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Harold Ramis and the delusion of liberal anti-authoritarianism

A long Thomas Frank piece at Salon presents a complicated argument that the “subversive” films written or co-written by the late, great Harold Ramis – “Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters” – backfired politically by giving cultural ammunition to the Reagan revolution and Wall Street, or else maybe Ramis was even more subversive than his left-leaning fans thought he was.  

Frank makes some interesting observations along the way, including a hypothesis that the out-of-control frat-boy heroes of “Animal House” arguably went on to become the Masters of the Universe leading up to the 2008 financial crisis – “Drink, take, and lie: translate it into Latin and it could be the motto of the One Percent.”  He notes that the snobs of “Caddyshack” are basically the old-money RINOs that free-market conservatives oppose. 

And, of course, there’s the snotty pencil-pushing EPA bureaucrat who serves as the human villain of “Ghostbusters,” and arguably does even more damage than the ancient Babylonian god who ends up attacking New York in the form of a giant marshmallow man.  “The righteous, rule-breaking slobs are small businessmen – ghost-hunting businessmen, that is, who have launched themselves deliriously into the world of entrepreneurship,” says Frank, before reminding us that Reagan and his advisers loved the movie, along with most of America.  (Really, if you’re just going by fond memories of “Ghostbusters,” render an honor to the genius of Harold Ramis by treating yourself to a fresh viewing tonight.  Every single moment of that movie is magic.)

Alas, Frank doesn’t mention another aspect of “Ghostbusters” that would have served his thesis well: the exchange where Dan Aykroyd remarks that going from comfy college tenure to the private sector would be hell, because “those people expect results.”  That line gets funnier with every passing year.

But where this essay really runs into trouble is when Frank tries to mix his interesting observations into a unified-field theory of rudeness – the essential ingredient of Ramis’ comedy – and liberation.  For one thing, he keeps talking about liberal anti-authoritarians as if there were any.  Message to Mr. Frank: not for decades now, my friend.  The modern Left is all about rigid, unthinking conformity and obedience.  Today’s liberals aren’t even big on respecting the free speech rights of dissenters, let alone the meaningful defiance of official edicts.  They worship at the altar of authority, and really they always have.  They only pretended to venerate uncontrollable free thinkers and iconoclasts when they weren’t in power.  Barack Obama’s EPA wouldn’t have sent just one guy to shut down the Ghostbusters.

Then there’s this bit of concluding confusion about the meaning of “liberation”:

The kind of liberation the rude gesture brings has turned out to be not that liberating after all, but along the way it has crowded out previous ideas of what liberation meant–ideas that had to with equality, with work, with ownership. And still our love of simple, unadorned defiance expands. It is everywhere today. Everyone believes that they’re standing up against unjust authority of some imaginary kind or another–even those whose ultimate aim is obviously to establish an unjust authority of their own. Their terms for it are slightly different than the ones in “Animal House”–they talk about the liberal elite, the statists, the social engineers, the “ruling class.” 

But they’re all acting out the same old script. The Tea Party movement believes it’s resisting the arrogant liberal know-it-alls. So did Andrew Breitbart, in his brief career as a dealer in pranks and contumely. So do the people who proposed that abominable gay marriage discrimination law in Arizona. Hell, so do the pitiful billionaires of Wall Street–even they think they’re standing bravely for Ayn Rand’s downtrodden job creators.

Anyone who still doubts that the Tea Party is resisting arrogant liberal know-it-alls is probably one of the people they’re resisting.  And I can’t help noticing the “people who proposed that abominable gay marriage discrimination law in Arizona” – which I doubt Mr. Frank could accurately describe on a dare, since for starters it wasn’t a “gay marriage discrimination law” – got stomped good and hard by a very powerful, nearly monolithic fusion of cultural and political authority.  They also weren’t making an “Animal House” rude gesture of “simple, unadorned defiance” for the hell of it – but then, the point of the whole gay-marriage saga is to trivialize the concerns of dissenters, denying that they have any valid objections from sincere religious conscience.

It’s easy to dismiss defiance you personally disagree with as silly, isn’t it?  That’s why we always get into trouble when a powerful elite gets to decide which objections to its dictates are worthy of respect.  Unsurprisingly, the answer tends toward “none of them.”  Liberation is all about equality of opportunity, but it’s fundamentally incompatible with enforced, State-mandated equality of outcome.  As for work and ownership as elements of liberation, well, which American political philosophy spends much of its energy denigrating work and ownership?  Which one has lately been touting unemployment as the pure distillation of freedom, and advancing “you didn’t build that” arguments that nobody except the government fully owns anything?

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