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Politics is not downstream from culture

Public policy can and does exert a powerful influence over the cultural sphere

Researchers work at the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C., in May 1943. Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Ann Rosener

Politics is not downstream from culture
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On the list of “Things People Say That Just Aren’t So,” the phrase “politics is downstream from culture” deserves space at the top of the list. Whatever nugget of truth it may hold, it’s a hackneyed saying that does real harm by minimizing the role that politics and policy play in society and providing an excuse to shrug off the responsibilities of citizenship. Politics is not “downstream.” Politics—and the policy that results from it—is at the headwaters of the various streams that collectively become our culture. Politics and policy shape our culture at its most basic level.

I recently learned that in Canada, a law known popularly as “CanCon” requires that a specific percentage of radio and television broadcasts must be content that was written, produced, or otherwise created by Canadians. As a result, there exists a cultural world north of the border full of television stars and rock “stars” that most Americans have never heard of.

Consider Big Shiny Tunes 2, a Canadian compilation of the year’s biggest radio hits akin to the Now That’s What I Call Music recordings that used to be released every year. In 1997, the album included hits like Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” and Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” that everyone knows. It also featured a band called Wide Mouth Mason and someone named Holly McNarland, artists the average Canadian might recognize, but few outside the provinces. Through policy, the law created the conditions in which artists and their music were able to be heard and become permanent fixtures of Canadian culture.

Similar policies were once a feature of cultural production in the United States.

In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration began working with studio executives in Hollywood. Roosevelt established the Office of War Information (OWI) to provide reliable information to the public about the war and build domestic support for the war effort. The OWI included a Bureau of Motion Pictures that promulgated a “Manual for the Motion-Picture Industry” on how to promote democratic principles. The bureau also reviewed and evaluated film scripts to determine whether they furthered the war effort.

It is difficult to imagine the internet as we know it without something like Section 230.

By January 1942, just one month after Pearl Harbor, Warner Bros. had purchased the film rights to a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. By August, filming had wrapped on the story of a recalcitrant American expat whose love for a woman ultimately leads him to embrace the virtues of duty and self-sacrifice. It was retitled Casablanca. The initial release of the film was moved up to November 1942 to coincide with Operation Torch, the allied invasion of North Africa. It then went into national release in January 1943 at the same time as the historic Casablanca Conference. Thus a film that some critics consider the best of all time was, in some ways, downstream from politics.

A more recent example of culture being downstream from politics is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230 allows certain internet platforms (e.g. Facebook and X) to operate without being subject to the same laws that govern publishers, like newspapers, on the theory that they are distributors of third-party content. The law also protects these platforms from liability when they moderate certain content on their platform, including obscene material and harassment. It is difficult to imagine the internet as we know it without something like Section 230. One influential book on the policy is titled, “The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet.”

It is reasonable to question the wisdom of laws like “CanCon” and Section 230 or to be concerned about the power of government bureaus like the Office of War Information. The point is not that these are examples of how policy should influence culture, but of the fact that policy can and does exert such influence. Those who see that so much in our culture is going awry should take seriously the role that law and policy play in shaping who we are, what we think, and what we value.

Eric Teetsel

Eric Teetsel is vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation.

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