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Vol. XV • 1993

Popular Culture and the War Against Standards
Michael Medved

One of the symptoms of the corruption and collapse of our national culture is the insistence that we examine only the surface of any work of art. The politically correct, properly liberal notion is that we should never dig deeper-to consider whether a given work is true, or good, or spiritually nourishing-or to evaluate its impact on society at large. Contemporary culture is obsessed with superficial skill and slick salesmanship while ignoring the more important issues of soul and substance. This is one of the consequences of the war on standards-a war that is currently being waged on three fronts: the glorification of ugliness, the assault on the family, and the attempt to undermine organized religion. Each of these fronts is serious enough to merit separate consideration.

   The Glorification of Ugliness

Everywhere around us, in every realm of artistic endeavor, we see evidence of the rejection of traditional standards of beauty and worth. In the visual arts, in literature, in film, in music of both popular and classical variety ugliness has been enshrined as a new standard, as we accept the ability to shock as a replacement for the old ability to inspire.

This tendency has reached absurd extremes with the recent efforts to elevate the banging and shouting of rap music into some sort of noble art form. Consider, for a moment, the recent obscenity trial of 2 Live Crew. One of the expert witnesses who helped secure the group's acquittal was a professor of literature at Duke University named Henry L. Gates. Under oath, mind you, he testified that these poetic souls, whose lyrics exalt anal rape and the mutilation of female genitalia, had created a "refreshing and astonishing" body of work. Professor Gates went on to compare their achievements to those of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and James Joyce. (As the late George Orwell once commented, "There are some ideas so preposterous that only an intellectual could believe them.")

In film, the art form which I most regularly consider, the process of degradation has already reached levels that should lead all thoughtful critics to despair for the future of the medium. Indescribable gore drenches the modern screen, even in movies allegedly made for families. And the most perverted forms of sexuality - loveless, decadent, brutal and sometimes incestuous - are showing regularly at a theater near you.

Goodfellas, the winner of nearly all the most prestigious critics' awards for 1990, is a ease in point. This gritty tale of small-time Mafia hoods is Martin Scorsese's follow-up to The Last Temptation of Christ. Technically, it is indeed a brilliant achievement, and it features superb performances by a number of talented actors. why, then, do most people who see the film leave the theater feeling cold and empty? Because Goodfellas, with its fascination for its own collection of lavishly loathsome characters, never engages our sympathy or our concern. This has been a problem with scores upon scores of recent American films. From Miller's Crossing to Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot, from After Dark, My Sweet to State of Grace, to David Lynch's Wild at Heart to Robert Redford's Havana to Jack Nicholson's Two Jakes, Hollywood has been creating central characters with all the warmth and charm of poisonous lizards. This trend reached its logical conclusion, I suppose, in an absolutely unbearable film called Homer and Eddie, in which the heroine, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is a murderer, a thief, and an escaped mental patient who also happens to be dying of a brain tumor What an inspiring role model for today's youth!

You may never have heard of Homer and Eddie, or many of the other films I've just mentioned, because they all proved to be pathetic flops at the box office. Despite the presence of major stars, obscenely inflated production budgets, and enthusiastic endorsements from some of my fellow critics, these motion pictures failed to connect with ordinary moviegoers. Hollywood nevertheless persists in shelling out untold millions on projects that emphasize the darkest, most repulsive aspects of American life.

   The Assault on the Family

The second front in the war against standards involves an attack on the family that seems to gather new force with every passing year For thousands of years, society has acknowledged the fact that a permanent partnership between a man and woman, for the purpose of nurturing children, offers the best chance of human happiness and fulfillment. This fundamental notion has not only been challenged in recent years, it has been assaulted with unparalleled ferocity by some of the most powerful forces in our culture.

The popular music business, for instance, has become a global enterprise of staggering proportions that generates billions of dollars every year through the simple-minded glorification of animal lust. Nothing could stand at a further remove from the selflessness and discipline that are essential to successful family life than the masturbatory fantasies that saturate MTV 24 hours a day

Once upon a time, parents worried about the impact of idolized crooners like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, or the Beatles, but these performers were tender, wholesome romantics when compared to Guns and Roses, Madonna and other paragons who dominate today's music scene. The singers of yesteryear certainly exploited sexuality as pad of their appeal, but the fantasies they purveyed in their songs still centered on long-term emotional relationships between men and women. What is most striking about the popular music of the moment is the cold, bitter and sadistic edge to the vision of fleeting sex it promotes.

