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Did Art Do That?
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Did Art Do That?

The best of art and pop culture is often not entirely intended.

Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker in "All in the Family." (Picture via Getty Images). Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson in "Parks and Recreation." (Photo by NBC © 2012 NBCUniversal Media)

Dear Reader (even those of you leaving your ride unattended),

So, as Matt Gaetz allegedly said to the lady while removing the lid of a 5-gallon jug of barbecue sauce, we’re going to try something a little different today.

You may have heard of the Netflix series 3 Body Problem, based on the book by the same name (it is not related to the autobiography of the middle child of conjoined triplets by the same name). It’s the new effort by the creators of HBO’s Game of Thrones. I think it’s good, but not necessarily great. But I’m not here to give you a review (though we’re running one tomorrow). And don’t worry, I have no spoilers for you, except for the very first scene. 

It’s 1966 in Mao’s China. (Just in case you didn’t know—because apparently a good number of people don’t these days—Mao’s China was bad). A university professor is being publicly humiliated and beaten for refusing to accept Mao’s teachings and renounce his bourgeois running dog thinking. It ends badly for him. 

The scene is really brilliantly done. It’s one of the best portrayals of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution—not that there have been too many of them—ever filmed by Hollywood. 

In what was not exactly a big surprise, a bunch of people on the right, mostly on Twitter, saw the scene as a cautionary tale about cancel culture. A bunch of people on the left saw the more intended message of the dangers of being anti-science.

Which brings me to this piece by Joel Stein at the Hollywood Reporter that ran under the headline “The ‘3 Body Problem’ Scene That’s Become a Political Lightning Rod.” Its subhead reads:

For conservatives, the opening minutes of the show are a broadside against woke cancel culture. Progressives see it as warning about what happens when science and truth come under attack. Who is right?

Now, I like Stein so I’ll keep my snark in check. But I hated this column. Oh, it was well-written, well-reported, and it even had quotes from my friend Rob Long in it. No, I hate the genre, and this is a pristine example of the genre. Stein writes:

Back in 2020, when Netflix announced their plans to make 3 Body Problem, it wasn’t a Republican darling. Five Republican senators co-wrote a letter to Netflix asking them to reconsider making it, after the novelist Liu, in a New Yorker profile, defended China’s brutal treatment of Uyghurs.

Also making the new conservative interpretation dubious is that it was not intended by the people who made the show, Game of Thrones co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who are very much not conservatives. According to Open Secrets, Benioff has donated very extensively to only Democratic candidates (though not as extensively as his second cousin Marc Benioff). He and Weiss directed Leslie Jones’ 2020 Netflix comedy special; Jones had become a liberal hero after surviving a harassment campaign orchestrated by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Benioff and Weiss even asked Barack Obama to cameo in 3 Body Problem. (He sent a note saying he should save his help for a real alien invasion.) And Benioff explicitly told The Hollywood Reporter, “This isn’t a commentary on cancel culture.”

Oh, well. If the creator said it’s not a commentary on cancel culture, it must not be a commentary on cancel culture. I mean, just because a distinguished professor is humiliated, stripped of his job, and in every conceivable way canceled for refusing to spout the pieties of a new radical ideological orthodoxy pushed by a pincer movement of the state and zealous youth, that’s no excuse for seeing a cautionary tale about cancel culture on the screen. Case closed. 

Now, to be fair to Stein, there’s a smidgen of merit to his case. But an implied word is left out: It wasn’t intended to be a commentary on cancel culture. Okay fine. But that doesn’t make anyone making the inference or association wrong. 

Art: What do it do?

The history of art and literature is full of examples of audiences taking lessons not entirely intended by the creator. Why, this very “news”letter, I’m unreliably told, inspired someone to make a replica of the starting roster of the 1975 Toledo Mud Hens out of Vienna sausages (I think he really captured Willie Hernandez’s personality). 

Gulliver’s Travels was supposed to be a biting satirical commentary on contemporary society and human nature, but audiences mostly think of it as a children’s story.

Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory—the one with all the melting clocks—was interpreted as a brilliant commentary on the then-new Einsteinian concepts of temporal relativity. But when asked, Dali admitted he wasn’t inspired by Einstein or physics at all. Rather, he thought runny camembert cheese looked cool.  

One of my favorite examples is when Stalin allowed the film version of the Grapes of Wrath—retitled The Road to Wrath—to be seen in the Soviet Union because it was a searing indictment of the failures of capitalism. Soviet citizens saw it and were like, “Holy crap! The peasants all have cars and pickup trucks in America? Man, we’re poor.” Stalin quickly yanked it from theaters. 

When The Deer Hunter came out, critics understandably saw it as a bleak commentary. Tevi Troy notes that this was even the president’s view. “While [Jimmy] Carter and many other critics saw the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter as a ‘dark meditation on the ravages of the Vietnam War,’ [Ronald] Reagan saw it as ‘a story of friendship among young men’ that was ‘unashamedly patriotic.’”

