"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hollywood And The Emmys–How Politics Are Destroying The Bonding Ethos of American Fantasy

Image result for images lily tomlin dolly parton at emmy's
“In 2017, we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”
The 2017 Emmys, the awards show for television, has always been an extravaganza – a glittering showcase of stardom, an over-the-top display of glitz, glamour, and personality.  It, like the Academy Awards, has always been the best and most visible expression of American culture. It has always been unashamedly middle-brow, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and all the sequins, flash, and colored neon lights of every city’s Times Square. 

Commercial television has not seen sophisticated drama since its early days.  On Thursday nights during the 1954-55, TV season, on one single evening viewers could choose between Kraft Television Theater (ABC, 1953-55), Four Star Playhouse (CBS, 1952-56), Ford Theater (NBC, 1952-56) and Lux Video Theater (NBC, 1954-57).

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Gone today is understatement, subtlety, and complex relationships. Television now reflects our impatience with what we see as archaisms.  We may have become more culturally diverse in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity; but we are still bound in one common embrace of the showy, impossibly fantastical episodes on daytime and prime-time television.

In fact the more that society becomes more diverse, divided, contentious, and openly hostile, the more we need this glorious suspension of disbelief.  Two hours of action heroes, beautiful women, luxurious sets, and happy endings are more important than ever before.

We are no different than middle class moviegoers and television viewers in India, China, Latin America, and the Middle East who want undiluted, unapologetic, romantic fantasy.  The art films of the Sixties – The Sign of the Seventh Seal, The Cranes are Flying, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Rashomon, Breathless, and a hundred others – have no audience left.  Who has the patience to parse the metaphysics of Kurosawa or the anomie of The New Wave? More importantly, what possible relevance can it have to today’s eclectic, fragmented, competitive life? And most importantly of all, why should we spend two hours of angst and reflection when all we want is escape?

Image result for images sign of the seventh seal

Hollywood has always been about escape – the producers of the great studios of the 30s and 40s knew precisely how to weave the American dream into fantasy; to offer the promise of love, romance, wealth, and beauty but within the range of possibility.  They were the geniuses of the Twentieth Century who built an industry of fantasy, dreams, and expectations.

Hollywood has always been a liberal place.  Like academics who live in a similarly politically homogeneous and insular environment, movie stars have no reason or motivation to challenge received political wisdom.  Their value rises and falls on their screen performances, not on their intellectual credentials or their mastery of political philosophy.  Movies have always been about the downtrodden who have their final vindication.  It is no surprise that actors schooled in the Hollywood version of reality espouse its presumptions.

For decades, actors kept their political preferences to themselves.  They like their studio and commercial sponsors knew that the road to revenue was political anonymity.  Hollywood’s fantasy remained intact.

Recently, however, especially after the election of Donald Trump, movie and television stars have decided to use their celebrity not only as a vehicle for publicly stating their political views but as forum for the most intemperate, hostile, and vitriolic attacks on the President.  By alienating the 50 million voters who endorsed Donald Trump and the conservative agenda in November; and by assuming a Hollywood-bestowed immunity and impermeability, they have not only sent the popularity of the Emmys to new, historic lows, tarnished their own images, but betrayed the American people, both Left and Right.

As much as progressives may love to hear their Hollywood heroes excoriate Donald Trump, they will ultimately understand the depths of this betrayal.  They too need a safe space from political hysteria, the all-night noise, the intimidation, the abuse, and the non-stop defiance.  As politics continue to infect Hollywood and the NFl, both institutions will change dramatically.  When entertainment becomes secondary that the promotion of political agendas, the entire purpose of Hollywood and football is defeated.

In other words, we all lose.

There are consequences to challenging a cultural ethos.  It is one thing to contest a political philosophy or agenda, another thing altogether to weaken the props of what is more essentially American than anything else – Hollywood.  America more than anything is a country of image, presentation, show, and showmanship.  There is no shame in our history of hucksters, snake oil salesmen, vaudevillians, televangelists, Pentecostals, ad men, and carny barkers.  After 250 years it is in our blood.

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Street protests are political theatre, never taken seriously and understood as theatrical displays.  Everyone can be a star, on camera, loud and insistent, dressed for the part, confronting villains and oppressors.

Yet it one thing for entertainment to infect politics; another thing  for politics to infect entertainment.
The ‘free speech’ of Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda at the Emmys or Colin Kaepernick in the NFL –  cannot be taken seriously because their natural performances have become distorted.  They have left their natural stages and entered upon  hybrid, unentertaining, and unproductive ones.

