FOUR BEDROOMS, ONE BATHROOM, NO BOUNDARIES

March 30, 2009

Some of my most vivid childhood memories revolve around Sunday evenings at 6:30 pm.   Back then my siblings and I would gather before our family’s black and white television set breathlessly awaiting the latest episode of The Wonderful World of Disney.  Would tonight’s offering  hail from one of the many Disney kingdoms –  Tomorrowland, Adventureland , Fantasyland, Frontierland – or perhaps  from some other distant realm not yet unveiled to us?   Huddled in our dressing gowns, with our after-dinner hot cocoa and crumpets (sorry, no American translation), we would spend the most engaging, felicitous hour of our week, sharing a program with millions of others who were similarly absorbed.

Well into our early teens, the name Disney remained synonymous with the tastes, aromas and snuggled warmth of our family den on those Sunday nights – and the valuable time spent with our overworked parents.

With children of my own now, I have searched high and low for that Disney on television and find that it barely exists.  The Disney Channel does offer some of the old programming.  But most of its schedule is devoted to fast talking, plot driven teen sitcoms in which my children  lose themselves with the same abandon  with which  we once gave ourselves over to The Wonderful World of Disney.

But with a significant difference:   they are no longer watching children’s programming.

Any adult who views even one episode of these programs will recognize immediately that they are as distant from traditional family entertainment as we were once from Tomorrowland.   Adult dialogue placed in the mouths of ten, eleven and twelve -year-olds skirts close to sexual innuendo; situational comedies present pre-pubescent children with adult dilemmas which demand adult responses.  Boys and girls in high school trade banter and personal jabs that would not be out of place in an episode of Sex and the City.  One can’t watch these shows without feeling that the boundary between “family” and “adult” entertainment has all but disappeared.

But even this pales in sheer lubricious content when compared to the far more successful and desired programming run under the Disney’s ABC Family Channel affiliate.    Here you can encounter versions of the The Sopranos Lite – programming which ranges from harrowing tales of child molestation to the outright celebration of teenage promiscuity.

Perhaps that is why none of us should be surprised by Disney’s latest offering – Roommates which debuted on the ABC/ Disney Family channel on March 23.   The ” roommates” in question are four teenagers, who jump in and out of each others’ beds with the abandon of the six protagonists from Friends.  The comedy looks nothing like a children’s show and yet it is placed at a time slot where children as young as six, with a nimble thumb and a distracted parent, can locate it and then gulp it all in.

Equally distressing is Disney’s  The Secret Life of an American Teenager.   This show, Disney’s biggest hit, depicts such scenes as teens in bed with one another, underage drinking,  a father peppering his daughters with questions about their sex lives and a pregnant girl in hospital awaiting the birth of her child .

And if that is not enough for you, try  Greek, set in the belly-shots-and-wet-T-shirts world of college fraternities and sororities, or Lincoln Heights, a drama about growing up fast in a crime-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood where single mothers struggle to keep their children shielded from a life of crime.

Welcome to the new Disney “family.”

With the abdication of responsibility inherent in the broadcast of such prurient fare, one does have to wonder how Disney itself justifies this modern volte face on traditional family values.  Well, Anne Sweeney, President of Disney’s ABC affiliate was asked that very question by the Los Angeles Times in February and told us:   “The best way to resonate with your audience is to be authentic and you’re only authentic if you are holding up a mirror to your audience and saying, ‘I see you.’ ”

Television shows don’t make it to air, of course, without the backing of big sponsors  – and most of these shows have them in spades.

In the same interview that caught Sweeney in a moment of repose, Pat Gentile, a top ad buyer for Proctor & Gamble and co-chairman of the Alliance for Family Entertainment, added:

“I’d love for these shows to be ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ but that isn’t going to happen. Family programming is all about bringing families together to watch shows so that they can dialogue about these sensitive topics.”

Sensitive topics?   Dialogue?    Television executives and big name advertisers have, it seems, decided that what we all need  is  a heavy dose of family therapy and the best way of achieving any psychological breakthrough is to thrust societal problems, our priapic urges and our manifest dysfunctions in our  childrens’ faces, the better to deal with them.

Of course this is a lie.  Television  executives and advertisers consider  nothing but market share  when giving the green light to such shows as Roommates and The Secret Life ( which was, incidentally,  originally titled,  The Sex Lives of American Teenagers).   Not surprisingly, The Secret Life is ABC’s top rated show and Roommates looks likely to give it a nudge.

