The Artist’s Job in the Age of Trump

Today NBC reported how a religious kind of Netflix–known as Pure Flix–is on the rise among Trumpers. This is a “wholesome” programming alternative that produces–or at least distributes–everything from Bible-story specials to mainstream cinema releases such as The Case for Christ. Pure Flix isn’t new; it’s a decade old, but over the past few years, it’s swelled its subscribers to 125,000 folks.  I have no problem with a network that seeks to provide PG-level programming as an alternative to the HBOs of the world. That sort of channel can even provide a service. But all this so-called wholesomeness becomes far less so when Pure Flix distributes films that claim how intellectualism is synonymous with atheism (as in 2014’s God’s Not Dead), or that Trump is another Lincoln (as in D’Souza’s current Death of a Nation). That sort of shlock heads into FOX territory–which is to say it becomes propaganda.

One could argue, of course, that much of Pure Flix’s programming does not intend to function as news. (D’Souza claims to produce nonfiction, but I’m not sure about God’s Not Dead.) And yet by my lights, the demographic most likely to embrace Pure Flix is the white evangelical. And the white evangelical gives Trump a 75 percent approval rating. And when it comes to Trumpers, the difference between fact and story is both muddy and increasingly negligible. Come to think of it, they are the people of the alternative fact. Or at the very least, they are the ones who dismiss the mainstream media’s critically-vetted facts. All of this is to say that the Pure Flix audience is particularly receptive to the self-serving story (as their FOX allegiance suggests). And this means that the Pure Flix propaganda can become just as influential as FOX itself. In fact, we could make the case that Pure Flix could become even more insidious than FOX, insofar as it presents itself as (particularly!) harmless entertainment while it reinforces the (particularly!) harmful idea that, say, religion (and other disciplines) should not be skeptical.

And that rejection of skepticism has been the point for a very, very long time. “Reject what they tell you,” says the despot. “Listen to me.” With facts increasingly suspect, narrative is nearly all that’s left*. So the narrative programming arrives, with conservative politicians (such as Carson and Cruz) attending its movie premiers and with its production budgets sometimes turning 30-1 profits (excluding marketing expenses). Whether it means to or not, the Pure Flix movement provides the next step in people control. It is the best ratification of that most hateful claim about how religion is the opiate of the masses.

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Pure Flix propaganda provides the rest of us an opportunity. And it goes like this: If Pure Flix’s audience has truly shed the facts, this audience’s subscription to a “wholesome” entertainment channel suggests that the audience is still receptive to narrative. And narrative affords artists a very large opening. We storytellers–we novelists, filmmakers, painters, and photographers–we too operate through chronicle. We startle, we captivate, we give all the feels–and if we’re good enough, we also move. That is, we use empathy to transport our audience from one stance to another.

Right now, we have to tell our stories to those who cling almost exclusively to narrative. We must. And we have to tell them in such ways that are not egregious with the f-bombs, or gratuitous with the sex and the violence. Do we have to keep them PG? No. The truth is seldom PG. But the truth isn’t salacious either. It has so much power that it doesn’t have to be.

If you are an artist, your job is to fight the Trumper propaganda with your work. Your job is to be accurate, efficient, clear, and authentic. And then your job is to publish your work. Put it on shelves, and in galleries, and in blogs, or even on Facebook. Put it out there in such a way that it says what you mean, and not just what’s catchy. Say what’s true. You are one of our last bastions of truth. And in that way you are vital to the cause.

Listen. We are past the point where we can fight for the Trumpers’ minds. We lost that war. Now the battleground is the soul.

* The other remainder is encounter–the homophobe, say, who re-examines his stance after his son comes out of the closet. Narrative artifice strives for the realness of encounter.


My Reaction to The Americans Finale

I just watched the series finale of The Americans. I won’t spoil it. What I will acknowledge is that despite its historical setting, the brutality in the series is apparently fictional–at least in terms of what happens to the spies. In fact, the series creator even trained in real-life intelligence work, until he decided it was just too boring a gig. That said, The Americans does point to the expense, the worry, and the constant calculation that went into managing information for both sides of the Cold War. The anxiety, as we know, was real. Both The Americans and the history it draws from are deeply sad. Even if we make the huge concession of putting the many US/Soviet proxy wars aside, people did die–or they spent their lives in prison, or they lost their careers. And all this is to say that although the espionage side of the conflict might have been more peaceful than what The Americans portrays, the cost of the whole war may be higher than we will ever know. 

The saddest part of The Americans is that regardless of what happens to its principal characters onscreen, you and I know that the Soviet Union falls to disarray. From a western viewpoint, that could be a good thing–but only to an extent. New wars will emerge from the fall. Nuclear material will scatter to mini-despots and highest bidders. And despite how The Americans’ spy story ends in 1987, we have since realized that the espionage still goes on. This, in fact, is the most poignant part of the series finale. It’s not articulated, per se; it’s not a point of plot as much as it is a point of history–or even the present. The peace that all the spies fought for–the reforms from Gorbachev, the demise of a super power–all of that work has since lead either to a failure or a trick. After the rise of Gorbachev, the Soviet Union ended (failure), but the Cold War did not (trick). We did not win. We did not. Instead, as with The Americans’ parting image of a young spy in a safehouse, our adversary just started to wait. Russia is apparently good at waiting. They waited for years. Russia, after all, abided long enough to make 2016 part of the the same damn war. And one of the reasons why its patience has gone so undetected is exactly because the work behind it is not flashy. It is just too boring a gig. In fact, it moves merely through study, and query, and incremental control of what they choose to make into scintillating information.

(Originally posted June 14, 2018)

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Did you guys see this float by from George Takei? According to a Tinder survey–admittedly, it is Tinder–the number one fear women have about a blind date is that she’ll be killed. The number one fear that men have? That the woman will be fat. I remember this from my stint in online dating. I weighed 120 pounds at the time–but if anybody wrote on their profile that they liked a “woman who takes care of herself,” they were out.

(Originally posted April 20, 2018)