This post was submitted by Casey Given. Casey is on the 2012-2013 SFL Executive Board, and has served as SFL’s blog content manager for the past year. He recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.
If you’re a regular visitor to StudentsForLiberty.org, you’ve probably noticed a pattern in our blog content recently. Over the past few months, SFL’s talented bloggers have taken a likening to interpreting pieces of pop culture from a libertarian perspective. This trend traces back to Clint Townsend’s May 2011 article arguing that the Fox’s misfit musical Glee promotes libertarian values — or, “thick” libertarian values at least. While Clint’s post is interesting in and of itself, it effectively opened a Pandora’s box on our blog, setting precedent for everything and anything under the sun to be interpreted as libertarian.
What unfolded over the next year has made my Blog Content Manager mind cry for sanity, as numerous submissions have flooded my inbox superficially comparing the latest hot topic of pop culture to libertarianism. The trouble started when Christine-Marie Dixon posted two articles arguing that the popular children’s series Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are libertarian. Pretty soon, Dan Carajaval joined in the conversation claiming that HBO’s polygamist program Big Love promotes libertarian values. Finally, the claptrap crescendoed last Thursday when Dan also argued that Disney movies like Mulan and The Lion King are statist.
Don’t get me wrong, I greatly appreciate all of these posts from an outreach standpoint. Our blog’s articles about pop culture have been some of the biggest drivers of traffic to Students For Liberty’s website, with Christine-Marie’s posts alone drawing well over 5,000 hits. Unsurprisingly, pop culture is quite popular. Unfortunately, the truth too often is not.
The problem with these posts is that they conflate libertarianism with anti-authoritarianism. Certainly shows like Glee, Big Love, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games are critical of overbearing authority, but that does necessarily mean that they promote limited government. To the contrary, no political philosophy short of fascism advocates authoritarianism. Nobody — be them liberal, conservative, communist, or libertarian —would defend the bullies on Glee, root for Voldemort in Harry Potter, or cheer on the Capitol in The Hunger Games. This is not because the protagonists of these shows adhere to libertarian principles, but rather because they are protagonists. As the audience, we are naturally inclined to support the good guys because, well, they are good. Politics doesn’t even enter the equation.
Unfortunately, this conflation of limited government with anti-authoritarianism is a common mistake that many people right-of-center make. Lots of liberty lovers, for example, like to point to George Orwell’s magnum opus Nineteen Eighty-Four as a landmark libertarian novel. However, any good student of literature would tell them that Orwell was actually a democratic socialist, once joking in his essay “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party” that he had “managed to make the capitalist class pay [him] several pounds a week for writing books against capitalism.” More recently — and more hilariously — National Review published a list of “[t]he 50 greatest conservative rock songs” in 2006, claiming that leftists like The Beatles and Led Zepplin somehow stood on the right because some of their songs expressed vague displeasure with government power.
Likewise, our beloved bloggers have fallen for the same fallacy six years later by superficially pointing out small commonalities of pop culture with libertarianism To prove how shallow their analogies are, I will reinterpret the two supposedly libertarian shows Glee and Mulan to argue the opposite view of the author — not to claim that he is wrong, but rather to prove that he is cherry picking small elements of a complex plot to fit a libertarian narrative.
Let’s begin with Glee. Regardless of how you stand on the thick versus thin libertarianism debate, it is clear that the show’s plot occasionally portrays limited government in a negative light. Take Season 3 Episode 6 of the series, where Kurt Hummel runs for class president on the platform of banning dodgeball. The supposedly “libertarian” Kurt, whom Clint describes as expressing “the essence of individualism,” wants to suppress other individuals’ right to voluntarily associate with each other in non-violent game. Does this sound very libertarian?
Or, take Season 3 Episode 1 as another example, when Coach Sue Sylvester runs for public office on the platform of cutting funding to the arts in public schools. If anything, Coach Sylvester’s platform is libertarian, attempting to reduce the taxpayer’s burden on services democratically deemed unnecessary. But, unsurprisingly, she is the show’s antagonist, with her limited government principles portrayed as psychopathic.
Moving on to Mulan, Dan certainly has a point that the movie makes no moral qualms about conscription, but that does not necessarily mean that it’s pure statist propaganda. Indeed, if he focused more closely on the plot, he would notice that government officials are portrayed as overconfident and incompetent. Mulan, after all, warns her captain Li Shang about the Hun’s plot to capture the Emperor, but the haughty commander refuses to listen. Thus, Mulan, the woman warrior liberated from the chains of gender norms, is left to save the Emperor’s life in an ass-kicking fashion that would make any libertarian feminist smile. Best of all, after exposing the government’s incompetence, Mulan refuses the Emperor’s honorary offer to be his personal advisor — the ultimate libertarian middle finger to the state if ever there was one!
But, alas, the point of these reinterpretations is not to assert that Glee is un-libertarian or Mulan is libertarian. Instead, it is to say that such subjective judgment is useless since these shows are not meant to be political treatises in the first place. They’re meant to be pure entertainment. Thus, they can be interpreted in a number of arbitrary ways to fit some logical scheme like libertarianism that their authors did not intend, but that does not make such analyses truthful or useful.
Indeed, this whole debacle of evaluating the “libertarian-ness” of pop culture reminds me of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s 1940’s investigations into the relative “Americanness” of Hollywood movies. Our beloved bloggers’ libertarian interpretations of pop culture today seems equally as arbitrary and almost as ridiculous.