Twenty years ago, conservative scholars like Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch were complaining about the decline of cultural literacy; today, conservatives are on the other side, egging on anti-intellectualism. Witness the twin posts this week from John Podhoretz and Rod Dreher, who, noting the death of film criticism (a topic I’ve been writing about for the last couple of years as virtually every major newspaper and magazine critic not named Ebert has lost his or her job), gleefully stomp on criticism’s grave. After all, both seem to argue, film criticism is just snooty liberal elitists who care more about “the condition of Finnish cinema” than reaffirming populist taste by championing market-tested big-studio blockbusters. It’s a pretty strange take on the trade, especially since both Podhoretz and Dreher have worked as film critics themselves.
Podhoretz argues that all it takes to review movies is an “interesting sensibility,” not specialized knowledge. This very low standard, of course, opens up the field to anyone who wants to post an opinion at IMDB, but as anyone who’s read the reviews there knows, having an opinion is no guarantee of literacy, well-reasoned argument, expertise, persuasiveness, or even taste. (Then again, getting paid to write criticism is no guarantee of those qualities either, as Podhoretz and Dreher’s own reviews prove.) Podhoretz insists that amateur reviewers, writing out of pure love for film, are more reliable barometers than professional critics writing for a paycheck. If that’s true, I hope he’s writing his reviews for The Weekly Standard for free. At least then, Rupert Murdoch would get what he’s paying for.
The enthusiasm of amateurs aside, no one has a purer love of film than the men and women who watch 300 movies a year, sitting through them all, good and bad, without walking out, and who then have to think about them enough to write something publishable. It’s not about the money, which is why so many laid-off critics have started blogs. It’s about loving the medium so much that you’re willing to sit through all the dreck because you’re optimistic that this time, when the lights go down, you’re going to see something that knocks your socks off, and you’re going to want to champion that film or that filmmaker as loudly as you can from whatever platform you can find. Sometimes that movie is an expensive Hollywood studio creation, and sometimes, it’s an obscure import from (yes, John Podhoretz) Finland. (I will pause now while you go add the works of Aki Kaurismäki to your Netflix queue.)
It’s curious that such avowedly conservative writers as Podhoretz and Dreher would champion the lowering of standards while elevating amateurism. When did conservatives become such cultural relativists? Conservatism used to consider itself a movement of ideas back when William F. Buckley was running the store; now, its idea of an idea man is Newt Gingrich (as if he still had anything new or trenchant to say) or Joe the Plumber. Having argued for decades that the mainstream media were hopelessly biased and therefore to be ignored, the right wing created its own media that were equally biased and unaccountable, sowing doubt and apathy. The Bush administration seemed to actively distrust not just the media but ideas themselves, as well as independent experts, academia, science, and any reality they did not invent themselves. (“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”) Postmodern deconstructionism reigned among the very people who had once excoriated as a leftist plot that way of looking at the world.
This kind of relativistic logic is all over the “debate” on torture. We get to define torture as something other countries do, not the United States, because when we do it, it’s by definition not torture. Not that we did it, but if we did, it was justified because it provided us with valuable information, but even if it didn’t, it was still justified because it was legal. Or rather, it wasn’t legal as the Constitution defines it, but as the administration defines it. Anyway, it’s all in the eye of the observer, which is why it’s more important to investigate Nancy Pelosi for learning about the policy than to investigate the architects of the policy themselves.
If you think too much, this line of reasoning makes your head hurt, which is why folks like Podhoretz and Dreher don’t want you to think, or to do any thinking themselves. Better to be spoon-fed, not to have movies that make you think, or movie criticism that makes you think, or newspapers publishing authors who make you think. The day Ingmar Bergman died, Podhoretz wrote a breathtakingly philistine screed cheering his demise because, to him, Bergman had been the champion of a liberal-elitist world cinema that demanded thought instead of merely offering sensation and propaganda. To Podhoretz, watching Bergman movies was torture. (If only it were so; we could have just screened Persona and Scenes from a Marriage in Guantanamo instead of waterboarding.)
Then again, for some moviegoers, torture is watching sadistic horror like the Saw series or the neuron-destroying fireballs of summer action movies. But there’s no one left to make such distinctions, and besides, doing so (and expecting to get paid for it) is the mark of an America-hating socialist.