The Day After Tomorrow

Fahrenheit 911

American Films and the Decline of Western Civilization

America as the Cultural Leader of the World

I am an American, born and bred here.  All of my ancestors arrived in what is now the United States between the early seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  I love America and believe that she has had a great impact for good on the rest of the world, but through the massive exporting of her popular culture in the form of television and music, and particularly films, America has also profoundly influenced the world for evil.

A Century of Radical Change

The twentieth century was the profoundest century of change in recorded history.  In the field of technology alone, the world has seen nothing like it.  My father’s sister died in 1999; she had been born in 1896.  I marvel at the changes she saw.  Some, like indoor plumbing and electricity, had existed before her time, indoor plumbing going back as far as four thousand years ago.  But neither plumbing nor electricity were widespread in the world into which she was born.  Neither was the automobile, the telephone or the radio.  The Wright brothers had yet to fly at Kill Devil Hill.  There were no theaters for films.  And, of course, there were no televisions or computers, satellites in space, CD-ROMs, DVDs or the Internet.  There were no mycin drugs, penicillin or organ transplants.  When people couldn’t cope with the pressures of life, they poured a few shots of Bourbon and didn’t have psychotropic drugs like Paxel and Prosac.  Politically, Europe was still largely ruled by monarchies; she was an adult woman by the time both Kaiser and Czar were gone.  She was alert throughout her life, and beautifully played her grand piano for my family the last time we saw her, just before her 102nd birthday.

Historical Cultural Shift Legally Ensconced by Judicial Fiat

Her life spanned something else, too:  the enormous cultural shift that took place in the United States of America.  Just four years before her birth, Justice Josiah Brewer wrote on February 29, 1892, “Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind.  It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian.” [Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S.  457-458, 465-471, 36 L ed 226.  (1892).]

Such a sentiment had a long standing historical precedent.  For example, The Northwest Ordinance, (July 13, 1787) stated in Article 3:  “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The United States Congress passed this ordinance during the time that the Constitutional Convention met (May 29 through September 17, 1787).  This is the same Congress that approved the United States Constitution and sent it down to be ratified by the states.

Respect for the Christian Sabbath is enshrined in Article I, Section 7 (1787) of the United States Constitution, which states:  “...If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it....” What does this reference to Sunday in Article I, Section 7 mean?  It is tantamount to what is commonly called a “Blue Law” and demonstrates that the framers of the Constitution did not have a non-theistic, humanistic, abstract concept of law.

This thinking in no way represents twenty-first century America.  All of this was overthrown through a cultural shift that climaxed in a series of Supreme Court decisions:

McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S.  203 (1948) (An Illinois on-campus religious instruction program was ruled unconstitutional.)

Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S.  488, 490 (1961) (State religious test acts are ruled unconstitutional.)

Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S.  421 (1962) (State approved prayers in public schools are ruled unconstitutional.)

School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S.  203 (1963) (School sponsored reading of the Bible is ruled unconstitutional.)

United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S.  163 (1965) (The Court decided that folk singer, Pete Seeger’s, “skepticism or disbelief in the existence of God” did “not necessarily mean lack of faith in anything whatsoever,” and that his was a belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes and a religious faith in a purely ethical creed without belief in God.)

Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S.  306 (1952) (New York City, off-campus, released time religious programs are ruled unconstitutional.)

Lawrence et al. v. Texas, No. 02-102 (2003) (Conviction based on Texas’ anti-sodomy law is reversed, and the case is remanded to Texas for remedy.) 

After World War II some people objected to Sunday closing laws, and the Supreme Court ruled against these “Blue laws” in 1961, ruling on four separate cases:  McGowan v. Maryland; Two Guys from Harrison-Allentown v. McGinley; Braunfeld v. Brown; and Gallagher v.Crown Kosher Supermarket.  The Court ruled that they were unconstitutional:  “The parentage of these laws is the Fourth Commandment; and they serve and satisfy the religious predispositions of our Christian communities.”

These changes in our legal system did not take place simply by judges making decisions out of the blue; behind these court decisions was a massive shift in how people think about God, the world and morality, and a dynamic and fluid approach to interpreting the Constitution. How did the morals of the Western world, especially those of the United States, move so quickly from those based on the Ten Commandments to the moral relativism of today, where it is a cherished civil liberty for a woman to be able to have her unborn baby killed, homosexuality is glorified and opposition to it is now a neurosis called homophobia?

