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Social Conservatism Beyond the Easy Parts

By Matthew Yglesias on August 10, 2009 at 9:57 am

"Social Conservatism Beyond the Easy Parts"

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James Dobson (official photo)

James Dobson (official photo)

Ross Douthat has a great column in today’s times looking at American social conservatism through the lens of Judd Apatow’s movies. All three Apatow films have, as he points out, strains of conservative values running through them. But in The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up conservative choices wind up working out suspiciously well. In the darker Funny People, by contrast, bad choices have unchangeable consequences and doing the right thing proves painful:

Still a virgin in middle age? Not to worry — you’ll find a caring, foxy woman who’s been waiting her whole life for an awkward, idealistic guy like you. Pregnant from a drunken one-night stand? Good news — the oaf who knocked you up will turn out to be a decent guy, and you’ll be able to keep the baby and your career as a rising entertainment-news anchorwoman. Frittering away your life on porn and pot? Fear not — your wasted twenties won’t stop you from being a great dad.

With “Funny People,” though, Apatow is offering a more realistic morality play. This time, doing the right thing has significant costs — but you have to do it anyway. This time, doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences — and you have to live with them. It’s the first Apatow film in which love doesn’t conquer all. And it’s the first Apatow film in which you get punished for your sins.

Ross says this is “probably what American audiences don’t like about” Funny People because the United States is a country that’s “conservative right up until the moment that it costs us.”

I think this explains a lot about the appeal of anti-gay crusades to social conservative leaders. Most of what “traditional values” asks of people is pretty hard. All the infidelity and divorce and premarital sex and bad parenting and whatnot take place because people actually want to do the things traditional values is telling them not to do. And the same goes for most of the rest of the Christian recipe. Acting in a charitable and forgiving manner all the time is hard. Loving your enemies is hard. Turning the other cheek is hard. Homosexuality is totally different. For a small minority of the population, of course, the injunction “don’t have sex with other men!” (or, as the case may be, other women) is painfully difficult to live up to. But for the vast majority of people this is really, really easy to do. Campaigns against gay rights, gay people, and gay sex thus have a lot of the structural elements of other forms of crusading against sexual excess or immorality, but they’re not really asking most people to do anything other than become self-righteous about their pre-existing preferences.

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