September 07, 2008

If you think that FOX News”€”with its bleached-out blonde anchorbabes made up to look like mid-price hookers, and its braying neocon mouthpieces trumpeting the party line”€”is the televised voice of conservatism, then think again. Sean Hannity, Bill Kristol, et al. offer up plenty of “€œconservative”€ platitudes on the war in Georgia, the war in Iraq, and the permanent wars on Jihadism, drugs, poverty, and juvenile delinquency.  But then the personalities who inhabit the FOX universe are mostly incapable of projecting recognizably conservative values. FOX feeds its viewers a continuous stream of “€œconservative”€ talking points, while devoting scant airtime to the peace of hearth and home and the ordinary struggles”€”the emotional and even the spiritual struggles”€”of real living human beings. 

This is not to say that traditional values are nowhere to be seen on the airwaves. There are conservative moments, so to speak, glimpses of another sensibility that occasionally slip through the veil of modernity, appearing, unbidden, in between the perversity and the hectoring. In order to find it, however, you have to turn off FOX News, ignore the pundits, and go where the American people are”€”in their homes. I”€™m talking about HGTV“€”the one and only channel that devotes itself to the core value of the conservative canon”€”hearth and home.

HGTV is indeed about the supremacy of home, the central part it plays in our lives and the lives of our families. Every episode, every program”€”from “€œProperty Virgins“€ to “€œMy Parents’ House“€”€”emphasizes the real values that give meaning to peoples”€™ lives, the things they care about and should care about. I would never have stumbled on it except for my own initiation into the mysteries of homeownership. A recent inheritance, the dramatic slump in the housing market, and the wave of foreclosures suddenly put this longtime but seemingly ever-distant goal within reach, and,  as I homed in”€“so to speak”€“on the right property, I began reading books on flooring and researching different methods of building a retaining wall”€”an area of life heretofore completely unknown to me. HGTV, with its 24/7 programming devoted to every aspect of home improvement, as well as the intricacies of choosing and buying real estate, became my constant companion.

A great many of the shows involve teams of designers, carpenters, and architects who descend on a home and transform it to reflect the dreams, values, and imagination of the inhabitants. The visitors are invariably young, counter-cultural (except for the carpenters), and clearly urban single types, whereas the family is suburban, or rural, with kids, tight budgets, and not a lot of time to deal with the aesthetic side of life. The re-design team takes the couple through their house, and we hear their complaints and concerns, mostly voiced by the woman, while the man stands, silently assenting. Kitchens are often at the center of the wife’s discontent: it’s too small, too cramped, too dark, the appliances are dated. Granite countertops are devoutly to be wished. Don”€™t ever let anyone tell you a woman’s place isn”€™t in the kitchen, because the truth comes out on HGTV, which is wonderfully subversive, albeit unintentionally, when it comes to debunking feminist platitudes.

Typically, the design team asks a couple to leave their home for a few days, while they gussy up the place. Upon their return, the look of surprise and sheer pleasure on the faces of the property owners is genuinely moving. Often, the women cry: they”€™ve dreamed of a new kitchen, a re-designed bedroom, a new dining room, but never believed it possible, and then, suddenly, there it is, a vision of the ideal, materializing right before their eyes. The women tear up, while the men stand there, sheepishly, hands in pockets, eyes wide with wonder.

The design team, of course, is young, trendy, cosmopolitan”€”the arugula crowd. The guys are all gay, or metrosexual types: the women are stylish, snappish babes. You just know they aren”€™t married: they come from another universe than the families whose lives they enrich. They might as well be visitors from Mars, endowed with awesome powers of transformation and yet strangely impotent in their otherness, outsiders forever doomed to press their noses up against the window but never really enter the three-dimensional world of those whose lives they touch.

One episode sticks out in my mind as emblematic of what is going on here: it’s a program called “€œMy Parents House,”€ in which the grown-up children of a family conspire to redo their parents”€™ home. It’s always a modest place, with an outdated kitchen and that Fifties air. One expects that “€œThe Donna Reed Show”€ or “€œMy Three Sons”€ is playing, continuously, on the TV set that looks like it was bought the year Richard Nixon was elected to the White House. In this particular episode, the family of six consisted of an elderly couple in their early 70s at least, and four strapping young twenty-something sons, living out in the country somewhere”€”I think it was Colorado. In any case, the design team descended on this world from out of another time and the results were strangely affecting. Dad had a sad, defeated look about him, without a trace of bitterness, and Mom, obviously devoted to him, hovered around him like a protective shield, her soft gentle face furrowed with worry. Times weren”€™t good, or, at least, they”€™d once been better, and the hint of this hung over the show like a pall of smoky autumn air.

Together with the design team, the four sons were striving to give something back to their parents”€”the two people who had given so much to them, endured years of sacrifice”€“and hell-raising, no doubt”€“only to slowly descend into economic and physical ruin. The culture clash between the urban sophisticates of the design team and the four sons of fly-over country was at once apparent, and yet there was genuine affection in this mutual antagonism, particular on the part of the former. They looked into this prism of familial fidelity, of the tight relations between the four brothers, and their competitiveness, which was, for the outsiders, a great curiosity and cause of wonderment. Who would finish their task the quickest, knock down that wall with more bravado, take off that tacky old wallpaper and create a family shrine out of plywood, paint, and old photos, with the most artistry and”€“more importantly”€“on time? The parents would be back in 48 hours, and there wasn”€™t a moment to lose!

