Anita will post.

  8. 8
    bemused says:

    Heston turning into an asshole may be due to onset of dementia or he was an asshole to begin with but for the NRA, his assholeness was a plus, not a negative. Even if Heston was noticeably losing it while he was NRA president, how many on that wingnut board would have noticed?

  9. 9
    taylormattd says:

    You know what else hurts liberal causes?

    Helping elect Mitt Romney.

    Voting for Ralph Nader.

    I mean honestly, you of all people have some gall purporting to tell anyone what hurts liberal causes.

  10. 10
    ruemara says:

    @taylormattd: Amen.

  11. 11
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    as you say this is all ancient history, but my recollection is that Heston did not go public with his diagnosis until after the film was released, much less filmed. And Heston was no shrinking violet back in the day. He loved to go on the Maher show and bully younger liberals into submission with his I-Marched-With-Dr-King club, which he did. Seems to have been a stand up guy through the sixties. At what point he became the professional white victim his wiki page suggests isn’t clear

  12. 12
    Martin says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist:

    At what point he became the professional white victim his wiki page suggests isn’t clear

    He should have stayed amateur so he could compete for his country.

  13. 13

    The best thing about Bowling for Columbine is that Moore really doesn’t claim to have the solution. His detractors like to claim that it’s an anti-gun film, but it isn’t really — it asks, “Why does the USA seem to have so much of a gun violence problem?” and spends a good amount of time addressing and dismissing the easy answers.

    It’s true that he does some stupid shit that undermines his message, things like misleading statistics (namely, comparing gun fatalities as raw numbers instead of per capita), ambushing Dick Clark (like that would have accomplished anything), and yes, throwing some theatrics at Charlton Heston.

    But scoring cheap points is his M.O.; he cut his filmmaking teeth on it, and I don’t think he knows how to quit it even if he wanted to. It’s a flaw, but it’s far from “unconscionable ugliness.”

  14. 14
    David in NY says:

    You’re right on about news or opinion media that spend much of their time challenging liberal views. But I’m pissed off about the same thing in the Arts. I attend a fair amount of theater and the stock “liberal” in the plays I see is somebody with no actual moral views and is characterized by hypocrisy, narcissism and entitlement, characteristics which are not particularly the property of upper-middle-class liberals, as opposed to upper-middle-class conservatives. (See, e.g., the second half of Clybourne Park, a little better than most but still …). But I guess it goes way back — one of my least favorite Phil Ochs songs is “Love Me I’m a Liberal.”

    I have no problems with somebody who wants to portray liberals as hypocrites, so long as they also portray some conservatives as hypocrites, or worse, as non-hypocritical people with honestly held but evil views.

  15. 15
    Culture of Truth says:

    “Unlike you, I am cool enough to defend gun-toting racist nut Charlton Heston, unironically.”

  16. 16
    Martin says:

    @Cris (without an H): I agree. If it was anti-gun, he wouldn’t have gone to Canada, looked at their high gun ownership rate and said “You guys have as many guns per person as us, yet you don’t kill each other all the time. What’s up with that?”

  17. 17
    BGinCHI says:

    I had no idea it was Slap a Kool Kid day, but I’m going to ride my single speed down to Wicker Park and sting a few moisturized cheeks.

  18. 18

    Funny how that very same “wise” man is now essentially Slate’s version of McMegan.

  19. 19
    Corey says:

    This, like almost all of Freddie’s posts, is just another long-winded way of saying “I hate, and am much smarter than, everyone around me.”

    Seriously, “WPCC”? Because The Wire is a good and popular show?

  20. 20
    JustMe says:

    I’m not sure that Heston was “dementia-stricken,” but if he was, the fault lies not in Moore treating him like the political leader that he was but in the NRA for not removing him from that position if he wasn’t prepared to defend the organization.

    Bowling for Columbine is a fantastic movie, but its great weakness is that it actually makes you feel sorry for Charlton Heston by the end.

  21. 21
    taylormattd says:

    I mean seriously, I hate half the stupid oh-so-contrarian fuckers at Slate just as much as the next person, but give it a rest.

