It has been interesting and to me gratifying if unexpected to see the negative reactions in the media to a little—really a very little—typical Hollywood politicking at the Oscar ceremony this year. The producer of the show, Gil Cates, said that he would not have Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who appealed on behalf of Haitian AIDS victims, or Richard Gere, whose concern was for Tibetans, on his show or in his home again. Well done, Gil! (Though can we believe that anyone in Hollywood could be really that “judgmental”?) Almost as remarkable were cartoons by the likes of Doug Marlette, who draws for New York Newsday, and Jeff Darcy of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Marlette’s showed two toothy presenters at a future ceremony saying: “For silliest appeal on behalf of an obscure political cause in a futile attempt to prove actors are not frivolous, self-absorbed, pea-brains, but actually serious, substantive human beings the nominees are . . .” Darcy’s cartoon depicted a typical working man in overalls saying: “The cotton ear plug on my lapel represents millions of suffering Americans who don’t want to hear actor types airing their political views during the Oscars.”
It is the latter cartoon, actually, which gives me greater hope.
It is the latter cartoon, actually, which gives me greater hope. Maybe even the ridiculous AIDS ribbons that have been all but de rigueur for a couple of years now at gatherings like the Oscar ceremonies are beginning to show up as the appalling humbug that they are. This is the more likely now that it has become possible for the beautiful people to color-code their compassion, wearing a red ribbon for AIDS, a pink ribbon for breast-cancer awareness, a purple ribbon (sported on Oscar night by Denzel Washington) for sympathy with the victims of urban violence, a green ribbon for the tree huggers, a black ribbon for opposition to the death penalty, or a rainbow-colored ribbon for those hopeful of avoiding more riots in Los Angeles. Perhaps instead there will be street clashes between the breast-cancer gang and the death-penalty gang.
“Decorations will be worn” is a phrase still occasionally to be seen on formal invitations to gatherings which include military officers. But such decorations have been earned: society requires the naturally modest to reveal what (so the convention suggests) they would otherwise hide. The decorations which are now being worn as a means of proclaiming one’s sensitivity rather than one’s bravery can be taken up by anyone for the price of six inches of ribbon; they are the individual’s imposition upon society rather than the reverse. Likewise, sensitivity, unlike bravery, is among the cheapest of virtues—if it is a virtue at all when carried to the lengths that are typical of so many areas of public discourse these days.
For the habit of wearing one’s heart upon one’s sleeve—or upon one’s lapel—is what has led to such egregious misuses of the public airwaves as are to be seen on afternoon television shows—or read about in newspaper accounts of the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow custody hearings. Mr. Allen and Miss Farrow (who, one waggish reporter wrote, “used to be thought of as ‘private’ people”) are certainly guilty of washing their dirty linen in public, but that is something that is to some extent not in their control. The more serious breach of taste on their part took place long ago and is what is ultimately responsible for their present predicament. It was to adopt as their own the belief that life is a pursuit of happiness.
One of the consequences of the breakdown of the American educational system is that so few of the few who ever learn about the Declaration of Independence at all learn that “happiness” in Jefferson’s formulation does not mean what “happiness” does in Woody Allen’s. One’s “hap” used to be one’s fortune, as we realize from that meaning’s survival in “mishap.” Happiness, therefore, to a Virginia farmer of the eighteenth century would have meant good fortune but would have implied nothing about feelings beyond the elementary sense of gratification that must be inferred in those whom good luck befalls.
Jefferson was being revolutionary enough, God knows. His Declaration was as much of the Independence of the individual as it was of the thirteen colonies—independence from the web of social obligation which has in all ages and times restricted that pursuit of individual good fortune which he so startlingly endowed his fellow countrymen with as a natural and political right. He may even have made Woody Allen inevitable, once the inexorable process of internalization had had two centuries to work on his newly autonomous individual. But he was not promising us a right to feel good in his new American republic, and those who suppose that he was are people who are not only going to make themselves miserable, like Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, but who are all too likely to make the rest of us miserable as well.
That, as it happens, was a point raised in a long editorial entitled “No Guardrails” that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 18. The Journal was so proud of this that it took out a full-page ad in The New York Times in order to reprint it and invite comment. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk-show host who doesn’t allow reading on his program, read out the whole thing. Its thesis was that the language of personal autonomy without regard to traditional social sanctions (those “guardrails”) has obtained a kind of cultural hegemony in America ever since the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
From that point on, says the Journal, there was never any shortage of pundits and professors ready to apologize for anti-social behavior on the grounds that its perpetrators were motivated by sincere feelings that they were in the right. They were, in a fashion, exercising their rights as Americans to pursue happiness. This is bad enough for the rest of us who happen to find ourselves in a position to obstruct that pursuit, but it is even worse for the weaker vessels in society who, told by Nike to “Just Do It,” go out and get pregnant or do drugs or crack up. The New Yorker, even in saying that no liberals had risen to the Journal’s bait, rose to the bait itself to proclaim that the Sixties were long dead, that Jerry Rubin was selling patent medicines, and that, therefore, “the cultural elite” was off the hook.
