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A Night at the Movies in Newt Gingrich’s America (ca. 1994-98)

December 16, 2011

Newt Gingrich. Caricature by David Levine, New York Review of Books, March 23, 1995.

N.B.: I wrote the following in the mid-1990s, shortly after Newt Gingrich, brandishing his Contract With America, led Congressional Republicans to victory in the mid-term elections of 1994. I never did anything with it. Writing about movies and politics is strictly avocational with me. And then Gingrich’s ouster in 1998 seemed somehow to have placed an expiration date on most of what I had to say. And so this foray into the movies and Gingrichite politics has lain, these intervening sixteen years, on successive floppy-disks and hard-drives, following me through ever-newer computers, from PCs to iMacs, and from the Michigan to Kyoto. I now consign it to The Cloud, for what interest it may bear, as a relic, in this new season of Gingrich. I am less persuaded now than I was in 1998 that, in the sentences that close this visit to Hollywood, I had gotten my prognostications wrong.

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What are the specific political relations between the New Right and the entertainment industry? The question is intriguing in light of attacks lodged in the 1990s from the Right against the industry, as when Bob Dole condemns Hollywood and corporate entities like Time Warner for inculcating counter-cultural, corrupt values, or when Dan Quayle complains that popular media reflect liberal habits of mind.

Kenneth Burke

But the Right’s patent hostility to the entertainment industry obscures certain latent political and ideological affiliations that bring the two together. Nowhere are these affiliations better exhibited than in Ivan Reitman‘s Junior (released in November 1994) and Arne Glimcher‘s Just Cause (released in February 1995). Taken together, these two popular films ingeniously “advance” (if I may put it that way) the twin agenda of the Republican Right: Law & Order and Family Values. They constitute (and reflect) an assault on American liberalism. And they do it in an engaging fashion that perhaps helps us understand the political temper of the electorate circa 1995. Junior and Just Cause set up a “frame for accepting” (as Kenneth Burke would say) the fundamental arguments of the Gingrichite Contract With America. They help us understand, to my mind anyway, why that Contract initially met with such remarkable popular success.

1. Law & Order, or “Natural” Anti-Liberalism: Just Cause

Poster, issued in 1995.

Just Cause represents violent crime in such a way that we are not encouraged to alter the “social” conditions that give rise to it. The film abstracts criminal behavior from its social context and places it instead in a context of “natural” pathology where, we are meant to concede, our only recourse is incarceration. This sounds like the sort of talk we hear from the Right about Law & Order, and that’s precisely what it is: an abdication of “social” responsibility. On this view, the criminal justice system ought chiefly to punish criminals rather than reform or rehabilitate them. (Systematic crime “prevention” is an enterprise that the New Right by now regards as thoroughly quixotic.) Just Cause harmonizes perfectly with the “Taking Back Our Streets Act” of the Contract With America, with its calls for cuts in “social spending”—as Gingrich derisively says—the better to fund construction of prisons.But first, the plot of the movie.

Paul Armstrong, played by Sean Connery, is a Harvard law professor and a celebrated liberal activist. He hasn’t practiced trial law in years. But when an elderly African-American (played by Ruby Dee) woman shows up in his classroom begging him to defend her grandson against a death-penalty conviction in Florida, Armstrong returns to the fray (after considerable prodding from his wife, a liberal social worker played by Kate Capshaw). A brief but deft investigation enables Armstrong to overturn the conviction on the grounds that Bobby Earl—the convict in question, played by Blair Underwood—was framed by Sheriff Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne) and Deputy Wilcox (Christopher Murray); and that, in fact, the murder was committed by another death-row inmate, serial killer Blair Sullivan, played by Ed Harris. This seems to resolve the matter, and in fact to resolve the movie, until we begin to see that Bobby Earl has drawn Armstrong into a trap with the aim of tormenting him and his family. (Unbeknownst to Armstrong, his wife, as a young D.A., had crossed Bobby Earl years earlier.) The movie rises to its climax as we discover that Tanny Brown and Wilcox are not as corrupt as we had supposed, and that Bobby Earl is horribly guilty—just as Brown had always said. The movie ends in a South Florida swamp (in the Everglades), where Armstrong confronts Bobby Earl, who has kidnapped his wife and daughter, and fiercely drowns him, yielding the murderer’s body to the alligators.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis (Florida Everglades)