Another message of the music that is ceaselessly reinforced by television and movies is the perverse but pervasive idea that "kids know best." Teenagers are regularly portrayed as the source of all wisdom, sanity and sensitivity, while their parents are shown as hopeless, benighted clowns. With Bart Simpson regularly turning up on lists of the most admired Americans, we've certainly come a long way from the Andy Hardy model, with young Mickey Rooney learning life lessons from his father, the stern but kindly judge. This new idea that children have all the answers, and have to show the older generation bow to live and how to adjust to the brave new world around them, is a holdover from the destructive obsessions of the `60s youth culture, and it poisons the climate for family life.

Even the smash hit motion picture Home Alone, which cunningly caters to America's desperate hunger for family entertainment, advances the notion that today's hip kids don't really need their bumbling parents. The seven year-old hero not only survives in fine style when his parents fly away to Europe and accidentally leave him behind, but the boy also displays remarkable courage and skill in foiling the designs of two adult burglars.

Nevertheless, Home Alone deserves some credit for showing a more-or-less normal middle class family, since this sort of unit has become an increasingly endangered species in American feature films. According to the Census Bureau, two-thirds of all American adults are currently married, but movies today focus overwhelmingly on single people.

Even those films that seem to celebrate the joys of child-rearing display a contemptuous attitude toward marriage. A few years ago, Hollywood discovered that babies could serve as a major draw at the box office, and attempted to lure moviegoers with a series of diapers-and-formula fantasies. The three most successful of these films - Three Men and a Baby, Look Who's Talking, and Baby Boom-all featured single people in the parental roles. The underlying message could hardly be more clear: infants may be cute and cuddly and desirable, but they are best enjoyed without the inconvenient entanglements of marriage. This is precisely the sort of irresponsible message that encourages the tragic epidemic of out-of-wedlock births that is sweeping the country.

With its single-minded focus on unmarried characters, the movie industry conveys the idea that it's exciting to live on your own, but boring and stifling to live within a marriage. The unspoken assumption is that married people never experience anything that's interesting enough to be dramatized in a feature film. Of course, there are many other sociological and psychological reasons that couples break up, but can anyone doubt that the popular culture's determined assault on the traditional family has contributed to the problem?

   Hostility to Organized Religion

This brings us to the third front in the current culture wars, and perhaps the most crucial battlefield of all, and that is the attempt to undermine organized religion. A war against standards leads logically and inevitably to hostility to religion, because it is religious faith that provides the ultimate basis for all standards. The God of the Bible is not a moral relativist, and He is definitely judgmental. The very nature of the Judeo-Christian God is a Lord who makes distinctions. In the Book of Genesis, God creates the world by dividing the light from the darkness, dividing the waters above from the waters beneath, and so forth. In traditional Jewish homes, when we say farewell to the Sabbath every Saturday night and prepare to move into the secular week, we recite a Messing that praises God for separating aspects of reality, one from the others-for making distinctions. To the extent that we as human beings feel that we are created in God's image, we make distinctions too-and we have standards.

That is a position that is honored by millions upon millions of our fellow citizens, but it is regularly ridiculed in the mass media. One of the national television networks has chosen to promote its most popular show with a scene that mocks a family saying grace. With the Simpsons solemnly gathered around their cartoon dinner table, Bart intones: "Dear God, we pay for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing."

Meanwhile, the federal government pays to display a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist's own urine, and the nation's most prominent vocalist, Madonna, abuses Christian symbols and sacraments in sexually explicit music videos commonly viewed by children.

In 1989,1 spoke at Hillsdale College on the topic, "Hollywood Versus Religion," and I focused on the film industry's self-destructive tendency to portray all religious characters as corrupt, or crazy, or both. I found this pattern particularly perplexing since the major movie projects that attacked traditional faith all turned out to be commercial flops, while the very few films that took a more sympathetic attitude toward religion performed surprisingly well at the box office.

I wish that I could report that Hollywood has gotten the message in recent months, but if anything the situation has deteriorated. Since I last spoke on this subject, major studios have given us films such as Nuns on the Run, which savagely lampoons every aspect of Catholic practice and belief; Star Trek V; in which the villains are a band of crazed believers who follow a mysterious, demonic force that they, and the film's credits, identify as "God"; Mermaids, which features Cher as a nymphomaniac single mother and manages the considerable feat of trashing both Judaism and Catholicism in the same film; and Godfather III, which focuses on corruption and murder within the Vatican and displays far more sympathy for the mafia than for the Church.