The Left challenges this assumption.  Politics is the be-all and end-all of any society.  Political philosophy defines the individual more than any natural talent or ability.  The expression of political opinion, particularly that directed at promoting a political agenda is a higher order of free speech.
Other identities must be subsumed within the political one.  Lily Tomlin and Colin Kaepernick became more relevant and important when they used their celebrity to voice a cause.

This of course is the very idea that is behind America’s divisiveness and disharmony.  Once politics becomes the defining characteristic of personality and since political philosophy by its very nature is divided and divisive, political identity cannot but lead to social disunity.


The most patriotic entertainers entertain and keep their own counsel on everything else.  By keeping Hollywood as politically innocent as possible, they help to preserve and promote the bonding ethos of fantasy. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Wonderful World Of Fantasy–Why The Imagined Is Always More Real Than The Actual

Maud Fellows had been born to Iowa farmers who had always been faithful, patriotic, and community-minded.  They were farmers, members of Rotary and Kiwanis, congregants of the Third United Methodist Church of Christ, lifelong Republicans who broke ranks with their more conservative brethren as millennialists who believed in the imminence of the Second Coming.

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Their home was a potpourri of their eclectic and often contradictory tastes.  Catholic crucifixes, statues of The Holy Virgin, and icons of Saints Michael, Jerome, and Anthony were arrayed next to horrific scenes of Armageddon and the Apocalypse.

‘The Lives of the Saints’ had far less to do with the Fellows' faith than to Christ’s Last Holocaust – Judgment Day, the final accounting, and the resurrection of the body either to celestial paradise or to the consuming, sulfurous fire of Hell. 



The Fellows were unimpressed with the conventional Christian tales of brotherhood and spiritual devotion.  Their belief was beyond even the Old Testament and its ritual sacrifices, blood feuds and sacrifices, and vengeful retribution.  It was pagan, pre-Christian, and savage.

Of course they never admitted as much, nor erected and venerated images of pre-Christian idolatry. They were conservative at heart, born and conditioned by a very American belief in secularism, progress, and goodness.  Yet they felt there was something missing in the prescriptive ceremonies of their faith. The primitive, essential juices of belief had been squeezed dry.  There was nothing left of the supreme sacrifice of Jesus – bloody, tormented, disgraceful – other than Sunday observance.



The world of Fellows Père and his family was one of extreme religious belief – more reflective of pre-Colombian Mesoamerica than than the logical postulates of Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. Religion was nothing if it did not embody the very sensuous and passionate trial of Our Lord. When captured by the Early Church theologians, the passion of Christ became disembodied, intellectual, and lost.

Maud was caught between two worlds.  She was being educated as a thinking, reflective, objective young adult for whom only logical exegesis mattered; but had grown up in a world of fanciful extremism.  How was she to square the logical, deductive monographs of Tertullian and Chrysostom with the emotional passion of personal, emotional belief?

As fate – DNA, parental influence, social mediated milieus – would have it, Maud did not become a street-corner evangelist or Union Square preacher.  She turned out to be a logical thinker and secular apologist; but had a nativist suspicion of objectivism.  There was simply too much of myth, Freudian primitivism, and fantasy to reject out of hand.

Why, she wondered, was the world so fabricated on assumed reality? Why was everything decided on the basis of ‘fact’, actuality, and ‘objective’ observation?  Why was there no room for  subjectivity, even that which wandered far from the tried and true?

Most people were certainly defined by expectation as much as they were by probability.  Most people valued Hollywood as much as Bell Labs or MIT.  Had not fantasy, imagination, and the possible been neutered?

The accession of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States was the first political event to have ever piqued the interest of Maud Fellows.  Here was a vaudevillian, circus performer, and carny barker who had finally and ultimately resonated with the American people.  He was outrageous, politically absurd, and an absolute, unreconstructed, un-recondite non-politician who was the perfectly American President.



Maud’s friends and colleagues didn’t know what to make of her enthusiasm for Trump.  To them he was the incarnation of racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism; a hated reprobate who had one the election on a technicality at best and at the hands of Ku Klux Klan Biblical sympathizers at worst.
They could not understand how Trump’s politics meant little; but his Las Vegas, Hollywood, New York mean streets agenda meant everything.  The tide had finally turned in America.  Cultural – not political – populism was finally having its day.  Donald Trump waved a long-overdue farewell to supposedly logical, objective political philosophy and welcomed a new era of subjective, passionate and non-rational electoral politics.

