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Tuesday, July 29 2014

Missing the Point on "True Blood"

True Blood, the HBO series from director/producer Alan Ball, tells the story of a world in which vampires have come out of hiding and tried to integrate into society. It's an explicit metaphor for civil rights, and especially for gay rights ("especially", given that Ball is himself gay, and thus presumably sympathetic to the gay rights movement). Because of that metaphor, and because the gay rights movement has become an almost (with the exception of Libertarians, whom nobody pays much attention to anyway) entirely Democrat/Left-wing movement, the show has at times indicated a clear sympathy for the Left, and hostility toward Republicans and the Right.

That hostility has been on full display recently with an episode that brings two of the series leads, Eric Northman (Alexander Skargsgård) and Pam de Beaufort (Kristen Bauer von Stratten) to a fictional Ted Cruz fundraiser at the George W. Bush library. In the course of the episode, von Stratten's Pam refers to Republican women as "Republicunts," and laments that the Republican gathering "could be the most disturbing" thing she's seen in a hundred years of undead life.

Conservatives have responded predictably: pieces decrying the episode—and the show—have appeared recently on such blogs as Newsbusters, American Thinker, The Daily Beast, and even the Fox News blog. Along the way, conservative writers have noted that the series endorses the "immoral" lifestyle of bloodsucking fiends, and concluded that the show is one more Left-wing Hollywood endeavor meant to tear down conservatism and conservative values.

As ever, these critics are missing the point.

Fundamentally, conservative attacks against popular culture are a waste of time. First, they persuade no one at all of the virtues of the conservative message; the only ones reading and applauding them are conservatives already. Second, they perpetuate the stereotype (popularized and used to great effect by the Left) that depicts conservatives as frowning, disapproving scolds—an image unlikely to sway anyone in the middle 5-10% of voters who actually decide most elections, particularly the close ones.  Third, and because of the second, they provide the Left with yet another opportunity to mock and marginalize conservatives, and drive a wedge between the Right and the great mass of American culture. Finally, to the extent that a show like "True Blood" engages in this sort of thing to stir up controversy and thereby boost its ratings, conservatives only help the show do exactly that.

To understand this, ask yourself a question: has any disapproving parent, anywhere, ever, successfully persuaded a teenager who loved a particular song, music style or musical artist, to stop listening to that music by loudly voicing that disapproval?

Popular culture is popular for a reason: because it appeals to something broadly-based in human nature, in the human psyche. Conservatives who talk down popular culture miss this point time and time again. And the fact is that they could be doing themselves an enormous favor by looking at the problem from a very different perspective.

The core political value for many on the Right is liberty, especially in regard to government; this is a fundamental truth. And because politics sits downstream of culture, a politics of liberty depends, ultimately, on a philosophy and culture of Individualism. All government-centric politics rest, philosophically, on a collectivist base—on a presumption that the way to best run human affairs is by dealing with people as collectives, as groups, rather than as individuals. We see this in the rhetoric of the Left that talks about "the Poor," as if all poor people are poor in the same way, and for the same reasons. We see it in the politics of race, lumping all blacks into a single homogenous group with identical interests and identical obstacles. And we see it in the very phrase "gay rights," as if the liberty concerns of all gay people are identical, yet separate and distinct from those of non-gays.

And here is where conservatives entirely miss the point of a show like True Blood, and miss the opportunity, time and time again, to open the message of liberty to a wider audience.

One of the central messages of True Blood has been, consistently, that not all vampires are alike, that some endeavor to be decent and moral, and that the biggest barrier standing between peaceful, voluntary interaction between vampire and human has been the tendency of each to view the other in collectivist terms. Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, another of the series leads) is a vampire who struggles constantly with the morality of his actions. Sookie Stackhouse, played by star Anna Paquin, is a human who consistently refuses to deal with vampires as a monolithic group, but takes each vampire on his or her own individual merits—and thus has been able to form lasting attachments to several of them. Jessica Hamby (Deborah Ann Woll) is a "new" vampire, who also strives constantly to overcome her blood lust, and act with compassion and decency toward others.

Almost every "bad" event in the series, every interaction between human and vampire that goes wrong, is a result of some character who either engages in collectivist thinking about some group or another, or who ignores the fundamental, individual rights that sit at the heart of an Individualist philosophy. When "evil" fundamentalist Christians attack vampires, they are treating all vampires the same, and ignoring their rights. When evil vampires (yes, some of the vampire characters are, in fact, evil) arrogantly treat humans as cattle, unworthy of regard, they are doing exactly the same thing. When a lynch mob of Klan-like haters murder a bunch of shape-changers, once again, it's an act of collectivism, of viewing individuals solely in terms of the group they belong to.

There is a message of liberty here, but conservatives refuse to see it because they are too busy engaging in the politics of thin skins—a political tactic, by the way, which seldom if ever persuades anyone to change their position.

To begin the work of returning this country to what they believe it ought to be, liberty advocates need to recognize that they can only create new allies by persuasion, and this is seldom if ever accomplished by playing the role of the scold. To the extent that True Blood is popular in mass-market culture, conservatives shoot themselves in the foot by disapproving of its "immorality." And to the extent that True Blood engages in such provocation to fight slipping ratings, conservatives shoot themselves in the foot by calling attention to it.

My recommendation to conservatives: when talking about pop culture, remember what Mom and Dad taught you: if you can't say anything nice, then please just shut the hell up.

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