    The dumbasses at places like Slate aren’t any worse than a moron who would write something like this:

    I’m sure I’ll articulate why I can’t support Barack Obama for the presidency in 2012 at great length in the future. In the meantime, at this particular moment, I’ll just express one argument that by itself is sufficient for me to walk away from Hope and Change. I went to see Glenn Greenwald speak this past week, which was excellent. And in his discussion I had a moment of simple awe, as I remembered, and then finally really wrapped my head around, the fact that the Obama administration has asserted its right to murder American citizens with absolutely no due process or review of law at all. . . . For that reason alone—not even just civil liberties, but that one issue, the assertion of a universal and unchecked right to assassination—I would never support the Obama candidacy.

  22. 22
    liberal says:

    @Cris (without an H):

    His detractors like to claim that it’s an anti-gun film, but it isn’t really…

    Yeah, it was pretty clearly not anti-gun.

  23. 23
    eemom says:

    @taylormattd:

    Careful there, dude — Cole gets all hissy ‘n pissy when yer mean to his little golden boys.

  24. 24
    Amir Khalid says:

    ‘Tis a pity that m_c will not be dropping by today to gnaw on our esteemed front-pager’s ankle as usual, for yesterday the Blog Lord John Cole smote her with the BanHammer.

    Foe my part, I feel somewhat ambivalent about Michael Moore. He has a lot to say that resonates with liberal-minded people. He might convince a lot more people, or at least have them more willing to hear him out, were he a more careful and scrupulous journalist. But he tends to be a polemicist and a showboat.

  25. 25
    taylormattd says:

    @eemom: I understand, it’s the desire to stick up for a friend. “He’s so nice on the email!” “His posts are very pleasant on the Townhouse List!” “He was great in person at the Balloon-Juice meetup!”

    I do, however, find it ironic, given how much folks around here are quick to rip the insidery Washington press corp for failing to call out republicans, largely because they all attend the same cocktail parties.

  26. 26
    The Tragically Flip says:

    Bowling for Columbine is a fantastic movie, but its great weakness is that it actually makes you feel sorry for Charlton Heston by the end.

    Given Heston’s attempt to blame the gun violence on those people I really didn’t feel much sympathy.

  27. 27
    JustMe says:

    He might convince a lot more people, or at least have them more willing to hear him out, were he a more careful and scrupulous journalist

    When on earth did this ever happen?

    Liberals are congenitally uncomfortable with polemicists and people who don’t pull their punches.

    Michael Moore would probably have a lot more success with his style if he were a conservative.

  28. 28
    eemom says:

    @taylormattd:

    ….that said though, thanks for reminding me of exactly how pompous a little ass we’re dealing with here:

    I went to see Glenn Greenwald speak this past week, which was excellent. And in his discussion I had a moment of simple awe

    Lord a-mercy.

  29. 29
    Dan says:

    I read the AV Club pretty faithfully, and I had a very similar reaction to that piece.

  30. 30
    Chris says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist:

    Seems to have been a stand up guy through the sixties. At what point he became the professional white victim his wiki page suggests isn’t clear

    There is a demographic of conservatives who used to be good on civil rights and then turned into haters. Barry Goldwater desegregated the Arizona National Guard before turning into the icon of opposition to the CRA and VRA. Billy Graham campaigned (though not at first) against American segregation and South African apartheid, but turned out to be kind of a Jew-hater when the Nixon tapes were released. And they were hardly alone – a majority of Americans supported civil rights in the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade had backpedaled and hopped onto the “middle ground” position offered by Nixon.

    What motivates the change? I don’t know. For some of them, it was probably just a matter of jumping on the most popular bandwagon of the moment (Billy Graham was one of those, I’d say). For others, they supported civil rights until it started to upset them by asking for more than they were willing to give or challenging their perceptions of the way things ought to be (a lot of white people saw civil rights in a fairly paternalistic light that they thought should only happen according to their standards, and weren’t terribly interested in hearing what blacks, Latinos and Indians actually had to say). Heston was probably one of those.

  31. 31
    The Tragically Flip says:

    @Cris (without an H):

    (namely, comparing gun fatalities as raw numbers instead of per capita)

    It’s true the raw numbers make the situation look worse, but the per-capita numbers still show America has a very serious gun violence problem not experienced in other developed nations. You really are a lot more likely to die by gun the US. At worst citing the raw numbers exaggerates the disparity, but there is a disparity and it is quite significant.