But let’s get back to TV. Stein writes, 

Cultural critics have argued that the end of network television has fueled partisanship because we’re demographically siloed into our own algorithmically curated shows. But it turns out that even in the rare instances when we watch the same shows, we’re not seeing the same thing.

Yes, but was ever thus—even when we only had a few channels. 

Norman Lear thought he was skewering right-wingers with All in the Family, but viewers thought the very liberal Meathead was smugly annoying while they saw Archie Bunker was a lovable curmudgeon. Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson started as an ugly caricature of Tea Party-ish libertarians and ended up being hugely popular (and, I would argue, the moral center of the show). I’d make the same argument about Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock. Alex P. Keaton was supposed to be an embarrassing Reaganite; he was vastly more popular than his hippy-dippy parents in Family Ties

Perhaps the most on-point example is HBO’s The Wire, one of the greatest TV shows ever made. Over the years, I’ve gotten an enormous amount of crap for pointing out the rather obvious conservative messages in the show. The creators saw it as a very left-wing, even Marxist, indictment of America. But the show is entirely about the failures of urban liberalism. There isn’t a Republican anywhere to be seen. And if you think the season dedicated to drug legalization is a propagandistic bit of agitprop for the oft-proposed solution to the drug war, you weren’t paying close attention. 

Most of these examples are of liberal creators falling prey to the artistic version of the law of unintended consequences. But that’s because most of those creators are liberal. Still, there are counterexamples. My favorite comes from just a few years ago, when trailers for The Hunt started to appear. The MAGA crowd was outraged. Elites are hunting deplorables! The film’s release was initially canceled because of the controversy. The only problem: The deplorables in the movie were (mostly) the good guys and the hunters were (entirely) woke jerks. 

The other team can be right.

I want to make other points, so let me sum up my problem with Stein’s approach. 

It’s fine to argue, correctly, that the opening scene of 3 Body Problem wasn’t intended to illuminate the issues with cancel culture taken to a radical extreme. But that has no impact on the substance of the point people were making. The Cultural Revolution was cancel culture taken to a radical extreme. If you just allow for the possibility that people of good faith can point this out, regardless of the intent, you might better appreciate the problems with cancel culture. 

One other thing: It’s perfectly fine to argue for the intended point, “science is good!” Science is good. But the same impulse that leads one to mock those who find another meaning in the story can blind you to, well, your own blind spots. 

Let’s stay on science. There’s a long history of people who fetishize science and preen about their enlightened devotion to it screwing things up in ways contrary to science. The problem with the worst Team Science people is that they treat science like it’s a tribal identity or elite clique. From eugenics to elite wagon-circling over Covid and climate change, the people who most fiercely cling to science as a cultural badge (“In this house we believe in science”) often miss the fact that they are enforcers of … wait for it … cancel culture. Devotion to science can become a religion, with all of the pitfalls that religious fanaticism can bring, particularly when you blind yourself to the fact you’re a fanatic

The Galileo story is more complicated than enemies of the Catholic Church would have you believe, but there’s really no disputing the guy was canceled by people trying to enforce a scientific orthodoxy as much as a theological one. Ignaz Semmelweis was canceled for (correctly) promoting germ theory. Heck, Marxism—the fons et origo of Maoism—was a cult of fake science, and Marxist regimes from Stalin’s to Mao’s treated inconvenient science like religious heresy. Indeed (okay, minor spoiler alert), the Maoism depicted in 3 Body Problem was in fact so terrible that one of its victims sided with aliens in their effort to destroy all of humanity! Some might call that a cautionary tale about the mother of all cancellations. 

So by all means celebrate the “real” meaning of that scene or of the 3 Body Problem. But keep in mind that doesn’t make it any less of a cautionary tale for your own “side.”

The new lingua franca.

One way to think about art and pop culture is that they’re a form of language. Star Trek fans will remember the TNG episode titled “Darmok.” Picard encounters an alien captain named Dathon (played by Paul Winfield, the same actor who played Chekov’s captain in Wrath of Khan and had that bug put in his ear). Dathon speaks a language that the Universal Translator cannot decipher. That’s because the alien speaks entirely in metaphors. He keeps saying stuff like “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and “Shaka, when the walls fell.” Eventually Picard realizes the only way to communicate with him is to speak in mutually understood stories. 

That’s what all cultures do. We sometimes miss the richness of this practice because we still use words to refer to these stories. But when we say things like, “this is Corey Feldman’s Waterloo” we’re doing the same thing. 

Taken literally (or if you simply don’t know the meaning) “I’m having a Saul on the road to Damascus moment” makes no sense. It sounds like someone’s Jewish uncle having trouble as he’s heading toward a town in Maryland

For those of you who’ve forgotten your high school English class lessons, idioms are groups of words that cannot be understood simply by defining the individual words because they capture an extra-literal concept. Idiom comes from the Greek idioma, meaning “peculiar phraseology.”

