My reaction to the announcement that David Gregory would be the new host of NBC’s flagship Sunday morning political hour, Meet the Press, was not unlike my response to the news that he would be replacing Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews for MSNBC’s primetime election coverage earlier this year. In short: ugh. It’s not that I think an obvious partisan like Olbermann or an aggressive commentator like Matthews should be anchoring straight news, but Gregory’s brand of milquetoast reporting is only slightly more incisive and compelling than the giggly, vanilla style of coverage doled out by Anderson Cooper every night on CNN.
Worse, though, is the fact that Gregory is a total toady: He was one of the loudest defenders of the mainstream media in the face of criticism that the White House Press Corps didn’t do enough to challenge the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War, making him an ideal replacement for the late Tim Russert, who, shortly after 9/11, asked a guest (whose identity escapes me now) what he or she thought about the “theory” that United States foreign policy was the impetus behind the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. And as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald points out in his latest column, Gregory’s handling of an interview with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini yesterday in the wake of that country’s controversial military assault on the Gaza Strip was an insult to objective journalism; no less than three questions in a row seemed like poorly disguised attempts at persuading Livini that Israel should overthrow Hamas. He stopped just short of daring her: “Come on. You know you want to.”
Gregory’s interview with Livini is not unlike his Q&A with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last summer regarding the Russia-Georgia conflict in which he seemed shocked to discover that Rice warned Georgia, “a close U.S. ally,” not to provoke its neighbor. Like most of the American media, Gregory had clearly already made up his mind that Russia was the instigator without even bothering to explore the other side. During Scooter Libby’s perjury trial last year, it was revealed that Dick Cheney’s office believed that Russert’s Meet the Press was an optimal format for the Vice President because he could “control the message”; with Gregory, Dick doesn’t even need to make the trip because Gregory will spread the message for him.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.
On Trend: The Changing State of Coming Out in Hollywood
If there’s anything to deride about Jodie Foster’s show-stopping moment, it’s that it felt dated, dusty, even quaint.
She certainly came prepared. The E! correspondents may have told you that Jodie Foster wore Giorgio Armani to the Golden Globes, but her frock was more like a suit of armor, its metallic straps criss-crossing her chest as if she were bracing for impact. Amid an awards show that’s often little more than a boring, booze-soaked, wannabe Oscars, Foster—who, at 50, proved a drastically young choice for the HFPA’s career-defining Cecil B. Demille Award—provided a riveting slice of LGBT history, using the acceptance of her honorary trophy as an opportunity to deliver a coming-out speech…sorta. Everyone knows the story by now: How Foster jokingly announced that she’s “single” after a virtual drum roll of anticipation, how she thanked her longtime partner and two strapping sons, and how she professed the value of personal privacy, declaring that she’s no reality star, like “Honey Boo Boo Child.” Gawker had a particularly douchey field day with the latter portion of Foster’s monologue, viciously berating the actress for demanding privacy as a public figure in a very public forum. The contradiction at which Gawker took aim is glaringly apparent, but while celebrities may sacrifice certain libel rights and anonymous trips to the grocery store, they are not, in fact, required to divulge personal details to the masses. If there’s anything to deride about Foster’s show-stopping moment, it’s that it felt dated, dusty, even quaint.
Like most viewers, I was glued to my TV as Foster half-spilled her guts at the podium, her words flying out in a candid rush likely helped along by cocktails, but her building-up of the pseudo-confession (which was, admittedly, quite admirable and heartfelt) announced her age more loudly than any lifetime achievement prize could. From wardrobe to word choices, the two-time Oscar winner approached the moment with an all-encompassing wince, even mentioning her publicist’s supposed terror in the process. Already a mature, soon-to-be mom back in 1997, when Ellen Degeneres delivered the “Yep” heard ’round the world, Foster hails from a generation still hung up on the notion of public gayness as career suicide. Moreover, she’s a star whose sexuality has been in question for what feels like ages, so her elaborate confirmation, however tasteful and compelling, seemed like old news in more ways than one. In her way, Foster mocked what she essentially referred to as the new trend of gay stars being compelled to come out, using that contentious issue of privacy as a defense against her delay in jumping on the bandwagon. What Foster failed to acknowledge is that today’s celebrity outings aren’t so much trendy as they are, to pull a Foster and invoke a pop culture reference, the new normal. The growing banality of stars making their gayness known has been one of the stealth triumphs of the Obama era, and at the risk of suggesting agreement with Gawker’s divulge-all viewpoint, if Foster indeed feels there’s a cultural urge for gay celebs to come clean, that alone is something to be celebrated.
