fReeMixing the Culture Wars

by Henry Farrell on January 6, 2005

“Jacob Heilbrunn”:,1,3879756,print.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions has a conversation with Daniel Bell in the LA Times, about the problems that both parties have with imposing any sorts of cultural limits on the free markets.

bq. Few things infuriate him more than the GOP’s moral contradictions, as its concerns over cultural decay bump against the needs of big business. For instance, Bush sponsors a sexual abstinence program for teens while gliding over the fact that his biggest media booster, the Fox network, airs such titillating shows as “The O.C.”

bq. And what about the Democrats? They claim to do a better job in holding corporations and Wall Street accountable, but their rights-based platform has made them loathe to back societal limits on much of anything. Even now, as the Democratic Leadership Council pushes a moral values agenda, the backlash against it is mounting.

This identifies a fundamental dilemma of conservatism – if you’re a cardcarrying cultural conservative, you should have a problem with the tendency of free markets to throw up porn, gambling, lickerish behaviour etc. But it also speaks to some interesting political possibilities for the left. “Duncan Black”: spoke a month or so ago about how the left should be creating an alliance with the libertarians in the IP wars – “Give people their porn, their Napster, and their unfettered Tivo.” But there’s even more scope for an alliance on IP and DRM between the left and conservatives who want to protect their families from the excesses of popular culture. Give them their family-friendly entertainment, their “ClearPlay”: and their ability to remix popular culture so as to make sure that their kids aren’t exposed to material that they don’t want them to see. This is an agenda that leftists should be able to buy into. As Harry “put it”: a while ago.

bq. I do want to prompt a discussion about one thing — the exposure of young children to commercial culture. Evangelical Christians in the US seem to have developed a kind of counter-culture for kids which shields them from the worst aspects of commercial culture (as well as some of the better aspects of secular liberalism, no doubt). But I’m amazed at the scorn that secular leftist pour on them for this. It seems to me that they are doing what any sensible person would do (and I try to do with my daughters). Popular culture is infused with values that nobody would deliberately teach their children. It just isn’t good to spend your life trying to make lots of money; to use your sexuality for personal gain, to idolize sports stars, celebrities, the rich, or to indulge one’s desires without judgment or self-restraint. Like the evangelical Christians, secular leftists hold contrary values; and like the evangelical Christians they want their children (and all children) to learn a different set of values than those which corporate America has a material interest in spreading. In fact all (or almost all) parents, in fact, resent the efforts of large corporations to manipulate their children into bugging them for more toys, more fast food, more candy, more, more, more.

Many of the new disruptive technologies that IP holders are trying to gut are precisely capable of allowing people to decide which parts of popular culture they want to accept, and which they want to reject. They empower minorities who aren’t in tune with the wider culture (lefties, conservatives) by allowing them to ‘remix’ bits of our culture so as to filter out the parts that they don’t agree with. It’s something that leftists and conservatives should be able to find common ground on – both of them dissent from many aspects of popular culture as it exists today.

If we blue-sky a bit, we could even imagine how technologies of this sort could take much of the heat out of the culture wars – if people are able to retreat from the common culture and create their own private cultural enclaves, they’ll be less inclined to fight wars that they don’t need to fight. Not that there wouldn’t be downsides – and battles over the aspects of culture that continued to be shared. Should atheists be required to recite the Pledge? Should fundamentalist Christians be taught Darwinian theory? Still, I suspect that the dispute would lose much of its bitterness. After all, if Godfrey Hodgson is to be believed, the culture wars were in large part started by secularists trying to crash in on conservative cultural enclaves (by undermining home-schooling) in the first place.

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catfish 01.06.05 at 8:49 pm

Thanks for this post. I just hope that issue-specific alliances between lefties and cultural conservatives are still possible.


nihil obstet 01.06.05 at 9:01 pm

As a practical matter, I’ll join virtually any campaign against IP laws, which increasingly underpin a new feudalism. However, I don’t agree that people will be happy to retreat from the common culture if they can form their own enclave. Gay marriage has absolutely no effect on the heterosexual enclaves, but it was the center of a rightwing storm.

I watch virtually no commercial TV, but it bothers me enormously that those who do are more fearful of crime and more punitive towards lawbreakers — my little cultural enclave does not remove my moral values, which say that criminalizing social problems violates the principles of liberty that government ought to protect.

Providing children with an environment that supports your training of their moral lives is a legitimate effort, but it has become a proxy for a refusal really to talk about public policy on both sides.


nihil obstet 01.06.05 at 9:12 pm

I’ll join virtually any campaign against IP laws, because they’re increasingly the framework of a new feudalism. However, I can’t agree that forming your own enclave will defuse the culture wars. Do you think gay marriage is rampant in heterosexual enclaves? It’s the center of a cultural onslaught from the right.

Although I watch almost no commercial TV, I’m concerned about it because people who do are more afraid of crime and more punitive towards lawbreakers. By my moral values, you shouldn’t criminalize social problems. When a state has as large a prison population as the U.S., you have to question its legitimacy. So I can’t just sit in my enclave and ignore what appears to be successful mass propaganda for an oppressive public policy.

