Why Conservatives Need Good Documentaries

THOSE OF US IN THE CONSERVATIVE AND FREE MARKET MOVEMENT are fond of quoting the title of Richard Weaver’s famous book, Ideas Have Consequences. Weaver is surely right. Even a superficial study of history shows that certain ideas, usually beginning in academia, do have consequences. If we didn’t believe that, most of us would probably be doing something else.

Still, ideas all by themselves don’t do anything. To be consequential, ideas have to be spread and eventually implemented. But how do ideas developed by a few academics end up shaping the views of millions of ordinary people? In a 1949 paper, “The Intellectual and Socialism,” Friedrich Hayek argued that public intellectuals played a crucial role in translating academic ideas, like socialism, for the wider population.

In the decades since Hayek wrote his essay, the conservative movement has expanded profoundly. Following Hayek’s analysis, there are now scores of think tanks incubating ideas that, if implemented, would change our culture for the better. And we don’t hide our ideas under a bushel. The movement also has many public intellectuals in almost every form of media, from talk radio and television commentary to blogs and bestselling trade press books.

But there’s still a gap in what I call the “aesthetic media,” as distinct from the news media, which includes everything from art and music to dramatic films and documentaries. In this area, we are behind the curve. Aesthetic media is both a form of communication and an art form. And whether we like it or not, aesthetic media, and especially visual media, influences almost everyone. Recent studies suggest that the average American derives more information from visual media than from any other source. In less than two years, video content has flooded the Internet, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. That’s a problem, because while we’ve been developing and publishing clear and cogent ideas, and expanding the visibility of our public intellectuals, the Left has mastered these forms of communication that now shape what most people believe.

With few exceptions, we aren’t really competitive with, say, Michael Moore and Al Gore. Moore has no economic expertise, but his ideas on the economy probably influence more people than the world’s most prominent economist. And Al Gore is no climate scientist, but can anyone deny his worldwide influence in the debate over global warming? Both of these men are perceived as experts because they translate (often inaccurately) the ideas of intellectuals using one form of visual media—the documentary. In this way, the views of left-wing public intellectuals have become more amplified than even Hayek could have imagined.

Of course, much visual media is persuasive primarily by being pervasive. Most advertising falls into this category. But a few forms, like documentaries, can be powerful tools of communication, because they allow one to combine message and metaphor in a way that can be entertaining, educational, and persuasive. Few other genres allow expert testimony and arguments (message) alongside narrative, visual effects, symbolic imagery, and score (metaphor). Five seconds of partisan sermonizing can ruin an otherwise good action movie. Not so with the documentary. With documentaries, you can make an argument. For that reason, if we really want our ideas to have consequences, we need to enhance our ability to create good documentaries.

Of course, lots of people try to produce documentaries. Some succeed. But most fail. For conservative think tanks and policy groups, the difficulty can be even more acute, since our commitment to facts and arguments doesn’t often mix well with the aesthetic disposition needed to make good visual media.

To succeed, I think we need to balance two competing but also complementary tendencies. The tendency of “idea and movement” people is to see visual and other media as a means to an end. Our primary interest in a documentary is bound to be its message. This is as it should be. We’re in the idea business after all. In making films, however, this commitment to our message might lead us merely to transliterate our arguments into video, rather than to translate them into an entirely different medium of communication. A white paper isn’t a trade press book. And a trade press book isn’t a video documentary. A white paper turned into a documentary is easy to recognize because, well, it’s really bad.

In contrast, most filmmakers tend to see a film in aesthetic terms, and as an end in itself. Most filmmakers prefer metaphor to explicit message. They squirm when they see evidence and premises pushed to a clear conclusion. This is a valuable tendency, since, like it or not, most people’s beliefs are shaped by much more than argument. But it is also dangerous. A filmmaker’s commitment to the artistic merits of a film can sometimes override his commitment to the truth or the clarity of its message.

At the extreme is Ron Mann, director of Go Further and Comic Book Confidential, who said: “All documentaries are propaganda … . There is no such thing as objective truth, only point of view.” Unfortunately, this is a common conviction among those on the far Left: You tell your lies; I tell mine. May the better propagandist win. This is not a conviction we should ever entertain. We should tell the truth, insofar as we are able.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to persuade and entertain. It doesn’t mean we can’t appeal to sentiments and emotion. It doesn’t mean we have to avoid symbolism and high aesthetic standards. It means that we must do all these things while preserving good arguments and evidence, and without trying to manipulate the emotions of viewers.

That’s an extremely tall order. Still, what we seek to create are products with high artistic merit that also make our points persuasively. I think the best productions—and the most persuasive ones—will be those that best balance and integrate these competing tendencies, that best combine metaphor and message. We already have the right ideas. Now let’s do the hard work of learning to disseminate them effectively in a world increasingly dominated by visual media.

Dr. Richards is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and the director of Acton Media. He is the executive producer of The Call of the Entrepreneur (2007) and The Birth of Freedom (2008).