At the end, Paul Armstrong leaves an important question unasked. How did Tanny Brown know that Bobby Earl did it? The reason he doesn’t ask, and that Brown doesn’t answer, is that by this point it simply goes without saying: with the logic of common sense, Brown knew simply because he knew. The movie sets out, in fact, to enforce this “common sense.” The climactic struggle in the Florida swamp is like a baptism for Armstrong, a rite of passage. He is born again, no longer liberal. He is like Tanny Brown and Wilcox now: a little “unsound” in his methods, perhaps, but clear, righteous, and ruthless in his instincts. Inevitably, we recall his wife’s words of advice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she convinced him to head South with a fatal remark that she (and we) hardly understood at the time: “Once in a while you have to get bloody; it does the soul good.” In Just Cause we are never allowed to forget that, as a liberal professor of law and activist against the death penalty, Armstrong doesn’t live in the “real” (or “bloody”) world, as the saying goes. Secure in an Ivory Tower, he has become, as Gingrich would say, “out of touch with mainstream America.” The purpose of the film is to repudiate his liberalism—to bring him back in touch. This repudiation is not at all personal to Armstrong: he is so carefully decorated with liberal bona fides—as when the camera emphasizes the multicultural nature of his child’s birthday party—that it is impossible not to regard him as a representative figure.

To accomplish all this, Just Cause offers us two endings. The first occurs when Bobby Earl is released, vindicated—or so we believe—in his fight against a false conviction of murder. The director, Arne Glimcher, contrives this moment in the film to feel like its true ending, though even as the champagne is uncorked we somehow sense that this is all hollow and unreal—that it is “academic” (let’s say). In fact, the only one not fooled by it is canny Tanny Brown. He knows to wait for the other shoe to drop, and when he interrupts the liberal celebration in Bobby Earl’s honor we know to wait as well.

Cover of the soundtrack album.

In Just Cause, Glimcher plays against genre quite well. In the first phase of the film, Tanny Brown and Deputy Wilcox seem perfectly familiar: your stock, sadistic, Southern lawmen. Many viewers doubtless find themselves thinking, “What a cliche—how generic” (save for the telling fact that Glimcher chooses an African-American actor to play the sheriff, thereby affiliating a prototypical, small-town, “Southern” style of law enforcement with precisely the population most often harmed by it). Our response to the story’s set-up is in fact “knee-jerk” in its predictability. But what Just Cause next accomplishes is insidiously impressive. It takes a second look at the Unreconstructed South of post-1960s Hollywood—the South we visit in Mississippi Burning, for example—and begins to argue with it. That argument goes something like this: The South may have seemed ugly in certain respects, but that’s just because we’d always looked at it with liberal, Yankee eyes. Liberalism, the movie wants to say, was always exotic in the South; it’s just that, now, the rest of the country is finally tuning in. We are asked to suppose that there was something admirable and wise in the small-town xenophobia that used to tell Northerners to go back home and mind their own damned business. In any case, this is what Deputy Wilcox says to Professor Armstrong in so many words as he escorts him around the town in a mood of suspicious rancor. Armstrong, he suggests, is laboring under a lot of liberal misconceptions about a place he doesn’t really know.

Just Cause invites us to accept the quaint, slightly brutish methods of its Southern lawmen, methods which may or may not include arbitrary arrests of black men, pistol-whipping, and coerced confessions; it even asks us to commend those methods. In this way, Just Cause itself constitutes a politically savvy criticism of the genre (and, by extension, of the industry) from which it derives. By the time Deputy Wilcox is killed in the film’s climax—and we are earlier encouraged to wish him crushed—we are fairly prepared to weep: some forty minutes’ screen time carry him from villainy to martyrdom in a sequence that is at once a narrative and a revisionary history of post-1960s American movies. At this point the early life of Armstrong’s wife Laurie becomes important. She was raised in Southern Florida but grew up to marry a law professor in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She lost touch. She forgot what was good about her Southern Florida, small-town roots. Just Cause devastatingly brings her home—brings us all home from our liberal exile in some foolish Massachusetts of the Mind. The film is touched by the resentment of East-Coast intellectuals that one associates with Nixon and Gingrich. The latter remarked in a 1991 feature in the Boston Globe: “I hope the next three Democratic presidential campaigns are run by people conversant with the Kennedy School [at Harvard]. Only the Stanford Faculty have been more aggressive in trying to prove that they can be more out of touch with the American people than the Kennedy School.”