What does this do to a child’s subconscious development and sense of his or her place in the world?    That is the question all of us should be asking ourselves when considering whether to continue to pay our cable bill from month to month.

The rejection of authority, the reversion to aberrant behaviors, the willingness to push boundaries are all related to family breakdown and dysfunction in American households. And these are the very situations television peddles while reminding us how deficient we are in forthrightly addressing our family issues with our children.

There is no greater evidence for the impact that such programming can have on our teenagers than the career trajectories of several former members of that once totem to wholesomeness –  Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. If you want to look in the eyes of shattered innocence, then look no further than the likes of pop icons Britney Spears, Christina Arguilera and Justin Timberlake. All graduate Mouseketeers, they have today  transformed into virtual soft porn entertainers who traffick  in exhibitionism, sexual provocation and an aggressive promiscuity that would make any 1960s Disney television executive blush.

What do we do about this?  Well I, for one, have turned off my television, canceled my cable subscription and written to Disney in protest.  My letter, however, was addressed to dear old Uncle Walt.

Someone, somehow had to inform him that the “wonder” seems to have fled his Wonderful World, and we are all the sadder and poorer for it.

Want to comment on this article? See Avi Davis’ new blog

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THE TRUE LESSONS OF CAMP DAVID

March 27, 2009

Jehan Sadat, the 75-year-old widow of Anwar, might have made history of her own on Thursday morning with an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Remembering the great peace treaty  between Egypt and Israel signed 30 years ago today by her husband, Mrs. Sadat blithely glossed over three decades of ruined diplomacy since then and revealed herself to be a historical revisionist of the first order.

For not only did she get many of her facts wrong (Menachem Begin, not Golda Meir, was prime minister of Israel in November, 1977 when Sadat made his first visit to Israel;  Egypt did not win the 1973 Yom Kippur War but suffered one of the most humiliating routs in military history when its Third Army was surrounded by the IDF) –  but she ignored some of the most important developments of the post -Camp David period which have expunged any realistic hope of  a permanent peace between Israelis and Arabs.

That is because Mrs. Sadat, in offering her husband’s achievements as the model for the kind of relations that could exist between Israelis and Arabs, has ignored some inconvenient truths which cloud her arguments:

· While Egypt may well have formalized diplomatic relations with the Jewish State in March 1979, full cultural, economic and social ties were never normalized.

· Today Israeli citizens risk their lives in visiting Egypt as tourists; there are no regular lines of commercial exchange between Israel and Egypt and Israeli entrepreneurs must employ surrogates and subterfuge in selling their wares in Cairo.  In addition, any Egyptian who announces his intention to visit Israel risks public slurs, death threats and even imprisonment.

· Egyptian papers lead the world in the denunciation of Israel with regular editorials comparing Israel to a Nazi state; cartoonists revel in reactivating centuries-old blood libels; and reporters have no qualms about planting the blame for Egyptian social and economic woes squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish State.

· Egyptian television has also gotten into the act and become a vehicle for some of the worst examples of anti-Semitic baiting since Josef Goebbel’s propaganda machine.   In 2002 it produced the notorious 41-part series Horseman Without a Horse – a  turgid soap opera which introduced an outrageous recalibration of the Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and whipped the Arab world into a further frenzy of Jew hatred.

· On the diplomatic stage, Egypt is a world leader in denunciation of Israel on all kinds of international platforms –  from the United Nations (where, in the General Assembly, it consistently votes against Israel on almost every issue) to human rights panels, to economic summits to global warming conferences.

· Most notoriously Egypt has failed, to its discredit, in its Camp David commitments to protect the  Egyptian/ Israeli border in the Sinai Desert.  The rise of Hamas and its subsequent military capabilities was unquestionably aided and abetted by Egypt, whose border guards turned a blind eye to rampant smuggling of heavy armaments over a number of years. Israeli protests about the open collusion between the border guards and Hamas went unheeded and as a result Hamas transformed into a significant military threat on Israel‘s southern border.