There are undoubtedly many causes:  a majority of married women now work outside the home, and many children are put in day care centers; the nuclear family is often significantly separated from grandparents, aunts and uncles; the federally controlled education system has stripped itself of the last vestiges of Christianity; and the Western Church has significantly apostatized from biblical Christianity.  The two great world wars helped to bring about these changes, but it was the entertainment industry more than anything else that was the catalyst that helped create this vacuum, where the cultural transmitters of a bygone generation no longer exist in any meaningfully influential way, and now that industry inserts the tawdry and twisted values of MTV and many Hollywood films into our cultural mainstream.

American Entertainment as Evangelists of Secularized Democracy, the Children and Grandchildren of Traditional Protestants, Catholics and Jews

Many of the early leaders of Hollywood came from American vaudeville.  But the moral conservatism inherent within traditional Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism made vaudeville something generally to be avoided.  Furthermore, even though American culture may be described as having been overwhelmingly conservative and Protestant until well into the twentieth century, conservative Protestants were not generally involved in this aspect of the performing arts, perhaps growing out of the Puritan aversion to the stage.  Therefore, very often those involved in the performing arts, especially vaudeville, were those who had rejected the traditional way of life of their parents and grandparents.

The late nineteenth century also saw a significant shift in how Jewish Americans thought about those around them.  This took place as large numbers of Russian Jews fled the pogroms of Tsarist Russia for the liberties and opportunities of the United States where Jews could prosper without fear. Not to paint an overly idyllic picture as if there had not been discrimination against Jewish people earlier, but one may say that pre-twentieth century America was generally a good place to be Jewish, as over against other places.  This can be seen in the life of Judah P. Benjamin, a U. S. Senator elected by Louisiana.  He was the first non-Christian to hold a Cabinet-level office in an American government; he served as Attorney-General, Secretary of War and later Secretary of State in the Confederate States of America.  But the Jews who came to America at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, largely came from Central and Eastern Europe.  They had a very different view of Christians than those who had come earlier from Great Britain.  To these Jews, particularly Russian Jews, Christians were often rapists, thieves and murderers.  Christians were the ones who shouted “Christ-killer” and hounded them out of their communities.

These Russian Jews came with great suspicion of any form of Christian establishmentarianism, even in the mildest and most general forms.  Some came having been infected with grave doubts regarding the faith of their fathers.  Repudiating Orthodoxy, some embraced socialism and secularism.*  Orthodox Jews differed little from traditional American Protestants in their view of the popular stage and vaudeville, and so the Eastern European Jews who became involved in the theater tended to be more secular minded people.  Often they were agnostics who had a cynical contempt not only for Christianity, but for traditional Judaism as well.  And coming from Eastern Europe, they tended to view public expressions of Christianity as a threat to the survival of the Jewish people. 

Somewhat Conservative Secularism in Early Mainstream Hollywood

By and large, throughout the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, mainstream Hollywood was neither anti-American nor anti-Christian, but mainstream Hollywood did present a new vision of America:  wholesome, but not distinctively Christian, much less distinctively Protestant.  It was a vision where religion generally was good, but where the historically dominant Protestant Christian view was melded into a broader religious sentiment that emphasized tolerance and good will.  Reacting to Marlon Brando’s, April 5, 1996, interview on Larry King Live, Jewish humorist, Ben Stein commented:

“It was the Jews of the ‘30s and ‘40s who gave us the vision of America the Good, where money did not count—only goodness. Think of the works of William Wyler (maker of the ultimate pro-American heartstrings movie, The Best Years of Our Lives), or of MGM and its celebration of the swinging good life of Ginger and Fred.

“Where does the idea come from of the perfect American family, occasionally quarreling mildly but ultimately working it all out in love and affection? From Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy, with their largely Jewish writers and producers.

“Where does the idea come from that parents and children, as polarized as they might be, will ultimately love each other? From Norman Lear and his factory for grinding out funny and touching affirmations of domestic life in America.

“Where does the idea that blacks can be funny and endearing as millionaires and not just as servants and wide-eyed fools fleeing ghosts? Again, from Norman Lear and The Jeffersons.

“Hollywood’s current product occasionally repels and even sickens me. I am truly disgusted with its language, its violence, its endless attacks on businessmen and military officers. (On the other hand, it never can attack the CIA enough for me.)

“But these are eddies and ripples in the vast tide of Hollywood messages that encourage and hearten us in our daily struggle.

“Many Americans get this message far more from Hollywood than from worship, and these are by no means subversive messages.”

Post World War II America

This slightly secularized view of the American life was a force early on in the film industry.  As the twentieth century progressed, slight secularization gave birth to a more radical secularization.  In 1966, Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher wrote Situation Ethics: The New Morality, popularizing the dethronement of moral absolutes within mainstream Protestantism.  Coupled with an increasingly pervasive secularization, moral relativism sired the sexually loose latter quarter of the twentieth century.  By the end of the twentieth century, this secularistic, amoral vision of America had became a major force dominating much of the entertainment industry.  To affirm this is not be racist or anti-Semitic any more than it is to be anti-Episcopalian:  Jewish people who hold to the faith and morality of the Tanakh share a common ethical foundation with conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics.

