Hollywood and the media establishment as a whole are inescapable parts of American and, indeed, world culture. It’s fascinating, therefore, to think about the type of patriotism our American media now espouses and that which it embraced in the past. Depending on how one defines patriotism, whether as love of country or love of a particular political leader, American media has always done its best to lead the way.
Typically, there are two types of patriotism, one of which I think is healthy and one of which is scary. The healthy one is love of country. I’m talking true love of country, the one that sees a citizen believing he is singularly blessed to live in his country. Your citizen recognizes that his country has had — and still has — failings, but nonetheless thinks it’s the best game in town — and this is true whether he focuses on his personal freedoms, the economy, national security or social mores. This patriot is completely distinguishable from those who have nothing good to say about their country, but can only recite an endless litany of its moral failings. When the “patriots” focuses obsessively on his countries wrongs, periodically stopping to make that rote statement that “I love my country,” you see someone akin to the chronic wife beater, who always excuses his abuses by claiming that he’s doing it for his wife’s own good. That’s not about love. It’s about power and hatred.
The other type of patriotism is one that attaches itself to a leader. These are the cults of personality, and I can’t think of one that hasn’t occured in the context of a totalitarian dictatorship. (If I’m wrong, please enlighten me.) Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in German, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mao in China, Kim Jong Il in Korea, Castro in Cuba, and Qaddafi in Libya are all perfect examples of this scenario. In each case, a leader ascended to absolute power and the people, who may have been at first seduced by his demagoguery, ended up at sword-point being forced to worship him completely, to their own detriment and that of the state. That is why it is always frightening when someone ascends to office based upon a personality cult, rather than based upon past accomplishments.
The early movie makers were, without exception, patriots who truly believed America was the best nation on earth. This was true whether they were immigrants who escaped from oppression in other lands (e.g., Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner), or came from America’s heartland (Walt Disney). Even as they recognized America’s flaws — and recognize them they did, especially because flaws tend to make for good drama — their love for this country came through loud and clear in every movie they made. MGM, especially under Louis B. Mayer, loved to present an idealized country in which an honest and free people would triumph, whether to music, laughter or tears. Warner Brothers tended to focus on America’s noir nitty-gritty, but the good guys were the cops who saved decent citizens from those lowlifes who rejected the American dream in favor of crime or the soldiers who protected Americans from enemies abroad. And then there’s Disney, with every movie somehow serving as the backdrop to a subliminal national anthem.
Early Hollywood’s deep love for country was never more clearly seen than during World War II, when every studio in Hollywood willingly bent its efforts to helping America win the war. Whether churning out movies about the home front, about our Allies or our evil enemies, or about the bravery and sacrifice of our troops, each picture had a single goal: to help Americans support the war effort so that America would achieve an absolute victory. The same held true for written media and even popular song. Women were reminded not to sit under the apple tree with anyone but their overseas love; soldiers were assured that, with a little praise for the Lord and a lot of ammunition, they would prevail; and every citizen was reminded to remember Pearl Harbor.
Early American TV also celebrated American virtues. Family shows weren’t about dysfunction, with snotty kids putting inept and helpless parents firmly in their place. Instead, no matter the show’s name (Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, The Ozzie and Harriet Show), the truth was that, in TV Land, Father (and Mother) always knew best. And while these shows, in both tone and racial representation, may not have accurately reflected many of the homes in America, they nevertheless helped Americans aspire to be part of stable and loving families, with respectful, moral children. As with early movies, TV shows through the early 1970s saw the nitty-gritty of America (again, it makes for good drama), but the American people, the ordinary families, the police officers, and the military, were the heroes, not the enemies.
Only in one area did old Hollywood deviate from the purer form of patriotism, and that was when it came to Roosevelt worshipo. Generally speaking, old Hollywood movies shied away from blatant political statements, recognizing, no doubt, that their audience encompassed both Roosevelt lovers and haters. Sometimes, though, a little propaganda was just too good to resist. So it was that, in 1933, when Warner Brothers made Footlight Parade, starring James Cagney, neither Cagney, the studio, nor choreographer Busby Berkeley could resist including an homage to the WPA and Roosevelt in the wonderful grand finale, Shanghai Lil. (The politics come in at about 2:15.)
Looking at this musical pièce de résistance now, over a distance of 76 years, the effect is not only visually spectacular (it is Busby Berkeley, after all), but tinged with an almost wholesome nostalgia. I wonder, though, whether the more sophisticated crowd in 1933, who watched with horror as Roosevelt threw an already fragile economy into absolute chaos, was quite so charmed.
The years since John F. Kennedy have presented the spectacle of a media that entirely lacks the old-fashioned love of country that characterized early Hollywood. Instead, modern media professes a wife-beater’s love for country, with films, magazines, books, television shows and songs that have been relentlessly hostile to American values, whether those values relate to economics, national security or old-fashioned societal morality.
On the economic front, in film after film after film, America is painted as an exploitative imperialist power, in thrall to shadowy corporations headed by evil white men. A perfect example of this is 2005′s Syriana, a muddled mess with mega-watt star power. If you have the stamina to try to sift through the inchoate plot, you learn that evil oil interests control the world. The same year saw an equally muddled film with almost exactly the same plot: The Constant Gardener. These movies, with their focus on the effect evil American corporations have on exploited Third Worlders abroad, were the natural successors to the two decade run of movies about the effect evil American corporations had poor Americans at home (think Norma Rae, Silkwood, and Erin Brockovich).