But Mrs. Sadat seems to know none of this.  She seems to believe that ” for nearly 30 years, Egypt and Israel have lived side-by-side in a state of peace,” as if peace is merely a non-belligerency pact that has nothing to do with the hearts, minds and will of a nation’s citizens.  She fails entirely to realize that the determination of the Egyptian state to maintain its economic and cultural rejection of the Jewish state, inevitably dooms the two nations to not a state of “peace”  but rather to one of continued hostility with the unspoken but ever present (and, in many Egyptian circles, ever hoped for) prospect of war.

More important than even this though, is Mrs. Sadat’s evasion of the most fundamental reason other peace attempts ( such as the Oslo Accords and the failed entreaties to Syria) have stalled:  the rise of terrorism within Israel proper and its heady support within the Arab world.  The Oslo Accords did not “fail” because of an absence of leadership on both sides, but because the Palestinian leaders never fulfilled any of the terms of their agreements and much like the Egyptians before them, continued to stir hatred of Israel through their media, schoolbooks and  public pronouncements. The “shahids” of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, did not imbibe their martyr-centric ideology from their mosques alone.  They were spoon-fed a continuous diet of hatred by Palestinian leaders, teachers and newscasters.

Perhaps these are the true “lessons of Camp David.” Egypt led the way in demonstrating how much political and diplomatic juice could be squeezed out of faux peace agreements that do little to actually generate peace but go a long way to ensuring a public state of open hostility, the necessary ingredient to keep citizens focused on a common enemy. Jordan, a country that signed its own peace treaty with Israel in 1994, has learned this lesson well, doing almost nothing over the past 15 years to alter the commonly held Jordanian view of Israel as a racist, elitist and irredentist state.

A reading of  any Egyptian or Jordanian newspaper today gives one the sinking feeling that, despite the existence of formal peace treaties, both countries remain culturally and diplomatically at war with Israel and peremptorily reject the very notion of a Jewish state.  One despairs at the prospect of the fall of their secular governments and the omnipresent potential of theocratic rule.   For then, the Jehan Sadats of the Arab world will be quickly relegated to irrelevance and her husband’s supposed dream of “a fair, just and comprehensive peace” will be crushed beneath the wheels of a steamrolling hatred that he and many other Arab leaders did nothing to quell.


THE SKEPTIC’S GUIDE TO GLOBAL WARMING

March 20, 2009

Several months ago I would have been hard put to believe that there existed any credible opposition to the global warming juggernaut.

Steamrolling its way through the world, coopting, in its invidious way, our media, political class and intellectual elites, it had seemed to have ruthlessly demolished its opposition, crushing all common sense and castigating anyone who dared voice uncertainty as a heretic.

That all changed last week when I was invited to attend the Heartland Institute’s international conference in New York City, Global Warming : Was it Ever Really a Crisis? At this world gathering of climatologists, astrophysicists, journalists, policy analysts, pundits and politicians, I discovered a vast underground of activists and moles, some of whom have been laboring for years to thwart the progress of the doomsday philososphy. The level of sophistication and deliberation was beyond almost any other gathering of a similar nature I have ever attended. And I believe that the 800 or so other attendees, from all parts of the world, would readily agree with me.

By far the most impressive idea percolating through the conference was that predicting weather patterns and graphing changes in the atmosphere is an enormously hazardous undertaking fraught with the inaccuracy.  That is because there are innumerable variables that play into producing our weather forecasts, from ocean currents to wind strength and to the power and duration of cosmic rays, none of which can be adequately measured nor always accounted for.

Weather predictions are generated by super computers which produce models after being fed appropriate data. Yet the quality and consistency of that data is always suspect when we consider the large amount variables that need to be gathered in order to produce a prediction. Most scientists retain a healthy skeptiism when it comes to climate modeling.  In 2003 , when a German group polled over 500 climatologists on whether these climate models can accurately predict future climate conditions, only a thrid (35.1%) agreed,18.3% were uncertain and nearly half ( 46.6%) disagreed.

A second impressive statistic exposed Al Gore’s assurances that global warming is settled science, validated by at least 90% of the scientific community, as a fatuous lie. To prove it, the conference organizers reproduced a thick 300 page petition against global warming as foundational science, signed by 31, 291 scientists from around the world, 9,000 of whom hold Ph.Ds.

