Hollywood Hate Speech?

In one of the many stimulating citizen political engagements that now happen courtesy of Facebook, a very dear liberal friend had this to say in the context of a debate about the role of political rhetoric in the Tucson tragedy:

I have a slightly different perspective to add to the mix. I have worked with many paranoid delusional criminals who have threatened assassinations and/or violence. One scary thing they have in common is a hatred/fear of “the government.” They couldn’t tell you the current platform of the tea party, but they can talk for hours about gov’t mind control. From my experiences, the real dangerous rhetoric is that which demonizes or delegitimizes the government. It feeds right into their delusions and convinces them even more that “something must be done.” It just so happens that at this point in history, the right is vocally demonizing the “big, bad government.” Yes, liberals did it in the Sixties. As Americans, we should all feel free to criticize government, yet we could all benefit from refraining from its demonization or delegitimization. It might make our world just a bit more peaceful.

On the face of it, the point is well-taken. Categorical demonization of government virtually never hits a fair target. It is simply overwrought venting, an exaggeration that distracts from the more particular and essential details of this government abuse or that government salutary service. Less categorical demonization of government would indeed be a good thing.

But how would we get there? Certainly not government hate speech laws. It is perhaps the most basic axiom of our First Amendment tradition that our government cannot ever tell us we’re no longer free to say the government is bad, even angrily so. My friend intended no such recommendation. She called for civility among us citizens, a voluntary retreat from broadly demonizing government, and would that it were so.

But it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. The tradition of suspicion of government in this country is far too robust and entrenched ever to countenance a voluntary retreat into “government is innocent until proven guilty.” And even if we begun a dialogue about a kind of “civility code” about discussing government, I suspect it would break down with conservatives insisting that liberals stop demonizing conservative government, and liberals insisting that conservatives stop demonizing liberal government. The race then would be to control the definition of political correctness, what kind of discussion of government is acceptable and what kind is not, with, regrettably, a winner and a loser — and therefore a perpetuation of angriness.

So demonization of government, and its multiple less angry forms, will persist. But not primarily from the right.

I know. Sounds strange. These days, as my friend says, “the right is vocally demonizing the ‘big bad government.'” But the left is the most reliable demonizer of government.

More specifically, Hollywood is the most reliable demonizer of government. Granted, and not surprisingly, Hollywood demonization of government is almost invariably (possibly always, I haven’t run the numbers) a demonization of some conservative cabal in government. But it is nevertheless true that Hollywood movies, those vastly influential drivers of our popular culture, routinely demonize government.

A blogger has broken down 1980s-2000s Hollywood action films — never mind all the other genres — to determine who is most often the villain. Her result:

As you can see the overall winner of the villain tally is American military/government/law enforcement. Our own protectors even beat out the Russians in the 80s! We are a country that distrusts government innately and that has translated to film.

Keep in mind, this tally is limited to action films, so it wouldn’t include films like Avatar, which demonized government and military as against indigenous people, or sci-fi thrillers like V for Vendetta, which lauded terrorist tactics against a demonized totalitarian government, or any of the many documentaries slamming governments, virtually always from a leftist perspective.

Hollywood is “liberal” because its very rich actors and directors shamelessly preach at the American middle class about their stupidity, but its driving business class is relentlessly capitalistic in pursuing whatever it is that American consumers demand. And demonizing government appears to be a theme consistently in demand.

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” declared Barry Goldwater in an insufficiently vetted statement that sealed his fate in the 1964 landslide victory of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Americans themselves, we ordinary folks, don’t countenance extremism, even if we sometimes like a good story about it. But suspicion of government, that we’ll always savor. And Hollywood knows it.


4 Responses to Hollywood Hate Speech?

  1. David o. Wright says:

    Well spoken and fair my friend.

  2. jeff veazey says:

    Just a few thoughts because I have not thought this through the way you have. While I agree with the beginning and the end, I think the middle, the part where you say that the liberal Hollywood “rich” preach at the middle class veers off course. A few titles in particular come to mind: Gran Torino (by one of our great American directors, Clint Eastwood, glorifying the real Archie Bunkers of the world as the only effective tool against gang violence), Brave Heart (one of the great popular films about made up events, twisted history, by a totally unlikeable and foul-tempered, hate-monger. If Oliver Stone had made this film think of the outrage!). These films, made by Hollywood Conservatives, still celebrate the same values that so called liberal Hollywood films celebrate.

    I don’t see films very often as overtly political or liberal or conservative but – the good ones – as compelling stories of the human condition. More often than not that means celebrating the individual (a truly conservative priniciple) over the oppression of something bigger and more powerful and less human. Unfortunately for conservatives, no matter what the politics, they usually gravitate toward the center of power and thus, inhumanity. Movies that celebrate Banks, Governments, huge institutions just are not compelling to those of us who are human. The stories about over-coming inhumanity with courage, tenacity, and, well, super-humanity, are the stories that reaffirm to our deeper spirit that we have a fighting chance to breathe freedom and to taste justice. Afterall a story about Nixon, just is not as compelling without a Frost.

    Additionally, and I don’t think you or any commenters ever deny this fact when making the point about our inate suspicion of governments, but, just to reitterate, this suspicion is not baseless. Just because we are paranoid does not mean someone isn’t out to get us.

    • Which reminds me, to tie together several of our points, of Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory!

  3. jeff veazey says:

    And why is Avatar, though I have not seen it, errant in playing on the theme of government mistreatment of indigenous people? Please cite all of the wonderful examples of treatment of indigenous people, so I can be enlightened.

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