So what, precisely, does this mean? Should conservatives be mourning? Should liberals be celebrating? Did American (to say nothing of the rest of the world) moviegoers suddenly undergo a complete and total ideological reversal in the course of a single year - overnight deciding to exchange Batman and Jack Bauer's "enhanced-interrogation" designated baddies for a romanticized vision of indigenous rebellion? Has the hypnotic gaze of President Obama psychically reeducated all of Middle America from Hank and Peggy Hill to Steven and Elyse Keaton? Can you really read the political mind of an entire population by a cursory glance at the possible allegorical implications of whatever is the most popular movie at the moment?

Of course not.

The problem with trying to discern the political will of a people from the popular culture is that it's usually grounded in the erroneous assumption - on behalf of political commentators - that "the people" care and think about politics as constantly and as deeply as they (the commentators) do.

They don't.

Here in the U.S., our last presidential election was participated in by only around 56% of eligible citizens, and this was considered a good turnout - the highest since 1968 when it went all the way up to 60. Usually, the percentage is down around 35. And keep in mind, it wasn't as though this was some uninteresting peacetime election between undifferentiated talking heads. Obama versus McCain (or, rather, Obama versus Palin in the eyes of some commentators) was a literal and figurative clash over some of the most divisive issues of all time: race, religion, economic philosophy and the fate of two active shooting wars - and it still only managed to move barely more than half of the country one way or another.

In simple terms, this means that less than half of the country bothers to participate in electing their own government, even though doing so requires nothing more strenuous than leaving the house, walking into the gymnasium of the local high school, and checking one of two boxes on a sheet of paper. Thus, when you hear culture critics talk about this or that movie "alienating half the audience" by having a political message, well, they're kind of full of it. If barely more than half the country voted, then the "winner" really only had the overt support of about 26 to 30% of "the people," which means the "alienated" are even less than that and the other full half of "the people"... well, they just don't care.

Which, from where I sit, is why the same citizenry that made a surprise mega-hit out of an ultra right wing (some would say outright fascist) macho fantasy like 300 can then turn around and embrace something like Avatar, which takes almost fetishistic delight in the defeat of rather Spartan-esque paramilitary muscleheads by tree-hugging bow-hunters and their woodland animal pals. What political commentators (and, to be fair, film critics including yours truly) tend to forget is that most of "the people" - even the smart ones - don't go through life looking at every movie (or book, or videogame) through the rubric of politics and theory. Enjoying Avatar - even to the extent of empathizing with its downtrodden native heroes - is no more an indicator of innate leftism than losing oneself to the gung-ho militaristic fantasy of Modern Warfare is an indicator of ideological kinship to Ann Coulter.

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