On the war front, Hollywood has been relentless in its attacks on American forces. They are painted as brutish, stupid murders or innocent pawns, rather than people of intelligence, patriotism, bravery or integrity. Again, examples abound. The staggeringly dull and mean-spirited In the Valley of Elah (2007) is a case in point. The IMDB plot summaries pretty much say it all. One sums up the film as an example of “dirty little secrets with an impressive case of dehumanization caused by the invasion and consequent war in Iraq.” The other explains that the movie shows “the failings of the military to adequately look out for the well-being of its soldiers.” Valley of Elah is such a perfect example of Hollywood’s antipathy to the American military that I’ll stop here. I know, though, that you can easily summon to mind other examples.
And then there are Hollywood’s most insidious attacks, those against mainstream American morality. In 1999, the Hollywood establishment gave its best picture award to American Beauty, a bleak look at the depravity, ennui and despair that is, in Hollywood’s jaded eyes, Middle America. That movie at least had the virtue of being up front in its challenge to American values. As most parents will attest, though, the real problem is the dozens of movies coming out assuring America’s children that it’s totally okay to take drugs, drink, screw around, drop out of school and lie to ones parents. Do this, and you will be amusing and very cool.
Even apparently innocuous movies such as The Sure Thing, which was ostensibly a remake of the delightful It Happened One Night, celebrate college drinking. Its stars do it — so why shouldn’t you? Then there’s one of my least favorite movies of all time, the one that left me with an abiding dislike for the heterosexual Tom Cruise: Risky Business. It is almost impossible to imagine a more sordid movie than this tale of a high school student (played by a known teeny-bopper magnet) who turns his house into a brothel to raise cash, and then suffers (a term I use lightly) an eventual comeuppance that is minimal compared to his complete moral collapse.
Watch enough Hollywood movies — and people at home and abroad do — and the message you will receive is absolutely clear: America is a despicable place, filled with despicable people who use its economic freedoms and its vast arsenal to enslave and destroy, both at home and abroad. This is wife-beater patriotism.
While the entertainment world may show a wife-beater’s love for country, the opposite it true when it comes to Democratic presidents. They are accorded a type of worship that skates eerily close to the state-mandated worship people in totalitarian regimes are required to show for their various “Dear” or “Great” leaders. In Hollywood and Manhattan (the two geographic centers of American media) John F. Kennedy, a hawk and a fiscal conservative, has morphed into a Progressive politician who would have put his political life on the line for a socialist economy and a pacifist national security plan. Bill Clinton, a self-indulgent, sexually debauched leftist (although he had the good sense to move to the center when attacked) was portrayed on America’s TV screens as the innocent victim of sleazy attack politics launched either by white, male, corporate monsters or by white, male, Christian fanatics. And while he was never president, wannabe Teddy Kennedy on his death has been treated as a secular saint. His unfortunate contretemps — cheating scandals, murder, treason, sexual debauchery and alcoholism — are presented as “flaws” and “mistakes” and “failings.” The message to Americans, especially the young ones, is clear: Feel free to kill, lie and cheat. If your politics are pure and Progressive, we’ll always forgive you.
As for Barack Obama, I don’t even know where to begin with him. Every mainstream TV show, whether news or gossip; every big time magazine, whether news, fashion or family; and every major newspaper, has focused relentlessly on the Obama personality cult. The obsession with Obama’s wonderfulness has always been, of course, a necessary offset to the fact that his record, when not absent entirely, showed the kind of Leftist political extremism that would have frightened every ordinary American in flyover country (not to mention those in a few states and counties on either coast). There is no better way to avoid his missing transcripts, his radical friendships and affiliates, his complete lack of executive experience, and his failed political initiatives than turning him into a cutting-edge red, white and blue poster; raving about his physical beauty (although I’ve always thought he looked more like Dopey than Depp); and announcing, based on the evidence of a single (possibly ghost-written) book that he was the second coming of Einstein in terms of intelligence.
Just as with Jesus, the secular faithful in the American media, those who hate the country but love the man, repeatedly told us that we could atone for our grievous sins as Americans by “coming to Obama.” The Dear Leader would wash away our collective failings. With this in mind, do not expect Hollywood to come out any time soon with Obama movies comparable to Nixon, The Reagans or W. A movie about Obama is likely to be closer in emotional tone to The Passion of the Christ.
As always when it comes to Hollywood and television, it’s tempting to slough off its failings by say “it’s just entertainment.” That’s the lazy way out, though. With its spectacular reach, a reach that now extends around the world, and with its trained ability to drive messages home in the most entertaining way possible, what Hollywood does matters. It shapes both foreign and domestic views of America (America is greedy and evil, and its own citizens hate it), and it warps our youth culture by assuring them that the most demeaning and debauched behavior is the surest way to popularity and success.
We can fight back, though. Despite its chronic demonization of capitalism (the bad capitalism, of course, in the form of oil and manufacturing), the entertainment world is all about money. We can vote with our feet. Turn off shows or don’t pay for movies that offend your patriotism and your sense of values. Also use social networking, such as twitter or facebook, to give your opinion of movies. Just today, one of my facebook friends gave a succinct and very ugly review to Taking Woodstock, the latest Hollywood fairy-tale about the wonders of dirty hippies, mud, drugs and loud music. His facebook friends may think twice about shelling out their hard-earned money on that movie. We’ll never see Hollywood’s golden age again, but we don’t have to sit back silently and let the wife-beating, demagogue worshipping modern media have the last world.