The third revelation was that the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere has historically followed an increase in temperature and never quite the other way around.  This was demonstrated through a viewing of a documentary on the issue – Global Warming: Emerging Science and Understanding, which took to task Gore’s famous 30 foot graphs in his 2005 documentary An Inconvenient Truth,. Gore’s graphs, if you remember, plotted the rise and fall in world temperatures over the past 150 years, and compared that trajectory to a graph situated immediately below it which plotted the rise in carbon emissions over the same period. But the attempt to prove that carbon dioxide emissions paralleled the rise in global temperatue was misleading, if not deliberately fraudulent.

 That is because the two graphs were presented one below the other, without superimposing their trajectories upon one another in order to definitively make its point. But if the two graphs are merged, as the documentary demonstrates,it becomes obvious that over the past 150 years, CO2 emmissons have actually followed , not preceded, the rise in global temperatures. In fact graphs offered by geophysicists’ reports confim that over a 650,000 year period the same phenomenon recurrs.

The fourth important understanding imparted by the Conference was the role governmental bureaucracies and supra-govermmental organizations play in controlling and manipulating the global warming agenda.

Man-made global warming theory is fed by pseudo- quantitative predictions from climate careerists working off mega computers and which involves scientists at the National Association for Atmospheric Research ( NCAR), NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Department of Commerce’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab.  These organizations have become multi-billion dollar scientific weather bureaucracies, as intent on self -preservation and budgetary enhancement as they are on accurately predicting the weather. They are, however, overshadowed in graft, collusion and obfuscation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC) a scientific in body tasked to evaluate the risk of climate change caused by human activity. The panel was established in 1988 by the United Nations. It shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, an honor which hoisted it into the pantheon of the movement’s prophetic elite.

But the IPCC is not a gathering of expert scientists on the issues and includes very few real climatologists or atmospheric physicists. It is a political body, hewing to ideology and following politically correct lines of operation and reportage. One of the more damning ( and alarming) revelations at the conference was that of the controversy which surrounded the IPCC’s second report, The Science of Climate Change in 1995.  According to insiders, the report had originally concluded that there was no evidence that human beings have had any influence on the climate. Yet the original version of the report was substantially edited with 15 different sections of Chapter 8 ( the chapter dealing with the extent of human influence) being amended to reflect the opposite point of view. The Executive Summary to the report, the only part that in practise most politicians ever read, clearly hewed to the accepted fact of human interference, contrary to the conclusions of the original manuscript.

That editorial hit job was almost certainly the work of IPPC’s first chairman, the alarmist Swedish professor Bert Bolin. But he did not get away scot free. Professor Frederick Seitz, the former chairman of the American Science Academy, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on June 12th, 1996 that  ” I have never before witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer review process than the events that led to this IPCC report.”

He proceeded to demand that the IPCC process be abandoned. From then on,the IPPC’s serial campaign of disinformation only grew more robust and continues today as the flagship of the global warming armada.

Having said all this, it is the weather itself which seems to be having the last laugh on all of us, effectively closing the debate. This year, the United States experienced one of its most severe winters on record,with snow falling in such unlikely locations as New Orleans, Las Vegas, Alabama, and Georgia. Canada had its first ” White Christmas ” for the first time in 37 years. Satellite data, as recently as last week, revealed that three of the Great Lakes — Erie, Superior, and Huron — were almost completely frozen over. In Washington, DC, what was supposed to be a massive rally against global warming was upstaged by the heaviest snowfall of the season, which all but shut down the capital. Only 2,000 global warming diehards turned up to protest global warming

Meanwhile, the National Snow and Ice Data Center has acknowledged that due to a satellite sensor malfunction, it had been underestimating the extent of the loss of Arctic sea ice to the tune of 193,000 square miles — an area the size of Spain.

So much for Gore’s predictions on the melting of Greenland – or other parts of the Arctic Ice Cap.

The ultimate conclusion, of even alarmists, is that 2008 was the coolest year of the past decade, eclisping the steadily warming eight years of this century and rendering the average global temperatures over this period appreciably middling – neither too hot, nor too cold.

Predictably, none of this sems to have fazed the Alarmist lobby ( fittingly referred to as ” bedwetters” by Lord Monckton at the New York conference).  The juggernaut is rolling on with Britain contemplating the issue of carbon footprint identity cards; the United States Congress about to debate the efficacy of Cap and Trade legislation; Al Gore pronouncing last week that global warming is still ” incontrovertible science” and the U.N. planning a major conference on climate change for December, on the lines of the farcical 1999 Kyoto gathering.