It was a lovely old Arts and Craft home, with long low-ceilinged rooms, and cluttered with the detritus of six lives, and as they lifted the layers, peeling wallpaper and digging up old linoleum, the brothers recounted the familial mythos:  it was a space crowded with memories. And as Joe, the oldest, recalled his rambunctious childhood growing up in that house, his laughter expressed something that their visitors found mysterious, fascinating, and quite lovely. With their tatooed biceps and “€œalternative”€ lifestyles of one sort or another, and for all their urban sense of implicit superiority, their genuine enchantment with this family was apparent.

The leader of the design team was an impish-looking and very bossy blonde with big designer glasses and an air of perpetual bemusement”€”the exemplar of the modern New Woman. I had watched a lot of these shows, and I”€™d never seen her exhibit any romantic interest in anyone: I was surprised, then, to see her so obviously smitten with Eric, the handsome second eldest son, who played some guitar and was openly flirtatious with her. Her designer compadres“€”a sleek-looking young Asian, a metrosexual carpenter with a gold earring and a blasé attitude, and the requisite gay guy, who looks like one of Tolkien’s elves in The Lord of the Rings and is really, really into color“€”looked on with disapproval. In the competition between the Red State home team and the Blue State visitors, it was clear who was winning.

In the end, however, the only competition was with the clock: they had but a few hours to complete their task, and, in the moments before the parents returned, the four sons stood there looking at what they had wrought.

Imagine a long crowded rectangular family room, dented and scarred with the evidence of ancient wrestling matches and in-house hockey games, an old pool table at the center of it all.

Working together, Team Red and Team Blue had transformed their old playground into an open, spacious and far more comfortable space, one suited to the convenience of their parents, knocking in few new windows and emphasizing the old Arts and Crafts aspect of the architecture, restoring and modifying a cracked and somewhat off-center fireplace and turning it into the focal point of the room. The kitchen, too”€”the scene of so many family dramas, recounted lovingly by each son in turn”€”was redone, and yet instead of eliminating its essential character”€”the distinctly American singularity of the Arts and Crafts style”€”they refined it, focused on it, and brought it out in all its refinished glory.

The look on their mother’s face as she entered the room was the climax of the show: in that moment, the disappointments and burdens of more years than she cares to remember seemed suddenly to have lifted. The inevitable tears welled up from great depths: a woman who had given so much forgot what it is to receive. Dad, quietly astonished, remarked with quiet dignity that times had been difficult, and that he was very grateful. In the end, they all embrace, and the bridge between two worlds is crossed.

It is clear, just visually, which world is the better one, and this is the best sort of propaganda”€”more effective than a thousand jeremiads against the decadence of modern culture and the formal propagation of “€œfamily values.”€ In the culture wars that conservatives have been waging, with a notable lack of success, HGTV is more subversive of the dominant anti-family, anti-heterosexual, anti-bourgeois sensibility than the entire panoply of “€œpro-family”€ activist groups and thinktanks put together. With its bias in favor of rootedness and a sense of place, HGTV gets at the real essence of conservatism, properly understood. I”€™d much rather watch a few episodes of “€œMy Parents Home”€ than read, say, National Review, or tune in to the latest episode of “€œUncommon Knowledge.”€

Of course, HGTV is also the product of the housing boom, made possible by the exponential bank credit expansion of the Greenspan era, which is being stubbornly”€“and disastrously”€“maintained by Señor Bernanke. All those mortgages, and the orgy of equity loans indulged in by ambitious homeowners, who took up home improvement on the grounds that their homes weren”€™t just places to live in and enjoy, but were primarily investments. They took out huge mortgages with next to no money down and saw the on-paper value of their homes rise dramatically. It was all so effortless”€”easy profits fueled by easy money. The bursting of the bubble is all too apparent, and HGTV is there to dramatize it with a show called “€œMy House is Worth What?“€ Here we have all these poor deluded and now-forlorn people, who bought high and now must attempt to sell low their cluttered, dated, and, downright ugly houses.

The lessons, here, are all too obvious, and don”€™t need to be supplemented by a lecture in economics. The creative team and their crew of carpenters, designers, and painters, team up with the desperate owners who are in over their heads, and must sell quickly. They doll the place up as best they can on a limited budget. Recently the desperation of the sellers has become all too apparent: and one thing that’s changed is that most episodes of this particular show have ended in the house finally selling. These days, however, I haven”€™t seen any sales, only optimistic talk about how now that the place has been spruced up it’s sure to sell. I doubt many of them have, of late”€”this month was the worst in home sales in a long time.

It’s odd, then, that I”€™m closing on my house in a couple of days: a modest 1950s bungalow in Northern California redwood country. It all reminds me of my longstanding agreement with the imprecation of Robinson Jeffers, in “€œShine, Perishing Republic“€:

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption

Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

Well, it’s not the mountains, but the River, the Russian River to be exact: the wild edge of California wine country. I suppose I”€™ll be too busy to watch HGTV once I move in, what with painting, redoing the floors, and building that retaining wall…


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!