Naturally, there’s also the argument that Foster’s long-postponed address of the issue is disrespectful to the gay community, implying she’s not only out of touch, but insensitive to the notion that an earlier admission, in tougher times, might have helped a lot more people (it also doesn’t help that, as some outlets have criticized, her acknowledgment was paired with a suggestion of retirement, which worsens the sting of her wait and surely cripples her value as a public voice for LGBT rights). In regard to gay media figures, all visibility is positive, but I’m not so sure the earth is spinning any better now that Jodie Foster’s lesbianism is verified. I did, for a while, take issue with the tight lips of Anderson Cooper, a man of stature and public importance well beyond the realm of entertainment, and whose open joining and championing of what’s becoming a new movement of civil rights could change minds and influence real-world coverage of LGBT matters. With a lifestyle well known for some time throughout New York and within his profession, Cooper—who, as an international correspondent roaming certain areas that realistically kill gays on sight, had more justifiable reticence than any other recently outed celeb—didn’t surprise anyone when he finally stated the obvious, and it was a satisfying moment indeed. It was a bit of a letdown that the news came via Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, a blog under the umbrella of odious Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast. But, as Sullivan stated in the July 2012 article, which included the text of a personal email from Cooper outlining all the details, the two men are old, trusted friends, and the fact that the story broke via a modest, copy-and-paste blog post directly reflects the gulf between Foster’s spectacle and the actual spread of equality.
It also speaks to the myriad ways gay stars can easily, and often subtly, answer the big question today. Foster may not have received the memo that televised declarations and People cover stories have been shuffled aside as the norm (give or take a Ricky Martin article), but many younger stars who’ve come of age amid the shifting tides have, including 39-year-old Jim Parsons, who revealed his relationship to The New York Times in a May article discussing his work in The Normal Heart; 19-year-old Ezra Miller, who casually identified as queer in an August interview with OUT; and 34-year-old traffic-stopper Matt Bomer, who, in what may be the finest confirmation of celebrity gayness to date, simply thanked his longtime partner in a speech while accepting a Steve Chase Humanitarian Award (the honor was for Bomer’s efforts in fighting HIV/AIDS). These unforced, ain’t-no-thang methods of disclosure represent progress that Foster’s headline-maker managed to both support and contradict. Bomer’s case, specifically, is draped in hope, as the heartthrob has long been stated as choice No. 1 for the very promiscuous—and very straight—Christian Grey in the forthcoming film version of E.L. James’s 50 Shades trilogy. And it’s not just industry types who are doing the cheerleading, it’s the books own rabid, female fans. After all, what could be sexier that the ultimate unattainable male? The point is, we seem to have at last reached a time when going public as a gay celebrity doesn’t equal career death, but a career surge. May be a good idea to rethink that retirement, Jodie.
UC Davis: A Lesson in Civil Disobedience
By now you’ve seen the video and heard the outrage: A group of student demonstrators at the University of California Davis supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement and protesting violent police action against University of Berkeley protesters two weeks earlier were pepper-sprayed by UC Davis police. If the incident doesn’t become an iconic, defining moment of the Occupy movement a la images of black Americans being hosed down by police during the civil rights movement, it has at least galvanized the cause and ignited a long-overdue debate about police aggression circa 2011.
While the UC Davis police were acting on orders by the university’s chancellor, Linda Katehi, it’s unlikely she instructed Lt. John Pike to nonchalantly stroll up and down and shower the students with military-grade pepper spray at point-blank range like he was killing cockroaches in his kitchen. No reasonable civilian would begrudge police officers their right to protect themselves while in the line of duty, but despite UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza’s statement that the pepper spray was used because students were preventing the officers from leaving, video and photographs of the incident contradict her account. Even Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly—who likened pepper spray to a nice, peppery vinaigrette on The O’Reilly Factor last night—thinks Spicuzza’s claim is bogus.
The disparity of the police presence at Occupy protests vs. similar Tea Party events, where demonstrators routinely wield weapons, and the clearly organized response (from as high up as the Department of Justice) to the Occupy movements in various cities across the country has been covered reasonably well in the media. The incident is also beginning to shine a light on the gratuitous use of new forms of non-lethal force (like pepper spray, tear gas, and Tasers—what a former police lieutenant calls “standard police procedure”) in instances where, previously, weapons may not have been used at all.
