Jonah Goldberg Endorses Hollywood Values


Jonah Goldberg argues that because Hollywood often portrays torture positively, it must be morally acceptable to most Americans, at least under those scenarios in which it's portrayed in TV and movies.

Right or wrong, I think the average American assumes that some rough stuff goes on behind the scenes and that's okay. One reason for that assumption is that Hollywood tells us so every day…

Harrison Ford in the Tom Clancy movies would never torture wholly innocent and underserving victims for the same reasons he wouldn't beat his kids or hurl racial epithets at black people. But given sufficient time to lay out the context and inform the viewers of the stakes, as well as Ford's motives, the audience not only understands but applauds his actions. Of course it's just a movie. But the movie is tapping into and reflecting the popular moral sentiments. Think of these scenes as elaborate hypothetical situations in the debate about torture and interrogation that are acted out and played before focus groups of normal Americans.

First, whether or not the average American is okay with utilizing power drills and electrical prods to interrogate suspected terrorists is sort of beside the point in determining whether or not such techniques are moral. Or effective. In the past, there has been mass support in this country for plenty of government policies that were neither.

Second, I don't know that rooting for a character in a Tom Clancy good-versus-evil action flick equates to moral approval for everything that character does in the film. Audiences root for the hero because the film has designated that character as the person you're supposed to root for. When moral questions like torture or state surveillance are presented with a bit more sophistication than that of a flag-waving Clancy film—take the The Dark Knight if you want to stick with blockbusters—audience reaction can be a bit more ambiguous.

Third, from Archie Bunker to Tony Soprano to Omar Little, the entertainment industry is great at eliciting sympathy and approval for flawed, even deviant characters. For example, I'd imagine that like me, a lot of people were rooting for Omar Little to exact his revenge on Avon Barksdale's crew in The Wire's first season. That shouldn't be interpreted as moral approval of vigilante justice in the real world.

But getting directly to Goldberg's point: Haven't conservatives been explicitly arguing for years that Hollywood is openly hostile to the values of the average American?

(Hat tip to Trey Garrison, who posts his own response to Goldberg here.)