Just Cause seems to anticipate a liberal “Kennedy School” audience, and it plays that audience “like a tune”—to borrow a phrase from Blair Sullivan, Bobby Earl’s psychopathic confederate. Just Cause first makes us mistake the good guys for the bad guys, and the bad guys for the good: a big, familiar joke at liberalism’s expense. At the outset, in the film’s apparently “generic” phase, we despise Tanny Brown and Wilcox. Our hearts bleed for Bobby Earl, whom we eagerly suppose to have been falsely convicted. The success of the movie, ideologically speaking, depends on our making this mistake, as I have suggested. We must be situated as Armstrong is before we can be made properly to repent his liberal idealism in favor of the realpolitik that informs the film’s logic: “Don’t question the methods and instincts of the police. Don’t shackle them with pretty Miranda rules. Crime is an ugly business best not inquired into by Harvard lawyers for the defense. Shut up and be grateful that the cops do their job.”

Michael Dukakis at aUCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, Monday, November 7, 1988 (on the eve of the presidential election).

We can summarize the argument as follows: “Liberalism is `academic’ and utopian—a lovely, gratifying thing to believe in, but a terribly misguided, soulless game to play.” This idea is perfectly dramatized in an early scene concerning Laurie. Armstrong comes home from Harvard one day to find that his wife has been beaten by one of the young men she works with as a social worker. What is Armstrong’s response? No anger, no protective aggression. “Tough day at the office,” he blithely replies, and by the film’s end we are supposed to see just how inadequate this response is. The cultural context for this scene extends back to 1988. Armstrong is like Michael Dukakis—another Massachusetts liberal—in the Presidential debates of that year. I refer to Dukakis’s answer to the notorious question about how he, an opponent of capital punishment, would feel if his wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis’s detached, academic respect for the rule of law (i.e., his principled opposition to the death penalty), together with what was popularly deemed a bizarre lack of affect, essentially lost him the debate, and perhaps the election. We do well to recall this in the opening sequence of Just Cause, which stages a class-room debate about capital punishment, and in which Armstrong’s opponent puts “the Dukakis question” to him: What would he say if his wife were murdered? Armstrong’s reply prefigures his response to the beating his wife takes at work. He is cool, detached, idealistic, and above all principled, in the derisive sense of the word that this film makes singularly intelligible. Armstrong refuses to condone killing in order to demonstrate that killing is wrong. He is a lawyer first, we are meant to understand, a husband and a man only second (impermissible in American cinema).

Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) interrogates Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris). Photo by Ron Phillips.

But the chthonic struggle in the swamp turns Armstrong around. The setting is forthrightly “primordial” and seems to signify a return to the repressed roots of manhood and of crime—a return that the film has all along prepared us to desire: the Law of Nature supplants the Rule of Law. The imagery of the movie—the way it turns South Florida flora and fauna into a kind of sinister jungle idiom—constantly insists that we are in the realm of Nature, not Culture, and that “criminal” violence and “animal” violence are essentially alike: the visual style, here, sets up a peculiar equivalence between alligators and men. This equivalence is consistent with the organic theory of criminality that Blair Sullivan, the serial killer, offers during his interview with Armstrong: “I guess it is just a kind of appetite,” Sullivan says of the motive for murder, and of the killings he himself committed. With these words, Sullivan contemptuously dismisses the group of social workers who had, some time before, studied him in what he considered a misguided effort to place his brutality in social contexts: tough family life, sexual abuse, neglect, poverty, and so on—the old liberal checklist. Sullivan despises liberalism and the social workers who advance it because he covets responsibility. He wants to own his actions—the cruel letters he writes to his victims’ families make this plain—and liberal accounts of criminality would, to some degree, expropriate or qualify that ownership. The genius of the movie is to associate this idea with the jailed rather than with the jailers (whose interests it properly serves by letting them off the hook).

