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Cheer Up, Liberals

December 1, 2004
By Ted McClelland

I know you think the fundamentalist triumph is complete. America is going to be just like The Handmaid's Tale now. The Bush Administration will take orders from Christian ayatollahs who command all-glass mega-churches in the suburbs of Denver and Houston. The president will be proclaimed a Protestant Pope, God's infallible messenger on Earth. Roe v. Wade will be overturned. The minimum wage will be lowered to $1 an hour, where it was in the 1950s, when everything was perfect. The FCC will order all radio stations to play Toby Keith, and Congress will so brazenly destroy the wall between church and state that the next federal budget will include $10 million for the 700 Club Pledge Drive.

Stop worrying. I am here to bring you hope. I am here to tell you that the cultural Cold War now wracking America will be won by the liberals, by the forces who want to take this country forward into the 21st century, not backward into the 12th. How can I say this with such certainity? Because liberalism always wins. Always. It may not win at the ballot box, and its victories may take decades to accomplish, but it triumphs nonetheless, because popular culture and generational change are juggernauts that flatten even the most arrogant imperators.

The conservative movement has been winning election after election for the last 10 years. But the more they win, the angrier they get. The right wing's fiercest culture warriors are middle-aged men refighting the battles of their youth. George W. Bush, Pat Buchanan, Tom DeLay, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes - all are Baby Boom politicians trying desperately to unring every bell that sounded in the '60s: women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, the sexual revolution, freedom of speech.

But they are learning that their electoral victories don't change a thing. The culture they loathe is still in their face, all the time, and it drifts farther and farther from "The Donna Reed Show" every year. Hooters' billboards loom above the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth. Cable TV's most popular programs are about foul-mouthed mobsters, promiscuous career girls, and arty homosexuals imparting their fashion sense to family men. Gays parade down the streets of big cities every summer. That damned Planned Parenthood clinic is still downtown. Peter Jennings is reading the evening news. "Kinsey" is playing at the AMC 30. Terrell Owens is getting fresh with a white woman on Monday Night Football. No wonder right-wingers wake up pig-biting mad every morning and go to sleep even more pissed off.

Yes, liberals, we've been too successful for our own good, or at least for the good of our presidential candidates. From Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush, Republicans have racked up votes by appealing to Americans' anxiety about this kind of social change. There's a new bogeyman every four years. In 1968, it was war protestors and rioting blacks. In 1972, it was dopeheads and abortionists. In 1980, it was welfare queens. In 1988, it was black street thugs. In 2004, it was homosexuals, Hollywood liberals, and homosexual Hollywood liberals.

But the message never changes: we have to put the brakes on our out-of-control culture. The voting booth has become a confessional in which a conflicted America registers its ambivalence about its own lifestyle choices. On Sunday night, Americans watch "Desperate Housewives." On Tuesday morning, they vote Republican.

Tapping the brakes is as much as the Republicans can ever do. If they stop the train, or throw it into reverse, the game is up. Even George W. Bush understands this. He has admitted that the country isn't ready for an abortion ban, and has suggested civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage. He knows the anti-gay marriage proposals that passed in 11 states this November are holding actions, destined to be overturned when today's tolerant twenty-somethings sit in state legislatures. In 1982, 34% of Americans told the Gallup Poll that homosexuality was an acceptable lifestyle. In 2003, despite three Republican presidencies, 54% said it was acceptable. Liberals will win that battle, too, but we won't win it through the rhetoric of Democratic politicians. We will win it with Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

We have a conservative government and a liberal culture because conservatives are better at scaring the crap out of voters, and liberals are better at wringing tears and laughter out of moviegoers. Nixon, that master of the dark political arts, once said that "people vote more out of fear than hope." Great art, though, is not about fear. It's about hope. Conservatives yearn for a Hollywood in which a "Left Behind" sequel sweeps the Oscars every year, but that will happen when Billy Bob Thornton is elected governor of Arkansas. The conservative mind is not creative. Artists imagine a new reality; conservatives want the world to remain the same, or return to the way they think it used to be.

Why is Hollywood so liberal? Because good acting requires the empathy to put yourself inside another person's skin. Empathy is not a Republican trait. This year, John Kerry had the backing of Oscar winners Steven Spielberg, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon and Tom Hanks. It was rumored that Bo Derek campaigned for Bush. And she's not known for her acting. Bush was also fawned on by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris, two non-actors whose performances involve stripping off other peoples' skins.

The Greeks represented theater with a pair of masks: a laughing face for comedy, a sorrowful face for drama. Great comedy is about mocking the status quo, which is why there are so few conservative comedians to rival Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and the Marx Brothers. Only Andrew "Dice" Clay, who is still drawing crowds at, um, what's the name of that little comedy club in Long Island City? And great drama is about the triumph of little people over the powers that be, which was not a plank in this year's Republican platform. There's a good reason To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't about an Alabama prosecutor who gets a black man hanged for sleeping with a white woman. Or why Norma Rae wasn't a Wal-Mart lawyer fighting a union certification in federal court.

Comedy, tragedy, dance, history, music - conservatives don't have any of the muses on their side. The week before the presidential election, the number one song on MTV's Total Request Live wasn't by a star-spangled country singer. It was Eminem's "Mosh," which ripped into Bush more harshly than even Al Sharpton ever dared:

Let the president answer a higher anarchy Strap him with an AK-47, let him go, fight his own war Let him impress daddy that way No more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own soil

There are prissy young Republicans at every high school, but it's safe to say that Eminem is a more influential role model than Donald Rumsfeld. It's cooler to be a dove than a hawk.

When Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi went undercover as a Bush volunteer in Florida, he learned that "most Republicans hate cool. Many of the parent volunteers I met were especially bitter because they think that cool is what liberals use to lure their children away. Which they might be right about, of course."

Entertainment is the liberals' most powerful weapon in the culture wars, and it's the reason Republicans spit out the word "Hollywood" with the same venom as "Gomorrah" or "France."

It's also because as long as liberals control Hollywood, we'll have a greater impact on the everyday behavior of Americans than 55 stuffy Republican senators could ever dream of. Liberals are winning the culture wars. Every damn day. Every time an American turns on the radio, watches TV or buys a movie ticket. And the Republicans hate our guts for it.

Ted McClelland is a writer in Chicago. His work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, In These Times, Mother Jones and Salon.com.

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