But what no one seems to be talking about is the second half of the eight-and-a-half-minute video, during which the students corral the police and seemingly guide them out of the university quad. Chants of “Shame on you!” and “Our university!” built steadily as the number of students gathering around increased. As the officers back away with their riot guns drawn, Lt. Pike can be seen shaking two pepper-spray canisters, preparing to open fire on the students again. Then one protester can be heard leading a new chant: “We are willing to give you a brief moment of peace, and you may take your weapons and our friends and go. Please do not return. You can go. We will not follow you.” Repeated chants of “You can go!” are then followed by cheering as the police officers exit the university grounds and the students reclaim their quad.
Most, if not all, of the media coverage of the incident at UC Davis has focused on the police action, not the students’ reaction. But what these few minutes of video display is the power of nonviolent resistance and direct action in the face of police force. Just as the overnight occupation of Liberty Square in downtown Manhattan was technically illegal, the demonstrations at UC Davis may have been against the university’s rules, or even against the law. But as a famous civil rights leader once said, “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.” Its economy of language and lack of obvious poetry makes it one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s less quotable quotes, but it’s the foundational principle of civil disobedience, and one that these idealistic college students clearly understand.
Watch the incident from four perspectives:
Sarah Palin’s Rallying Cry
When Sarah Palin’s new video message regarding the controversy surrounding the assassination attempt of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was released today, I couldn’t help but think of Osama bin Laden. Some will no doubt be tempted to stop reading right here, and dismiss this as the rant of some partisan lefty. A lefty I am, and I make no bones about it, but hear me out. Bin Laden doesn’t just release one of his cave messages to the West following a terrorist attack for which he’s responsible; he often chimes in after any notable calamity, claiming tacit responsibility or pointing a figure at the consequences of American imperialism.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that Sarah Palin is a terrorist. I personally don’t ascribe responsibility for what happened in Tucson, Arizona last weekend to Palin—at least directly. There’s no evidence to suggest that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, had a coherent political ideology, let alone ever saw Palin’s “target list,” on which Giffords’s district was depicted in crosshairs. But like Bin Laden, Palin exists in a vacuum, avoiding both reality and real media interaction, occasionally appearing on FOX News via satellite from her own cave, err, studio above her garage in Alaska and communicating in slogans, soundbites, and 140-character messages via Twitter and Facebook. Using social media is undoubtedly a savvy, immediate, and hands-on method of getting one’s message across, but Palin doesn’t seem interested in engaging her supporters or critics in any meaningful way. She’s an isolated political figure, communicating her ideas, if not her orders, from some faraway headquarters, almost as if she’d prefer that others do her bidding for her.
Andrew Sullivan likened Palin’s video speech to “a rallying cry.” A more conspiratorial, cynical person than myself, someone who believes that Palin is in this for anything other than money, might agree, and read into her use of the word “blood” and the way she emphasized how the “citizens” that were killed were “innocent victims” the same way a rebel fighter might lament collateral damage. But Palin’s latest video missive is unsettling in several other ways. Rather than admit that using violent metaphors during a political campaign was, perhaps, not her greatest moment and, in this case, a deeply regrettable coincidence, and take an opportunity to actually lead by calling for the rhetoric to be toned down (on “both sides,” as is the current tack of politicians and mainstream media figures these last few days, despite there being absolutely no evidence of rhetorical parity), she’s attempting to further divide the country even as she claims that her critics are doing the same.
Palin’s denial of her own contribution to the current political discourse, defending it by ridiculously invoking the political duels of centuries past, is dumbfounding. “When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our vote,” she said, repeating part of a campaign speech from last year. It’s a rational statement in and of itself, and I like a good metaphor, but again, Palin exists in a vacuum. She talks of the “peaceful exchange of power,” but the manner in which she and others have attempted to rally their supporters is falling on the ears of those who have clearly forgotten that they live in a representative democracy, where change is affected by ballots, not bullets. That Loughner may not have been one of those people, that he is “apolitical” and “deranged,” or that the violent rhetoric is simply that—rhetoric—is a hollow argument. How does Palin reconcile her claim that her actions have no impact when people are showing up at rallies with guns, with posters that literally call for blood?
But Palin and others on the right remain resolute in their unwillingness to admit their mistakes. And to act as if the incitement of violence hasn’t already had a direct effect is tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand. After health care reform passed in the House last year, Giffords’s office was the target of vandalism, one in a series of directly connected incidents that occurred in opposition to the bill, including a propane tank gas line being cut at the house of the brother of a Virginia congressman after right-wing activists published his address online, believing it was the representative’s home. The question isn’t whether or not political violence can be directly connected to right-wing provocation; the question is how much further will it go?