Cypress swamp (w/ egret), Florida Everglades

So, to the familiar question about criminal behavior—Nature or Nurture?—Just Cause answers unequivocally: Nature. And in the chthonic realm of Nature—as when we enter the Florida Everglades with Professor Armstrong—we leave liberalism, with its concern for history and society, very far behind. If its cause were social in origin, then crime might be redressed; indeed we’d have an obligation to redress it. But if it is merely in a criminal’s nature to be a criminal—if criminality is a kind of “appetite”—then there is only Law & Order: lock him up, brutalize him, treat him like the animal he is. Forget “rehabilitation,” a word that in this ideological context can be uttered only with contempt. Just Cause makes the now “neo-ex-liberal” Armstrong personally kill Bobby Earl in that dark, primitive struggle in the Florida swamp. We feel that this—not some bright, airy courtroom—is the proper arena for judgment and sentencing. Armstrong at last resolves his “Dukakis-complex.” The entire criminal justice system is simply circumvented, as a Harvard law professor and liberal anti-death-penalty activist carries out his extra-judicial revenge. The “justice system,” long since hijacked by criminals, is compelled to acknowledge its impotence (or so runs the argument); the code of power, with its emphasis on revenge, replaces the code of morality, with its emphasis on correction. Seldom has the logic of what used to be called Lynch Law been so suavely packaged.

GOPAC’s logo. Gingrich chaired the political action commitee during the mid-1990s.

Just Cause‘s way of thinking about these matters is perfectly consistent with current attitudes on the Right. In the August 10, 1995 issue of The New York Review of Books Garry Wills points out that “dissatisfaction with courts and the use of juries is widespread. The legal system seems like a game that is rigged in the criminal’s favor while penalizing people who act from legitimate grievance.” On the far Right, he explains, this dissatisfaction fuels attacks against the legitimacy of the petit jury system, and contentions that juries have the duty to set aside or ignore judges’ instructions on points of law. In his “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” a document distributed to Republican office-seekers by GOPAC, Gingrich advises candidates to stigmatize their Democratic opponents as advocates of “criminal rights.” During the 1988 campaign season Gingrich absurdly suggested that American liberals were in outright political collusion with convicts. “I’ve been told,” he said to the Rome, Georgia, Christian News, working out a bit of hearsay, “that Dukakis’s staff is in the prisons registering prisoners to vote so they can help defeat a referendum that would stop prisoners from getting out on weekends. I think the average Georgian would think this is nuts. I mean, this is not us.” One recalls the Southern reactionaries of the 1870s, terrifying whites with charges that the Radical Republicans (how things have changed!) had colluded with the newly enfranchised freedmen. The Radicals’ aim, reactionaries averred, was nothing less than political and cultural dominion over right-thinking Georgians (“I mean, this is not us”). Gingrich, Just Cause and the Southern reactionaries of the Reconstruction Era have at least this much in common: they demand that Massachusetts, and all it represents, stop meddling in the affairs of the South. The difference is that for Just Cause and Gingrich “the South” designates not a geographical region but an ideological one: it is “mainstream” America.

Laurence Fishburne as Tanny Brown in Just Cause

And at last we wonder: Was Bobby Earl’s confession coerced or not? We know that Bobby Earl committed the murder. But did he willingly confess? Or did Tanny Brown torture him for twenty hours, as Bobby Earl claims? Our only source for the contention that the cops resorted to torture is the condemned man himself—no one was there to video-tape it—and by now he is discredited. We must simply believe that the story is a lie. (It couldn’t be true!) In any event, Just Cause encourages us to think that if Wilcox and Brown were a little rough on Bobby Earl, well, they only did what the job required. Armstrong’s blunder is that he is too willing to trust the word of a man who had the misfortune to get himself convicted of murder. And because the story unfolds from Armstrong’s point of view—a technique that places us in sympathy with him: we learn what he learns as he learns it—his blunder is also ours. The moral is beautifully succinct: Trust the cops.

2. Family Values, or Liberal Anti-Liberalism: Junior

Poster for the film, issued by Universal Pictures.

So much for Law & Order. What of Family Values, the phrase Dan Quayle made notorious in 1992? The regime of Family Values involves a revival of traditional family structure and a fixation on reproduction that tend to limit and define women’s horizons. Gingrich is thinking of Family Values when he says in To Renew America, his new book, that the paintings of Norman Rockwell show us what it really means to be an American. The reference is a little vague, but he need hardly spell out its implications. The Contract with America is clear on this head: it calls for adjustments of tax laws and welfare policies that will reward child-rearing within traditional family structures and punish child-rearing outside them.

