I grew up in a small town. Not a really, really small town, but a medium-sized suburb of a small, ruralish city. As such, I was fairly disconnected from the cutting edge-culture of my time. It might be a phenomenon that you need to live to fully understand. In some, critical ways the culture of “the 80s” that I experienced when I was younger would have looked, to someone from New York or Los Angeles, about five years out of date.
Years later, shortly after watching Napoleon Dynamite, I was part of an argument about anachronisms within that film. In some ways, the films seems to be taking place in the early 80s. At the same time, there are clearly contemporary artifacts within the film that some have felt were included in error. It hit me that there is a gag there, one that highlights that phenomenon I had experienced myself. The jest of Napoleon Dynamite is that “I went back to my home town as an adult, and it was still stuck in 1981.”
As a kid from New York City, or L.A., or even Chicago or New Orleans for that matter, you’d be exposed to the (young) adult culture of your time. In 1981, at least, growing up in rural or even remote-suburban America meant restricting one’s cultural influence to the big-three TV networks and other mass media. Decades down the road, I’ve paused to think about the message contained in that media. How biased was it? How influential was it? How pervasive was it?
As a case in point, look at the film Footloose. No, not the new one, the original. The 1984 movie was inspired by real events from 1981 where a high school class petitioned the school board for permission to hold a prom, circumventing an ordinance that had been on the books since the foundation of the town (82 years earlier). The school board took jurisdiction, stating that a prom was not the still-forbidden “public dancing” but, instead, a private function not covered by law. The reality was not quite as dramatic as the film version, but the rough elements of the tale (including church-driven objection to public dance) was transformed into a wildly successful and very popular film.
For the film, the location was moved from Elmore City, Oklahoma to a more ominously-religious sounding Bomont, Utah. Ren, Kevin Bacon’s character, is an amalgamation of class officers Rex Kennedy and Leonard Coffee (Rex and Len = Ren). And while Coffee had only come to Elmer City in the sixth grade, he was hardly the too-cool-for-Utah Ren from the big city of Chicago. The personal drama that loss-of-innocence lead-female Ariel experienced, having recently lost a sibling in an drunk-driving related crash, seams entirely unmatched by the class officer and daughter-of-the-school-board-Chairman Mary Ann Temple, whose father actually cast the deciding vote in the prom’s favor.
Set aside for the moment that, John Hughes films notwithstanding, Chicago is barely better than flyover country to the denizens from New York and L.A. Is an intended message of this film to show how backwards American is outside of the major urban areas? Can the only salvation for the hinterlands come when someone like Ren comes and brings with him modernity? This does seem to be a message that was reinforced by television, film, and music nearly everywhere when I was young.
By the time I was a college-aged, I had heard that message loud and clear. I was eager to escape my mildly-rural roots and only considered employment in top-10, coastal urban centers. Disdain for the vast rural center of the country was high despite a lifetime of without having experienced any of the repressive culture that the media assured me was pervasive. I just knew that cultish, religious extremists awaited me if I ever lost sight of the ocean in my rambles.
Only after getting old did I begin to value affordable housing and quiet, open space. Living outside the dome, I can see the mistakes in the shared prejudice of the urban elites*. Those people from “nowhere” that are less wealthy, less educated, and less cosmopolitan than you aren’t less intelligent or less informed. In fact, my sense (and this is born out by recent studies) is that it is the opposite. In the vast red fill of the United States, a conservative still is bombarded with the progressive viewpoints that pervade our culture. If he likes Trump, he does so hearing, on an almost daily basis, how awful Trump is. If you work in a Manhattan law firm, on the other hand, your protective bubble is nearly impervious.
If you accept that the portrayal of the bulk of America as being populated by closed-minded, bigoted, uneducated morons is more than a bit unfair, the question I have is, was the misdirection intentional? I’d be willing to state with confidence that there has been a concerted effort to push this country out of its “traditional” mindset. In some cases, that has been a good thing. I think we all can appreciate the reduction in racism and sexism that has taken place over the last century and acknowledge that some of that was accomplished as a top-down effort. In other cases, folks passionately take sides as to whether the “new” is really an improvement over the “old.”
It is certainly possible that it was unintentional. Writers and directors tend to live in New York or Los Angeles and their own world-view is bound to make its way into their creations. Similarly, many a generation of teenager longs to get away from the little place they grew up to go see the world and it would be inevitable for this message to make its way into the songs and other entertainment of the young and for the young. Until very recently, my take would have simply been one of art imitating life.
I do wonder, however, if the push isn’t a little too one-side, a little too profound to be accidental. Go back about a century, for contrast. I was always struck by the sappiness in the film version of The Wizard of Oz. The film extols the virtues of country living, family and friends, and a little place to call home in a way that seems artificial. The creators of that piece were also from New York and California, but they seem to feel compelled to speak to their potential audience, an audience who populated the vast middle of the country, in a sentimentality that goes far beyond their source material. The films of the 80s and 90s would rather ridicule their suburban audiences, and in a way that was no more natural than The Wizard‘s sound-stage countryside.
Ironically, the progressive left needs to rewrite the narrative yet again.
When I grew up, “the fifties” was an epithet to rival “small town” in terms of explaining what was wrong with America. Before the Summer of Love and the Sexual Revolution, we were told, America was stifled by rigid conformity imposed by corporate overlords. The hippie revolution preached the need to free oneself from “The Man” through a back-to-basics, do-it-yourself spirit that would live comfortably among today’s right-leaning preppers. Throw off that tie and starched, button-down shirt and be free.
Those fifties were, in some ways, the height of America’s cultural power. We had emerged victorious from the Second World War with nearly all our potential competition in international trade either having been defeated or, at the very least, devastated by that war. While America’s orientation toward free enterprise continued** to drive our successes, the unprecedented economic explosion and resulting world economic hegemony should not be discounted. For the generation that includes several from the upcoming crop of Presidential candidates, those post-war decades appear to be the baseline – that which existing before any intervening political, cultural, and economic changes took place. In that context, one can easily project one’s own values on this success and the fall from grace. Just as I have given credit to economic liberty, someone else might cite the labor movement and the New Deal as the primary factors creating the 1950s successes and, conversely, the drift away from America’s socialist experimentation as causing the end of our economic domination of the world.
Bernie Sanders is on record making statements to this effect, although I think I’ve read the reference before it came from his mouth. In his case, I wonder if it is his age showing. From the point of view of Bernie’s generation, he is turning the values of his opponents to his advantage. For a young Bernie majoring in political science in Brooklyn, his “moral majority” opponents would have been, figurative speaking, “living in the 50s.” To him, perhaps, those to the right of him politically still are. However, does what, to him, looks like brilliant strike in the cultural war instead appear, to most of us alive today, like he’s fighting a battle that was over and done before we were even born? Nostalgia for a better time is an extremely powerful factor in politics. It’s bound to be a winning strategy, but the nostalgia must exist of its own accord. Bernie can’t manufacture something that isn’t there.
Or maybe I’m just taking a silly, pop-culture movie way too seriously. There’s nothing wrong, after all, with a little bit of dancing.
*Although, to this day, I find it impossible to rectify how that Alabama man with the Gomer Pyle accent was one of the world’s top rocket designers.
**America’s role as the “arsenal of democracy,” itself, sprung from our traditions of economic freedom. I would argue that this, itself, was a significant factor in allowing us emerge triumphant from the war.