Sarah Palin is not a terrorist, but she certainly “palls around” with them. During the 2010 elections, she endorsed failed Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who not only used violent rhetoric regarding her opponent, majority leader Harry Reid, but took it one step further by declaring that her supporters were prepared to use “second amendment remedies” if she didn’t win the election. Right-wing anti-abortion extremists routinely vandalize women’s health clinics and post the home addresses of abortion doctors and nurses. These same tactics—which have led to the assassinations of eight doctors and clinic employees since 1993, including Dr. George Tiller—are now being used as a broader political strategy by the right. If it continues, the ends might tragically be the same too.
Vote, Baby, Vote!
Leading up to the 2008 election, we posted a series of vintage Rock the Vote ads on the Slant blog. Unfortunately, they didn’t survive the transition to the new House, but here’s one of our favorites:
Remember to vote this Tuesday, November 2nd!
It Gets Better…or Does It?
Public figures and private citizens of all stripes are joining a movement to tell gay teens suffering from bullying in school or struggling with their identity that “it gets better.” The campaign, simply dubbed the It Gets Better Project, was launched by columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage in the wake of a recent string of teenage suicides across the country which have gotten a surprising amount of mainstream media attention.
But does it really get better? It certainly can, and it most likely will, in a multitude of ways, for most young gays growing up today…if, like the campaign says, they would just live to see it. Cultural change often happens fast, even if it seems unbearably slow; I graduated from high school just a year and a half before the premiere of the first network sitcom with an openly gay male lead character (whose name was in the title, no less!) and just months before my school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance was started. The experience of being a gay teen was measurably different between the time I attended my high school and the years that followed soon after.
But my question is mostly directed to the supposed “adults” in the room. One of the more visible people who have taken part in the It Gets Better campaign is Mario Lavandeira, better known to Internet gossip hounds as “Perez Hilton.” His message is one that’s hard to swallow coming from someone who, as an adult, is a glorified bully, publicly outing celebrities on his blog and scrawling “gay” across the faces of those who won’t kiss his ass. He now claims he’ll stop the bullying, but the point remains the same: Ours is a culture of bullying and bigotry, whether it’s tabloid journalism or mainstream politicking.
There are politicians running for office in the midterm elections this year who have publicly declared that gay pride parades are “disgusting,” that gays can be “cured,” and that openly gay men and women should not be allowed to teach in our schools. Despite progress to end the ban, the U.S. Military still doesn’t allow openly gay members to serve, and gay marriage is illegal in most states in the union.
Connections between these policies and the culture of intolerance in our schools have already been pointed out in recent weeks, but it bears repeating—ad nauseam—until those policies are ended. And organized religion also bears culpability. In response to a Christian reader who was offended by his assertion that people of faith are partly responsible for anti-gay bullying, Dan Savage answered bluntly: “[M]any of your children—having listened to Mom and Dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry—feel justified in physically abusing the LGBT children they encounter in their schools.” (I urge everyone to read his entire response.)
Gay teens aren’t killing themselves because being a “gay teen” in America isn’t easy. They’re killing themselves because being gay in America isn’t easy. Justin Aeberg, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, and the countless others whose stories we haven’t heard yet had plenty to live for. But despite brave testimonials like the one shared this week by Forth Worth, TX city councilman Joel Burns, who is married to his husband and who has ostensibly been accepted by his 67-year-old “tough-cowboy”-of-a-dad, things getting better isn’t guaranteed to everyone—or anyone.
In New York City, one of the safest cities in the country for gays, three separate alleged hate crimes against adult gay men were reported over the course of just a few days earlier this month. October also marks the 12th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder. These are stark reminders that violence against gays isn’t simply a teenage epidemic.
When we’ve created an environment in which discrimination, bigotry, and violence are accepted, how can we expect our children not to follow suit in our schools and in our streets? It Gets Better is a beautiful campaign, and a necessary one, but it’s one that can only work in conjunction with real, fundamental change: change in our schools; change in our churches, synagogues, and mosques; and change in our government. To the president, I say: You claim you want to see an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but you refuse to do it by executive order out of some pass-the-buck ideal that the body that legislated it should also be the one to repeal it. But I say that all three branches of government are equal. It’s clear where the judicial branch is coming down on the issue, but your Department of Justice insists on appealing those decisions—partly made possible by gay Republicans, to boot—for that same idealistic reason.
If we truly want to help save the lives of not just gay teens, but gay Americans of all ages, we need to stop state-sanctioned bigotry immediately. It’s not enough to simply tell gay kids that it gets better. We have to prove it.
