Friday, March 10, 2006

Conservatives, gay cowboys and Hayek

Social conservatives have a real passion about "gay cowboys". They are obsessed over the film Brokeback Mountain.

This site doesn't review films unless they are of particular interest from a liberal position. And
Brokeback Mountain doesn't qualify. But the response from conservatives is worth commenting upon.

Take the conservative, sometimes libertarian, website Tech Central Station. They recently published an article which was simply false. John Merline wrote a thinly disguised anti-Hollywood article "And the winner... Isn't Hollywood." His basic point was that films should win Academy Awards based on their popularity. He said it wasn't his point but he spends his entire article singing only that tune.

Of course Oscars are awards to the industry from the industry. It has nothing to do with popularity.
But the part that is really dicey is when Mr. Merline says: “Not one of the nominees for Best Picture managed to make it into Top 20 in terms of box office receipts. Brokeback Mountain came in 26th, according to Box Office Mojo. Capote barely made it into the Top 100. The winner, Crash, was ranked 49th.” This is not true.

We can take
Brokeback Mountain as the example. The film was released in December and it placed somewhere between 15th and 18th place consistently. That alone would prove he was wrong when he said it never made into the Top 20. But it didn't end there. One week after it premiered it entered the top ten. It slipped a bit but didn't go below 20th place. It then jumped back into the top ten. For three days, January 17 to 19, it was the top grossing film in the US. After that it remained in the top five for just over three weeks. And since then the lowest it has fallen is 14th place. In other words not only has it been in the Top 20, contrary to Merline's claim, but it has never been out of the Top 20 as of today. Of course eventually it will have to and probably soon as it's reaching the end of its theatrical life cycle and will be out on DVD shortly.

The oddest, and most absurd, claim by Merline was a comment that said that by nominating films that are not box office hits the Academy is insulting those attending the films. He snidely said that while people might be "too stupid to understand quality film making" the drop in ratings for the Academy Awards show proves they are "not stupid enough to take such insults lying down."
This is so irrational that one can only conclude that Mr. Merline is acting out conservative prejudices against Hollywood. Big Macs are more popular than Filet Mignon with Merlot Cream Sauce. That the Michelin Guide rates many restaurants highly, but that McDonalds isn't one of them, is no insult to those of us who enjoy McDonalds.

Conservatives frequently praise the quality of books which are shunned by most readers and pan books that are embraced by the public. Does that sort of critique of literature mean they are insulting people? Of course not. Merline is merely Hollywood bashing. The classical liberal is not as uncomfortable with Hollywood as is the conservative. Conservatives oppose social freedom. Conservatives were especially upset because Brokeback Mountain showed two men, who they falsely called cowboys, as gay. It's not quite accurate but it's not critical either. Even before anyone saw the film the Religious Right, which has US conservatives by the gonads, was attacking the film. The most verbal among them never bothered to see the film. They simply knew it was evil. And so they harped on the issue of Hollywood being out of touch with their audience. It's part of the conservative mantra. The classical liberal may disagree with some of the messages of Hollywood films when it comes to anti-business attitudes and the like. But there are also good films and very libertarian films. And the liberal has no problem with Brokeback Mountain.

Actually one of the best statements on the "out of touch" theory was made by George Clooney. And while Clooney is often wrong on this issue he was spot on. Clooney noted that conservatives attack Hollywood for being "out of touch" (which is really Merline's thinly disguised message). Clooney said that Hollywood was sometimes out of touch and that it was a good thing. He said:
"We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects. This Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy. Proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch."

Clooney reminded me of something the great liberal, free market economist Ludwig von Mises once said. While he was writing about literature it applies to film as well. "Those authors who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter, the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones. he is by necessity anti-authoritarian and anti-governmental, irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy." Or the film the greater part of the public does not view.

The great student of Mises was F.A. Hayek and in his essay "Why I am Not a Conservative" he made clear one distinction between the conservative and the classical liberal. The conservative wanted to stop change: "But the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still." Hayek noted that libealism is "not averse to evolution and change". Liberalism always wants to see liberty extended and the equality of rights applied more consistently.

Hayek wrote: "This brings me to the first point on which the conservative and the liberal dispositions differ radically. As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self - regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people's frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change "orderly."

And those "gay cowboys" up on
Brokeback Mountain help illustrate the point.

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