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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Two Sides of “Hollywood”

David Callahan of Demos has a provocative article up on the New Republic site that challenges Democrats to take on “Hollywood” as a matter of both liberal principle and practical politics.
As regular readers know, I am sympathetic to Callahan’s basic argument, insofar as Democrats who are willing to hold all sorts of powerful corporations accountable for the effects of their products and marketing on families and communities shouldn’t give the powerful corporations who purvey entertainment products an automatic pass. And he’s right to accuse Democrats who love to bash those who elevate “profits over people” of a double hypocrisy when they look the other way so long as a share of those profits are dumped into Democratic campaign contributions.
But in his seamless indictment of “Hollywood,” Callahan conflates two very different issues. I’m down with his suggestion that entertainment corporations who aggressively market, for example, video games glorifying extreme violence, sexual exploitation, and misogyny–in a word, pornography–to minors ought to be criticized and held accountable, not defended. And I also agree that the general drift of our popular culture–which we export to every corner of the world–towards infinite commercialization and compulsive consumerism should become a target as well.
Yet Callahan leads off his piece by talking about a very different aspect of “Hollywood:” political appearances by movie and television celebrities. He cites the famous Radio City Music Hall fundraiser in which John Kerry praised a group of actors including Whoopi Goldberg and Paul Newman as representing “the heart and soul of America” as exhibit A in the case for a Democratic assault on the entertainment industry.
Now let’s be clear about this: the Republican ability to distort and exploit this moment had nothing to do with the content of Whoopi Goldberg’s movies; it was attributable to obscene comments the actress made about George W. Bush earlier in the evening. The movie industry has absolutely no control, and frankly no responsibility, for what actors say and do off camera, other than maybe paying them a bit less in the future when they’ve alienated parts of their potential audience.
Moreover, Democrats have an easy solution to this particular problem: just stop inviting movie and television stars to share their platforms, particularly if they are unwilling to accept a script that keeps them from saying stupid or offensive things. Let them wave from the wings or sign autographs on the rope line if they are willing, but otherwise treat them just as they would the generous financial rainmakers from a law firm or an international union.
Musicians and other true performance artists are a different matter; after all, they are generally hauled onto political platforms to do what they always do, and serve the important function of breaking up the tedium of political speechifying.
But for those celebrities who do not perform their craft at political events, the only rationale for dragging them up to the microphone and letting them make still more political speeches is the worn-out “role model” theory whereby NBA stars bear the absurd responsibility of speaking ex cathedra on all matters of faith and morals. I mean, when you really get down to it, are Sean Penn’s pithy thoughts on Iraq any more meaningful than Howard Dean’s views on Method Acting?
So I conclude: flail away, Mr. Callahan, and my fellow Democrats, at the Joe Camels of “Hollywood” who are making a dishonest buck trying to turn our kids into pint-sized greedheads, airheads, and gangstas. But don’t blame Hollywood for the apparent belief of the political class that Alec Baldwin is indispensible to the goal of achieving universal health coverage.
Maybe the real problem is that politicians struggle and strive for high office in part because it gives them the opportunity to hang out with celebrities whose visages and alleged life experiences regale Americans in every grocery-store checkout line. This theory is reflected in the old jibe that “politics is show business for ugly people.”
Any way you cut it, the ugly people of politics should try to ween themselves from excessive dependence on the pretty people of People. As those suicidally unfashionable and anti-political performance artists, the Sex Pistols, once mocked their celebrity peers:
We’re so pretty,
Oh so pretty–
Pretty vacant.

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