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Homer Simpson Goes to Washington

Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics through Popular Culture

Edited by Joseph J. Foy
With a Foreword by Stanley K. Schultz
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 282
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  • Book Info
    Homer Simpson Goes to Washington
    Book Description:

    The modern landscape of American entertainment is filled with commentary on the state of the union. Many people now get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report instead of Fox or CNN, and satirical political films such as Bulworth and Wag the Dog resonate with audiences and reviewers alike. The cartoon sitcom The Simpsons has used American politics to shape its plotlines since its debut in 1989, and many Americans view the current war on terror through the eyes of Jack Bauer, the fictional hero of the controversial action show 24. Politics has always influenced entertainment, and Americans increasingly use popular culture to make sense of the U.S. political system and current debates. There is, however, another facet to the relationship between politics and popular culture: education. Exposure to political ideas through television, film, and music generates interest and increases knowledge among viewers and listeners. The presentation of political ideas in popular media often begins a dialogue through which citizens develop opinions about and interest in political ideas. The resulting discussions of politics and civic life have a significant value as a means to educate Americans about their government. In Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics through Popular Culture, Joseph J. Foy and other contributing scholars offer a variety of perspectives on politics through the framework of popular culture. From the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the cutting-edge television program Chappelle's Show, the authors use a wide spectrum of entertainment media to explain the complexities of U.S. politics and how audiences engage them. The authors not only explain fundamental concepts such as civil rights, democracy, and ethics but also examine common assumptions about government and explore the use of controversial ideas in entertainment. Jennifer J. Hora uses The West Wing to introduce the heroic-president model of executive leadership, and Dean A. Kowalski presents V for Vendetta as a vehicle for understanding American political thought. Other essays test the impact of entertainment news on political knowledge and investigate the presentation of broadcast news in film to determine how well the media serves the people. The book also looks at folk music's ability to popularize protest and offers an insightful commentary on social movements in U.S. history. Popular culture and politics have never been so intertwined in the American consciousness as they are today, with films, television shows, and songs contributing to the debate over the promises versus the realities of democracy. As political knowledge becomes increasingly valuable, Homer Simpson Goes to Washington explains how popular culture can actually help connect people to their government.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7311-5
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Stanley K. Schultz

    Let’s not begin by debating the relevance of various popular culture materials to our understanding of theory and practices in the supposedly democratic arena of American politics. Let’s also refuse to dicker over the merits of “high culture” (enduring classics in art, architecture, literature, poetry, and music in both Western and non-Western traditions) versus “low culture” (the entertainment mediums of the masses, both past and present). Let’s not become proverbial dogs chasing our own tails with “logic” such as:Shakespeare and opera were entertainment vehicles for the common folks until they became, in more modern times, the cultural preserves of...

  4. Introduction. American Idle: Politics and Popular Culture
    (pp. 1-6)
    Joseph J. Foy

    In 2005, George Clooney received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of CIA agent Bob Barnes in the political thrillerSyriana. No less controversial than the film were Clooney’s remarks upon receiving the Oscar: “We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while. I think it’s probably a good thing. We’re the ones who [talked] about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects.” Clooney was chastised and mocked by people ranging...

  5. Part 1. Setting the Stage:: American Political Thought, Beliefs, and Culture

    • 1 Aye on Springfield: Reasons to Vote “Yes” on Popular Culture
      (pp. 9-18)
      Greg Ahrenhoerster

      Late in Walker Percy’s novelThe Moviegoer,Binx Bolling’s Aunt Emily chastises Binx about his apathetic attitude and selfish behavior. In their conversation Emily reveals that she had higher hopes for Binx’s character, assuming he would have the grace, class, and noblesse oblige of the southern aristocracy that she believed in so strongly and worked so hard to instill in him. Emily concludes her lecture with an interesting question: “What has been going on in your mind during all the years when we listened to music together, read theCrito,and spoke together … of goodness and truth and beauty...

