Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Everyone Gravitates Toward Excellence: But Do Note One Thing

One of the central tenets of liberalism as I understand it is that it's important to give due consideration to everyone's point of view, even those of people you know you're quite far away from, ideologically speaking. In other words, liberalism values the merit of individual ideas, regardless of their source, over ideology, per se. And while I attempt to practice that, I do recognize its often wishful-thinking component in everyday application.

Still, the value of that tenet is its application across the board to just about any endeavor, IMO, including the arts. Writing at Doublethink, Conor Friedersdorf has penned a long reflection on why the most important element of being successful in the culture game, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, is excellence. By doing what you do extremely well, he argues, you'll find a place at the table even if your politics are frowned upon by those who surround you. He focuses on the movie industry in his piece, but his advice transcends any cultural realm in my opinion.

Beginning with what had been apparently a wide-spread opinion in the 1980s (i.e., that a conservative who wanted to make it in the culture industry had to remain in the closet politically to do so), Friedersdorf interviewed a number of young conservatives actively employed today:

[Novelist and screenwriter Andrew] Klavan disagrees that conservatives in Hollywood should keep their heads down until they’ve accrued sufficient power, per [web impresario Andrew] Breitbart’s counsels. Still, he doesn’t believe his fellow conservative means to scare young people away from the industry. “What he is trying to do is make certain thoughts that are unacceptable in Hollywood acceptable and speakable,” Klavan says. “We are the radicals today. And we can’t take over except through revolution, which can’t come quietly.”

Another “out” conservative, Lionel Chetwynd, claims a lengthy list of credits, including films on the Hanoi Hilton, the building of the Vietnam Memorial, and 9/11. “There isn’t one thing on my IMBD page that a conservative wouldn’t be proud to show his grandkids,” he says, although he insists that movies aren’t primarily about politics. “I am against confronting the liberals in an all-out war to the death. All I’m seeking is an equal share at the table,” he says. “I want this to be a two-party town where it’s as legitimate for me to have our point of view as [it is] for them to have theirs. And to the extent that’s denied, it’s amazing how many people will stand up for you, including some liberals.”

Chetwynd says he endured “outright blacklisting” in the 1980s, but this kind of blatant discrimination is a thing of the past: “It’s much better for us today. People with a conservative view in Hollywood aren’t quite the oddity they were.” Nowadays, it isn’t a matter of losing work so much as getting berated about political matters in a card game, or having people muse on how such a nice guy can have such political views. “They treat you as some sort of idiot savant, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to employ you,” he says. “They’re not all totalitarians.”

And what advice would he offer a young conservative hoping to break into the industry? “You will go as far as your tenacity and your courage will take you. But if the first thing you want to tell me about yourself is that you’re a conservative, perhaps you’re in the wrong town—you should be in Sacramento or Washington. You’ve got to go out and make good movies.”

There are two themes running throughout this article that made me pause to think. The first one is best summarized by this bit of advice offered as a counter to the frequently recommended "don’t tell anybody you’re a conservative":
Better advice is offered by Dr. Stephen Bird, academic director for the National Journalism Center, a nonprofit that places mostly conservative journalists in numerous mainstream media internships every year, hoping to bring more depth and balance to American reporting. “Here’s what I tell interns going into the media,” he says. “Pursue excellence in everything. Everyone admires excellence and gravitates toward it.”
I would wholeheartedly agree with that. There are plenty of conservative writers, for example, who I love to read because of the excellence of their reasoning, even when I still choose to disagree with them. It's harder to point to conservative fine artists whose work I like, but as I don't ask artists about their political leanings in studio visits, perhaps I simply don't know. Either way, Friedersdorf's refrain about how you'll get further if you don't play the victim is solid advice. I only wish he entirely believed it himself.

The second theme I noted in the article was a baseline assumption of not only victimhood, even by the author of the piece, but of the need to control the cultural fields in order to propagate conservative ideology, and to right a widely assumed long-standing wrong. Of course, this must be read understanding the context of Doublethink, where this work appears:

Doublethink’s mission is to identify and develop young conservative and libertarian writers while delivering an excellent magazine of politics, culture, economics, and the arts, with original photography and artwork. Doublethink is the official magazine of America’s Future Foundation.

