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Bryan Miller Presents:


Miller’s Crossings: The Intersection of Politics and Pop-Culture

Self-awarewolves in Their Youth

“Maybe the mirrors can make us do things we don’t want to do.” — Kiefer Sutherland
Reformed vampire, Jack Bauer, prophet (?)

It’s what you don’t know that makes you so damned unattractive.

Think about it, if you really want to ruin the rest of your day. Chances are you’re not horrifically malformed or saddled with some tragic, unsheddable tic: a rodential squeaking laugh, unpardonably distracting drool issues, that particular odor. But if you’ve ever wondered why people don’t like you so much the first time they meet you or why you didn’t win out after what seemed like a slam-dunk of a job interview, the answer almost certainly lies outside your awareness.

People who tell rambling, irrelevant stories at parties don’t know they’re being boring any more than motorists who putter down the left lane with their turn signals eternally blinking know they’re bad drivers. (I, on the other hand, happen to tell excellent stories and drive with admirable grace and consideration. Right?)

American pop culture, meanwhile, is steeped in, and maybe kind of strangled by, self-awareness. You can almost get away with saying things like “The irony is so thick you could cut it with a dopey metaphor” if the context properly indicates your understanding of just how cutesy and self-aware you’re being. Thanks a lot, Dave Eggers. Even Thomas Pynchon has a headache now.

And yet it was at The Onion’s AV Club, that shining beacon of glib self-awareness and hipster irony, that I came across the following bit in Nathan Rabin’s interview with Simon Pegg. Rabin asks Pegg about his undergraduate thesis — which poses the questions of why anyone even knows about Simon Pegg’s undergraduate thesis, or cares enough to know that they could even know about it? But never mind that for a second. Pegg’s thesis is apparently about Star Wars, or rather it’s a pretty standard culture critique in which Pegg claims that popular movies like Star Wars carry with them certain socio-political messages that can influence a viewer’s opinions and behavior, particularly if that person isn’t aware said ideas are at work in the first place.

As Pegg puts it:


It was mainly saying if you watch a movie that has inherent political messages, even if they're unintentional, and without critically objectifying yourself, you by consent agree with it. So if you have a film which is incredibly misogynistic, and you just watch it and enjoy it, you are a misogynist because you haven't been able to say, "Hey, wait a minute, that's putting forward an idea that women are to be demeaned." So in films like Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark there are certain social metaphors at work. Bomb-fear. A lot of big-weapon fear. Saying stuff like, say, "Big weapons are fine if you're good, and they're not fine if you're bad." … Also some of the sexual things going on, the gender relationships, the racial stuff that goes on, if you don't pick it out and say, "Hang on a sec. Isn't that saying that black people are stupid?" Then you're being racist by watching that movie. You agree with it.

Pegg uses some potentially fuzzy and loaded terms like “misogynist” and “racist,” the wording of which is a little too binary for comfort, yet his point is not only pretty well made but also quite basic and time-tested. (For more on sublimated yearnings and idea implantation through indirect messaging, see, like, the entire history of modern advertising.)

The website’s message board, generally populated by the glib and the reflexive knowier-than-thou types, lit up at anger with Pegg for besmirching their beloved childhood popcorn movies. That struck me as a hilarious example of The Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, or “Unknown Unknowns,” as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it in a rare and articulate moment of honesty. It also struck me as dangerously naïve.

Of course what we watch, read and listen to affects our ideas and behaviors. How could it not in a world where entertainers become politicians, politicians are fashioned as entertainers, commercials further integrate themselves directly into programming, the network news becomes a ratings-game, my lifelong midwesterner mother can recite the weekend box office grosses, presidents and senators campaign on talk shows and sketch comedy hours, movie studios merge with news outlets in the cultural clotting of media conglomeration, etc.?

Perhaps the disconnect is occurring with the definition of “politics.” Politics isn’t a binary term, either. Politics doesn’t just denote the overt advocacy for and implementation of legislative policy. Politics isn’t just the thing you’re participating in when you vote, nor is it a descriptor simply of what Barack Obama is doing when he delivers a stump speech. Because the inverse — call it Apolitics — certainly isn’t what’s going on when Obama is talking to people at a diner or appearing on a daytime talk show. Three of the four candidates running for the executive office this election season are campaigning largely on the basis of personality and that which is allegedly not political. Barack Obama is a charming African-American man with a multi-ethnic backstory who wants nice things like hope and change. John McCain is a war hero who tells it like it is and stands up against his own colleagues. Sarah Palin is an average Jolene from a small town with traditional rural American morality. (Joe Biden gets a pass because he can’t even do a good impression of not being a politician.)

None of the above descriptions of any of these three people are overtly political, and yet it forms the basis of the entire presidential campaign. And where do we shape and show off our conceptions of what it means to be a war hero, a black man, or a woman, if not in popular culture? What the fuck is a hockey mom, anyway, if not a cultural appeal for political gain? If you don’t know you’re being informed by these images, you definitely don’t know how you’re being informed and to what end.

To deny that popular culture at least draws the bounds of the playing field, if not outright moves the players themselves, is the worst kind of head-in-the-sand naysaying. To claim that you’re somehow personally unaffected is to be in a deep state of denial. You can still enjoy Star Wars or The Day After Tomorrow or 24. (Well, maybe not The Day After Tomorrow.) But if you don’t realize what it is that you’re watching and why you’re enjoying it, your tacit agreement, unknowing though it may be, makes it a part of who you are. (Plenty of people subscribe to the High Fidelity theory that you are what you like, but rarely do they want to acknowledge the potentially ugly side of that concept.)

Even the most forgiving media apologist would have to concede that movies, TV, music, books and the other staples of popular culture are, in the most benign estimation, a mirror of life. But of course, the first thing you do after you look in a mirror is alter your appearance.

As Kiefer Sutherland put it in a silly-ass piece of pop culture that needs not be named, “Maybe the mirrors can make us do things we don’t want to do.”


Starting, well, now I guess, in this space I’ll be taking a look at the confluence of politics and popular culture. Both when the agenda is overt, and when it’s sublimated among lots of boobies and ‘splosions. If it’s not obvious enough, I’ll mash meaning into it with semi-appropriate analogies and deceptive metaphors.

Send complaints, kudos, complaints, suggestions, and complaints, as well as inquire for contact info to send review copies of your comic, ‘zine, DVD, CD, etc., to millerscrossings@gmail.com.

Bryan Miller is a former newspaper editor who now works as a writer and comedian in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in The Comics Journal, Left Turn, CityLink, and Nightlife and online at Bookslut, Savant and SeqArt. Read more at www.carbondalerocks.com.

Bryan Miller






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