Junior, the blockbuster of the 1994 holiday season, accords quite well with this program. It names “femininity” and “masculinity” in such a way as to ground them in biology rather than in society; like Just Cause, it “naturalizes” social categories—in this case, gender roles. And at a key moment, its hero, Dr. Alexander Hesse, appropriates the pro-abortion slogan “My body, my choice” for anti-abortion purposes—a remarkably efficient taking-over of the Left’s preferred metaphor of “choice.” Junior provides a model for how “hegemony,” as the Gramscians say, incorporates counter-hegemonic energies, compelling the cultural opposition to reorient itself with regard to prevailing “common sense.”

The plot of Junior is simple. Drs. Alexander Hesse and Larry Argobast, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito, develop an experimental fertility drug called Expectane. When the Food and Drug Administration refuses to approve human trials of the drug, the university that supported the doctors’ research backs out. Cryogenics specialist Dr. Diana Reddin, goofily played by Emma Thompson, takes over the lab, which puts Hesse and Argobast out of business—at least until a Canadian pharmaceutical concern agrees to fund a secret human trial. Argobast talks Hesse into carrying a fetus in his own belly—this is the occasion for Junior‘s comic gags—and the film takes off. In a kind of auto-immaculate conception, Hesse is implanted with one of Reddin’s cryogenically preserved eggs—a fact of which she in not aware—fertilized by his own seed. Abetted by injections of estrogen, he soon begins to exhibit “feminine” traits. The experiment was only to have lasted though the first trimester, but, against Argobast’s vehement objections, Hesse defiantly carries the baby to term and, later, marries Dr. Reddin, legitimating the child and making an honest woman of its (male) “mother.” Hesse lives happily ever after, freed at last from his dreadful Teutonic gravity.

A still from Junior, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in maternity drag.

The two basic arguments advanced in Junior are as follows: (1) gender roles are biologically determined, and (2) the pro-life position is really the only commendable one. The first of these propositions is communicated quite directly. The presence of estrogen in Hesse’s body—in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body—induces him to behave in “feminine” ways that are, in fact, socially specific rather than biologically specific (he favors pink gowns, etc.). In this way, the movie blurs the distinction between social and biological categories. Hesse begins to worry about his clothing. He becomes tender, irrational, gossipy, moody, and so on. In short, Junior reduces “femininity” entirely to the office of the female body—in fact to the reproductive office of the female body—thereby shoring up traditional gender roles even as it superficially reverses them.

The second argument of Junior, its pro-life side, is handled less directly but probably more forcefully. When Hesse arrives at the point where the pregnancy was to have been terminated, at the end of the first trimester, he refuses to have the abortion. At this precise psychological turning point—the point where he ceases to think like a man and begins to think like a woman, or so the film suggests—Hesse, as I indicated, deploys a pro-choice slogan for pro-life purposes: “My body, my choice!” We might suppose that the emphasis on “choice” is liberal. After all, Hesse might have chosen otherwise. But is there really any “choice” in this movie? I think not, because its values are set up in such a way that any decision other than the one Hesse makes will be met with the shock and disgust usually reserved for infanticide. (The mood of Junior is an Operation Rescue sort of mood.) The alternative to “choosing life” in Junior is, of course, represented by the mercenary Dr. Argobast to whom the fetus signifies only money. (The irascibly winning Devito is well cast in the role.) When Hesse begins to think of himself as carrying a new life in his belly rather than an “experiment,” Argobast urges him to regard the fetus as a mere lump of tissue, a piece of “chewing gum”—these are his words—inadvertently swallowed. Encourage someone to think about abortion in this way and there really is no “choice” at all. By having Argobast recommend abortion Junior implicitly condemns it, and thereby condones only “life,” as the saying goes; it further suggests that abortion is a “masculine” alternative properly unnatural to “femininity.”

In this sense, then, Junior is quite conservative, and it compels us to acknowledge the difficulty of representing the choice of abortion in an affirmative mode: in Hollywood, its metier will likely always be tragedy and melodrama, never comedy. The decision to have an abortion may have beneficial consequences, but, within the present cultural matrix, it apparently cannot be an occasion for celebration. That is the great difficulty facing advocates of free access to abortion: abortion’s appeal remains condemned to the grim cultural region of “the-lesser-of-two-evils,” while the anti-abortion position has a much wider, more readily engaging range of representations available to it. Simply because it was so vastly popular, Junior impresses upon the Left the necessity of taking back some of the prestige that the anti-abortion Right has been able to garner for its purposes.

