It Isn’t Easy Being Read

When word began to circulate that Fox Business Network host Eric Bolling had criticized The Muppets for promoting anti-capitalist values, many people were incredulous. Social media sites were soon awash with the type of satire popularized by The Daily Show. But this dismissive response obscured the fact that he was being mocked for doing what many progressives have advocated for decades: taking popular culture seriously.

The crux of the argument that Bolling and his two conservative guests made about The Muppets is that the film’s plot, in which the fuzzy performers must reunite to save their old theater — the one supposedly featured on The Muppet Show during its 1976-1981 run — from the clutches of greedy oil baron Tex Richman, not only makes capitalism look bad, but also encourages the conviction of Occupy protesters that they have a right to spaces they can’t or won’t pay for.

Watching the segment, it is difficult not to laugh at the spectacle of Fox’s famously busy screen, with multiple windows and a stock ticker on the bottom, being dominated by images of the muppets with the tag line, “Are liberals trying to brainwash your kids against capitalism?” And it’s certainly the case that the conservative personalities that Fox parades in front of the camera invite this ridicule, both because of their laughably obvious partisanship and because they spend so much time mocking their liberal opponents.

Listening to these commentators’ attacks on President Barack Obama, it’s clear that they will say almost anything to provoke the ire of viewers. If a White House whose policy decisions frequently veer to the right of the Reagan Administration can be accused of promoting a radical socialist agenda, then that designation has become as meaningless as the Fox News slogan “fair and balanced.”

Still, it’s important to peer through the smoky haze produced by the bombast of pundits like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter to see if there’s anything of substance underneath. Although their terminology may seem totally surreal, there are times when it can be decoded. To many post-Cold War conservatives, any attempt to increase the government’s regulatory purview qualifies as a push towards socialism. Generally speaking, they see the proper role of the state as defending the haves from the have-nots, both domestically and internationally. From their perspective, property requires protection from those who were not able to acquire it by their own devices.

As repugnant as this attitude may be to the “bleeding heart” liberals that Fox commentators love to excoriate, it’s perfectly consistent with Marx’s analysis of laissez-faire capitalism. Everything that happened from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s to conceal this worldview, the checks and balances of the social welfare state, did not change the fact that the rule of law was meant to protect wealth. Higher taxes and the government programs to which they led were a small price to pay for avoiding the wholesale redistribution of property that communism promised.

The place of the entertainment industry in capitalist societies must be understood against this backdrop. Just because “Robin Hood” narratives are popular doesn’t mean that their creators are trying to undermine the status quo. On the contrary, selling the dream of revolutionary change has often gone hand in hand with selling out the possibility of making that change real.

There’s a reason why stories about radical movements tend to get distributed after those movements have lost their momentum. If mass culture does offer material that seems to promote rather than inhibit the revolutionary cause, it’s usually an accident of timing. The Muppet Movie was in the works long before Occupy Wall Street began. Its gestation, like almost everything that mainstream Hollywood produces, obeyed an internal logic that has precious little to do with world affairs.

For this reason, the critique of the film that Eric Bolling and his guests put forth only makes sense if one abandons a narrow conception of causation. That is, The Muppet Movie cannot be held responsible for inspiring or abetting the social unrest spearheaded by the Occupy movement. Yet it can be regarded as another instance — one made more egregious by the timing of its release — of a long-term problem: the refusal of “liberal” creatives to present capitalism in a positive light.

Does this argument hold any water? As previously suggested, mass culture has long provided us with content that provides an outlet for revolutionary urges, thereby defusing real danger to the powers that be. Many post-Cold War conservatives fail to understand this symbiotic relationship between the entertainment industry and society as a whole. Just because The Muppets offers a furry takedown of a greedy oil baron doesn’t mean that it’s promoting the overthrow of real-world property relations.

That said, the indignation that fans of the Muppets have voiced in response to the Fox attack is somewhat misplaced. Yes, the Muppets were always a money-making venture. And, yes, Disney, their current owner, has traditionally been a staunch defender of the sort of capitalism conservatives want to see championed (a point dramatically illustrated by the notorious anti-union scene in Dumbo). But, however poorly expressed, there is a reason for folks like Eric Bolling to have animosity for Jim Henson’s creations: Sesame Street.

While it would be a stretch to call Sesame Street a “radical” venture, the show’s late-1960s origins are bound up with a political context that post-Cold War conservatives still haven’t come to terms with. Although funded by the Carnegie and Ford Foundations, the Children’s Television Workshop never would have come into existence without the impetus of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” which attempted to solve many of the United States’ most intractable problems by increasing the involvement of the Federal government in social and economic affairs.

In other words, to the extent that the Muppets are still identified with Sesame Street — despite having existed before the show’s creation and despite all that Jim Henson did to maintain their autonomy — they actually are, in some diffuse but meaningful sense, emblematic of the enemy that Fox News always wants to keep in its sights. Because, ultimately, what post-Cold War conservatives want is a world in which capitalism no longer needs to make apologies for itself, where the expensive masquerade of the social welfare state has been dispensed with in favor of a brutal realism very much in line with Karl Marx’s Capital.

To put this another way, the real problem with The Muppet Movie for someone like Bolling is that it hearkens back to an era when it was still necessary to sell the dream of revolutionary change. As far as Fox News and the Republicans running for President in 2012 are concerned, the global economic crisis provides an opportunity to dispense with bread and circuses once and for all. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the culture they rail against proved to be a better defense of capitalism than their insistence that it needs no defense?

Photo of Kermit courtesy of Vineyard Adventures


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