Sean Malone is Creative Director at the Foundation for Economic Education. He is the creator of FEE’s video essay series ‘Out Of Frame’. Here he speaks with Speak Freely’s Simon Sarevski about movies, cancel culture, and spreading liberty through the medium of YouTube.
Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Sean.
Why are we seeing so much fascination with world-ending plotlines in popular culture during recent times? Am I too young, nay ignorant, or has it always been like this?
It hasn’t always been like this, but it has gone in waves. Art tends to reflect fears and anxieties back at a culture, as much as it influences the culture. In the 1940s, there was a mix of propaganda films — pro-US military movies — and purely escapist musicals and comedies. In the 1950s and 60s, there were tons of nuclear-themed science fiction films mixed in with cold-war propaganda. In the 80s, the evil businessman dominated the screen. The 90s saw the rise of the epic disaster movie — Independence Day, Titanic, etc. — scaled up to modern blockbuster proportions.
Personally, I’m more interested at this point in the tone of everything we see today. I worry less about what it says about our society that we like watching big destructive set pieces play out on screen and more about what it says that so many shows seem to feature (as their protagonists) terrible people doing terrible things.
We seem to have gotten to a point where showing a genuinely good person on screen who doesn’t murder, lie, steal, or assault people to get what they want is seen as “boring” and “unrealistic”. We now live in a world where a character’s goodness or badness is judged by their intentions — whether or not they have “good” intentions — and not by their actions.
When the Parents Music Resource Center launched a vicious attack on free speech in the 1980s, the Rockers (thank you Dee Snider, John Denver & Frank Zappa!) were the ones that ‘saved’ it. Why, in these woke, cancel culture times, are we no longer seeing the entertainment industry stand in defiance against speech tyranny?
I suspect that there are many reasons for this. For one thing, artists of today have been steeped in the philosophical ideas that support cancel culture throughout their education and upbringing. Per my point just above, they also seem to believe that intentions matter more than actions — so for example, it’s OK to harass and censor someone if the goal is to prevent bad (homophobic, racist, sexist, etc.) ideas from being expressed or promoted anywhere.
Artists also tend to be a little more on the neurotic side and a lot of them struggle to feel a sense of meaning in their own lives, and one thing cancel culture does for people in general is give them a sense of purpose. Crushing badthink is a morally righteous crusade that people can identify themselves with, and in turn, find meaning in being part of something “important.”
On a less philosophical level, it’s also a great tool to use to hurt people that you deem as an “enemy” – and since most artists are extremely left-wing and few people are principled, it’s a pretty easy way to silence people you disagree with… whereas in the 80s and 90s, the PMRC were a bunch of conservative Christians telling rock’n’rollers and rappers what they could or could not say. If it was still Tipper Gore trying to get people not to talk about sex in their records, they’d be mocking her endlessly — just as people mocked Ben Shapiro for reading the lyrics to WAP recently.
But since cancel culture is a tool primarily used by the left to silence what they see as “conservative” views, free speech doesn’t matter. In other words, people aren’t behaviorally consistent. They take whatever tools are available for their tribe to “win”.
At the same time, why hasn’t this attack left cyberspace and the industry, and moved into politics like it did in the 1980s?
I think it has – more than people realize. The government is highly embedded in the decisions social media networks make about what content is or is not acceptable… But we aren’t seeing a repeat of HUAC, and I think that’s because 1) that would be a non-starter from a Constitutional perspective – the Supreme Court has (fortunately) upheld free speech rights pretty aggressively in the law, and I don’t think anyone is really foolish enough to try to challenge that at this stage; and 2) it would bring the attack on people’s ideas out into the open, which would make it weaker and less effective.
Cancel culture has always operated best via a Motte and Bailey strategy. For example, people at the edges will argue that “maleness” is evil and that there’s something rotten with masculinity at its core, and that any example of traditional masculinity must be silenced before it harms people (this is one of the reasons this crowd hates Joe Rogan so much).
They will say that “whiteness” is inherently evil – and when you challenge them, pointing out that they are vilifying an entire gender or race with these claims – they will walk back the claims significantly, redefining maleness as “toxic masculinity,” as just a subset of masculinity and not to be confused with the claim that all masculinity is evil… and similarly, that whiteness is a particular type of cultural understanding, that they’re not really referring to white people as a whole.
Of course, this is nonsense. The whole argumentation strategy is a method of advancing extreme positions and retreating to a more defensible position when challenged or attacked…. and if they brought all this into the realm of the law, people would start asking hard questions in forums that would require an answer. They’d start asking for solid definitions of terms, when all these folks currently offer are vague and highly fluid definitions which change as needed depending on the situation.
Many cancel culture advocates I’ve spoken to for years still deny that it even exists… while simultaneously praising it whenever it happens.
“Cancel culture isn’t real! Just a boogeyman made up by conservatives. And in any case, these people getting removed from social media and fired from their jobs are horrible people who deserve to be exiled.”