Spill, Baby, Spill
During the summer of 2008, leading up to the presidential election, Republican nominee John McCain scheduled and then abruptly cancelled a meet-cute with the press atop an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. Despite claims that weather concerns prompted the change in plans, the real reason appeared to be the fact that, nearby, half a million gallons of oil was gushing into the Mississippi River thanks to a tanker accident. The reality about offshore drilling was sullying McCain’s political plans, and Barack Obama, the man to whom he lost the election, is now facing a similar inconvenient truth as president.
In March, Obama announced plans to lift the 20-year moratorium on new offshore oil and gas drilling as part of a comprehensive energy policy. Ever the pragmatist (and hopeless romantic, apparently), Obama presumably intended to grease the wheels of an energy and climate bill that faces an uphill battle in Washington thanks to the influence of Big Oil on both sides of the aisle. Most experts agree that, for a nation that represents 20 percent of global oil consumption but is home to just two percent of the world’s reserves, the impact of offshore drilling on gas prices would be negligible, but it was part of a political strategy designed to—foolishly, if the stimulus bill, health care reform, and the right-wing response to Obama’s announcement were any indication—lure Republicans to the negotiating table.
But Republican opposition is nothing compared to the realities of offshore drilling, which can soil a presidential or legislative campaign with just one spill. Obama promised environmentalists that his move to expand offshore drilling would be done responsibly, but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico following a deadly oil rig explosion on April 20th, resulting in an environmental and economic catastrophe that could match or even exceed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, has tapped a new wave of concerns about safety and regulation. The malfunction of the blowout preventer on the rig in question, which was leased and run by BP, may have been an isolated incident, but it raises questions about whether the technology even exists to ensure that drilling in both existing and newly leased areas along the East Coast, the Gulf, and Alaska can truly be “safe.”
Oilman and John Kerry swift boater T. Boone Pickens took to the cable nets this week to promote both alternative energy and offshore drilling, suggesting that “way too much is being made of the oil that’s comin’ out there in the Gulf. All of that will get cleaned up.” Pickens is apparently unaware that, as of 2007, there were still 26,600 gallons of oil in the Prince William Sound and Gulf of Alaska courtesy of the 21-year-old Exxon Valdez spill. And as I pointed out in my piece about McCain in 2008, there were 124 spills amounting to over 17,500 barrels of oil during the 2005 hurricane season, which included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Pickens and others have rightfully trumpeted the national security dangers of being reliant on OPEC for energy; even Obama seems to have adopted the everything-on-the-table approach. But whether it’s the latest Gulf spill or last month’s Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Montcoal, WV, the human, economic, and environment costs of homegrown energy—at least the “dirty” kind—don’t seem to be any cheaper or safer.
Image of the Decade: Osama and the Towers
Read the eleventh and final installment in a series of countdown essays written for Salon.
The Lieberman Problem
So if not now, Joe, when?
“I don’t think we need it now,” a prominent U.S. senator said in a statement yesterday regarding a public health care option, and it wasn’t a Republican. Once again, “Democrat” Joe Lieberman has gone rogue. Shortly after the 2008 election, I posited a scenario under which Lieberman, who failed at almost every turn to use his chairmanship on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to hold the Bush administration accountable, would become a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. Democrats, led by the new president, refused to strip Lieberman of his title or his seat in the Democratic caucus after the Connecticut senator not only campaigned against his own party during the presidential election, but did so rather unscrupulously.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid said then that he trusted Lieberman, but this new development in the seesawing life of the so-called public option should come as no surprise: Lieberman went on record as being against a filibuster-proof majority months ago, and he’s fought against his own party on key issues for years. Until now, it’s been his position on foreign policy that has been most troubling (it’s disturbing, if not downright dangerous, to have a politician who pals around with a hatemonger like John Hagee simply because—even though Hagee’s position on Israel is based on his belief that the preservation of the Jews is integral to the coming Rapture—he supports his Zionist agenda to chair a national security congressional committee), but Lieberman’s maverick-y impulses are now poised to kill what could potentially be a transformative piece of domestic legislation. According to Firedoglake, if Lieberman votes against cloture, the process by which Democrats can prevent a filibuster by Republicans, it will be the first time in American history that a member of a super-majority has joined the opposition to filibuster a bill.
So if not now, Joe, when? According to the National Coalition on Health Care, employer-based health insurance premiums have risen 131 percent over the last decade and are projected to double in the next 10 years, and the industry essentially advertised its intent to increase rates via a recent “study” of the Senate Finance Committee’s reform bill, which was, in part, written by those very special interests in the first place. With or without government intervention, the insurance industry has no intention of lowering rates, making a robust public option even more essential.
