I consider myself a pretty hardcore cultural conservative, but I’m also a fan of many (not all) Adult Swim shows, and I find this editorial by Brent Bozell annoying on a number of levels.
Some of the shows that Adult Swim produces are pointlessly offensive, but others are among the best on television. Adult Swim has a strong tradition of surrealism which, in the worst instances, is simply puerile, but often produces some of the wittiest and most vital programming available anywhere.
There’s plenty of stuff that I won’t defend, but I resent the collateral attack on such brilliant work as The Venture Bros., The Brak Show, Squidbillies, etc. And it is more than a little ironic that Bozell (whom I admire) attacks after-9pm reruns of American Dad and King of the Hill, both shows that (IIRC) were initially aired on conservative darling Fox *before* 9pm. So, by the standards he applies, Bozell should be attacking Fox and not Adult Swim. That Bozell appears unaware of this speaks to the superficiality of his fact-finding in preparation for this article.
The other show cited, Robot Chicken, is essentially an exercise in upending the nostalgia of Gen-X’ers who grew up in the late ’60′s and early 70′s. The point of jokes like the one described is typically to evoke children’s culture from that era (Star Wars, Rankin-Bass holiday specials, etc.), and then add an absurd (sometimes violent) twist. Whether it’s high art or not is certainly an open question, but Bozell’s description is reductive to the point of being misleading.
In the U.S., we tend to think of animation as a children’s art form, but this is a cultural habit, gleaned from three decades of Saturday morning cartoons, and not an objective statement about the intrinsic properties of animation. It’s instructive to recall that the rightly-venerated Warner Bros. theatrical cartoons were routinely butchered for television broadcast, as their theatrical versions often contained material that is now considered too “adult” for children (or even adults, for that matter, in the case of now-taboo racial humor).
Yes, the culture is being degraded, and yes, much of it is highly objectionable and needs to be condemned. But Bozell misses the mark when he is quick to condemn a cultural phenomenon about which he knows so little. I am highly sympathetic with parents trying to shield their children from junk culture, but are there not to be *any* fora where mature audiences can enjoy works that are not pre-emptively eviscerated for the sake of parents who refuse to expend even minimal effort policing their own televisions? I’m not saying those parents shouldn’t be accommodated–their requirements ought to be a primary consideration. But must they be the *only* consideration?
The programming bloc was not called “Adult Swim” out of irony, but rather to make as clear as humanly possible, to all interested parties and at every opportunity, that it is not appropriate for children. They even abandon Cartoon Network branding during the hours in question, effectively creating a whole separate channel. What more are they supposed to do? The bloc is probably far more popular than its creators ever imagined it would be–but success does not equal malice. Programmers at Adult Swim have acted responsibly.
I am not one of those people who evades the conservative critique of our culture by blithely claiming that parents should exert an unreasonable, superhuman degree of control over their child’s environment. But certainly they must take some measure of responsibility–such as detaching their children from television screens that might as well be flashing “THIS IS FOR ADULTS ONLY! THIS IS FOR ADULTS ONLY!”. The alternative is a popular culture constrained to the sensibilities of a five-year-old.
(As an aside, relying on ratings is lazy. Ratings systems are necessarily subjective and famously flawed. If your kid is watching so much TV that the only clue you have to its content is its rating, then the problem isn’t the rating–the problem is that your kid is watching way too much TV.)
Yes, Adult Swim tends to indulge in superficial potshots at Christians. The channel is part of Turner, based in Atlanta, and many of the creative folks behind the shows come from the suburbs and rural areas of the Deep South. So at least their Jesus and preacher jokes tend to be informed by personal experience rather than the pure secular alienation from traditional sensibilities that emanates from Los Angeles. But, in their defense, they are also one of the very few pop culture outlets (other than South Park) willing to air biting satirizations of Islam. The core sensibility at work is not Hollywood’s boilerplate Marxist progressivism, but a kind of Southern Gothic fatalistic absurdism.
Just as capitalism is “creative destruction,” the cultural artifacts of a society that ennobles freedom of expression will tend towards an anarchic free spirit–and we can intelligently critique this spirit without calling for its destruction. I can easily picture Bozell writing this article–having seen the ratings and demographics, I would guess that he watched Adult Swim just long enough to collect the examples of offensive material necessary to support his thesis. This is the cultural criticism equivalent of “gotcha” journalism. Popular culture (of one kind or another) is central to the lives and self-conceptions of nearly all young people in America, so if we’re going to speak about it, we must cultivate a sincere interest in it, as opposed to summary condemnation that, while expedient to older conservatives, is not–and should not be–appealing to young people who are navigating their way through vast expanses of unfamiliar ideas.
It is difficult to defend conservatism as the champion of liberty in general, when conservatives advocate, in the specific case, the censorship of culture that they have not even fairly attempted to understand (let alone appreciate), merely because it poses a transient logistical challenge to inattentive parents. Bozell uses a hammer where a scalpel is needed–surely we, as a society of literate adults, are capable of discerning between the highly objectionable and the merely adult-themed. More generally, if the advancement of conservatism requires summarily discarding every aspect of American culture that does not comport with bland conventionality, then its claims to champion the uniqueness of the individual appear contrived, and its motives therefore ulterior.
The culture war will not be won with a wave of the hand. It requires tactics, and therefore knowledge of the terrain. We can appeal to the hearts and minds of young people by demonstrating the fearlessness of the conservative intellectual tradition in the face of all possible ideas. On the other hand, get-off-my-lawn tirades only erect barriers in the minds of young people who correctly seek to maintain the freedom of their own intellects from narrow and arbitrary constraints.
For decades statists have been doing their homework vis-a-vis culture, and conservatives have not. That’s not the only reason we’re in the fix we are today, but it is one of them. It’s time for grandpa to up his game.
Afterthought: For many years, technology has existed that gives parents fine, granular control over the TV programming available in their homes. In my observation, parents have generally not bothered to learn enough about this technology to use it, even though the effort is roughly that of programming a VCR clock. How credible is such a person, when claiming overarching concern for the well-being of their own children? They’ve been given the tools, but refuse to use them. Whose fault is that?
Practical suggestions for parents concerned about their children’s TV consumption:
1. Investigate and use parental lock-out technology, which is available in television sets, DVR’s, programming providers like DirecTV and cable, and Internet delivery systems like Netflix, Hulu, and U-Verse.
2. Restrict tv-watching to specific hours, and none after 9pm unless supervised. It is common knowledge that many stations intentionally isolate their more adult programming until after 9pm, so if you’re letting your kids watch TV unsupervised after 9, all bets are off and you only have yourself to blame.
3. Disable/unsubscribe from cable and build a library of on-demand programs (i.e., DVD’s, videotapes etc.). It goes without saying that an essentially limitless amount of high-quality programming is available. If parents divert the monthly $100-200 that American households typically spend on cable to thoughtful DVD purchases, they will have established complete control over the television their children consume, without having to constantly supervise them, and without isolating them culturally (e.g. many modern TV series are available on DVD). If money is an issue, check your local library.