When my daughter was in Spain for her junior year of high school, she got pretty fluent in Spanish, which filled me with that distinctly fatherly mix of pride and envy. One night I asked her to translate a paragraph from a newspaper, and she really struggled to tell me what it meant. I was pretty bummed. But then we figured it out. She knew pretty much all the words, but the passage was full of Spanish idioms she didn’t know. If you don’t speak English, imagine how much trouble you’d get in if you encountered phrases like “cut the mustard,” “beat around the bush,” or “it cost me an arm and a leg.” 

Pop culture is an idiomatic language all its own. Some of the phrases we quote have reached the point of idiomatic status: “Print the legend,” “Rosebud,” “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” But a lot more are, in effect, private or subcultural languages. (I have friends from high school with whom huge swaths of our conversations are a thick bouillabaisse of pop culture references. If you eavesdropped on us, you’d hear “Where? Here, diagonally! Pretty sneaky, sis” “Wampa wampa!” “It’s underwear that’s fun to wear!” “Throat! Throat I should have said throat.” “I fear much trouble in the fuselage, Frederick.” “Lance sure drinks a lot of beer.” “I don’t think it’s particularly cool to use drugs” and “crop rotation in the fourteenth century.” And this leaves out scores of less obscure references from the Gen X cannon like, “You F—ed up, you trusted us,” “What would you say you do here?” or, “It goes to 11” and “We have armadillos in our trousers.”)

I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories. A friend of mine lived in Costa Rica for a while. She loved to go to the movies and read the Spanish subtitles. One night she saw Wayne’s World and when Wayne said, “Sheeya! When pigs fly out of my butt!” the subtitles translated it as “Yes, when judgment day comes.” Something was lost in the translation. 

One of the interesting things about modern internet culture is how much people communicate without words. To quote Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire, “Talking is only a primitive form of communication!” Speaking visually is not exactly new. A lot of the art you see in fancy museums and nearly all of it in the greatest cathedrals was story-telling aimed at a mostly illiterate population (Take it from the writer-producer of the not-very-good documentaries Gargoyles: Guardians of the Gate and Notre Dame: Witness to History.) But thanks to the internet and social media, millions of people communicate with gifs, memes, videos, etc., in visually idiomatic ways. 

Literacy profoundly changed the human mind—and brain! (Figurative-literal pas de deux for the win!) The internet is very young. If you think of it as a vast ocean across time and space—a really clumsy metaphor I am not proud of—we’re barely out of the harbor. I haven’t the slightest idea what a society built around the sovereignty of written words (the Bible, the Constitution, etc.) will become as people think more and more in the form of gifs and TV shows. But given how weird so many people have already become by processing everything through screens, I wouldn’t bet we’ve seen the last of spectacles like the Cultural Revolution. 

Various & Sundry

Cosmos update: So last week, I went to Texas with some friends to see the eclipse. The weather was a bit too cloudy, but it did make things more dramatic. I don’t get why so many people crap on the “hype” about eclipses. I think they’re pretty awesome. And I mean that in the proper sense of the word: filled with awe. Maybe it’s all my trips to Alaska, but I am fascinated by anything that reminds you that we live on a planet. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but for most of us, we become so acclimatized to the normal processes of nature that we think normal is a kind of universal. It’s sort of like that thing in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We have this instinct to freak out when we meet someone from really far away, but because everyone we normally meet doesn’t come from very far away in the cosmic sense, it never activates. But when you meet an actual alien, it’s like “Whoa.” When you go to Alaska in the dead of winter or the height of summer, you find out that normal means different things in different places. And when the moon blots out the sun and turns night to day, the realization “Oh right. This is a planet.” Kind of overtakes you. Anyway, while I was in Texas, I attended a presentation by Karl Gebhardt, the head of the UT Austin astronomy department. It turns out the universe makes like no sense. More on that later, but I thought I’d give you a heads-up. 

Canine update: While I was off eclipse-chasing, the dogs stayed with Kirsten. They had a grand time, and Zoë was such a good girl, extended her protection services to the sorts of dogs that, in her youth, she would have considered fluffy squirrels. Though she does find it exhausting. Speaking of squirrels, the old mostly toothless girl still has it. One day, the aptly named Scout startled a squirrel. It ran to a tree where Zoë grabbed it and did it in. Now I want to be clear, I do not like it when Zoë kills things. And I am very grateful she no longer tries to eat the things she dispatches. But it is her nature and it’s not like squirrels haven’t had a good run in the D.C. area. The next day, she visited the scene of the crime to ensure it wasn’t playing possum. Pippa always makes herself immediately at home at Kirsten’s. Back home, Pippa has reverted to her Diva routine and insists on tribute almost every morning. Zoë still objects. What I don’t understand is why she yells at me and not Pippa. Gracie is fine (and so is Chester). 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.