By SONNY BUNCH
The role that great thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Alexis de Tocqueville played in the shaping of America's self-conception has been well examined. Yet Paul Cantor notes that scholars have curiously ignored certain equally important questions—like what would the author of "Democracy in America" have thought of "The Day the Earth Stood Still?" "I do not know whether Tocqueville would have enjoyed 1950s flying saucer movies," Mr. Cantor deadpans in his thought-provoking new book. "But it is safe to say that he would have been troubled by their implicit claim that the complexities of the Atomic Age mean that ordinary Americans are now incapable of managing their own lives and must rely instead on the wisdom of government experts."
Mr. Cantor, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, has taken up popular culture before, in "Gilligan Unbound" (2001), a book that used movies and television shows to study how America saw its role as the Cold War raged and globalization kicked into high gear. In "The Invisible Hand in Pop Culture," he analyzes how ideas about economics and political philosophy find their way into everything from "Star Trek" to "Malcolm in the Middle."
The book is organized into thematic sections, each containing chapters dedicated to specific works: In the "Westerns" section, for instance, Mr. Cantor includes John Ford's "The Searchers," David Milch's HBO series "Deadwood," and Gene Roddenberry's television work on "Have Gun, Will Travel" as well as "Star Trek." The author finds Adam Smith's "invisible hand" exerting its influence in "Deadwood," for instance, when a bureaucrat informs the elders of the 1870s frontier gold-mining town of the terms under which claims on property in then-unincorporated Dakota Territories would be recognized by the incoming federal government. "Essentially, if you're on it and improve it, you own it," the functionary says. "This passage is so close to Locke's analysis of property that it sounds as if he deserves a writing credit for 'Deadwood,'" Mr. Cantor argues, declaring it "evidence of Locke's profound influence on the development of American political institutions." To be clear, Mr. Cantor isn't suggesting the 17th-century English philosopher directly influenced the program's creators. "It does not matter whether individual movie directors or television producers have read Locke," the author writes, "if he helped shape the America that they deal with in their works."
The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture
By Paul A. Cantor
(University Press of Kentucky, 488 pages, $35)
In a similar way, Mr. Cantor believes Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" provides as clean a rejection of crony capitalism as exists in entertainment. The film's climax takes place during a Senate hearing at which Howard Hughes battles a senator attempting to help a campaign donor form an airline monopoly. This turns Hollywood stereotypes on their head: The entrepreneur is the hero and regulating busybodies in the pocket of a competitor are the villains. "Revealing what often turns out to be the reality behind big-government benevolence," Mr. Cantor writes, "one company is simply using its influence with the government to gain an unfair advantage over a legitimate competitor."
In general, Mr. Cantor likes pop culture to celebrate economic freedom while criticizing corporatism. One of his favorites: the Comedy Central cartoon "South Park," which has defended Starbucks, Wal-Mart and other megacorporations for providing higher-quality products at lower prices than competitors. The cartoon's aggressive opposition to political correctness in all its forms has garnered it a loyal following and encouraged Comedy Central's corporate parent, Viacom, to take chances on other projects from the show's creators. "'South Park' does not simply defend the free market in its episodes," Mr. Cantor writes, "it is itself living proof of how the markets can work to create something of artistic value and, in the process, benefit producers and consumers alike."
Again and again in "The Invisible Hand in Pop Culture," Mr. Cantor contrasts societal order that manifests itself spontaneously with order decreed by elites from above. You see the author's preference in the very plea that is at the root of this book, that mass-approved pop culture be taken seriously over the objection of tastemakers—as well as in specifics like his distaste for the wandering hero of the television show "Have Gun, Will Travel" (1957-63), who "sets himself up as superior to the community he is helping, imposing his own solution on it and often expressing open contempt for the people who run it."
Toward the end of the book, Mr. Cantor moves away from economic concerns to explore American anxieties about globalization and the post-9/11 world, as portrayed by alien-invasion narratives like ABC's "Invasion." He also dedicates two chapters to examining the work of little-remembered director Edgar G. Ulmer, in an effort to tease out the tension between American pop culture and European elite culture. Consigned to no-budget features like "The Black Cat" (1934) or noirs such as "Strange Illusion" (1945), the Austrian-born Ulmer was relegated to the fringes of the film industry after cuckolding the relative of a studio bigwig. But in the 1950s he was lionized by the French auteur theorists who saw him as "an example of a director who, despite all the obstacles, managed to impose his distinctive vision on a wide range of films."
Mr. Cantor just about convinces you of the importance of men like Ulmer—or at least makes you want to Netflix the director's "Detour" (1945). But the author's castigation of "elites who want to keep the American people in line" and who thus "fear the explosive energy of popular culture" underscores how much has changed since Mr. Cantor first mounted his defense of pop culture in "Gilligan Unbound." We live in a world in which "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is routinely taught in colleges and critical groupthink holds that "television shows are the new novels." The elites, if they haven't quite lost, are certainly on the ropes.
Sonny Bunch is managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.