Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pop-culture warriors

The people at the National Park Service haven’t had any trouble lately with the popularity of the National Mall, in Washington. The location, roughly the space between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol, already enjoys a great reputation as an inspiring, nationally symbolic tourist magnet, in a city with no shortage of civic attractions.

Lately, that part of the nation’s capital has become a kind of ground zero for the culture wars. The goofily flamboyant conservative tool Glenn Beck staged his own noisy little tricorn-hat-dog-&-pony show at the Memorial last month, malignly timing his attempt at “Restoring Honor” to America to be at the same site where, 47 years earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. restored honor, and made history, for real.

That was the flashiest recent conservative bid for the kind of pop-culture frisson that tends to take place more often on the other side of the political spectrum. From them, that’s as good as we’re likely to get.

But now, in the home stretch to the midterm elections, progressive cultural luminaries in various high places are making their voices heard — and doing it in a way that indicates unwillingness to wait for President Obama to speak truth to power, eagerness to reach millions of Americans where they live, on the terms those Americans already recognize.

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Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanatta, the multiplatinum singer and radio-friendly unit shifter whom you and everyone you know call Lady Gaga, has lately been using her stage and her lofty celebrity platform to speak out on various hot-button topics, including, on Monday, a refreshingly candid speech calling for repeal of the widely and deservedly reviled sexual preference-reflexive military policy known as don’t ask-don’t tell.

Lady Gaga spoke with fire and conviction at a Monday rally in Portland, Maine, oon behalf of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, just before the critical vote on debate of a bill to repeal DADT. The votes of Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe were thought to hang in the balance.

Gaga said “I’m here because don’t ask don’t tell is wrong. It’s unjust ... and fundamentally it is against all that we stand for as Americans. ...”

“I am here today because I would like to propose a new law, a law that sends home the soldier that has a problem … a law that sends home the homophobe.”

“Should the military be allowed to treat constitutional rights like a cafeteria? ... I’m here today in this park in Maine to say that if the Senate and the president are not going to repeal this don’t ask-don’t tell policy, perhaps they should be more clear with us about who the military is fighting for, who our tax dollars are supporting ...

“Equality is the prime rib of America ... and I don’t get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat that my country has to offer. Shouldn’t everyone deserve the right to wear the same meat dress that I do?”

No “Poker Face” there. Nothing but passion.

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The vote to allow debate on DADT died in the Senate, dealing the cause of gay equality in America more than a glancing blow. “It’s a very disappointing day,” said David Hall, of the servicemembers network, on MSNBC on Tuesday. But it’s not completely hopeless; there are some who hope DADT repeal will find its way into the lame-duck session. And of course, the president has the authority to act unilaterally on DADT, suspending DADT with a stroke of the pen, via executive order.

Two of the culture’s more incisive bigmouths are set to bring critical domestic issues (including DADT) front and center with live appearances on the literal eve of the midterms. Popular culture’s impact on the national debate, its ability to seep into the political discourse, will be obvious again in Washington in the next four weeks.

On Thursday, Jon Stewart, host of the blisteringly astute, entirely necessary “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” declared he’d finally had enough from the Tea Party crowd and its enablers on the crazy-conservative fringe. “You’ve seen their signs: Obama is Hitler, Bush is Hitler,” said Stewart, whose comedic brand invokes a lacerating sense of humor in the service of an inescapable intelligence that rips the bark off various conservative sequoias.

“We have seen these folks, the wild folks, over the years dominate our national conversation on our most important national issues. … Why don’t we hear from the 70- to 80-percenters? Most likely because you have shit to do.”

That night on Comedy Central, Stewart announced his shit to do: a Rally to Restore Sanity to be held Oct. 30 on the Mall in Washington. Stewart’s purpose? “To send a message that says, ‘we are here, we’re only here until six because we have a sitter.’ A clarion call to rationality!”

“Think of our event as Woodstock, but with the nudity and drugs replaced by respectful disagreement; the Million Man March, only a lot smaller, and a bit less of a sausage fest; or the Gathering of the Juggalos, but instead of throwing our feces at Tila Tequila, we'll be actively *not* throwing our feces at Tila Tequila. Join us in the shadow of the Washington Monument.” Stewart says on his Web site.

Not to be outdone, Stephen Colbert, host of “The Colbert Report” and a progressive firebrand in conservatives’ clothing, countered with plans for a March to Keep Fear Alive, set for the same date and location as Stewart’s deal.

Colbert explained it on his Web site: “America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear -- that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty. But now, there are dark, optimistic forces trying to take away our Fear -- forces with salt and pepper hair and way more Emmys than they need. They want to replace our Fear with reason. But never forget – ‘Reason’ is just one letter away from ‘treason.’

Coincidence? Reasonable people would say it is, but America can't afford to take that chance.”

Colbert thus big-revealed his own countermarch, intended “to fight Jon Stewart’s creeping reasonableness, to restore truthiness” to the national discourse. It’s on.

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The student of pop culture and politics will note how Stewart and Colbert’s dueling events are being brilliantly crafted as microcosmic sendups of the very intransigence and ad hominem attacks being waged in the real and wider world of American politics. They'll symbolize the conflict the country’s going through.

A HuffPost reader commented: “Stewart and Colbert are on to something big. This is exactly the kind of thing that our country needs. Something apolitcal, not a gathering of complainers. But a statement none-the-less. A coming together of our better angels. Let calmer heads prevail. Love and laughter and logic. We can win our country's ‘soul’ back again.”

That’s the value of popular culture in the current superheated political context: its subversive ability to distill, to call the question with a smirk and a song, to say in a five-minute sketch what Obama’s speechwriters can’t seem to nail down in half an hour, to say with humor what the politicians won't say at all.

Pop culture’s role in the runup to the midterms shouldn’t be taken lightly. In a country where more of us would rather watch Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin than watch Sarah Palin impersonating herself, entertainment matters. Culture counts. It’s got a seat at the table. Between now and Election Day, we may find out how close to the head of that table the seat really is.

Image credits: Jon Stewart: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert: The Colbert Report. © 2010 Comedy Central.

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