    • 2 R for Revolution: Hobbes and Locke on Social Contracts and Scarlet Carsons
      (pp. 19-40)
      Dean A. Kowalski

      The Wachowski brothers are remarkable filmmakers. After their cultish breakthrough film,Bound(1996), they wowed us with the seminalMatrixmovies. All three films are artful, stylish, and provocative. But the awesome special effects ofThe Matrix(1999) and its sequels make it easy to overlook the Wachowskis’ prowess as screenwriters and indeed fledgling philosophers. Each of theMatrixfilms skillfully conveys different philosophical themes: skepticism, free will, and existentialism, respectively. As screenwriters forV for Vendetta(2005), the Wachowskis set their sights on political philosophy. The goal of this essay is to explain how the Wachowski adaptation of the...

    • 3 Political Culture and Public Opinion: The American Dream on Springfield’s Evergreen Terrace
      (pp. 41-60)
      J. Michael Bitzer

      When a little girl’s father finishes a free sample ofReading Digest,she notices an essay contest: “Children under 12. Three hundred words, fiercely pro-American. Sounds interesting.” When she can’t find her muse for the essay, the little girl rides to the local national forest for inspiration. Sitting amid the towering trees that allow rays of sunlight to beam down, the little girl solicits the landscape: “Okay, America, inspire me.” As she gazes out to the snow-capped purple mountain majesties, a bald eagle lands on a tree branch in front of her (notably between leaves that look akin to an...

  6. Part 2. Cast and Crew:: Actors and Institutions in American Government and Politics

    • 4 Congress, Corruption, and Political Culture: Mr. Bulworth Goes to Washington
      (pp. 63-80)
      John Grummel

      Although frequently portraying the executive branch of the government, Hollywood has paid scant attention to the legislative. However, one of the most famous films regarding American politics,Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,concerns the U.S. Congress. Jefferson Smith, the main character inMr. Smith Goes to Washington,is the embodiment of American values and ideals. He comes to the U.S. Senate as a replacement appointment for a senator that died in office. He is expected to do nothing while he is there, he “can’t ask any questions or talk out of turn,” but Smith becomes somewhat disillusioned by the influence...

    • 5 The President as Hero: Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Bartlet
      (pp. 81-96)
      Jennifer J. Hora

      At the heart of the NBC seriesThe West Wing(1999–2006) was Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a president portrayed as all things to all people. The series romanticizes the politics of the presidency and the executive branch and in particular creates a “president-as-hero” image for its viewers. Government actors and political scientists applaud the attention this award-winning series drew to national politics, but is President Bartlet’s leadership and the executive branch politics portrayed in the series a realistic depiction of the presidency?

      This essay examines the portrayal of executive politics, leadership, and the president-as-hero image inThe West...

    • 6 Seeking Justice in America’s Two-Tiered Legal System: “I Plead the Fif”
      (pp. 97-116)
      Kristi Nelson Foy and Joseph J. Foy

      Based on the principle of the rule of law, the judiciary was designed arguably to be the most dispassionate, equalizing branch of American government. Indeed, the judicial branch of American government is premised on the ideas that “all men are created equal,” that there is “justice for all,” and that “justice is blind.” Undoubtedly, these are essential principles, and they provide support for the foundation of the American legal system. Yet today, over two hundred years from America’s founding, these principles are aspirations, not actualized goals. While all people may be created equally, they are not currently treated as such...

    • 7 Madisonian Pluralism and Interest Group Politics: Inhaling Democracy, Choking on Elitism
      (pp. 117-132)
      Joseph J. Foy

      In 1994, Christopher Buckley wrote the national best sellerThank You for Smokingin an attempt to satirize what he described as an overly zealous attack on the tobacco industry (and those who support it) in the “neo-puritanical 1990s.” Central in this inquest were not only nonprofit health agencies, but also government officials who were using the tobacco issue to further their own quest for political support and power. In 2006, the novel was adapted into a film directed by Jason Reitman, which, although differing significantly from the book, kept intact the central libertarian themes of Buckley’s novel.¹

      Thank You...

    • 8 Entertainment Media and Political Knowledge: Do People Get Any Truth out of Truthiness?
      (pp. 133-150)
      Christopher A. Cooper and Mandi Bates Bailey

      When asked about the impact of the entertainment media in shaping America’s perception of the president, Jon Stewart (ofThe Daily Show with Jon Stewart) seemed skeptical. “In terms of what I do? On a scale of zero to 10, I’d go with a zero, not very important. I don’t know how else to put it.” Stephen Colbert (host ofThe Colbert Report) expressed similar sentiments, claiming, “I’m not a political person, and I certainly don’t have the answers.” Despite Colbert’s confession of being apolitical and Stewart’s assertion of unimportance, most observers of media and politics believe that entertainment programs...

