Thursday, December 13, 2007

Culture, Politics and that other thing

Culture and politics have an uneasy and complex relationship in human society. At times, culture determines what is politically possible. At other times, politics determines whither the culture goes. I could make a case for its all being incredibly complex, but if we look at an example or two, it should be fairly clear how things work.

Take the Hayes Code which imposed a censorship system over American movies from 1934 to circa 1965. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hollywood culture was leaning strongly in the direction of making movies that were riskier, edgier and, well, sexier than anything had come before. As I showed in my reviews of "Roman Scandals of 1934" and "Sign of the Cross," themes of female nudity, lesbianism, and kink were being explored, subtly by modern standards, but by the standards of the 1930s, in a very direct way.

Some Americans were ready for this -- such films tended to do very well at the box office. It was the culture of the times that made them ready for it -- there were no laws or policies requiring them to like sexier, edgier movies.

Some elements of the American public didn't like these edgier, sexier movies, most notably, the Catholics. The Catholic Church was of course free to ban members from seeing any movies they liked, and they did ban a lot of movies. But they didn't like the fact that the movies existed at all, and the fact that non-Catholics could see them. They felt the movies were having an ill effect on American culture and so they formed the Catholic Legion of Decency, later renamed the Legion of Decency so that Protestant fundamentalists could get in on the er, "fun."

The fun of course lay in forcing those who liked edgy, sexy movies to forego them. The Catholics and the fundamentalists had been decrying the immorality and such they saw in movies for decades, but with no success -- people kept rewarding filmmakers whose works featured near-nudity and sexual themes with money.

It wasn't until the League got with the Protestant fundmentalists and got organized and political that they started having an effect. Congressional leaders responded to their pressure by making noises about instituting some kind of censorship system to keep the immorality in Hollywood in check.

When the Hollywood studio heads figured that they were on the verge of having to submit their films to a government bureau before distributing them, they did the smart thing and instituted their own film censorship board, the Hayes Commission, named after Woody Hayes, a popular bureaucrat selected to head the Commission.

All of this was politics, of course. The League of Decency had gained adherents and developed political clout, political leaders followed through by pressuring the Hollywood studio heads into developing their own censorship body, and the studio heads, whose culture was all about making money, set up such a body to avoid having the clumsy and not-so-profit-oriented hand of a government bureaucracy intruding in their affairs.

Hayes was inclined to regard the post of head of the Hayes Commission as a sinecure, and did little or nothing to institute any effective censorship regimen in Hollywood. The studio heads were quite pleased with this -- their culture was about making money, and Hayes was inclined to let them make whatever kinds of films made money. All was well -- unless you were a True Believer member of the Legion of Decency or similar organization (and there were a lot of similar organizations) and you noticed that movies had only gotten raunchier since the Hayes Commission went into effect.

That changed when Joseph Breen, a "stealth" Catholic (he acknowledged his Catholicism but kept his personal connections to the leadership of the Legion of Decency under wraps) who took over when Hayes retired. Breen brought the hammer down hard, developing the infamous (link to Hays Code here) Hays Code (it could more accurately be called the Breen Code) and enforcing it. For the next three decades, American films would be censored to a degree almost unimaginable in modern times.

This was a purely political effect, it had nothing to do with changes in culture. The people who were happy to shell out money for tickets to films that featured near-nudity, sexiness and general edginess, did not go away, nor did their tastes changes. They were prevented from seeing the movies they would have wanted to see by a bureaucracy created by political pressure. These people just watched other films -- wholesome, often boring films that reflected the sanitized values of the Hays Code.

Thus, American films reflected a very conservative culture for 30 years, and it can reasonably be argued that this was an entirely artificial political effect, because in other media that were not so heavily subject to the yoke of censorship, things definitely got riskier, edgier and sexier.

For example, I've already written about the way comic books went wild with the BDSM imagery during the 1940s under cover of showing just how nasty those Nazis and Japanese Imperial Army types were. And books, the other major media of the time, were the subject of sporadic attempts at censorship, but were basically able to portray stuff that filmmakers couldn't even THINK about. Think, "Tropic of Cancer," "Little Birds," most anything by D.H. Lawrence, John Willie's "Sweet Gwendoline" comic, Irving Klaw's "Movie Star News," and "Playboy" all of which (and much more) developed while movies labored under the heavy hand of the Hays Code.

The Hays Commission ruled, and the Hays Code stayed in effect until the mid-1960s. The cultural enlightenment that began in the late 1950s and burgeoned in the 1960s meant that there was little or no support for the stodgy values of the 1930s that were preserved like fossils in amber by the Hayes Code. Plus, European films, unburdened by the Hayes Code, most especially with respect to the little matters of sex and nudity, and with a sufficiently recovered market that they didn't have to go after American audiences to succeed, were starting to make inroads on American markets with films like "I Am Curious Yellow" and "Sweet Ecstasy."