Maud’s enthusiasm was by no means only political.  Her dismissal of the sententious was but one edge to her take on life in general.  Why on earth did people take themselves so seriously, she asked herself, when history, let alone current events displayed nothing but the absurd? Was Henry VIII anything but a comic figure with his eight wives,  desperate hopes for a male heir, and nasty disputes with the Vatican? Were the Crusades, despite their attempt to retake Jerusalem for Christianity, anything but European desires for cultural and political hegemony?



Plus Ça Change is the absolute, unchangeable dictum of history. And if the events of history continue to repeat themselves ad absurdum, then how can anyone take them seriously.
Which is why Maud Fellows had nothing to do with politics or religion; and preferred to watch old movies.  There was something durable if not ineffable  about Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Claude Rains; or South Pacific, A Star is Born, or An American in Paris. 

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Is Hollywood simply an American idiom, a cultural icon without substantial depth? Or is it the best and most enduring example of America?

While most Americans recognize and admire Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as innovators who fundamentally changed the nature of American communications and culture; they still look to Hollywood as the arbiter of taste and culture.  We go as Jennifer Lawrence or Jason Bateman go.

Popular culture is often dismissed as the refuge of the uninformed middle class – a place to hide, a comfortable, feel-good redoubt – but it is anything but. It is America.  Donald Trump is the first real American president in decades.  While Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and Nixon may have reflected particular political views, Trump is popular America.

Maud Trump was an enthusiastic Trump supporter – not because she supported his views on the wall, taxes, or Western values; but because he was an unashamed vaudevillian.  Only the sanctimonious Left takes his tweets seriously, or his international bombast, or his ridiculing of progressive electoral wounds.  Maud loved his outrageous, fanciful rejection of Leftist and American sanctimony.

Her dismissal of cant, proprietary ownership, and sanctimonious posturing did not end with politics; but extended to the desperate wannabes of American society -those hoping for a new, if not returned messiah.

Maud Fellows was not content to carp from the sidelines – to dismiss presumptuousness and rightful place – but to claim that the vaudevillians, the magicians, and the comedians should inherit the earth.  Given millennia of repetitive, predictable human history and their wars, civil conflict, and depredation; and the advances in art, culture, and civilization at least in part thanks to them, wasn’t it time to acknowledge the clowns?

Only those with a humorous, disaffected, and disengaged point of view are moral, for they have understood history and the vanity of assumed righteousness.

Maud Fellows was the daughter of serendipity.  She had been born to and been brought by natural skeptics and true believers.  As such she had an appreciation for the power and failings of intellectual insight and of the glory of true, uninhibited fanciful belief.


Her political and religious diffidence and indifference won her few friends and supporters in a world of exaggerated political commitment and spiritual faith; but she paid them no mind.

She had had her epiphany early on in life and was unlikely to be swayed by anyone from then on.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Pangloss, Politics, And The Best Of All Possible Worlds–When Does Idealism Lose Its Flavor?

Alas! ‘My dear,'said she, 'unless you have been raped by two Bulgarians, stabbed twice in the belly, have had two castles destroyed, two fathers and mothers murdered before your eyes, and have seen two of your lovers flogged in an auto-da-fe, I do not see how you can surpass me; moreover, I was born a Baroness with seventy-two quarterings and I have been a kitchen wench’ (Candide, Ch.10)
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Things could always be worse, thought Bethany Beech, a pretty, innocent, and charmingly hopeful optimist.  God was indeed always in his heaven, and all was right with the world. To have come to such a profound moral conclusion so young in life was remarkable although very unusual.  Her idealism was so simple and uncomplicated that she was never criticized for being a dreamer nor ever warned about the dangers of her naïveté.  Her warmth and charity was a happy thing.

Her upbeat, chipper view of the world was surprising, given the cynicism of her mother and the nihilism of her father.  Neither was given to moralizing, but it was not hard for the young girl to figure out where her parents stood.  Her father was a successful businessman with a natural talent for opportunity and risk; an equanimity which allowed him to take profit and loss with the same dispassion; and a profound belief in individual responsibility. One ended up where one did because of ambition and ability or the lack thereof, and nothing was to be gained by compassion.

Her mother had never met a person she could trust or believe.  Duplicity was the order of the day in all but saints, and even then sainthood did not automatically erase the sins of the past.  Saints Paul, Anthony, Jerome, Aquinas and all the rest were men like any other; and despite their inspirational letters and writings, had to have been no different than the herders, clerks, and rabbis of the time.

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Goodness was a social construct, she believed, a keen way to keep order and preserve the integrity of the body politic to make individual enterprise more productive.