To sum the matter up: Junior maintains a conservative politics by indulging an apparent but not genuine liberalization of gender roles. The ostensibly liberal idea that even men like Arnold Schwarzenegger have a valuable “feminine” side is sacrificed to a larger argument: Gender roles may be flexible, we are given to understand, but they are nonetheless immutable and natural—even chemically determined. Junior bends the rules of gender only to keep them from breaking, which is probably why audiences found it reassuring. David Denby, citing Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire in a review of Junior, makes the point well: “This new genre [of gender-switching movies] allows [directors] to draw on the old (now vanished) sex roles without committing the errors of putting them on the screen: That is, the movies can refer to what a `woman’ is, or is supposed to be, by having a man play her—and vice versa—thereby refreshing the cliches.” Ideologically, Junior stretches to comprehend both moderately “feminized” men, and, significantly, the most familiar slogan of the pro-choice left (“My body, my choice”). But the stretch marks show, and in comprehending these things Junior also transforms and defuses them. Junior arrives at a sort of ersatz feminism: a harmless, merely charming affair in comparison to which genuine feminism is made to seem “divisive” and “political,” as we often hear from the Right.

Official logo of the FDA

I have one other point to discuss in connection with Junior. Gingrich and the New Right consider federal regulation the enemy of “entrepreneurial free-enterprise,” and Junior involves an important argument along the same lines. The film represents the federal government—in this case, the FDA—as existing in an intrinsically hostile relationship to private enterprise. The FDA prevents Hesse and Argobast from developing a wonder fertility drug, Expectane, that may help thousands of pregnant women. Lacking necessary FDA approval, the doctors lose university-funded laboratory space: their project is red-lined. True, Hesse and Argobast go ahead with the project, working outside the sanction of federal and academic institutions on private Canadian funds, but that’s no matter. The inevitable implication of the plot is that we must get government off the backs of entrepreneurs. It is a light-hearted but cautionary tale perfectly in line with the anti-statist parables the New Right likes to tell about the federal government, “regulations,” and business. Clearly, when it was released in November 1994, Junior constituted a “vote” for the Republican Contract with America—as indeed any film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger should.

3. The Politics of Bashing Hollywood

Patrick J. Buchanan in Manchester, New Hampshire.

In whose interest, then, does the entertainment industry do its cultural work? On whose behalf does it charm, exhort and persuade? Certainly not on behalf of the liberal Left, as the Right would sometimes have us believe. But neither does it work, exactly, on behalf of Dole, Gingrich and Pat Buchanan.†† It is more accurate to say that the entertainment industry and the New Right alike reflect, and also help maintain, a social consensus that is still patriarchal and class-divided in its thinking and feeling. That is the social order within which Junior, Just Cause and the Republican Contract with America all make “perfect sense.” They speak the same idiom, and speak it fluently. They are equally pop-cultural phenomena, and equally in the business of protecting investments. After all, the Contract with America was carefully devised through research on “focus groups,” a method imported into politics from advertising and marketing: its cultural resonance was as assured as a screen-tested big-budget movie.

A recent article in Time opines that “for Democrats, criticizing Hollywood amounts to biting the hand that feeds them. Media-company executives and major stars contributed heavily to Clinton’s 1992 campaign and to Democratic coffers generally in last year’s congressional elections.” But reading Hollywood with an eye to the ideological work its films accomplish suggests an alternative, more circuitous relation of power. Movies like Junior and Just Cause do much toward consolidating the rightist political consensus that many Hollywood political activists apparently desire to undermine, which only shows how difficult it is to be critically oppositional, even from positions of great cultural power. Progressive Democrats won’t really be biting the hand that feeds them if they take on Hollywood in the current election cycle, and in any event Dole and the New Right have beat them to it.

