A core argument in Madmen is that “intellectuals” play a significant role in political change. They find and adapt and make their own the ideas that they think are most important. Then they promote these ideas to the rest of us. If they are successful, those ideas become widely-held beliefs and eventually take shape in a society’s rules. For this reason, Ed and I argue that the most influential intellectuals in a society are tremendously powerful.
The writers and directors of major movies provide an excellent example. Consider Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the screenwriter and director of Zero Dark Thirty, the story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In the past 48 hours, these two have been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the list goes on.
Almost all of the news stories and editorials and commentaries about this movie bring up the same big question: Did torture produce information that led to bin Laden?
The movie (which has not been released as of this writing) depicts torture. In interviews, Boal and Bigelow seem to indicate that the movie should speak for itself. And so it will, which is precisely our point: The message in movies can speak volumes.
In other words, what people think about many things (including the value of torture in capturing or killing bad guys) is influenced by what they see in the movies, what they see on t.v., what they read in books and magazines and on the web, and more. Zero Dark Thirty will have its influence.
Yesterday’s NY Times article about the movie cites research by Amy Zegart of Stanford University. Her work shows a notable decline over the last five to ten years of the percentage of people who disapprove of certain harsh interrogation techniques (that is, torture). She points to links between changes in public opinion, on the one hand, and changes in what is depicted in popular media, on the other.
Zegart’s essay in the September 2012 issue of Foreign Policy provides more detail and is worth a read. She documents the decline in disapproval for torture under certain circumstances and discusses the link to what is portrayed in the media, then offers the following:
Of course, these results do not prove that spy-themed entertainment is causing anything. It could be that James Bond and Jason Bourne fans are just naturally more hawkish than the average Joe and are drawn to spytainment because of beliefs they already have. But I have my doubts. Entertainment can and has shifted popular culture and attitudes on other subjects. When L.A. Law was a hit television show in the late 1980s, law school applications hit record levels. The Navy still talks about the movie Top Gun as one of its best recruiting tools. More recently, prosecutors have been bemoaning “the CSI effect” — how the popular television show has led jurors to expect fancy forensic evidence in court and to assume the government’s case is weak without it. Before the 9/11 attacks, torture was almost always depicted in television and movies as something that bad guys did. That’s not true anymore. The Bush administration may be over, but Bush-era terrorist torture and assassination policies are growing more popular.
The writers and directors of these movies and t.v. shows have a good deal of influence on how a large number of people view important issues in society. As we define them in Madmen, they are intellectuals. And they play a big role in political change.