Why do they then persist in their misbegotten crusade? Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of things to protect. For one, there are oodles of money to be made by the alarmist industry and its supporters, and we know by just looking at our newspapers and magazines that going ” green” is the new fashionable statement, encouraging a raft of new industries to cater to the chic and prosperous.  The scientists who have built their reputations on global warming alarmism run the risk of suffering career -ruining opprobrium should their science prove wonky, ultimately exposing them as the perpetrators of the most serious scientific scandal of the century.  Then, of course , there are the social engineers and environmental idealogues who are salivating at the opportunity to control our political systems, our economies and our daily lives. ( Another Lord Monckton bon mot: might be appropriate here: ” the greens are just too yellow to admit they’re red.”)

But the stubborn facts of the Earth’s relative indifference to human activity endures. A common refrain among the conference participants was that the Earth is constantly passing through alternate periods of warming and subsequent cooling and little that man has done or not done over the past 10,000 years has altered this fact.  During the Medieval period, right through to the mid-19th Century, the world traversed what is dubbed The Little Ice Age, exemplified, most tellingly, by the centuries long annual freezing of the Thames River in England ( which does not occur any longer) and the icing up of harbors inthe Netherlands. Correspondingly, since about 1850, the Earth has been passing through a period of gradual warming , which oddly enough seems to be coming to an end just as we are getting serious about it.

What remains is nature – indomitable, relentless nature – dynamic and mysterious and about which we still know too little. If the global warming alarmists reserved a little more reverence for the enigma of our planet and a little less bile for the human beings who populate it, then perhaps all the money, political capital and intellectual energy they have summoned could be poured into a real human problem that can be humanly solved.


IN DEFENSE OF PARENTAL RIGHTS

March 7, 2009

One Sunday afternoon, in Washington State, a 13 year-old- boy complains to his parents of their demand that  he attend church three times a week – which, in his opinion, is two times too many.   Unable to budge them from their insistence that as their child he has an obligation to do what they say, junior arrives at a novel conclusion – that his human rights have in some way been compromised. He calls 911, complaining of mistreatment.

The police arrive and after some discussion with their superiors and reference to their code books, agree that there is cause to believe that the child’s liberty has been compromised. They thereafter remove him from his parents’ custody. Three days later, a local judge, instead of immediately dismissing the case as a nuisance, acknowledges that the child actually does possess human rights that have been affected by the parents’ decisions and orders against them.

The parents, now frightened that an appeal could result in months, if not years, of the loss of their custodial rights, reluctantly surrender to the local court’s ruling. From that moment on, junior will be required attend  church only once a week – and on the day and time of his choosing.

What is described above might suggest a comedic scene straight out of Disney’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, if it wasn’t all too real. It is eerily close in character to the story of Sheila Marie Sumey, a landmark parental rights case which reached the Washington State Supreme Court in the 1980s. In that case, the child’s parents had become alarmed when they found evidence of their daughter’s participation in illegal drug activity and escalating sexual involvement. Their response was to act immediately to cut off the negative influences by grounding her.

But when Sheila went to her school counselors complaining about her parents’ actions, she was advised that she could be liberated from her parents because there was a “conflict between parent and child.” Listening to this advice, Sheila notified Child Protective Services (CPS) about her situation. She was subsequently removed from her home and placed her in foster care.

Her parents, desperate to get their daughter back, challenged the actions of the social workers in court. They lost. Even though the judge found that Sheila’s parents had enforced reasonable rules in a proper manner, the state law nevertheless gave CPS the authority to split apart the Sumey family and take Sheila away.

If you think that this sounds all too implausible to become a common trend, think again. Since the mid-1990s the United States has been the signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), an international treaty that not only accords children these kinds of rights, but requires American courts to override our Constitution by imposing international rulings on American law. Yet, while the treaty was signed by President Bill Clinton in the mid-90s, it was never presented to the Senate for ratification.
That all may change soon. The call for a vote on the treaty could reach the United States Senate within 30 days. During the confirmation hearing for U.N. Ambassador designate Susan Rice in January, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) demanded a 60-day time frame for the State Department to complete its review of the international treaty and its submission for ratification. Boxer told Rice the UNCRC would protect “the most vulnerable people of society.”