  32. 32
    eemom says:

    I actually dissented from the CW about Bowling for Columbine. Thought it was an incoherent, sloppy mess that did nothing to advance an agenda of any kind.

    The only thing I can recall Michael Moore doing that earned my respect was the scene in the Bush-era movie whose name I can’t recall at the moment when he accosted Congress-creeps on the Capitol steps and demanded to know whether they’d send their kids to Iraq. That was impressive.

  33. 33
    lacp says:

    Wiggles is your idea of a wise man? Or are you being sarcastic?

  34. 34
    eemom says:

    @taylormattd:

    dunno, I think it’s more complicated than that. Because he doesn’t stick up for ALL friends the same way. Witness the debacle several months ago when he threw ABL under the bus over Greenwald.

    No, this particular brand of fierce loyalty seems limited to preening little white-boy glibertarian assholes.

    And fuckie, of course.

  35. 35
    Chris says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist:

    Also, if you look at some of his old Hollywood stuff – “The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur” – there’s a big Let’s Celebrate Our Judeo-Christian Values vibe to it. I could just see Heston being the kind of guy who supported putting “Under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and turning “In God We Trust” into the national motto back in the fifties.

  36. 36
    Paul in KY says:

    @Martin: It would be pretty boring, IMO.

  37. 37
    Thomas F says:

    I realize you are using the Michael Moore example as a pivot to a much broader point (one with which I somewhat agree). However, by all accounts, Michael Moore is a horrifying human being by progressive/liberal standards. The available evidence is that he has over time hoarded tens of millions of dollars to himself while treating his laborers like dog excrement at every turn. After Roger & Me, his garish documentaries have become shoddy at best. One need not sympathize with Mr. Heston to be repulsed with how he manipulated the mother of the slain soldier in Farenheit 911 — for his own personal profit, mind you.

    I am surprised that liberals continue to lionize this cretin. Nothing apart from rank tribalism justifies it.

  38. 38
    Paul in KY says:

    @Amir Khalid: He’s our polemicist & showboat, so he’s fine by me.

  39. 39
    Paul in KY says:

    @Thomas F: You may not realize this, but most films are created for ‘profit’. That is the general reason the perople called ‘producer’ and ‘director’ make these things.

  40. 40
    MikeJake says:

    Mark Ames:

    A century-old ideological movement, Liberalism: once devoted to impossible causes like ending racism and inequality, empowering the powerless, fighting against militarism, and all that silly hippie shit—now it’s been reduced to besting the other side at one-liners…and to the Liberals’ credit, they’re clearly on top. Sure there are a lot of problems out there, a lot of pressing needs—but the main thing is, the Liberals don’t look nearly as stupid as the other guys do. And if you don’t know how important that is to this generation, then you won’t understand what’s so wrong and so deeply depressing about the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity.

    http://exiledonline.com/the-ra.....-lameness/

    Cleverness, not character, is our most favored quality.

  41. 41
    Slugger says:

    The first Moore film was “Roger and Me” which showed Roger Smith, the CEO of GM, making around a million per year while GM was bleeding money. This was in 1989. Moore was called a fat, leftist, ignorant pig for showing this to us. Fast forward twenty years, and people are making $25 million while steering their companies unto the rocks.
    Let’s not dismiss Moore too fast.

  42. 42
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    Tis a pity that m_c will not be dropping by today to gnaw on our esteemed front-pager’s ankle as usual, for yesterday the Blog Lord John Cole smote her with the BanHammer.

    Missed that news. I was wondering where she was in this thread.

    (Not really.)

  43. 43
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @eemom:

    The only thing I can recall Michael Moore doing that earned my respect was the scene in the Bush-era movie whose name I can’t recall at the moment when he accosted Congress-creeps on the Capitol steps and demanded to know whether they’d send their kids to Iraq. That was impressive.

    Fahrenheit 9/11

  44. 44
    Craig says:

    There is humorlessness and then there is humorlessness and then there is this post. Jesus fucking Christ, it’s a dumb piece at the AV Club about some awful David Zucker movie. Calm the fuck down.