Well, when the Hollywood power elite saw their lunch being eaten by the Europeans, even though it was a very tiny portion of their lunch, that pretty much doomed the Hays Commission. It was disbanded and replaced by the MPAA, an organization that purportedly didn't seek to censor movies, but to simply provide a guide to the nature of their content so people could decide whether they wanted to see the films (and whether they wanted their kids to see the films).

(Of course, since movie theater chains wouldn't show any films that the MPAA rated X, there was still de facto censorship in place, but the "R" rating under the MPAA became a broad umbrella that included sex and nudity, just no shots of genitals "in action" as it were.)

All these changes are instances of political and organizational forces struggling to keep up with the culture. The Hayes Code froze official morality in the mode of the 1930s, and when the 1960s happened, there was a lot of catching up to do. The production code people and the Hollywood studios were so taken aback by the cultural changes they'd missed out on that they pretty much let directors do whatever they liked, and since the studio system was pretty much dead by the 60s, this ushered in a golden age of filmmaking that has not been equalled since and probably will not be equalled for some time to come, since much of the "gold" was filmmakers' dreams and ideas which had been long suppressed under the Hayes Code regimen.

I think by now you're probably getting the idea about culture vs. politics: generally, culture is the voluntary expression of the hopes, ideas, aspirations, interests and whatnot of people.

Politics is people banding together and imposing their will on other people, generally in a way that doesn't involve bloodshed, which often necessitates compromise (though not always -- the Hays Code, for example, wasn't a compromise of any kind).

Some interesting points: the degree to which cultural beliefs are reflected in politics is very roughly consistent with the degree to which those beliefs are widespread in the culture, but there are some important exceptions.

For example, back in the 1920s there were probably a lot more people who liked edgy, sexy movies than those who disliked them, but the people who didn't like sexy movies were the ones who won out. Why? Because they were ORGANIZED. They had a Legion of Decency and quite a few other organizations aimed at promoting more moral uprightness in their fellow man, especially when it came to nudity and S-E-X in the movies.

They just liked edgy movies. They weren't BOTHERED by the fact that other people didn't like edgy movies. It wasn't a big deal to them. They just liked 'em, they weren't living for the next one or anything. So when the censorship types decided to have themselves a culture war over the immorality in Hollywood, the other side didn't show up on the battlefield, and the censorship types won pretty much by default. (This is a slight exaggeration, of course. There were some writers viewing with alarm the rise of censorship in the 30s. But they never got any traction because most people who liked sexy, edgy movies just didn't care all that much.)

The pro-censorship types also benefitted from having the hierarchical organization of the Catholic Church leading the political drive (by all accounts, it was the Catholic Church leadership that really made the Hays Code happen). They already had a great deal of political clout and they knew how to get a message out to their congregations. (My deeply cynical mind also suspects that even back then certain Catholic preists might have had very good reason to want to keep knowledge of the full range of human perversity out of the public mind -- and that bit in the Hayes Code about not questioning authority -- very nice indeed for a kiddy-diddling preist.)

So politics is people banding together to impose their will on other people without actually invading their lands and putting everything to fire and the sword, and culture is the way people express themselves within a group. The more organized and politically oriented the group is, the more likely it is to be successful.

Culture is the voluntary way people exress themselves within a group -- the unwritten rules that people obey because they think they are right, whether or not the law demands that they obey them. Politics and culture can work together or in tandem to affect how societies work. The political side is generally pretty clear. But the cultural side can generate considerable murkiness. (Most of the perceived murkiness of politics is really culture imposing itself on politics, or working in opposition to it.

Cultural effects on society can be and often are murky and hard to understand because cultural rules are not always explicitly spelled out. In fact, people do not always understand the rules they are operating under.

There's a classic example of this from the early days of feminism in the 60s and 70s. Many men of the counterculture, as it was then called, embraced the concept of free love wholeheartedely, and feminism with it. But female feminists noticed a discrepancy among male counterculture types -- while they were completely down with the whole "free love" concept in the beanbags, when it was time to get organized and do things, it was "You'll be the secretary for our group, Wanda," and "Fetch us some coffee, Doris."

The counterculture guys had embraced the "free love" meme because it led to their getting laid a lot more often and more easily. But many of them had not embraced the whole "women as equals" meme that came with it under the rubric of feminism. The notion that women were best suited to certain roles in any group was still deeply embedded in their minds.

This wasn't intentional hypocrisy in many cases (it surely was in some cases). For many guys, their notions about the roles of women in groups went unrecognized and unexamined.

Even though they consciously embraced the ideas of feminism, the old memes about relations between the sexes, being part of their culture and therefore not explicitly spelled out, remained in their minds. It was a classic case of a deeply embedded meme remaining in someone's mind even though they had adopted beliefs that contradicted the meme. It happens a lot.

Got news for you. It's still happening. The Grand Kahuna of memes still lies buried in the psyches of people on both the right and the left, and they have no idea it's there, or how to deal with it. More on that later.

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