YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 28, 2014

Populism and pop culture: good or bad for the republic?

Populism3Much of this website has been devoted to the analysis of populist demagoguery, with ample quotations from the past and present. Another priority of mine has been the state of popular culture criticism, emanating from both Left and Right. This blog is a guide to my own thinking about 1. Populism as ideology and its targets; 2. Populism as reasonable suspicion of elites and “experts”; and 3. The populist character of major television shows and movies despite the impression that single figures or “billionaires” directly direct their content.

First, the original populists were farmers demanding that currency be placed on both gold and silver standards. They also resented the excessive rates demanded by railroads that transported their goods. Muckrakers like Frank Norris (The Octopus, 1901) appealed to this constituency and their progressive sympathizers, who went on to co-opt the original populist demands, for instance, Louis Brandeis’s first major study was of railroads, their practices and finances. (On Norris see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Octopus:_A_Story_of_California. On Brandeis’s career, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Brandeis#Against_monopolies. I read Melvin Urofsky’s biography, that highlighted the early interest in railroads.) populistantisemitism In a mass society, “flooded” with “swarms”  of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not surprising that the invention of movies would appeal to the new arrivals and their taste for spectacle, glitter, adventure, shape-shifting, scandalously naughty and corrupt rich people (not dissimilar from those who had dominated the European countries from which they had fled), sex, and violence (part of their everyday lives, both here in the new tough cities, and in the old country), triumph over adversity, and shows of virtuosic force, either military or in sports.

Movies and television shows remain populist in the sense that they appeal to ordinary working class and middle class viewers (“ordinary people”), with only a few arty movies made to maintain respectability and an aura of literariness to the more educated urban viewer. And such offerings might be reactionary, as in the esteemed film The Remains of the Day (1993); I wrote about its content here: https://clarespark.com/2014/04/21/remains-of-the-day-revisited/.

In my experience, leftists that I once knew did not depart from this essentially Leninist populism. (Marx was more favorable to the bourgeoisie, who were developing the productive forces, and who were likely to split over the inevitable working class revolution that he anticipated. Whereas Lenin was influenced by J. A. Hobson, who publicized the notion that an international cabal of Jewish financiers would not only inspire imperialist war, but would control newspapers and other media. Marx’s early essays “On The Jewish Question,” or on money as the universal pimp, however, dealt with Jews as hucksters and the embodiment of the money power, whose reign would be overthrown in the new dispensation.)

For instance, Pacifica radio [where I was program director for eighteen months (2-81 through7-82), and before and after that, a volunteer program producer on the politics of the arts–1969-1998] was plainly populistic and anti-imperialistic, not radical in the Marxian sense, though the news department supported the uprising in El Salvador and the Nicaraguan revolution. I recall my boss, the manager Jim Berland, warning me not to allow programmers to use the term “capitalism.” Our target should be “big business.” This is a typical petit bourgeois (populist) move, and bears no resemblance to European or American communism as originally formulated. Similarly, like other “community broadcasters” we were to appeal to the listener sponsors by mentioning our deviation from “corporate/commercial media”—this referred to presumably billionaire-controlled outlets intended solely for the spread of propaganda favorable to imperialism, finance capital, and rich people in general.

The flaw in this reasoning is that big bad mass media always was populist—but with commercial interruptions. NPR and PBS make their appeals on that basis (sometimes claiming the higher objectivity and gravitas). The antisemitism of the old WASP elite is retained in its denigration of “Hollywood” as generically Jewish—a claim that may be taken advantage of by some professional right-wing pundits , who want to return “traditional Christian values” to “popular culture.” Populist impulses exist across the political spectrum, but are frequently reactionary.

What is not populism?Elites” or “experts” may be corrupt or legitimately superior in their talents, labors, and contributions to society. To view each and every one with skepticism may be populistic, or it may be valuable inquisitiveness that we must support, even as “discovery anxiety” sets in. But don’t look to the bought-intelligentsia and kept-journalists who “analyze” politicians, social policy, education, and mass media productions. They are part of the legitimacy apparatus that is partly responsible for the Great Dumbing Down of our country. Ask your children to make a distinction between a democracy and a [democratic] republic, and watch their puzzled faces. I am sometimes told that my blogs are “over the heads” of even educated readers. I welcome questions if I yield to esotericism or obscurantism. It is probably my writing, which is sometimes dense and compressed, and not the usual thing on the internet. populistrage

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