  45. 45
    Tokyokie says:

    @JustMe: I agree with that sentiment. My take on Heston was that as he aged and faded as a leading man, instead of moving into character parts (like, say, the very liberal Burt Lancaster), he grew increasingly embittered with the Hollywood establishment. So when political conservatives showed an interest in him that movie studios no longer did, he went along with them. Heston’s relationship with the NRA was mutually beneficial: The organization got the attention star power brings, and Heston got the sort of star treatment he hadn’t enjoyed since Bill Wyler and Cecil B. DeMille had died. In arranging his tête à tête with Heston, Moore exploited that same eager need for attention that the NRA did, only in doing so, Moore exposed Heston as an empty figurehead. And yeah, because I’m a liberal, I tend to have some pity for the pathetic.

  46. 46
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Slugger:

    I have possibly mentioned previously on this thread that when I worked at the (now-defunct) NPR station in Flint, Michael Moore was one of our “community producers.” He did several programs on unions, Flint’s car-centric economy, the deplorable state of the downtown area (approximately one in three storefronts was boarded up), the homeless and hungry in Flint — essentially the Michael Moore the entire country now knows and loves/loathes, depending on POV. He was definitely cutting his media teeth back then (late ’70s) and his skills were a bit primitive at the beginning, but he was one helluva talented interviewer and producer. Smart, weird guy.

  47. 47
    mdblanche says:

    @Chris:

    What motivates the change?

    Simple. The Civil Rights movement was all well and good when it was all about getting rid of nasty laws passed by dreadful people in other parts of the country. But then the conversation changed to “let’s talk about those hush-hush practices in your neighborhoods and your businesses up north.”

  48. 48
    Lit3Bolt says:

    @JustMe:

    Totally agree with this. At the end of Bowling for Columbine, he’s chasing the clearly neurologically impaired Heston through his own house with a picture of a little girl, demanding apologies and sympathy for her death. Made me feel bad for Heston rather than for the dead little girl Moore was using as an emotional cudgel.

    To paraphrase the girl from The Social Network, Moore is not disliked because he’s a liberal. He’s disliked because he’s an asshole.

  49. 49
    Chris says:

    @mdblanche:

    Yeah, I think that’s it exactly. At least, I think that’s what motivated the public opinion swing. They liked desegregation as long as it was about desegregating federal agencies and little podunkvilles in the South. When bar owners in New York started being told they needed to not discriminate among clients, all of a sudden it wasn’t cool anymore.

  50. 50
    Sentient Puddle says:

    I’ve never seen Bowling for Columbine. Why the hell would he ambush Dick Clark for that documentary?

  51. 51
    gaz says:

    @Sentient Puddle: Because Dick Clark was a prick who supported some shitty and draconion welfare-to-work legislation for single moms, while owning some high-end-wannabe food court franchise, which paid his single mother welfare workers shit wages and made them miserable and more broke, as I recall.

    And when confronted about it, he showed some very thin skin.

    That’s coming from someone that abhors ambush journalism, whether it’s Micheal Moore doing it, or Bill O’Reilly doing it.

    But you asked the question, so…

  52. 52
    gaz says:

    @Lit3Bolt:

    Moore was using as an emotional cudgel.

    That’s his MO.

    And yeah, he’s an asshole. He’s right sometimes, but that gets ignored because he’s such an asshole about it. He’s not doing any of his causes any favors. He’s a sensationalist.

    ETA: I agree with Freddie about heston though. He was head of a powerful organization. He should’ve been scrutinized like anyone in a position of power. I wasn’t about to give reagan a pass either. Never feel sorry for a man with a jet.

  53. 53
    Thomas F says:

    @Paul in KY: You don’t say. I was unaware that liberals put on moral blinders when they learn that profit-makers are earning profit. Ah, but you revealed in your prior post that your principles go out the window when the person in quesiton is on “our” team. Few people are so open about how callow, petty, and generally ignorant they are. I congratulate you.

  54. 54
    nate says:

    @eemom

    @taylormattd

    Do you assholes just pollute threads without adding anything to the discussion except shit talking for fun, or is it a career?

