Sells Like Teen Spirit

Ana Marie Cox

The nice thing about living in Washington is that on your way to the mall you can see ads promoting Lockheed-Martin’s Super Hercules airplane—“a totally new, advanced, fully integrated digital weapons system.” A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania recently found that lobbyists spent $105 million during the 107th Congress on such advertising—designed for members of Congress, not the public.

The nice thing about living in New York is that you can go see Josh Hartnett expound on the future of the Democratic Party. Talk about making love and not war.

The Dems could do worse. Hartnett looks better in a swimsuit than John Edwards, even. He’s adorable, he’s a Midwesterner, and last month he appeared on a panel at the 92nd Street Y with other noted political science scholars, including novelist Walter Mosley and actress Janeane Garofalo. But the real draw that night was Danny Goldberg, music mogul-cum-campaign strategist and author of Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit.

Goldberg is not completely off-base when he argues that the Democrats should go after young folks. One way to do that would be to emphasize the points of clear distinction between the left and the right on social issues, like, er … the war! Well, perhaps that’s not such a clearcut issue for the party. OK: gay marriage. Uh, no, there are two Democrats co-sponsoring the constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Hmm … welfare reform? Nope. Wait—I got it: rap music.

That’s right, Goldberg thinks the key to Democratic victory is to “embrace popular culture.” He rails against those Democrats he labels as the “new Puritans,” whose attacks on violence in the media risk alienating an entire generation. In a particularly nifty bit of rhetorical spin, he posits that vilifying popular culture is so dumb that even Republicans know not to do it. As he told Salon: “There were no Republican senators who signed on to the Lieberman bill that would have had the Federal Trade Commission regulate entertainment. Why? I mean, they thought about this and they said, ‘You know what? Let the Democrats have this one.’ ”

Goldberg is referring to the Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001, co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Hillary Clinton of New York. The bill, it’s true, had no Republican co-sponsors, but a similar bill in 2000 was co-sponsored by Republicans Sam Brownback of Kansas and Orrin Hatch of Utah (talk about your new Puritans). The bill is hardly perfect, but it’s hardly an Ashcroftian menace to civil rights—or, as Goldberg put it, “a bill that edged closer to government censorship of the arts than anything proposed since the ’30s.”

The MMAA—which passed in both the House and Senate but was not signed by President Bush—would have endowed the FTC with the power to regulate the marketing of violent material to young people, hardly a right-wing conspiracy—if anything, a positively socialist agenda. Commercial Alert, the marketing watchdog of Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen group, proposed the idea in 1999. When I attended the media violence hearings on the Hill in 2000, some of the most vocal critics of this approach weren’t the new Puritans, but rather the old capitalists. Before he came around and co-sponsored the Brownback-Hatch bill, Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, demurred, “As a defender of the free market I do not begrudge anyone’s honest profits.”

The problem depends on your definition of honest profits, I guess. Selling “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” to 11-year-olds doesn’t seem particularly honest to me.

Goldberg testified at those media violence hearings, wrapping himself in the flag and the First Amendment and whatnot—a preview of what he goes on about at great length in his book, playing the whole thing as a metaphor for how anyone who would criticize pop culture is, like, a square. He told Salon that old people should get over themselves already: “Nothing is going to touch me the way Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde touched me then. But today, to my daughter, Pink is somebody she’s going to remember 30 years from now. Kids who like the White Stripes, or like Jay-Z or Eminem, these are artists who are touching them in a similar way. They’re 16, and we’re not.”

This is all very noble until you think about how much money Goldberg stood to lose if the FTC had decided to again enforce the kind of “safe harbor” regulations that, for decades, kept Saturday morning television from becoming the branded virtual toy store it is today, or if it had decided to clamp down on the predatory marketing of graphic, violent games and music.

In calling for Democrats to re-engage with the culture war, Goldberg deliberately confuses art and the market in a way that’s familiar to anyone who’s seen Britney drink a Pepsi or seen Cadillac Escalades blown away by the wrath of a Matrixed Keanu Reeves. Violence is hardly the point, actually: The deep association between culture and commerce is. Real progressives look askance at this connection, and progressive young people do, too. It’s no coincidence that the causes young people have flocked to over the past few years—from antisweatshop activism to anti-Starbucks bumper stickers—explicitly seek to disrupt corporate control over the public sphere.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want defense contractors hijacking my government. But I don’t want record executives to, either.

Ana Marie Cox is the brains behind Wonkette, one of the most popular political blogs on the web. She is also the former editor of the dearly departed suck​.com and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones, Wired and Spin.
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