Thank God for Liberal Hollywood
Even though I’m a non-believer, I thank God for liberal Hollywood. When it comes to the much touted “culture war,” I’m with Hollywood, not with the backwater tent revivalists droning on about sin, sex and perdition.
Hollywood’s “liberalism” is among the best contemporary liberalism has to offer.
Consider the recent release of the “West Memphis Three.” The Christian Science Monitor credits “Hollywood” and an Internet campaign for pulling that off. Three young men were convicted in 1993 of the “Satanic” murder of three young boys. Police interrogated one of the boys, with a very low IQ, until he confessed. And, though he withdrew the confession almost immediately, he was convicted and so were his two friends — one of whom was sentenced to death. DNA evidence shows none of the convicted at the scene of the crime.
Many forget that the mid ’90s was a period of sex hysteria, obsessed with imaginary covens of Satanists raping and attacking children throughout the country. This panic created such debacles as the McMartin trial, among dozens of others, involving hundreds of innocent people — many of whom were unjustly convicted.
The infamous Bakersfield case, where dozens of innocent lives were destroyed and no one listened when the children said the police pushed them into making false accusations, was another. The documentary Witch Hunt, with Sean Penn as executive producer, exposed that miscarriage of justice. Similarly the HBO documentary, Paradise Lost, revealed the railroading of the West Memphis Three.
When Hollywood rallies to the defense of innocent people, and secures justice for them, this is contemporary liberalism at its best. Hollywood doesn’t always get it right. But as the classical jurist William Blackstone noted, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
Prominent classical liberal, Ludwig von Mises, wrote about literature and progress. What he said applies to the entire entertainment medium.
“Literature is not conformism but dissent. Those authors who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter, the harbinger of things unheard, the man who rejects the traditional standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.”
American culture is often blamed for many social ills. French minister of the interior, Charles Pasqua, once said that violence in France was the result of an “American-style evolution of French society.” One report I read said that Britons blamed American films and television for promoting violence. Oddly, in America, the violent crime rate was steadily declining in spite of the same films.
Yet Hollywood’s take on the battle between good and evil is a staunchly moral one. Evil battles good and, in spite of a cliffhanger, good ultimately triumphs. The real message from such films and television is that the individual who initiates violence suffers violent consequences himself. These morality tales reach a wider audience than all the Sunday sermons put together.
Hollywood sometimes gets it wrong. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, extolling the Klan, is a prime example of that. But even while civil rights activists were being beaten, harassed or murdered in the ’60s, Sidney Poitier came to dinner with his white fiancÃ© to the questioning of her parents, portrayed by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.)
At near the same time, Star Trek showed Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura sharing an interracial kiss with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Nichols says that Martin Luther King told her that her role was critically important because, “Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again.”
While the religious right shrieks about the impact Glee has on the public in relation to gay people, they forget Billy Crystal was playing an out gay character in Soap from 1977 to 1981. In 1985, Marlo Thomas and Martin Sheen were grappling with their gay son in the television movie Consenting Adult. In 1972, Sheen, this time with Hal Holbrook, starred as a gay couple in That Certain Summer, attempting to explain things to Sheen’s son. Holbrook, echoing Mises, said, “Anything that would make the audience think was worthwhile.”
These are latecomers compared to Dirk Bogarde’s 1961 film Victim, where he plays Melville Farr, a British barrister who exposes a blackmailer who uses the criminality of homosexuality to shakedown gay men. The film is credited with changing attitudes in England, helping lead to the implementation of the Wolfendon Report, which decriminalized homosexuality. Less successful, but still significant, was Max Fassbender’s sympathetic portrayal of homosexuals in his 1919 film Different From the Others, starring Conrad Veidt.
What is true for Hollywood is true for Bollywood as well. Shikha Dalmia wrote:
Islamic fundamentalists have long worried about the threat that Bollywood poses to their puritanical demands. Of late, they have even taken to making videos — rap videos, no less — condemning Bollywood movies as being the product of an infidel culture trying to brainwash Muslims against their own religious values and duties. They have ample reason to be worried: About 3 billion people, or half the planet, watch Bollywood, and many of them live in the Islamic world. By depicting assimilated, modernized Muslims, Bollywood — without even trying — deromanticizes and thereby disarms fanatical Islam.
Conservatives, instead of seeing the benefit of Western values infiltrating Islamic nations through popular culture, lament it. Dinesh D’Souza tried to blame the “cultural left” for the 9/11 attacks. He argued that the Christian right and Islamic “traditionalists” should unite in common cause against social freedom. D’Souza said the real reason “Muslims must rise up in a defensive jihad against America” is “their religion and values are under attack.” The attack is coming from the cultural values extolled by the entertainment industry.
Right-wing theocrat, Gary North, lamented that American culture was promoting social freedom to the Muslim world. He wrote:
“The onslaught of American entertainment is irresistible. The satellite network, the video, the DVD, and the Internet respect no borders. They respect only profit and loss. As technology gets cheaper, it penetrates lower economic strata like a bunker-busting bomb. What the Hutterites and Amish understand, some mullahs may understand but cannot enforce. If you don’t stop the zipper, you can’t stop Madonna. Culture is a package deal.”
North finds that problematic. Me, I still thank God for liberal Hollywood.