Here, I’m afraid, I have to agree with The New Yorker’s conclusion, if not its premises.
Here, I’m afraid, I have to agree with The New Yorker’s conclusion, if not its premises. The occasion of the Journal’s piece was the murder of an abortionist in Pensacola, Florida, by a fanatical right-to-lifer. No doubt for good tactical reasons The New Yorker’s editorialist suggested that the social wreckage of the last twenty-five years could be laid as much at the door of right-wing religious fanatics as at that of the secular clerisy to which The Wall Street Journal addresses itself. But this is not true, nor does it serve the noble cause of bashing the cultural elite to add to the catalogue of its sins the murder of Dr. Gunn. This you can only do, paradoxically, by arguing that his killer, Mr. Michael Griffin, was provoked beyond all power of resistance by all that permissiveness. Where are the pundits and the professors who are apologizing for Griffin? They are not in evidence. On the contrary, the Left has seized upon his deed as an excuse for silencing or rendering impotent anti-abortion protests while the Right, like the Journal, falls all over itself in its haste to dissociate itself from him.
If the spirit of the Sixties is to be blamed, let it be blamed for what it is truly guilty of. Anyone with a memory of the Sixties can name half a dozen major race riots that took place before the riot at the Chicago convention. And after every one of them there were culturally prominent voices raised (as they were raised again after the Los Angeles riots last spring) to tell us that we had to understand “black rage”—never mind that black rage’s most devastating effect was upon black lives and black property. The Journal’s editorialist never mentions race but instead finds a non-racial riot, the like of which had not been seen before and has not been seen since, to stand as the only begetter of a social phenomenon whose most insidious effect, as he recognizes, is felt not in riots at all but in breakdown at the level of the individual or the family.
Why is this? For two reasons. One is that race is still a terrible taboo for rich white people of any political coloring. So great is the burden of our privilege upon our weary shoulders that perhaps its weight is being felt now even by Limbaugh. After the Los Angeles riots he offered a special welcome to new listeners to his show who were tuning in on the radios they had looted. I wonder if he would do that now that he is on familiar terms with former-President Bush, now that his best-selling book and his television show have made him considerably richer and more successful than he was only a year ago, now that Time and The New York Times are interviewing him and so giving him some of the cachet of respectability he used to lack. It seems to me that he is less fun than he used to be and that his hobnobbing with the likes of George Will and William Bennett has made him sound more like them and less like himself—full of high sentence, no doubt, but not so full of laughs.
The mention of Bennett brings up the second reason for the Chicago convention paradigm: it allows us the precious illusion that we understand this social breakdown. If we know where it started then it must be possible to know why it started. And if we know why then presumably our social engineers can turn it around. Statistics create the same illusion, and only three days before “No Guardrails” the Journal’s editorial page extended its hospitality to Bennett to explain his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators—eight statistical measures of quality of life ranging from SAT scores to average daily time watching television to the violent-crime rate. All of them, not surprisingly, show that there are fewer of the good numbers and more of the bad numbers since the days of Good King Ike in 1960.
But even apart from my doubts about the arbitrary and politically tendentious character of these measures, I have the feeling that we need them only because we dare not look at how deeply rooted is the anomie of which they are only a tiny few of the manifestations. Looking not only at how many hours we spend watching television but also at what is being watched during those hours suggests less a political program than alternative methods of suicide. I’m all for mindless entertainment, mind you, but I am more than a little alarmed that some of the forms of mindlessness now to be found on the box are thought by anybody to be entertaining.
The best recent example I can think of is Diana: Her True Story, the two-part adaptation of Andrew Morton’s book about the Princess of Wales which ran on NBC early in April. Like Woody and Mia, Charles and Di suffer the appalling indignity of seeing their breakup in all its messy detail splashed in the media. Woody and Mia brought it on themselves, so one feels less guilty in the role of voyeur. In the case of the Windsors, it is unclear how far the prince and princess connived with the press to embarrass each other, though it is safe to say that Diana was more responsible for making the whole thing public. She was also quite clearly, for all her English pedigree, much more the American-style happiness-pursuer of the two.