But here’s the rub: The public option as it’s currently being proposed in the Senate, the one Lieberman is so adamantly against that he would deviate from his party in such an unprecedented way, would not only allow states to opt out (a hurdle overcome by simple shaming; see the stimulus bill), but it would be limited solely to those who are uninsured, rendering it practically impotent for the millions currently paying exorbitant premiums and getting little in return. The watering down of government programs like this is the next best thing to right-wing lobbyist and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s dream of cutting government down to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. A public option so limited in scope will surely fail to create fundamental change in the system, thereby allowing Norquist and his ilk to declare that government is indeed a failure. So perhaps Lieberman will be doing the country a favor by preventing such a weak bill from passing in the first place. Joe Lieberman, hero of progressives?
Focus on the Family: Pixar’s Small-c Conservatism
Earlier this year, the National Review published a list of the top 25 conservative movies. Number two on this list was Pixar’s The Incredibles:
This animated film skips pop-culture references and gross jokes in favor of a story that celebrates marriage, courage, responsibility, and high achievement. A family of superheroes—Mr. Incredible, his wife Elastigirl, and their children—are living an anonymous life in the suburbs, thanks to a society that doesn’t appreciate their unique talents. Then it comes to need them. In one scene, son Dash, a super-speedy runner, wants to try out for track. Mom claims it wouldn’t be fair. “Dad says our powers make us special!” Dash objects. “Everyone is special,” Mom demurs, to which Dash mutters, “Which means nobody is.”
The Incredibles is probably Pixar’s most difficult film to pin down politically, but it is not John Lasseter & Co.’s only film to be read as conservative. At Big Hollywood, John Nolte (in response to the National Review) thought of Ratatouille as another great conservative film which “examines the same theme of extraordinariness” as The Incredibles. It’s interesting that both of these films are directed by Brad Bird. Bird is actually somewhat of an anomaly in the Pixar political scheme, and thus his films are the ones which are most easily read as “ideologically” conservative – that is, as part of an actual, contemporary political movement. If we step back, however, and consider Pixar’s films in a more relaxed definition of “conservatism,” then a political reading of them can actually help us understand something about their art, not just act as fodder for conservative commentating.
There is something conservative about much of Pixar’s output, but when I say conservative, I mean a small “c” conservative that sees the world along the same lines as Edmund Burke: “A disposition to preserve.” I’m going to call this “social conservatism,” by which I don’t mean the religious or moral conservatism of modern political discourse, but a conservatism that is interested in preserving traditional social features – in particular, the idea of “family” – but which sees such preservation as ultimately futile. The family will dissolve, eventually, and so we must do what we can to keep it going as long as possible. It is a worldview based not on progression but on loss.
From the beginning, the anxiety of the loss of family has been central to Pixar. The Toy Story films are a good example of this. As one questioner put it in Roger Ebert’s “Movie Answer Man” column back in 1999, “Think of the toys as symbols for parents. In the early years of childhood, we are everything to children, and they go nowhere without us. As they get older, we become less important in their everyday life. As parents, we know that will happen, but like Woody observes at the end of the movie, we wouldn’t miss a single day of that period of a child’s life.” Toy Story 2, in particular, focuses on the dissolution of the toy family, as Buzz and the gang attempt to rescue Woody from a toy dealer intent on selling Woody in Japan. The subplot of Jessie, a toy abandoned by her child, is the fullest expression of the abandonment feared by all the toys. Although the film ends with the toy community back together again in Andy’s bedroom, the “message” of the film is essentially to enjoy the time we have with those we love, as it won’t last forever.
This is a surprisingly adult message, but over the years, Pixar has made a number of films which return again and again to the anxiety of familial dissolution. Monsters, Inc. does this through the small family unit of Scully and Boo; Finding Nemo is about a father’s inability to let his son go; in Up, an old man learns to live after his wife’s death. In the (unfortunately) much-maligned Cars, the modern world’s loss of small communities (exemplified by Radiator Springs) is a tragedy, and the film (despite the restoration of the community at the end) is mostly a lament for lost values. None of these films may be overtly political, but the moral message is innate: The family (or small community) is central, and it is failing, so we must do what we can to preserve it.
