Before we get to the sales pitch here on Day Five of Reason's annual webathon—in which we ask our readers to contribute dollars or Bitcoins to the 501(c)3 nonprofit that makes all our libertarian journalism and commentary possible—a little palate cleanser:
That clip was embedded in an obituary here six weeks back, titled "How Lou Reed Inspired Anti-Communist Revolutionaries and the Rest of Us." It was the latest installment in the ongoing Reason genre of coverage of defending popular or "low" culture against political attacks from the left and right, and celebrating how the stuff can liberate the world in ways wholly unintended its creators.
Here's a great Reason.tv compendium of ridiculous congressional attacks on culture, as put together by Anthony Fisher:
Here's another classic, "Bollywood vs. Bin Laden: Why radical Islam fears pop culture," as anchored by Shikha Dalmia:
Partisan/ideological bores tend to treat music, film, art, and other expressions of culture either instrumentally—judging a work by how well it satisfies a particular political mission—or reactionarily, by trying to play defense against a perceived assault on decent human values. Nick Gillespie correctly identified the mistaken frameworks, while championing individual autonomy, all the way back in February 1996:
The audience has a mind of its own. Individuals sitting in a theater, or watching television, or listening to a CD don't always see and hear things the way they're "supposed" to. […]
That would be news to most participants in the public debate over depictions of sex and violence in movies, TV, and music. Liberals and conservatives are as tight as Beavis and Butt-head in agreeing that consumers of popular culture–the very people who make it popular–are little more than tools of the trade. Joe Sixpack and Sally Baglunch–you and I–aren't characters in this script. Just like TV sets or radios, we are dumb receivers that simply transmit whatever is broadcast to us. We do not look at movie screens; we are movie screens, and Hollywood merely projects morality–good, bad, or indifferent–onto us.
"We have reached the point where our popular culture threatens to undermine our character as a nation," Bob Dole thundered last summer in denouncing "nightmares of depravity" and calling for movies that promote "family values." "Bob Dole is a dope," responded actor-director Rob Reiner, a self-described liberal activist. Fair enough, but it apparently takes one to know one: "Hollywood should not be making exploitive violent and exploitive sex films. I think we have a responsibility [to viewers] not to poison their souls," continued Reiner, who rose to prominence playing the role of Meathead on All in the Family. […]
Of course, it is hardly surprising that denizens of Washington and Tinseltown frame the debate so that all interpretive power resides with would-be government regulators and entertainment industry types. Clearly, it makes sense for them to conceptualize popular culture as a top-down affair, one best dealt with by broadcasters and bureaucrats. This consensus, however, has implications far beyond the well-worn notion that entertainment should be properly didactic.
Because it assumes that the viewer, the listener, or the audience member is a passive receiver of popular culture, this consensus must inevitably result in calls for regulation by the government (such as the V-chip, which is part of both the House and Senate telecommunications bills) or paternalism by producers ("More and more we're tending toward all-audience films …that have civic values in them," Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti told the Los Angeles Times). The viewer simply can't be trusted to handle difficult, sensitive, ironic material--or to bring his own interpretation to bear on what he sees.
As we never tire in pointing out, audiences can frequently surprise you with how they use pop culture to leverage their own freedom. Whether it's dirty Czech rock musicians using the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa to take a decisive stand against totalitarians, anti-Taliban Afghan men going nuts over Leo DiCaprio, or rap/metal enthusiasts fueling the Arab Spring, American culture bemoaned by political critics at home can have galvanizing effects abroad.
Once you grant consumers the decency of their own free will in interpreting cultural works, a whole host of interesting philosophical and political implications tumble forth. I know not a small number of people whose introduction to libertarianism came through this cultural-interpretive portal. It's one that Reason works tirelessly at keeping open.
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