Successfully Engaging The Culture In Politics Means Forgetting About “The Message.”

“We must engage the culture!”

It’s become somewhat of a rallying cry for some conservatives who feel the Republican Party and conservatives overall don’t “get it” with respect to culture, particularly pop culture.

It’s hard to disagree with the critics in question. The GOP deserves it’s reputation as the “stiff” party when it comes to candidates. Republicans seem comfortable in shirts with too much starch and listening to nothing but country and gospel music and watching reruns of the Andy Griffith show.

It’s a stereotype to be sure, but one that the GOP has brought upon itself. Over the last 35 years, the GOP produced two Presidential candidates that could pull of the “every man” persona and those two men, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were both elected to two terms.

The landscape of politics has shifted further still as it relates to pop culture. Whereas Presidents usually would not appear on late night shows like The Tonight Show or Letterman unless their terms were done or were still candidates, Barack Obama has probably appeared on NBC late night and The Daily Show more than he’s been in front of Fox News cameras. Some people were upset when President Obama appeared with Zach Galifianakis on ‘Between Two Ferns’ but in social media driven culture, it makes perfect sense for him to do so. It’s largely President Obama’s “likeability” factor that is (barely) keeping his presidency from going totally down the tubes for the final two years of his second term.

With respect to the broader culture, especially as it relates to film, television and music, conservatives have largely brought up the rear when attempting to engage in that way — mostly because they were ignoring it.

Times have changed and so have attitudes towards reaching people that way. That being said, there is still a disconnect in that area and it parallels with the Christian community when attempting to make inroads into the public at large.

They spend too much time harping on getting out “the message.”

If we return for a moment to the evangelical Christian movement, the landscape is littered with the carcasses of awful movies and bad music that had a “great message.”

The ‘Left Behind’ series of books were some of the most popular in Christian circles. The first book was developed for the screen and the disaster with Kirk Cameron was released. Because it had such a “great message” it actually made millions of dollars because of a built in audience who would be more apt to see it. But the movie was absolutely awful. It was so poorly done, one of the authors of the books, Tim Lahaye sued the production company, citing breach of contract because the quality was so poor. A new version has come out and people are saying it’s actually worse than the first one even with a $16 million budget.

The Kendrick brothers came along and attempted to make some feature films with better quality. Unfortunately, despite accolades from within the Christian community, their efforts in ‘Facing The Giants’ and ‘Fireproof’ were not very well done. In addition, they were movies that essentially preached the choir – people kept talking about how terrific “the message” was. Their best effort to date was ‘Courageous’ which actually featured some very well done action sequences and much better acting. They’re talented. They’ve recently gone on on their own (their other efforts were largely supported by their local church) and it will be interesting to see where they take their work.

This is the trap conservatives cannot fall into. People keep saying “We need conservative filmmakers, writers and artists!” No. What the movement needs are great filmmakers, writers and artists who happen to be conservative. They are out there. Great art is never about a “message.”

Great art always tells a story.

For example, there are three great anti-Vietnam War movies that I can think of, all of which told great stories. ‘The Deer Hunter’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Platoon’ all gave very unflattering views of The Vietnam War, but audiences weren’t clubbed over the head with a “message” the entire time.

The left fell victim to the “message” mentality with movies related to the Iraq War and the war on terror. ‘Redacted’, ‘Lions for Lambs’ and ‘Stop-Loss’ were all movies designed to make anybody who supported the Bush administration (and the administration itself) look bad. And despite “the message” those movies flopped because they told lousy stories.

By the same token, ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ as well as ‘Black Hawk Down’ were all terrific films, presenting a point of view of the subjects that allowed the audience to draw their own conclusions.

One of the hallmarks of a great director is they assume their audience is intelligent. It’s the reason liberals flipped their lid over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ because it did not hold to their narrative about the fight against terrorism, despite not lecturing the audience. Liberals knew it was a movie that would attract a wide audience and that made them very nervous.

The director of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, Kathryn Bigelow had this to say about her critics:

 “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was … no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

She’s right.

I recently had the opportunity a couple of months ago to see a screening of the movie, ‘The Giver’ with Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. It’s based on the book of the same name written by Lois Lowry. The movie takes place in the future where people have carved out what initially appears to be their own kind of utopia. Everybody is treated the same. Nobody gets angry with each other. Everybody sees everything else in black and white so nobody can appear “different” than anybody else. Nobody is sick. There’s no racism or hatred. It’s….”perfect.”

Every member of society has a particular “role” they are to play until it is their time to “move beyond.” The character of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is chosen to be a Receiver Of Memory. He is given memories of the past from his teacher, The Giver (Bridges).

As is often the case, what seems like utopia, is actually much more sinister underneath. As the movie unfolds and Jonas receives more memories from his past, he begins to realize the homogenized world he grew up in is not what he or anybody else was meant for.

Throughout the movie, several themes are present (though not explicit) that align with a conservative/libertarian point of view. Abortion, euthanasia, free will and individualism are all covered and without a hint of it being overt.

But it’s there.

Will it be enough to automatically make somebody a Republican if they weren’t before? Probably not. However, the subtlety opens the door to have a conversation about those themes instead of hammering people over the head about them. 

Get a conversation started and the possibility of changing hearts and minds improves.