But the United States has had very good reason to reject the treaty. Among the many aspects of parent -child relations that the treaty would seek to monitor or regulate are corporal punishment (which it would outlaw); a child’s right to leisure; the child’s right to reproductive health information without regard to parental involvement or permission; the sentencing of juvenile murderers to death and the sentencing of juvenile murderers to life imprisonment. According to the treaty, Government can override parental decisions based on “the best interest of the child” without proof of abuse, neglect, or harm. Under this new regime, American children would have legally enforceable rights to complain about parental decision-making in every area of their lives, including religious, economic and educational matters.

The negative scenarios which could occur — and are occurring — as a result of this dangerous notion, are both manifold and frightening.

Under the UNCRC, instead of following due process, government would have the authority to override parental choices at their whim because only government appointed monitors would be trusted to determine what is in “the best interest of the child.” In essence, the UNCRC applies the legal status of abusive parents to all parents. This means that the burden of proof falls on the parent to prove to the State that they are good parents—when it should fall upon the State to prove that their investigation is not without cause.

Moreover, a committee of 18 experts from other nations, sitting in Geneva, would have the authority to issue official interpretations of the treaty, interpretations which would possess binding weight in American courts and legislatures. This effectively transfers ultimate authority for all policies in this area to a foreign committee. Such rulings would be supported by international law which provides, according to Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties that: “A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.”

The treaty would also have a pernicious impact upon American sovereignty because of the Supremacy Clause embedded in Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Under this clause, “all Treaties made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby.” In other words, any treaty, ratified by the Senate, effectively preempts state law. Since virtually all laws in the U.S. regarding children are state laws, this treaty would negate nearly 100% of existing American family law.

If the treaty is ratified it will immediately find itself in direct conflict with the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. In Troxel vs Granville, a landmark case in 2000, the court found that parental rights are indeed fundamental rights guaranteed and protected by the Constitution. Parental rights, according to this ruling, are therefore the kind of integral “unalienable rights” referred to in the Declaration of Independence. The ratification of the Convention, if construed as interfering with constitutional rights, would set off a firestorm of litigation which would embroil the courts in years of contentious debate.

The overreaching assault on parental rights and family life, is a piece with the alarming penetration of international humanitarian law into our judicial system and government. We should not forget that the belief in principles of natural law which supersede sovereign enactments and aspects of domestic common law is one that has been similarly used to justify the indictment of Israeli generals, the prosecution of U.S. politicians and the detention of U.S. military personnel in countries around the world

More threateningly, human rights theory has been employed to justify the regulation of freedom of speech, the curtailment of press freedom and to stymie the exercise of the right to practice the religion of one’s choosing. Its boosters among the international human rights community – those who largely control the direction and efficacy of international human rights law- include such powerful non-governmental organizations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders. But these are not transparent representative bodies in any respect and they propound philosophies which are avowedly inimical to the continuity of liberal democracy and the maintenance of traditional values.

With all this said, the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child would be a grevious mistake for the United States, endangering national and state sovereignty and enabling the UN to dictate how parents raise their children while encouraging children to defy their parents by doing exactly as they please.

No more destructive assault on the foundations of our democracy, our way of life and our fundamental values can be imagined.


AND THE WINNER IS ……NIHILISM

March 6, 2009

Do you ever wonder why circus performers do not have their own swanky award shows? After all, these men and women, who have devoted their lives to the performing arts, display not just a high level of physical conditioning and athleticism, but astounding bravery and deep commitment to their craft. Aren’t they also deserving of the red carpet treatment, with millions gawking at their beautiful forms and astonished by their every pronouncement?

Of course to even suggest such a thing, is to invite ridicule, because we all know that circus performers will never achieve the kind of acclaim that those who entertain us on movie screens have so effortlessly harvested for the past 100 years. But if you think of the lowly stature of the circus performer, you might then be able to envision how actors and actresses were regarded for centuries until the advent of moving pictures. 

In fact, in earlier centuries, actors and actresses were often placed at a station only a little above vagabonds and prostitutes and often doubled as both. Nell Gwynne, the 17th Century’s most renowned courtesan, was an actress who became King Charles II’s royal mistress. An actor, John Wilkes Booth, became Abraham Lincoln’s assassin and thereafter one of history’s most notorious fugitives. King Edward VII, as the Prince of Wales and an accomplished roux, favored dalliances with actresses whom he regarded as easy prey for his ravenous sexual appetite. And Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the most famous of the 19th Century actresses, was a profligate whose antics off stage attracted nearly as much notoriety as her thespian turns on the stages of Europe.

