Our question for today: Is Hollywood America?
And by Hollywood, no, I don't mean the city in South Florida. Or, for that matter, the cities in South Carolina and Alabama. Rather, I mean that other one in California, and all that it represents.
Once, during a post-speech question-and-answer session, I got into a debate with a woman who insisted Hollywood is "not America." I pointed out that Hollywood is in Los Angeles and Los Angeles is in California and California is in the USA. She wasn't buying it.
That's because she was, of course, not talking about Hollywood the place, but Hollywood the taste maker, Hollywood the cultural force, Hollywood the state of mind.
It is a familiar complaint. Indeed, it gets trotted out regularly by GOP presidential contenders. Bob Dole ran against Hollywood in 1995. A few months ago, The Boston Globe reported that Mitt Romney's campaign intends to position him as an opponent of "Hollywood values."
Hollywood, the consensus seems to be, is antithetical to the things we cherish as decent Americans. Hollywood, bad.
In other news, "Spider-Man" made $373 million last weekend.
Indeed, "Spider-Man 3," the latest installment in the movie series about a kid from Queens whose life becomes more interesting after he is bitten by a genetically altered spider, set a record for the best opening weekend of all time. With a second weekend now under its belt, the money pile grows.
And you wonder: If Hollywood doesn't represent American values, how did the money pile get so big? Not that I don't understand why people - and politicians - love to hate Hollywood: the bed-hopping, the soullessness, the smug self-satisfaction, the anti-religiosity, the material excess ... I could go on and on, but I've got limited space here.
And I need to save some of it to argue that for all the valid reasons people have for scorning the fantasy factory, it is a tad too precious, pious and hypocritical to suggest that it is somehow "not America." Like it or not, it is. You do not sell $373 million worth of anything in just three days unless you have a pretty good idea who your customers are and what they want.
I mean, was "Spider-Man" a hit only on the sin-filled left and right coasts? Were there no ticket sales in heartland cities like Tulsa, Indianapolis, Columbus, Kansas City? Of course there were. For that matter, there were sales in Tokyo, Seoul, Rome, Mexico City, New Delhi and Sony only knows how many other places where American pop culture is a ubiquitous calling card for American ideals.
None of which is to defend Hollywood - or attack it. Rather, my point is, you kid yourself if you truly regard its values as some alien belief system foisted upon righteous, defenseless Americans. "Hollywood" is an easy shorthand for culture warriors courting votes and an obvious target for middle Americans who feel the world has changed in frightening and unwelcome ways.
But Hollywood is also a business driven, like any business, by market forces. In America we vote with our money. And for all the talk about Hollywood as a bastion of liberalism, the truth is this business - again, like any other - is conservative. People are generally conservative when it comes to their money.
That's what the cultural crusaders never get. Whether Hollywood is pushing the boundaries of acceptability ("Brokeback Mountain") or rolling down the middle of the mainstream ("Spider-Man 3"), it all grows out of the same calculation: The investment will produce a return. So to claim that the values of some mythic America are betrayed by Hollywood is to delude yourself.
You think Hollywood is not America?
The market says otherwise.