Live free and prosper: How pop culture influences our values and worldviews

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

“Any culture is coarse when you’re living in it,” insists University of Virginia professor Paul A. Cantor. “The culture Shakespeare lived in was spectacularly coarse. Bear-bating was the big sport.”

When asked about pop culture’s negative influences, he assures me it’s not merely a modern lament. “[Plato] was very concerned with how playwrights shape the way ordinary people think about things. They teach us what to laugh at. They teach us what to cry at. That shapes who you are as a human being,” he says.

Cantor believes pop culture is almost always vulgar, so the goal of smart media consumers should be to find the “people who work within the coarse culture, but work to elevate it.”

The good news is that his new book, “The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture,” seeks to do just that. It’s about how the most elevated entertainment media can also influence our views on just about everything — including the proper role of government.

Though Cantor normally teaches subjects like Homer, Shakespeare and Dante, during a recent interview, he told me his occasional references to “The Simpsons” and “South Park” help him reach more students.

But don’t be fooled. This isn’t a stocking stuffer for the casual TV fan who wants to “dabble” in philosophy and politics. Instead, this is a deep and substantive dive into (as the subtitle suggests) “Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.”

Cantor doesn’t dumb things down, nor does he rely merely on today’s hit shows. For example, he spends a lot of time discussing how TV Westerns helped shape our national identity.

The common assumption, of course, is that the genre helped reinforce an American ethos of “rugged individualism.” But Cantor argues this notion is simplistic. For example, he says the popular 1950s-60s CBS Western Have Gun, Will Travel, “takes a view that the west was really the wild west — and people really couldn’t govern themselves.”

“[Have Gun] portrays towns that are run by corrupt sheriffs [and] evil businessmen. And Paladin [the hero] is an outsider who tries to come in and straighten everything out. And the sense is that ordinary people can’t run their own lives,” he explains.

The different worldviews presented by various Western writers ultimately go all the way back to Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. “Locke’s thinking about private property is embodied in the whole tradition of Homesteading,” Cantor instructs. “Locke said if you improve a piece of property, it’s yours.”

Interestingly Gene Roddenberry — who went on to create the science fiction series Star Trek — was a writer on Have Gun, and Cantor suggests the shows — though set in different centuries — are thematically similar. Roddenberry held a Kennedyesque worldview, Cantor suggests, and used Western and science fiction tropes as a conceit for addressing contemporary social issues of his own day.

Cantor further argues that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock represent the paradoxical nature of Kennedy-era liberalism.

On one hand, you have Spock, who represents the notion that the “best and brightest” can solve our problems via logic. On the other hand, you have Kirk, a womanizing brawler who inspires his crew through charisma and strong leadership.

It’s fascinating stuff, and perfect for that special sci-fi or political nerd on your Holiday list.

Listen to my full conversation with Paul A. Cantor here.

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