This book analyzes the varied ways in which American films and television shows grapple with the problem of freedom. Popular culture often champions freedom as the fundamentally American way of life, and celebrates the independence and self-reliance of ordinary Americans. But film and television have also explored the tension between freedom and other American values, such as order and political stability. What looks from one angle like a healthy, productive, and creative freedom, may look from another like chaos, anarchy, and a source of destructive conflict.
Some Westerns, for example, portray a frontier world in which self-interest, greed, prejudice, and sheer orneriness provoke so much violence that an outside force becomes necessary to impose order on the community. By contrast, other Westerns, while recognizing the potential for dangerous disorder in a lawless world, nevertheless portray ways in which the frontier community, in a process akin to Adam Smith's "invisible hand," can spontaneously evolve forms of order and learn to govern itself.
This contrast between top-down and bottom-up models of order also plays out in disaster narratives in American film and television. In the flying saucer films of the 1950s, ordinary Americans are portrayed as helpless in their panic in the face of alien invaders, while scientific and military elites are shown as necessary to save the day. In Tim Burton's anarchic parody of these films, Mars Attacks!, he reverses the ideological polarities, presenting the Washington DC elite as incompetent and self-serving, while showing ordinary people from the American heartland banding together on their own to repel the Martian invasion.
The book further explores this conflict between political elites and ordinary Americans in a concluding section on reactions to 9/11 in American film and television. Dealing with TV shows as recent as spring and summer 2011, the book finds a new anxiety emerging in contemporary alien invasion narratives-a fear of a global technocracy that seeks to destroy the nuclear family, religious faith, and other traditional bulwarks against the Leviathan State.
In analyzing the conflict between liberty and authority in American pop culture, the book draws on the classical liberal tradition, as represented by such authors as Locke, Adam Smith, and Tocqueville, and also on modern inheritors of this tradition, such as the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The book contrasts the classical liberal vision of America, particularly its emphasis on the virtues of spontaneous order, with the Marxist understanding of America and its pop culture, especially as represented by the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer and Adorno). Marxists view American film and television as products of a culture industry, which forces would-be artistic talent to operate within the strict confines of generic formulas and other commercial constraints that limit and ultimately annihilate any creative freedom. By contrast, this book argues that American pop culture does not just celebrate freedom; it is itself a manifestation of how well freedom has worked in America. For all the concessions that artists in film and television must make to the Hollywood system, the great creative talents, such as Ford, Scorsese, Burton, Milch, and Carter, have proven that genuine aesthetic achievement is possible within commercial modes of production.