Doublethink’s editorial philosophy emphasizes three principles: original reporting, informed commentary, and a youthful spirit of irreverent inquiry. We put our young and relatively inexperienced writers to work investigating stories other magazines overlook. We then inject healthy doses of scrutiny and informed opinion into our exclusive finds. The result is a type of intelligent opinion journalism that is rare in American letters today and even rarer from writers in their twenties.

Still, there's an assertion of victimization among conservative writers, how they're fighting an uphill battle, so subtle to even this author that he offers it paradoxically in the same cheerleading paragraph about focusing on excellence: "a nonprofit that places mostly conservative journalists in numerous mainstream media internships every year, hoping to bring more depth and balance to American reporting" [emphasis mine]. Mind you, that's not a quote but, Friedersdorf's own words.

It does make one wonder how long Fox News needs to be the number one news channel in the country before this posturing strikes conservatives as outdated, but let's back up a bit to really understand why this baseline is something to be a bit weary of. Many conservatives are not seeking simply a place at the table, Friedersdorf and a few others being notable exceptions, but rather they want control of the cultural machines in America.

Friedersdorf describes Andrew Breitbart's position on the matter:
He believes that control over the arts and media are bigger prizes than Congress, the White House, or the Supreme Court, that they shape the nation’s future irrespective of what happens in Washington. Hence his ambition to wrest control of these institutions from the left—a project whose success requires that many more ambitious young conservatives enter creative fields.
Indeed, even some who feel that conservatives should proudly declare their ideology, such as Andrew Klavan, still feel it's the path toward "taking over."
Klavan says. “We are the radicals today. And we can’t take over except through revolution, which can’t come quietly."
None of which changes my opinion that everyone offering excellence deserves a seat at the table, regardless of their political leanings, but it does bear keeping in mind that control, more so than truth, is the ultimate objective of more than a few conservatives with chips on their shoulders.

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Blogger Tom Hering said...

An interview with two Christians who are successful in Hollywood, but who are not about power or control or the culture wars.

Part One
Part Two

8/20/2009 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger Dalen said...

Hailing from a conservative region of Michigan, it's rather a shock to me that a place exists where conservatives are in the minority. Sure, I've heard stories, and dreamed of living among my own people, but it seems too good to be true. In the town I grew up in, usually the 2nd (and sometimes the 1st) question people ask you upon meeting is "What church do you go to?". Answering with any response that does not involve a church name results in an "Oh" then awkward silence and later on area pastors knocking on your door. As for political views...I don't even want to get into that. You learn to go underground with your views.

One persistent critic of a new massive art exhibition being held in Grand Rapids, MI this fall is convinced that there's a conservative agenda behind the competition's efforts to bring art on a large scale to the city. The
prize money is funded by a conservative foundation run by the founder's relatives. Could it be a conspiracy to infiltrate the arts? I'm not totally convinced that's the case, but I haven't ruled the possibility out, either.

Tom - Interesting interviews. I haven't heard that particular explanation (justification/defence?) of film violence before. Violence rather puts me off of most movies, personally.

8/20/2009 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Dalen, yeah, I thought that particular moment in the interview was weird - a Christian turning to mythology to justify depictions of revenge and violence.

I live in a liberal-Democratic stronghold. You learn to keep your mouth shut here, too. (I don't consider myself either liberal or conservative.)

8/20/2009 01:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

There should be one absolutism that can rule out any philosophical clash between thinking white or black, or choosing red or blue, and that
absolutism should be that you simply cannot ever have black without the white or red without the blue.

So really any people trying to prove that THEY are right are in fact Wrong. When any side "wins" on anything, they are Wrong. Liberty is letting people live out the way they want to live. Not about saying to them what you think is right or wrong about how they live.


Cedric PhiloGaga

8/20/2009 11:47:00 PM  
Blogger tony said...

I grew up in London during the fifties and at that time political allegiance was, for the most part, treated like religious beliefs -a matter of private conscience rather than public display. For the past 20 years I've lived in France where political partisanship permeates through many layers of private & professional life. When politial affiliation & dogma become part of the daily routine excellence as a criterion of judgement is compromised & social cohesion is threatened; leaving open the door to those who are ambitious for power and use politics merely as the means of access.

8/21/2009 07:32:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

What about chimps on their shoulders?

8/22/2009 03:04:00 PM  

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