The Power of a Film

The theater is a deeply religious thing:  as Aristotle points out in his Poetics,** the purpose of tragedy is to arouse terror and pity and thereby effect the catharsis (katharsis) of these emotions.  A play can change the way that people think and feel about things far more effectively than reasoned discourse.  Given twentieth and twenty-first century technology, drama can do this through films as never before in history. 

There are many examples, but one stands out in my mind, a film I attended in 1959, A Summer Place.  Though a two hour and ten minute Hollywood soap opera, it was a powerful brainwashing film.  The film adaptation of Sloan Wilson’s novel, A Summer Place, begins with the once poor but now successful business man, Ken Jorgenson, sailing with his wife Helen and his daughter Molly to an island off the coast of Maine, where he had once worked as a life guard, and where he also had been sexually involved with Sylvia Raymond, who is now married to the aristocratic drunkard, Bart Hunter, who has fallen on hard times.  In the course of the film, when the former lovers get caught in adultery, they divorce their spouses and then marry each other.  Their two children become sexually involved when they are supposed to be watching King Kong, and the teenaged Johnny Hunter gets young Molly Jorgenson pregnant.  They find no help from either Johnny’s alcoholic father, or Molly’s self-righteous mother, but the adulterous and newly married, Mr. and Mrs. Jorgenson are very kind and understanding; they stand behind their two children.

What is the effect of watching A Summer Place?  People come quickly to despise the moralistic Helen Jorgenson, a candidate for the American Kennel Club Hall of Fame, and they gasp when she slaps her rebellious, teenaged daughter Molly for getting romantically involved with Johnny Hunter. The audience mildly sympathizes when the two adulterers, Mr. Jorgenson and Mrs. Hunter, having once known true love with each other in their youth, now rekindle their affair.  But they positively gush with sympathy for the fornicating young couple played by Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee.  Coming out of the theater, every post-pubescent female under the age of twenty wants to be like Sandra Dee, and hears the self-righteous snarl of Helen Jorgenson whenever her own mother or father limit her contact with members of the opposite sex.

If the pageantry of the Nuremberg rallies of the nineteen-thirties found the educated class of Germans zeig-heiling alongside everybody else, could not a Hollywood film cause many in an audience to weep in sympathy for Adolf Hitler or cheer at the death of Mother Theresa?   The American entertainment industry drives the cultural changes in the modern world as no force in history ever has.  In the hands of people who put the welfare of Western civilization ahead of money, it could be a tremendous force for good.  Sadly, having lost its historical moorings, it tends to be the world’s chief purveyor of degeneracy.

Bob Vincent

* One well known example was Russian emigrant Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known better as Leon Trotsky.  According to Sir Arthur Willert in his The Road to Safety: A Study in Anglo-American Relations (1952), while in the United States, Leon Trotsky earned his living by working for Fox Film Studios.  But Trotsky left New York City when the Mensheviks took power in 1917, and quickly traveled back to Russia to join Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

** Aristotle, The Poetics, “Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude—by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.” (English.) (Greek.)

As Aristotle discusses various tragedies, he comes to the case of Orestes and comments about “the madness that led to his capture and his escape by means of the purification.” (English.) (In Greek, salvation through the catharsis,SWTARIA DIA THS KATHARESEWS.)  This example, dramatically portrayed, enables the audience to experience salvific purgation as well.

‘Aristotle’s word for this effect is “purgation” or “catharsis.” The Greek word can mean either the cleansing of the body (a medical term) or the cleansing of the spirit (a religious term). Some interpreters are shocked by it, because they do not wish to associate poetry with laxatives and enemas; others insist that Aristotle had the religious meaning in mind. I think it is more sensible to assume that Aristotle did not mean either one literally: he was talking about tragedy, not medicine or religion, and his use of the term “purgation” is analogical. There are certainly bodily changes (in our chemistry, breathing, muscular tensions, and the like) as we undergo the emotions of tragedy, and they may well constitute a release like that of literal purgation. But tragedy speaks essentially to the mind and the spirit, and its effect is like that which believers get from religious ceremonies intended to cleanse the spirit. Aristotle noticed (Politics, VIII) that, in religious rituals that he knew the passions were stirred, released, and at last appeased; and he must have been thinking partly of that when he used the term “purgation” to describe the effect of tragedy.’ [Aristotle, The Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher, intro. Francis Fergusson, “Introduction,” (Hill & Wang Pub; 1961), p. 35.]