Brad Bird’s films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, actually deviate from this formula a bit. Although The Incredibles is certainly about a family unit in crisis, it is also about reconciling innate talent with a mediocre existence. Mr. Incredible wants to save the world, but instead he’s stuck in a dead-end job and a suffocating family life. At times, with its message that those who exhibit greatness are morally obligated to act on such greatness, the film has shades of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. This is the element celebrated by the National Review. Yes, the family unit is important in the film, but the characters are all still “super,” greater than the average citizen. The family unit ultimately sticks together because they have to, because if they don’t someone who isn’t actually talented (like the villain, Syndrome) could ruin the world.
Ratatouille’s message – that not everyone can be a genius, but if you are one you can come from anywhere – also reflects a similar concern with the talent of the individual. Granted, in both cases that talent ultimately flourishes by placing it among a family or community (in Ratatouille, Remy’s big night is assisted by the entire colony of rats), but Bird’s films are ultimately a triumph of the individual, not the community. His films seem to take the inherent social conservatism of Pixar features and run with them in another direction.
WALL-E is another interesting exception. The film is certainly an attack against environmental destruction and excessive consumerism, and it is also the Pixar film which drew the most ire of conservative commentators for its depiction of capitalism as inevitably leading us towards a future of obesity and laziness. At the end of the film, the world is saved by society’s (the whole of society, not just a small portion of it) decision to return to the site of disaster and rebuild. WALL-E himself is the impetus for this change, but ultimately humanity can only be saved if it decides to work together. This, of course, is quite different from a message about a small family unit. The vision of a society working together to achieve its common goals is really a liberal vision, a progressive vision.
It is not that the other Pixar films don’t feature cooperation, but it is usually among smaller groups (a few toys, a circus troupe of bugs, a tank full of fish) that such cooperation typically takes place. This is consistent with the continuing theme that one can only flourish and be saved when a part of the family unit. WALL-E is the great exception to this rule, and even in this case, the film’s heart is in the romance between WALL-E and EVE, a budding robot family.
Obviously, as a film studio making what are nominally “family films” in a category that in America is traditionally pitched to children, Pixar’s focus on the family should not be a complete shock. However, the imagination factory at Pixar is renowned for its work ethic and coherent creative vision, and the fact that their films consistently tackle anxiety about the family is more than just a quirk of their medium. It’s part and parcel of their creative vision. The exceptions to this trend – most notably in the films of Brad Bird and in WALL-E – also remind us that Pixar, though it sometimes resembles an auteur in and of itself, is in fact a collection of artists with unique and separate visions, and not all of their films are going to cohere in some thematically satisfying way.
However, if Pixar has developed a reputation as a socially conservative (with a small “c”) film studio, it’s not unwarranted. Such conservatism is also not antithetical to great art. Recent cinematic attempts at creating a “conservative cinema” have been overly ideological and political and thus failures as art (An American Carol comes to mind, as does the continuing conservative love for Red Dawn), but the same can be said for ideologically liberal films (Crash, any number of recent films about the war in Iraq).
A sympathetic artist, regardless of politics, is going to connect. Clint Eastwood is famously conservative, yet many of his films (Unforgiven, Gran Torino) explore with great artistry and craft the intersections of violence and community. If Pixar trends conservative, let it stay that way. The occasional exception (WALL-E) or variation (Ratatouille) makes the studio that much more interesting to watch, and when a Pixar film really nails the emotion and fear inherent in a family’s breakdown, as in this summer’s Up, it can often be transcendent.
Tom Elrod is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He blogs at http://tomelrod.wordpress.com/.
Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.
Kill Bill: The Right’s Commitment to Murdering Health Care Reform
I had intended to write a series of blog entries on health care reform this summer focusing not only on already well-documented problems within the system and challenging illogical, boogeyman arguments against a public option, but also on issues that haven’t received enough—or any—mainstream media attention, like the underinsured and the role doctors play in the rising costs of health care. Though perhaps inevitable, but no less unfortunate, the spate of attacks on reform that erupted during Congress’s August recess required those in favor of it to go on the defensive instead, spending time combating misinformation and distortions about public opinion when they should have been touting the progress Congress has made in making reform a real possibility for the first time in decades.
I found myself unwilling, if not unable, to comment on the distractions, partly because it was so downright depressing to me—a reminder of the brief period just after Sarah Palin was announced as the vice presidential candidate for the Republican ticket last fall and before she revealed herself to be a perpetual political punchline. At a Labor Day barbeque, a friend and staunch Barack Obama supporter glibly called me “un-American and un-democratic” for suggesting that hecklers shouting down a congressperson until his or her public forum grinded to a halt is not democracy but the ugly face of corporate-sponsored astroturfing. It’s a tactic used to stifle progress and send a message. That message, of course, is “Kill the bill!,” a slogan brought to you by the same masterminds who crafted last year’s “Drill, baby, drill!” and which was chanted ad nauseam at town halls across the nation during the final week of summer.