They’re much more effective when they’re harder to pin down.
Is this overblown or are free speech, discourse, and debate really threatened?
I actually think it’s not talked about enough at this point. It’s only a small handful of people in certain circles who really care, but the majority of Americans — normies, as it were — don’t really pay any attention to it or understand what’s going on. As a result, they’re often duped by the supposed “good intentions” of the people doing the canceling.
For any individual case, it’s not that much of an imposition to ask someone to change their behavior a little bit — stop saying this word, use this word instead of that word, avoid this conversation topic in mixed company, provide a trigger warning before you talk about something, and so on.
So it doesn’t seem like a big deal to accept what they want and move on with your life; but when you look at it as a whole and understand what their ultimate motivations and goals are, it becomes a lot more insidious. If, for example, we all accept that punctuality, rational argument, science, and work ethic are “white traits”, and we also accept that there’s something rotten about “whiteness”, we’re going to end up with a pretty awful world.
In movies and pop culture, the dystopia trope received a fair share of the pie in the 21st century. Everybody cheers for the protagonist, hoping they will save the day. And yet, in real life, people often fail to see heroes and villains for what they are. Why?
I’m not sure. A lot of what I do with Out of Frame is geared towards trying to get people to connect the allegorical worlds they see on screen to the real world.
Why are we seeing so many superhero movies and why are they making a killing at the box office?
I think there are several reasons for that:
1) Clarity that comes from heroes and villains is missing almost everywhere else in our culture, so superhero movies are refreshing in that regard
2) Nostalgia / Arrested development — Young adults remember reading Spider-man or X-Men, Batman, etc. as kids, and it’s exciting to see them on screen.
3) They make for pretty classic stories with clear characters, high stakes, good action, and generally high entertainment value.
With competition between streaming services increasing, as theory would suggest, shall we see more variety (in genres)? Will this be “the death of the movie” and the “rise of the series?”
Nope. Serial TV, episodic TV, and movies are all very different experiences and I see no reason to believe that any of them will go away.
Which are your favorite movies and TV shows? What are the top 3 movies you would say everyone should watch at least once in their life? Lastly, what is the most underrated movie of all time?
It’s honestly impossible for me to give a meaningful answer to these kinds of questions, since I’ve seen thousands and thousands of movies. I have a ton of favorites, and I’m assuredly omitting a ton of excellent films. In no particular order…
The Big Lebowski, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Kubo and the Two Strings, Return of the Jedi, Blazing Saddles, The Blues Brothers, Alien, La La Land, North By Northwest, Swingers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver, Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Pushing Daisies, Futurama, Better Call Saul, Human Target, Boardwalk Empire, South Park, The Flash (first few seasons), After Life, Mythic Quest.
If we’re talking about conveying a specific point, I’d want to choose a different movie for every individual to watch, but as a cinephile I think everyone should watch The Big Lebowski. It is, in my view, a perfect film. There is not one scene or shot out of place, nor is one scene too short or too long. The writing, acting, direction, cinematography, and editing are all as flawless as it’s possible to get.
I don’t know about the most underrated film of all time, but I think Return of the Jedi is probably up there. It’s typically regarded as the worst of the original trilogy, and I actually think it’s probably the best.
Alternatively, I might point to something like The 13th Warrior, which was widely panned but which is, in fact, pretty good.
One of the ways you spread liberty is with video essays on YouTube. What would you say is the best way to spread liberty in the modern world?
Persuasive communication is, in my opinion, the only way to spread the ideas of liberty to anyone.
You can’t actually force people to agree with you no matter how much power you might have, and trying to beat people into submission usually only turns them away from your point of view. Furthermore, politics is inherently “downstream of culture” — meaning that politics changes only when the culture does, and quite often when cultures shift in a decisively negative direction, politics is not far behind.
Persuasive communication is mostly about building trust with someone. I do it through video essays and animated videos and on comment threads most of the time, because I can reach a much larger audience that way, but for most people being persuasive is going to be a lot more about personal relationships.
Be a good person. Be a good friend. Show other people that you care about them. Be honest, even when the truth hurts your cause. Show yourself to be someone worthy of respect and people will respect and care about you. If they do that, they will listen to you.
Also… Don’t treat people like they’re enemies or idiots just because they might disagree with you. I see that all the time, and it’s highly ineffective.
Finally, although not directly related to the general topic of today’s conversation, I like to end my interviews with this: How can we find freedom in an unfree world?
Lead by example and live your own life.
The older I get, the more I realize that none of us has much realistic hope of ever changing the world. But we can change ourselves and our own living conditions.
If you’re unhappy at work, change your job. If you’re stressed out by where you live, move to somewhere relaxing. Focus on yourself, your family, and your friends… and work hardest towards living exactly the life you want to live while you can.
At worst, you’ve spent your life in a way that you won’t regret. At best, you can become an inspiration to others and show everyone that freedom isn’t an abstract concept — it’s individual people just like you, living how you want to live.