Culture Shock

CULTURE SHOCK…. Charles Homans’ piece in the new issue of the Washington Monthly on Culture11 caused a bit of a stir yesterday, and with good reason. It’s a fascinating story about what happened when a conservative web site ventured outside the conservative movement’s bubble.

It was a grimly funny coincidence that around the time Culture11’s financial well was running dry, another Web site sharing its subject matter debuted to much greater fanfare in the right-wing media than Kuo’s project ever received: Big Hollywood, an entertainment and politics blog created by Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Los Angeles-based Internet entrepreneur who helped launch both the Drudge Report and Huffington Post. Beneath an angry vermillion-colored banner, the blog offers recurring features like the “Celebutard of the Week” — tracking the latest vapidly liberal political utterances from the likes of Cher — and clips of the best conservative moments in film interspersed with rote breaking news from the entertainment industry. It’s supposed to eventually host cultural musings from such notable film critics as House Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor; commenting on a scene in the new thriller The International in which the characters shoot it out in the Guggenheim Museum, one Big Hollywood contributor coos approvingly, “I love seeing modern (phony) art destroyed.”

But for all the bluster of all-caps headlines like “GLOBAL WARMING PROPAGANDA SINKS ‘UNDER THE SEA 3D,’ ” it’s a far less courageous site than the comparably nonconfrontational Culture11; beneath the patina of combativeness, it’s really just a support group for 24 fans. What Big Hollywood does isn’t criticism, or reporting — it’s ideological accounting. And its failure to get its arms around the culture in which it is swimming is symptomatic of the broader failures of the conservative movement.

For decades, the Nixonian notion of the silent majority created a strong temptation for conservatives to simply wall off the parts of society that they didn’t like or understand, secure in the belief that there were more people on their side of the wall. Ballot for ballot, this may have been true in the 1970s and ’80s, and even into the ’90s. But if you build a border fence, it’s difficult to see what’s happening on the other side of it. Which is why in 2008 the Republican Party awoke to a world in which it was losing every politically important demographic battle and had essentially ceded the field on issues like education, where it hadn’t contributed a new policy idea since the school voucher, and energy, where the best plan it could come up with was a renewed push for offshore drilling. Big Hollywood’s mania for ideological categorization stems from the same mind-set — shared even by some of the smarter reform conservatives — that produced the Bush administration’s disastrous loyalty-over-performance hiring practices: the instinct to see everything, from the Sundance Film Festival to NASA’s atmospheric research programs, as just another battleground. What Culture11’s editors got right was the observation that, regardless of what you think of the world as it is, you can’t figure out how to wrestle with it until you understand what’s actually happening in it.

Andrew Sullivan called the piece “a really smart reported essay, with some great lines and a deep understanding of how conservatism’s inability to understand contemporary popular culture is a huge liability in relating to the young.”

Take a look.