The Republican talking point has been to insist that those who showed up at town halls across the country last month were ordinary citizens who are unhappy with the changes they see taking place since Obama took office in January, who don’t want him interfering in their presumably cozy relationships with their health insurance providers. They just want to express their concerns, Republican officials will tell you. You know, like Heather Blish, former vice-chairman of the Kewaunee County GOP, who showed up at her former boss’s opponent’s town hall claiming to be “just a mom with no political affiliation” to protest health care reform.
Many of these people, however, are undoubtedly real, law-abiding citizens, but the groups mobilizing this so-called “grassroots” scare campaign are anything but grassroots. And it wasn’t just right-wing commentators or the fringe activists who listen to them who disseminated and continue to disseminate misinformation. “Death panel”—a term so repugnant and dripping with mischaracterization used to describe a part of the proposed reform bill that would reimburse Americans who choose to seek medical advice regarding end-of-life care—was hatched in the sickened brain of right-wing think tank fellow and Cantel Medical Corp. board member Betsy McCaughey and was propagated via Facebook by Palin like a 15-year-old mean girl spreading rumors about the popular new kid in class.
So it came as no surprise when, during Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last night, Republicans behaved exactly like the angry mobs of town hall protesters they encouraged, pandered to, and used like political pawns throughout the recess. By the time I post this, Rep. Joe Wilson will likely have already started making the cable-TV rounds, ratcheting up his public profile in the wake of his outburst of “You lie!” when Obama attempted to debunk the rumor that his health care plan would insure illegal immigrants. It was a moment so profoundly revealing, in terms of both Wilson’s willful ignorance and his party’s cynicism, that it left no doubt about what the Republican strategy (to kill the bill) and the purpose of that strategy (to score political points against the president) has been. Wilson wasn’t the only elected official heckling the president—just the loudest and most red-faced. Whether it’s Sen. Jim DeMint expressing his desire to “break” Obama by stopping health care reform, or Sen. Chuck Grassley engaging in negotiations with Democrats under the guise of a bipartisan solution and then perpetuating myths about “killing Grandma” at town hall meetings and vowing not to vote for the very bill he’s been tasked with helping to form, the Republican Party’s objective has been to stifle any forward momentum.
I often hear the argument by those on the right that calling out this kind of behavior is frivolous because there is bad behavior on both sides of the aisle. And while that might be true, there is simply no parity on the left today. The left hated George W. Bush because he was perceived to be a corrupt warmonger; the right is painting toothbrush ’staches on portraits of Obama because he wants to reform health care. Symbolically dissing the commander in chief by denying him an applause line or twittering away while he speaks in the chamber is nothing new, but there was a palpable outward contempt for Obama last night that’s unprecedented in modern political history. And one that, exemplified by right-wing parents yanking their children from school so as to shield them from the president’s address to K-though-sixth-graders on Tuesday, reeks of something far more dangerous than old-fashioned partisanship.
The party’s opposition to the president (reform in any shape) notwithstanding, Republicans were going to reject any idea that was presented to them simply because it’s the nature of our two-party system. One should always ask for more than what they want or are willing to settle for when sitting down at the negotiating table, and the biggest problem with Obama’s plan has always been that he conceded too much too soon, pitching the compromise (a public option) instead of a single-payer or Medicare-for-all system that would truly represent the kind of universal coverage that has become a pillar of the Democratic platform. A proposal to further dilute the immediate impact of reform by putting a “trigger” on the public option, meaning that that particular part of the bill would only go into effect if and when the insurance industry failed to meet certain coverage criteria laid out by Congress, was even rejected by Republican Governor and likely 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty because, he told CNN’s John King, it “simply kicks the can down the road,” which, like the conflicting GOP talking points that a public option would both provide inferior coverage and simultaneously be too good for private companies to compete against, is essentially an admission that he knows insurance companies—and Republicans—will never step up to the plate.
Obama ended his speech by evoking Ted Kennedy, reading part of a letter the late senator had written following his cancer diagnosis last year and which he asked to be delivered to the president upon his death. Kennedy’s words—“What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country”—are the best and clearest articulation of both broad liberal ideology and the necessity of universal health care I’ve heard to date. Obama’s assessment of those words took Kennedy’s legacy of proud 20th-century liberalism into a new era: “[Our predecessors] understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter—that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.”
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