Communist Muppets and Capitalist Self-Loathing
By now, you have probably heard the twittering (literally) about "Communist Muppets" after Fox Business guest commentator Dan Gainor complained that the villain in the latest Muppet movie is that stock Hollywood cliché, the evil big businessman. In this case, it's even more of a cliché: an evil oil tycoon with the none-too-subtle name Tex Richman. Get it? The "rich man" is the villain. Apparently, the Muppets are the 99%.
The left-leaning mainstream media had great sarcastic fun with this story, projecting the possibility of House Un-American Activities-style hearings for the Muppets. The use of sarcasm, as we shall see, is an integral part of this story on a very deep level, but it also serves an immediate, practical purpose: to avoid discussing the real issue behind Gainor's complaint.
The left, incidentally, has no problem with overwrought political analysis of children's shows, when it serves their purposes. Say something about an anti-business message in the new Muppet movie, and they will make fun of you at a prominent left-leaning publication like Slate. Write a stupid article about how Thomas the Tank Engine is an agent of capitalist imperialism, which only demonstrates how much student-loan money you wasted on that degree in English literature, and it's considered a thoughtful article worthy of publication in a prominent left-leaning publication like, you guessed it, Slate. It all depends on whose ox is being gored.
So let's take a look at what Gainor actually said:
"You wonder why we've got a bunch of Occupy Wall Street people walking all around the country. They've been indoctrinated, literally, for years by this kind of stuff. Whether it was 'Captain Planet' or Nickelodeon's 'Big Green Help' or The Day After Tomorrow, the Al Gore-influenced movie, all of that is what they're teaching, is that corporations are bad, the oil industry is bad, and ultimately what they're telling kids is what they told you in the movie The Matrix, that mankind is a virus on poor old Mother Earth."
For anyone on the right, and probably for anyone not actively on the left, this complaint resonates. It's the one point of sympathy I feel with Christians, despite being an atheist. They have to figure out how to raise their children in a cultural environment that sets out to mock their beliefs and way of life. Except that in this case, it is even broader. The way of life under attack is work, business, production, making a living. It is the inescapable substance of life in a free, prosperous society. Almost all of the children who watch these television shows will grow up and pass into this world of work. They will choose a career, make money, possibly run a business themselves. So what's the point of all of the vilification of business? To make them feel guilty about it, to make them feel that their achievements in the world of work are not something to be proud of, to take seriously, or to defend.
To those who dismiss this as reading too much into mere television shows, we now have a little bit of hard data to measure the political impact of this cultural attack on business. A marketing research group prepared a report for Entertainment Weekly on the television-viewing preferences of political partisans. These preferences don't just show us what viewers like. They show us something deeper and more profound. They show us what people find to be interesting, what holds their attention and soothes their fatigue at the end of a long day.
Republicans, it turns out, prefer "gritty documentary-style work-related reality shows," like "Swamp Loggers" and "The Deadliest Catch." They also like reality-TV competition shows like "Dancing with the Stars," and old-fashioned police procedurals like "Castle."
Partly these results are influenced by the demographics of the right: they are more likely to be men, and manly men at that (hence shows on the list like "Man vs. Wild" and "Top Gear"); they are more likely to be blue collar (hence the "gritty documentaries" about hands-on, blue-collar jobs); and we tend to be a bit older and, ahem, thicker around the middle, which I suppose explains the appeal of "The Biggest Loser."
On the other hand, perhaps the cause and effect goes the other way. The demographics are a product of these preferences, particularly the part about being older. It is well known that people trend to the right as they get out of college, get a job, and gain actual experience with the world of work, supporting a family, and getting things done. Age and experience also gives people a new-found appreciation for the fact that these things are interesting and worth paying attention to.
Hence the common threads in right-leaning entertainment preferences. The gritty documentaries are about hard work and making a living. The better reality TV competitions are about striving for success, featuring young people with a passion for singing or dancing who train relentlessly to become the best. The police procedurals are partly about work and problem-solving, and partly about the great middle-class virtues of justice and law and order. One other show on the list, "Mythbusters," doesn't quite fit any of those categories, but I was particularly happy to see it there, and it makes sense. There is an unconventional, self-taught, "System D" entrepreneurialism to the Mythbusters. Plus, they like to test a lot of gun myths.
So what do folks on the left tend to watch? Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, of course, and also shows like "30 Rock," "Parks and Recreation," and "The Office." The results are much more one-note than those for the right, and the common theme that leaps out is sarcasm. The report describes these preferences as "'sarcastic' media-savvy comedies and morally murky antiheroes" and notes that "sarcastic humor is always a hook" for lefty viewers.
Again, we see a bit of a demographic signal here. Young people without the responsibilities of work and family are more likely to stay up for the late-night shows. They also tend to have a left-over adolescent obsession with being "cool," which is demonstrated by immersing themselves into the solipsistic, self-referential world of pop culture. Much as I hate to admit it, though, the left does draw a lot of people who have jobs, and good jobs at that. Many are college-educated professionals who work hard and are quite successful. Yet the purpose of entertainment, for them, is not to reinforce the value of their work, but to undermine it. Yes, I work in an office all day, they tell themselves, but then I go home in the evening, turn on "The Office," and make fun of it.
Here's how I would sum it up. People on the right tend to like work, success, and catching bad guys, while Democrats like "sarcastic humor," i.e., sitting back and making fun of the people who work and succeed and catch the bad guys.
You can see what I mean now about the effect of growing up under a steady bombardment of anti-business clichés, from Muppet movies on up. People raised in this environment still go into the world of work, but deep down they feel guilty for liking it and taking it seriously. The sarcastic humor of their television shows is their way of apologizing for taking their work seriously--or resentfully tearing down those who are more successful at it. The esthetics of sarcasm, after all, is closely connected to the psychology of envy. Its goal is to tear down the values of others, not to build up one's own values.
That brings me back to the most interesting observation in Gainor's original comment on the Muppets: the connection to Occupy Wall Street. You can see how young people in particular, precisely the Occupier demographic of kids just leaving college, would be particularly torn by the cultural assault on business. Work and business and making a living are in fact, the core values of our culture and the core concerns of adult life. Yet young people being thrust into that world have been trained to mistrust and despise those values, and you can imagine their existential anguish. They are the victims of a capitalist society's cultural self-loathing.
But there is a cure for this ailment, and it's not just watching more episodes of "The Deadliest Catch" or "Dirty Jobs," to gain a greater appreciation of work and a lesser sense of entitlement. The ultimate cure is the one that young people will, in fact, go through. At least, they will do it under the next president, when the economy finally shows signs of real life. The cure is getting a job and working and coming to appreciate the meaning of work.
Consider the story of Tracy Postert, a Ph.D. in biomedicine who stumped down to Zuccotti Park to complain that she was unemployed despite her accomplishments in her field. A passerby saw her sign and asked her for her resume, and she now has a job working on Wall Street, where she will be evaluating medical firms as potential investments for the John Thomas Financial Brokerage. The CEO told the New York Post, "She was ranting about Wall Street, and now she's working on Wall Street. Banks are not so bad. I hope we have opened her eyes."
It won't be as gritty as "Swamp Loggers," but she is going to be living through her own reality show about the world of work.