Where Bethany’s idealism came from was a mystery to her parents.   Even the most dire and depressing events had their good side, their lessons, or even their optimistic promotions.  A washed out field hockey game meant more time for the school picnic, or a special under-the-umbrellas camaraderie with her girlfriends.  Poor grades were a blessing in disguise never failure.  The most disadvantaged child – slow, unattractive, clumsy, and ignorant – certainly had a warm underbelly, a considerate and thoughtful nature, and a God-given gift.

Regardless of the origins of her idealism, she never doubted herself.   Of course there are few chances of disillusionment in childhood, especially a very advantaged one like Bethany’s.  Hardship, penury, and misfortune were far from her privileged existence, so it was not surprising that her buoyant optimism lasted through childhood.  Her parents were healthy, prosperous, and well-situated; she wanted for nothing, and the worst reversals were no more than insignificant and temporary setbacks.

Her idealism began to be tested once she reached her adolescent years when girls turn catty, devious, and mean; and boys become dumber and dumber.  Once admired teachers lose their luster and once their pimples and warts begin to show – a stumbling lack of coordination in one, a stutter in another, and a maddening repetitiousness in a third – they are no longer heroes but clowns.

Bethany, however, was never disappointed or discouraged by these revelations.  They were exposures, no more no less, of human nature to be taken as is without criticism or censure.  There was every reason to continue to see the world as a good place, despite everything.

College was a different story altogether, for there she saw students who were convinced that the world was headed for a better place; that personal and social progress was indeed possible. This she could not understand, for history was anything but a positive trajectory.  Since the beginning of human civilization, men fought for territory, wealth, resources, status, women, and prestige.  Wars, civil strife, inequality, and human misery were common to all eras; but so were advanced civilization.  The same kings, queens, princes, and courtiers that engineered wars of territorial expansion used their newly-acquired wealth to built castles, churches, monuments, public architecture, roads, aqueducts, and palaces.

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There always seemed to be a moral balance.  One thing resulted in another, and there could never be a conclusion as to relative value.  Without Genghis Khan, the Crusades, Mohammed, the Persians, Mauryans, Angles, Danes, and Jutes there never would have been Western and Eastern civilization.
When looked at from an even more distant perspective, the world looked very small indeed and human history insignificant.  How could anyone possibly conclude that the world was becoming a better place.

Both Candide and Pangloss were right.  It was vain and silly to imagine that any moment was the best of all possible moments; but just as fanciful to believe that any moment, time, or era would be any better than those previous.  Once one accepted the inescapable fact of an unchangeable human nature and the consequently predictable repetition of history, every moment was indeed the best simply because it could be no other way.

Bethany agreed with Voltaire and therefore had nothing to do with campus activism.  In fact, given Voltaire there was no more folly than that of progressive idealism – a waste of time, energy, and resources.  The world would surely be a saner, less contentious, and more peaceful place if one gave up one’s hold on righteousness and progress.

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Bethany was more like her father than her mother.  Although he never gave philosophy a second thought, so busy was he making money, his views, if parsed, would be worthy of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer.

Kierkegaard posited an early form of nihilism, which he referred to as leveling, the process of suppressing individuality to a point where the individual's uniqueness becomes non-existent and nothing meaningful in his existence can be affirmed.

Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.

For Schopenhauer, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world. Einstein paraphrased his views as follows: "Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants."

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Randall Beech simply carried on, doing what he did best, driven by that particular configuration of nature and nurture which created him but unaware of and indifferent to it.

Bethany was very aware of her Panglossian attitude which was very distinct from the nihilist philosophers who proposed them because of her conclusion that things simply were.  They were neither meaningful nor meaningless; neither influenced by pure will nor only acted upon. 
How then could anyone invest anything more than desultory interest in proposals to change the course of a determined, valueless world?

Her special brand of indifference was particularly threatening to campus activists.  Had she said she was a nihilist and staked out a clear philosophical position, she would have been tolerated or at least invited into the big progressive tent.  Nihilism was a dare sight better than reactionary conservatism.
She did not claim a higher moral ground, and said that she was only indifferent.  “I don’t care”, she said, and the culture warriors took it as a battle cry.  Indifference was tantamount to capitulation, and capitulation was tantamount to moral cowardice.

Once she left university and pursued an academic career, she was no longer hounded.  Everyone in associated Harvard PhD program was focused on elemental research whether in philosophy, linguistics, hermeneutics, or physics.  Neither they nor she had any time for speculation about a better world.  There might or might not be one, and their work might or might not contribute to it, but it was of no concern to them. 


One of the by-products of the best of all possible world is unconcern about implications.  Only results matter.