The usual conservative objection about Hollywood is that it represents an unstoppable propaganda machine, sprouting progressive ideas straight into children’s vulnerable little heads. Slavoj Zizek makes good points on how that’s not exactly the way Hollywood works.
But first, this short video below makes a great case of explaining the conservative thesis:
The main objection to this notion, as explained in the video, would be that this is not a new development. Media conglomerates and, before, media of whichever kind available, have always indoctrinated the masses in whichever ruling ideology, or zeitgeist, there is available.
The author of the video believes that Disney movies in the 1940s and 50s espoused conservative values only because those were the underlying values of the stories being told. This is naive: just like Disney movies are now impeccably progressive because the ruling ideology is (superficially) progressive, they were conservative in the past because that was expected of them. Such is the nature of art: artists are always trying to push a political line.
Liberal blogger Scott Alexander, writing in his comprehensive guide ‘Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell,‘ put the artist’s conundrum best:
“If you “criticize” society by telling it to keep doing exactly what it’s doing only much much more so, society recognizes you as an ally and rewards you for being a “bold iconoclast” or “having brave and revolutionary new ideas” or whatever. It’s only when you tell them something they actually don’t want to hear that you get in trouble. […] And so the main difference between modern liberal democracy and older repressive societies is that older societies repressed things you liked, but modern liberal democracies only repress things you don’t like. Having only things you don’t like repressed looks from the inside a lot like there being no repression at all.”
Understanding this is key to understanding a lot in the modern world. The spread of Hollywood movies and values has been unrelenting in the last couple of decades: last year, while reporting from Singapore, I was astonished to learn of the demise of the once-all-powerful Hong Kong movie industry, which peaked in 1990s before it started competing head-on with Hollywood and was crushed completely, with the number of movies produced having collapsed over the last two decade (there’s little data and it’s not very reliable, I learned in my reporting, but that’s the gist of it).
In Madrid, a few years ago, I had the chance of meeting Hollywood’s head lobbyist, Jack Valenti, who was in town to meet the Spanish Prime Minister and had the time to give the Wall Street Journal a short interview.
Valenti didn’t say anything of much relevance (copyright blah blah, piracy blah, blah, subsidies blah, blah) but keep this in mind: he was in Madrid to meet the Prime Minister. A Lobbyist. He wasn’t meeting an undersecretary or a minister. He was meeting the Prime Minister. Believe me when I say Spanish Prime Ministers are not in the habit of meeting lobbyists: this gives you a measure of this guy.
This is why Zizek’s remarks on Hollywood’s role as conveyor of propaganda are important. In The Parallax View, he focuses on the role of movies as defenders of fake subversion:
What prevents the radical questioning of capitalism itself is precisely belief in the democratic form of the struggle against capitalism. Lenin’s stance against “economism” as well as against “pure” politics is crucial today, apropos of the split attitude toward the economy in (what remains of) the Left: on the one hand, the “pure politicians” who abandon the economy as the site of struggle and intervention; on the other the “economists,” fascinated by the functioning of today’s global economy, who preclude any possibility of a political intervention proper.With regard to this split, today, more than ever, we should return to Lenin: yes, the economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, we have to break the spell of global capitalism—but the intervention should be properly political, not economic. Today, when everyone is “anticapitalist,” right up to Hollywood “socio-critical” conspiracy movies (from Enemy of the State to The Insider) in which the enemy is the big corporations with their ruthless pursuit of profit, the signifier “anticapitalism” has lost its subversive sting.What we should problematize is the self-evident opposite of this “anticapitalism”: trust in the democratic substance of honest Americans to break up the conspiracy.
Let’s remember that tons of movie scripts are reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, in exchange for allowing the use of military facilities and equipment; even TV series are not immune: the CIA must approve every script for The Americans, a show about Russian infiltrators in 1980s Washington. No wonder that, in his book In Defence of Lost Causes, Zizek’s focus is on how movies promote globalist capitalism even as they pay lip service to progressivism:
The same key discloses the underlying motif of the greatest cinema hit of all times, James Cameron’s Titanic. Is Titanic really a film about the catastrophe of a ship hitting an iceberg? One should be attentive to the precise moment of the disaster: it takes place when the two you n g lovers (Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet), immediately after consummating their amorous encounter in the sexual act, return to the ship’s deck. This, however, is not all: if this were all, then the catastrophe would have been simply the punishment of Fate for the double transgression (illegitimate sexual act; transgression of the class divisions). What is more crucial is that, on the deck, Kate passionately tells her lover that, when the ship reaches New York the next morning, she will leave with him, preferring a life of poverty with her true love to a false and corrupted existence among the rich; at this moment the ship hits the iceberg, in order to prevent what would undoubtedly have been the true disaster, namely the couple’s life in New York. One can safely guess that the misery of everyday life would soon have destroyed their love. The accident thus occurs in order to save their love, in order to sustain the illusion that, had it not happened, they would have lived “happily ever after” But this is not all. A further clue is provided by the final moments of Di Caprio. He is freezing to death in the cold water, while Winslet is safely floating on a large piece of wood; aware that she is losing him, she cries: “I’ll never let you go!”, all the while pushing him away with her hands — why ? Because he has served his purpose. For, beneath the love story, Titanoe tells another tale, that of a spoiled high-society girl in an identity crisis: she is confused, does not k n ow what to do with herself, and, much more than her lover, Di Caprio is a kind of “vanishing mediator” whose function is to restore her sense of identity and purpose in life, her self image (quite literally, also: he sketches her image); once his job is done, he can disappear. This is why his last words, before he disappears into the freezing North Atlantic, are not the words of a departing lover, but, rather, the last message of a preacher, telling her how to lead her life, to be honest and faithful to herself, a n d so on and so forth. What this means is that Cameron’s superficial Hollywood Marxism (his all too obvious privileging of the lower classes and caricatural depiction of the cruel egotism and opportunism of the rich) should not deceive us: beneath this sympathy for the poor, there is another narrative, the profoundly reactionary myth, first fully deployed b y Kipling’s Captains Courageous, of a young rich kid in crisis whose vitality is restored by a brief intimate contact with the full-blooded life of the poor. What lurks behind the compassion for the poor is their vampiric exploitation.