Creating an environment in which your children can form the moral vision that you support is a legitimate aim. However, focusing on the children is frequently a way to refuse to engage in serious discussion on social policy.


nihil obstet 01.06.05 at 9:26 pm

Sorry about the double post. I got an error message saying that the action had not been completed, and after about five minutes, I believed the message, and reconstructed the post.


abb1 01.06.05 at 10:03 pm

…new…technologies…empower minorities who aren’t in tune with the wider culture (lefties, conservatives) by allowing them to ‘remix’ bits of our culture so as to filter out the parts that they don’t agree with.

I don’t think technologies are going to help with this; this is a technocratic pipe-dream.

What you have to do is to teach your children to disagree with the parts you don’t agree with and to consciously filter out these parts. It’s difficult, but I suspect it’s the only way.

Active indoctrination might do the trick — but not isolation.


Russell Arben Fox 01.06.05 at 10:07 pm

Thanks for the link to the LA Times article, Henry; I’m not sure there’s anything new there, but as this is probably the only truly deep fissure in America’s otherwise quite homogenous political landscape, progressives can’t afford to ignore it. Of course, like Catfish, I think that greater (if always selective) interaction between cultural conservatives and the left is important; defending the technological ability to construct a media “counter-culture” to the dominant economic/social mores of contemporary America shouldn’t be the sum total of such interactions, but it is a good place to start them. (As always, Timothy Burke was way ahead of the curve in making a point along these lines; I have my disagreements with Burke about how durable a leftism which embraced a secular baseline that encouraged the formation of cultural conservative enclaves would really be, but either way, this is where the divide in American conservatism is, and progressives ought to put themselves on the right (pun intended) side of it.)


cafl 01.07.05 at 5:09 am

I agree with abb1. As a parent I have always wondered how you create competent, ethical adults bybuilding a wall around children rather than guiding them through exposure to popular culture and teaching them to discriminate good from bad.


Scott Martens 01.07.05 at 9:45 am

Hodgson is half right if he’s making that case that secular evangelism touched off the culture wars in the US. The Christian private school I went to in the early Reagan years very strongly promoted the idea that idea that secularism was evil, active and on its way to banning Christian activity. The kids I went to school with would be, like me, thirty-something with jobs, families and votes, and I don’t doubt many of them believe it. There were elements of truth to it – the forces that had been mustered to fight for civil rights in the 60’s and against Vietnam in the 70’s had not yet dispersed, and they did have pretty active control over the media at the time.

What I’ve always doubted is whether it was ever really about any of the values the present-day right calims to support. I suspected in those days that the real issue was feminism and race, and I think the New Right’s rise is an unexpected result of an unsuccessful effort to turn back racial and gender equality. The arguments for hating black people and keeping women in the home failed – very few young or middle aged Republican voters would really advocate turning the clock back to 1950 on those issues. But blaming the media, the universities and the Democrats – that went over well.

As for alliances… I don’t know. There is room on the religious right for attacking the business community’s agenda; and there is room on the side of the business right for attacking the religious right. I’d just as soon not ally with either of them – it would be better if they could be induced to fight each other instead.


Eric 01.07.05 at 3:25 pm

IP laws are not inherently evil no more than income taxes. It’s what they have become over the years, it’s the lack of balance that has come out of an ever increasing powerbase from the monopolies granted. I support copyright and patents on almost anything, but for a much smaller window of time. I also support the idea that you can use DRM or copyright to protect your works not both. Copyright was meant to promote priofit for a limited time and then we need to be able to access the data in a reasonable manner.

Anyways, seems like people want to cherry pick the social structure they want be exposed to. Seems like revisionist history, if you can’t deal with the movie, why watch it? Why dilute the movie? Many kids will consiously or unconsiously aware of the changes that have been made.

If people really wanted this feature the studios would sell movies that allow it, but why should they allow for another companies to mangle/dub/mix thier movies/show/music and dilute their product for their own personal benifit?


Phil Hunt 01.07.05 at 5:36 pm

I support copyright and patents on almost anything, but for a much smaller window of time.

The problem we have with patents today is precisely that you can patent almost anything.

I also support the idea that you can use DRM or copyright to protect your works not both.

Allow anyone to make/use software that implements DRM, and allow anyone to make/use software that circumvents it, and let the market sort out which solutions win.


Eric 01.07.05 at 7:10 pm

Yes, patneting almost anthing is valid. An author/inventor should be able to protect thier work no matter how obscure it might seem from the outside it was his mental labor that produced it. As our world become more and more data and computer oriented it’s inevetible that products that exist in data and in code will become more and more substantial.

The terms that most copyright/patents are issued are are far too long to facilitate the works/inventions being used by the general public though and need to be reformed. The current periods being as long as they are just encourage hoarding by companies, not exploitation or use.


Eric 01.07.05 at 7:14 pm

Patents are needed to reward mental labor as much as physical labor in the world today. I am opposed only to the length that these monopolies are granted. The are so long as to encorage hoarding more than explotation and use of the IP. Where the term 1/2 or 1/3 of what it was today we would be in a much better place where works are no longer completly forgotten before they open to the public and patents are still within their useful lifespan when they become open to the public.


rob 01.09.05 at 2:46 am

There are two obvious problems with this suggestion: 1) OK, the left and cultural conservatives don’t like mainstream american culture, but they don’t want to replace it with the same thing, which could cause problems when coming to doing anything (I hope); 2) like the business right is going to let you steal the cultural conservatives, and like the cultural conservatives don’t hate the left’s guts and think it’s responsible for the state of contemporary american culture.

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