So why is the Right carping about Hollywood? It is tempting to say that they have no reason to complain. But given current cultural politics, the regrettable fact is that Dole can have his cake and eat it too. Attacking Hollywood plays to the Family Values constituency and at the same time leaves entirely undisturbed—because nobody can really see it—some of the most ideologically conservative work that Hollywood art accomplishes. Partly, of course, the politics of films like Just Cause merely reflect the abiding individualism of American culture. Collective action, and institutions both governmental and non-governmental, almost always have a shabby role to play in our stories. The fate of the FDA in Junior, and of the criminal justice system in Just Cause, are cases in point. Heroism necessarily exists outside the sanction of institutional authority: hence the charismatic ethic of the rogue in American culture, and the prestige that usually attaches to extra-legal actions. (American anti-statism is in many respects a familiar phenomenon.) Still, Just Cause, precisely because it is so ideologically specific, suggests that something new is afoot. Indeed, the ease with which Just Cause and Junior enter the culture—their remarkable intelligibility—argues what the 1994 elections already seemed to make clear: liberalism of the Great Society sort has been repudiated, apparently decisively. The challenge that the Left faces is to find a new idiom for progressive politics. The prospects are hardly sanguine.

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† From the Gingrichites’ explanation of the purpose of the “Taking Back Our Streets Act”: “The bill repeals sections of the recently-enacted crime control act that provide specific funds for drug courts, recreational programs, community justice programs and other social prevention spending. Bill sponsors argue that providing money directly to local law enforcers and letting them decide how to spend the funds (as the Taking Back Our Streets Act does) is preferable to the current law approach of authorizing specific amounts of money for programs approved by Washington bureaucrats.”

‡ “We must reassert and renew American civilization. From the arrival of English-speaking colonists in 1607 until 1965, there was one continuous civilization built around a set of commonly accepted legal and cultural principles. From the Jamestown colony and the Pilgrims, through de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, up to Norman Rockwell’s paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, there was a clear sense of what it meant to be an American” (To Renew America, page 7).

††From Pat Buchanan’s key-note address before the 1992 GOP convention: “Tonight I want to talk to the 3 million Americans who voted for me. I will never forget you, nor the great honor you have done me. But I do believe, deep in my heart, that the right place for us to be now–in this presidential campaign–is right beside George Bush. The party is our home; this party is where we belong. And don’t let anyone tell you any different. Yes, we disagreed with President Bush, but we stand with him for freedom to choice religious schools, and we stand with him against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women. We stand with President Bush for right-to-life, and for voluntary prayer in the public schools, and against putting American women in combat. And we stand with President Bush in favor of the right of small towns and communities to control the raw sewage of pornography that pollutes our popular culture. We stand with President Bush in favor of federal judges who interpret the law as written, and against Supreme Court justices who think they have a mandate to rewrite our Constitution. My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so, we have to come home, and stand beside him. My friends, in those 6 months, from Concord to California, I came to know our country better than ever before in my life, and I collected memories that will be with me always. There was that day long ride through the great state of Georgia in a bus Vice President Bush himself had used in 1988–a bus they called Asphalt One. The ride ended with a 9:00 PM speech in front of a magnificent southern mansion, in a town called Fitzgerald. There were the workers at the James River Paper Mill, in the frozen North Country of New Hampshire–hard, tough men, one of whom was silent, until I shook his hand. Then he looked up in my eyes and said, “Save our jobs!” There was the legal secretary at the Manchester airport on Christmas Day who told me she was going to vote for me, then broke down crying, saying, “I’ve lost my job, I don’t have any money; they’ve going to take away my daughter. What am I going to do?” My friends, even in tough times, these people are with us. They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they came from the same schoolyards and playgrounds and towns as we did. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people. And we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know they’re hurting. They don’t expect miracles, but they need to know we care. There were the people of Hayfork, the tiny town high up in California’s Trinity Alps, a town that is now under a sentence of death because a federal judge has set aside 9 million acres for the habitat of the spotted owl–forgetting about the habitat of the men and women who live and work in Hay fork. And there were the brave people of Koreatown who took the worst of the LA riots, but still live the family values we treasure, and who still believe deeply in the American dream. Friends, in those wonderful 25 weeks, the saddest days were the days of the bloody riot in LA, the worst in our history. But even out of that awful tragedy can come a message of hope. Hours after the violence ended I visited the Army compound in south LA, where an officer of the 18th Cavalry, that had come to rescue the city, introduced me to two of his troopers. They could not have been 20 years old. He told them to recount their story. They had come into LA late on the 2nd day, and they walked up a dark street, where the mob had looted and burned every building but one, a convalescent home for the aged. The mob was heading in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women. When the troopers arrived, M-16s at the ready, the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated. It had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, backed by courage. Greater love than this hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”


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