So what changed in the 20th Century to elevate the lowly profession of the theatrical performer to the Olympian heights it occupies today? Simply, it was visibility. The enormous appeal of the movie house, where for a few hours a man or woman can suspend reality and invest his or her emotions in the lives of fictional characters, has become modern man’s unique form of escape. In the thrall of watching our heroes grapple with life’s challenges and overcome daunting obstacles, the characters on the screen, for millions of us, have come to represent something more than mere mortal flesh and blood. They project a perfection of the human body and spirit, an aura of infallibility, a sense of trustworthiness and the results of perseverance.

The rapid rise of the acting class paralleled the ascendancy of atheism and steady collapse of religion. The vacuum left by these anchors of modern life, made us search for new objects of faith and the acting class provided a convenient vehicle. Over the past 100 years this class has transformed itself into the very beings that the Greeks once worshipped – self absorbed, petty, lustful, vindictive and omnipotent deities, concerned mostly with their own couture, aesthetics and appetites and largely indifferent to the mundane lives of their worshippers. In their Olympian firmament, which we call Hollywood, they and their enablers have cultivated a new pantheism which is as false and as deluded as anything practiced in Greece 2,500 years ago.

So we find ourselves today venerating not those who live exemplary moral lives, but rather those who imitate life. Plato anticipated this 25 centuries ago when he attempted to distinguish reality from imitation. In relating a famous Socrates allegory, he told of prisoners restricted to the darkness of a cave watching shadows projected by a fire on a rock wall. After some time they begin to believe that the shadows constitute reality. Suppose, he asks, that a prisoner is freed and permitted to go out into the sunlight. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they are and would not be able to name them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be the reality and the outside world the illusion.

It is only through extended time in the sun that a man or woman learns that the shadows on the wall are not real and that it is the sun which is actually the cause and source of all the things that he and his fellow prisoners have been viewing.

It is a quaint analogy and one I often think of when watching a movie and almost every time I view the Academy Awards. Everything in this annual tribute to the imitative arts seems false – from the designer dresses that most of the actresses don’t own and may never see again; to the forced smiles of the celebrities as they preen in absurd statuesque poses before the cameras; to the resigned applause of the defeated nominees; to the expostulations of the winners themselves who profess humility but whose careers have been built on their own hubris.

This is truly life imitating art. 

There is also, of course, a certitude in the voices of the actor/deities and in their projection of wisdom, that has conditioned us to listen to them. And therefore many a recipient of an Oscar has chosen to use his or her moments of glory to lecture us on our failings. Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Moore and Al Gore are three that come to mind. Sean Penn and Bill Maher joined this trinity last Sunday when they admonished us to shake ourselves free of the social constraints of traditional marriage and organized religion. They don’t pretend to be one of us, because they are not. Their omniscience is rarely doubted by their peers who go on cheering and applauding as if the awardees have just unleashed a Zeusian thunderbolt.

What is the thread that weaves through this tangled web of self veneration and arrogance? It is not a universal morality based on human rights and tolerance, as the Sean Penns of this world might wish us to believe. It is, rather, a subtle nihilism that focuses unwaveringly upon individual gratification and personal fulfillment and which disparages anything that smacks of traditional values. How could it be otherwise with a class of people whose solipsistic lifestyles have been elevated by us as models of achievement and whose culture children, such as the young Kate Winslet ( at least in her own telling), are urged to emulate? 

But if anyone wants to understand the heart and soul of this culture, they should go to the real Hollywood – the benighted Los Angeles suburb that the film industry left years ago for the sunnier enclaves of Beverly Hills and Century City.

There on the gritty boulevards you will find the footprint of the film industry and the residue of its stain on our society. Sex shops, strip clubs, tattoo joints, topless bars and gimmicky movie theaters all rub shoulders; the streets are dark, even in daylight. The air is oddly dank. Prostitutes and drug dealers are common. It is in this tawdry world of self abandon and amorality that the real Hollywood and the metaphorical Hollywood collide. Here the imitation is stripped away to reveal the reality – of an industry that has lost its moral bearings and constructed a perverted and seemingly impregnable value system of its own.

What is left is Hollywood’s infatuation with itself. Hollywood today is in form as different from Ancient Greece as can be imagined. But for all of that, the Gods on Mt. Olympus must surely be smiling down with delight.


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