    Seriously, get a life. Start your own fucking blogs or something.

  55. 55
    Sentient Puddle says:

    @gaz: And that ties into guns how?

  56. 56
    Waco Johnnie says:

    The only thing I can recall Michael Moore doing that earned my respect was the scene in the Bush-era movie whose name I can’t recall at the moment when he accosted Congress-creeps on the Capitol steps and demanded to know whether they’d send their kids to Iraq. That was impressive

    I actually disliked that bit. What right do parents have to send their kids to war? Now, if the asked Young Republicans whether they were going to sign up, fine.

  57. 57
    Jamey says:

    @JustMe: Agreed. As business-speak fanatics are fond of saying, Moore was right, but the optics were terrible, so he lost the room.

  58. 58
    Paul in KY says:

    @Thomas F: You gotta ride for your team, and Mr. Moore is on my team.

  59. 59
    eemom says:

    @nate:

    You mean a life where you pop up on threads out of nowhere to call people assholes? Keep it, loser.

  60. 60
    Bob says:

    Michael Moore has his own style but who else is going where he goes, which by the way is by no means radical. No one is, at least no one with his audience. But he’s not good enough for liberals – he’s not nice enough, he’s not precise enough, he’s too polemical, and he’s overweight and who likes that! Which brings us back to the subject of this post.

  61. 61
    Thomas F says:

    @Bob: You seem unable to make intelligible distinctions. The problem is not that he is too vitriolic, passionate, or overweight. The problem is that he uses the veneer of self-righteous radicalism as a vehicle toward ever greater profit and self-aggrandizement. The problem is not tone, but substance. It’s not that he’s too shrill in articulating progressive principles; I propose that he has no principles at all.

    @Paul in KY: That is one way to go through life.

  62. 62
    martian says:

    @Thomas F: You’re talking a lot of trash and expecting people to just fall back in horror, “Oh, noes! Michael Moore makes a profit?! To the barricades!!”
    __
    Maybe you could provide some authoritative links documenting Moore’s many sins against liberalism? Nobody’s gonna bite just on your say so.

  63. 63
    Taylormattd says:

    @nate: NOU!!

  64. 64
    Dang'd Lib'rul says:

    I thought it was appropriate that Moore go after Heston, for the same reason stated in the article.

    I did have an issue in that movie when Moore went after Dick Clark, just because the mother of a boy who killed a classmate with his uncle’s gun worked at an American Bandstand Grill.

  65. 65
    gaz says:

    @Sentient Puddle:

    And that ties into guns how?

    Bowling For Columbine (viewed in it’s best light) is a far reaching journey into the problems in this country that may have contributed to the rampage. If nothing else, one of the brightest points of it was that he went around questioning A LOT of different things. He looked at shooting statistics across countries, family issues, poverty, politics, gun manufacturers, etc. If you’re curious you should watch it, because I’d grind this thread to a halt trying to give you the blow by blow. I’m sure you can find it on TPB if you must.

  66. 66
    gaz says:

    @Thomas F:

    I was unaware that liberals put on moral blinders when they learn that profit-makers are earning profit

    Sweeping and baseless generalization even after seeing commentary on this very thread that contradicts your use of the common refrain “liberals believe X”. Joy. We’ve got one of “you people” here. Welcome.

  67. 67
    mary says:

    Michael Moore isn’t perfect. He may be an asshole. His work may be sloppy. But is there anyone else making movies about these subjects that reach a large audience. His working-class appearance and background may alienate you. But it connects with people who don’t otherwise go to the movies to see documentaries.

  68. 68
    gaz says:

    @mary: I was with you until

    His working-class appearance and background may alienate you.

    Are you lost? Are you on the wrong blog? What in the name of Anthony’s Wiener are you driving at, exactly?

    If you had a photo array of the regular commenters here, not to mention the front pagers, you’d see we’re largely a working class bunch. A plurality of us make Micheal Moore look respectable.

    I think you ended up in the wrong forum. Seriously.

    /passes the joint

  69. 69
    Zach says:

    (If there was a white people’s Olympics, competitive The Wire appreciation would be the most hotly contested event.)

    Lol.

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