For these reasons, and out of natural perversity, I was determined to root for Charles in this very Dianacentric representation of their conflict. Above all, I recoiled from the show’s invitation to pity him because he never learned to express his feelings or had an exaggerated sense of public duty’s prior claims over private indulgence. And of course Diana’s claptrap about her “needs” and her “compassion” and her attempts to break free from the constraints imposed by duty (talk about no guardrails!) is just unspeakable. Do you suppose that the real Diana, however awful she may be, could be anywhere near as awful as this?
Nevertheless, I could see that such a character as Prince Charles was doomed from the moment he was deposited in the box. It is television and not just Oprah or Phil or Geraldo which demands intimacy. And television is merciless with those who do not provide it. A little six-inch-high manikin captured in a fishbowl in our family room cannot stand on his dignity. If he does he looks as ridiculous as Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians. Since so much of celebrity, our new-fangled substitute for fame, depends on coming across well on television, those who suffer from the desire for it—the first infirmity of mediocre minds—must make a Faustian bargain to barter whatever reserve and self-restraint modesty has endowed them with in order to get it.
Someone like Prince Charles, who has made no such deal but is condemned in any case to see his strangulated manner of speaking expertly mimicked by David Threlfall solely in order to make him look silly, is particularly unfortunate. It is not too much to say that if the monarchy falls, television will be seen to have pushed it. When Walter Bagehot said that it is not good to let too much light in upon the mystery of majesty, he had no idea of the candle power of the cathode-ray tube. To see those who aspire to reign as king and queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland talking in anguished tones of personal happiness and fulfillment in the language of the therapeutic culture is to see monarchy shorn of the last vestige of its plausible claim to exist. You might as well have Woody and Mia—or Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon—as your king and queen.
The only reason for voluntarily watching such a sad spectacle as Diana: Her True Story (as indeed for watching so much of television) is Schadenfreude—a fierce, vengeful satisfaction that nothing remains which has not been brought down to the most basic and base human level of “shared feelings,” that there is no one left who is not as busily pursuing happiness as we ourselves. Certainly reverence and awe have little chance of survival in this medium—which is why it can tolerate religion in the form of folksy preaching but not heavy liturgy. Even the incomparable mystery and magic of Parsifal, the Metropolitan Opera production of which was broadcast by PBS for Easter, came across looking more like a Saturday-morning cartoon than the eternal cosmic drama of sin and redemption.
This was nobody’s fault (TV’s eternal plaint!). Sin doesn’t play on television and therefore neither does redemption.
This was nobody’s fault (TV’s eternal plaint!). Sin doesn’t play on television and therefore neither does redemption. The orchestra, conducted by James Levine, and the singers, headed by Siegfried Jerusalem in the title role, did a swell job and the sets no doubt looked impressive and majestic on the Metropolitan stage. But the larger-than-life could not survive domestication and transformation into the smaller-than-life. I found myself making a list of the ways in which this opera could be considered inappropriate to the televisual ethos: for example, besides its belief in sin, there is its length, its vastness of scope, its assumption of historical knowledge, its obsession with “purity” and celibacy, its unironic portrayal of heroism, its separation of magic from either fantasy or trickery, and its reliance on male/female stereotyping.
In fact, it is an interesting question why there have been no noisy protests from feminists at the degrading portrayal of women as the flower maidens in the second act, writhing around in fetching grass skirts and body stockings as they vainly try to persuade Parsifal to play with them. A politically correct Parsifal would have had to show Kundry karate-kicking Klingsor to take the spear away—thus saving the big lug Parsifal the nuisance of all that purity. Does opera get a special dispensation from NOW because it is so hopelessly old-fashioned anyway? Or is it just that all the feminists were watching Sirens over on ABC and so were none the wiser?
The only thing about the opera which seemed to me congenial to television was the idea of the holy fool. Looked at in one way, television restores to us a kind of innocence in taking away from us our sense of sin. The Fall of Man hardly even bruises when it is cushioned by the living-room carpet. There are no sinners on Oprah or Phil or Geraldo, only people who have made “mistakes” or behaved in “inappropriate” ways like Woody and Mia—two holy fools without a Gurnemanz or an Amfortas or a grail knight in sight to show them how to be just holy instead of just fools. As they are, so we shall be. Like Kundry to Parsifal the tube sings to us: “Be mine for only one hour. Let me make you a god for one hour and then be damned.” Let us pray that some Power gives us the strength to return Parsifal’s answer.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 9, on page 54
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