   Popular Culture: Why It's Impossible to Tune Out

When I try to discuss some of these issues with working professionals in the entertainment industry, they usually offer the same response: "Nobody's forcing people to see these movies," they'll say. "If you object to the messages that you're getting from a piece of creative work, then you can exercise your right to avoid that film, or to switch that channel on your TV set, or to turn your radio off. If something offends you, then it's easy to tune it out."

Unfortunately, they're wrong. Popular culture is an overwhelming and omnipresent force in this society; not even the most determined and conscientious efforts can effectively insulate you - or your children - from its powerful reach.

The point is that you can say to yourself, "I'll just tune out the messages of the media," but it's not possible today. In the past, if you talked about popular culture, you meant going to a movie theatre perhaps once a week and paying your money to see a single show. But modern technological advances have brought us boom boxes, and Walkmans, and VCRs, television and MTV. The messages, the images, are everywhere around us, and seep into every corner of our lives.

Is it a coincidence that the war on standards in ad, music, television and film, corresponds with increasingly destructive behavior on the part of the young people who are the most devoted consumers of these media?

Is there no connection between the medias' obsession with crime and violence and the fact that the number of 14 to 17 year-olds who were arrested in 1990 was thirty times what it was in 1950? The rate of out-of-wedlock births in this country has increased by 500 percent since 1960, and one out of ten of all teenaged girls will be pregnant in 1991. The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that more than a quarter of American females have engaged in sexual intercourse by age fifteen-five times the rate that prevailed as recently as 1970. How can media moguls plausibly maintain that these behavioral trends have nothing to do with the sex-drenched popular culture that plays such a central, all-consuming role in the lives of so many young Americans?

   Free Market Solutions and a Grassroots Revolution

In the final analysis, the key issues in the current conflict won't be decided in the halls of Congress or the offices of the federal bureaucracy. They will be settled, as fundamental questions are always settled most effectively in America, through the application of free market principles and displays of private-sector determination and resourcefulness.

Part of this process will no doubt involve sponsor boycotts, direct protests, letter-writing campaigns, and other forms of organized pressure. These tools are far more appropriate than new governmental regulation, which is, at best, a blunt, sloppy and ineffective instrument.

As part of the continuing struggle we must do more than protest the bad; we should also begin promoting the good, and providing uplifting alternatives to the trash that currently dominates the scene. It's a sad fact that talented individuals with traditional convictions or religious scruples have too often shunned active involvement in show business because of that arena's long-standing reputation for sleaziness. Unfortunately, this means abandoning the field to the sickos and sybarites, and you see the results on your television and movie screens. Let the call go out immediately: the outnumbered good guys in Hollywood desperately need reinforcements!

Keep in mind that the entertainment industry is one area of endeavor in which a few gifted individuals can still make an enormous difference. The American people have shown that they are ready to respond when given the opportunity, as witness the utterly unexpected, $100 million success of a wholesome, life-affirming project like Driving Miss Daisy.

Even more recently, an unheralded, low-budget picture called China Cry demonstrated once again that good values can mean good box office. This off-beat production, funded by a determined group of evangelical Christians, may not be the greatest film ever made, but it's a heart-felt, passionate piece of movie-making about a young mother who undergoes a religious conversion while suffering persecution at the hands of the Chinese Communists. Without well-known stars or any promotion budget to speak of, this audacious little picture has drawn an amazing response from the public-averaging more than $6,000 per screening in its first three weeks of release. This means that in multiplex theatres where it has played alongside big budget major studio productions, it has easily clobbered films such as Rocky V or Goodfellas or Predator II. We need more films like China Cry, but we'll only get them if concerned individuals are willing to roll up their sleeves, to dirty their hands, and to get to work-outside the mainstream, if necessary-to change the direction of the popular culture.

The change, when it comes, will amount to nothing less than a grassroots revolution. It won't flow from the top down, but from the bottom up. If we place all our faith in a few bigwigs in Los Angeles, or New York, or Washington, nothing will happen. We must rely instead on a thousand different centers of energy and dedication, in every corner of these United States, to make sure that popular culture will once again reflect-and encourage-the fundamental goodness of our people.

What matters ultimately in the culture wars is what we do in our daily lives-not the big statements that we broadcast to the world at large, but the small messages we send through our families and our neighbors and our communities. And those small messages, reinforcing each other from every direction across this country, can become a force powerful enough to change the world. The future of America will depend not so much on the movers and shakers in the centers of power, but on the hopes that we generate in our own communities, our schools, our churches, synagogues, and families. What we do there will count for even more, in the long run, that what celluloid shadows do on screen.

Editor's Note: Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal
of Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI 49242. Subscription free upon request.

"Popular Culture and the War Against Standards"
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