    • 9 Broadcast News and the Movies: Wagging Somebody’s Dog
      (pp. 151-168)
      Dick Flannery

      As America’s adventure in Iraq stalled, and the country faced another third world quagmire with lengthening casualty lists, nightly pictures began appearing on TV of mayhem, explosions, and stretcher-bearers. A familiar climate of hand-wringing, recrimination, and blame began to be felt, and a small film appeared that struck a chord among some moviegoers.Good Night, and Good Luckis an off-beat, black-and-white retelling of the fifty-year-old confrontation between the odious Senator Joseph McCarthy and the paradigmatic broadcaster Ed Murrow, featuring a dead-on portrayal of Murrow by David Straithairn, and George Clooney as Murrow’s “Sancho Panza,” Fred Friendly. There is Murrow...

  7. Part 3. Lights, Camera, Politics:: Contemporary Issues in American Government

    • 10 Torture, Terrorism, and 24: What Would Jack Bauer Do?
      (pp. 171-184)
      Timothy Dunn

      In June 2006, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, hosted a two-hour symposium on fighting terrorism. After opening remarks from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the symposium turned to a more jocular panel discussion, moderated by talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. Members of the panel included experts on terrorism and homeland security policy as well as producers and cast members of the popular counterterrorism drama24. During the discussion, panelists were asked to comment on24’s frequent, sometimes graphic depiction and apparent endorsement of torture, for which the show has often been criticized. In defense of the series, the...

    • 11 Civil Liberties v. Law and Order: Exploring Responses to Terrorism in The Siege
      (pp. 185-198)
      Nathan Zook

      Dramatically portraying incidents of terrorism by extremist Muslims in New York City followed by the profiling of Arabs and the sacrificing of basic civil liberties in order to achieve law and order,The Siegemay seem to provide an interesting historical account of post-9/11 America. However, it was released in 1998 and largely reviewed as a cynical “can’t happen here” type of film. Nevertheless, it is an effective medium for understanding counterterrorism programs in post-9/11 America. It also vividly illustrates numerous conceptual themes in American politics, including origins and causes of terrorism, prevention of terrorism, and responses to acts of...

    • 12 Influencing American Foreign Policy through Popular Music: All the World’s a Stage
      (pp. 199-216)
      Brett S. Sharp

      The American public has historically paid little attention to foreign affairs. Occasionally, events like Pearl Harbor or the September 11 terrorist attacks shock the public into engaging international events directly as important issues. Even then, the willingness of Americans to devote full attention to the global arena is remarkably short-lived. In America, much of what goes on in the world competes with domestic news for attention. Interest groups and political activists who wish to gain mileage with American public opinion must resort to a variety of methods. Among these strategies is to communicate information or provide a new perspective through...

    • 13 Twentieth-Century American Folk Music and the Popularization of Protest: Three Chords and the Truth
      (pp. 217-232)
      Craig W. Hurst

      In addition to entertainment and aesthetic edification and enlightenment, one of the many functions music serves is to unify people. Communally performed or experienced music provides people a sense of belonging, solidarity, and common ground with others. Music also may support common citizenship, membership in an organization or movement, or ownership and support of a belief or ideology. Examples would include the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” at various public gatherings in the United States, the singing of a school alma mater at a graduation, homecoming, or reunion, or the singing of hymns in a church service. Music has...

    • 14 Reevaluating Democracy in America: Profound Disappointment, Profound Hope
      (pp. 233-250)
      Margaret Hankenson

      Alexander Payne is considered by many critics to be a defining force in contemporary American film, due in large part to his ability to “def[y] Hollywood by making character-driven films that are sharply observed satires on modern America.” As a director and screenwriter, Payne has created four feature-length films, exploring a broad range of topics, from the bitingly satirical look at the absurdly comical and hypocritical battles between prolife/pro-choice activists to save the once-again pregnant fume-head Ruth Stoops inCitizen Ruth(1996) to the hilarious and poignant examination of friendship, love, and wine in the Oscar-nominatedSideways(2004). What sets...

  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 251-254)
  9. Index
    (pp. 255-268)