The manufactured fervor over President Obama's speech in front of our country's schoolchildren today as is very telling. What is also telling is the administration's subsequent acquiescence to individual school districts by allowing them the ability to opt out of even showing the talk at all. Both responses prove that conservative points of view frequently demand no room for any other philosophy other than their own. The Left compromises and graciously or grudgingly entertains the latest conservative controversy in a desire to at least give the pretense of appearing fair and balanced while the Right never even considers the same compulsion to return the favor. So-called liberal-driven controversies are normally treated with an air of ostentatious condescension by the conservative media, or, if covered at all, are funneled off to be discussed by the talking heads, who point to them as proof that the liberal agenda is dangerous, damaging, or both. This is proof of a double standard of the worst kind. It's not just unfair, it's deeply discriminatory in the identical manner as all of those -isms that we wish to eliminate altogether. We live in a country supposedly based on an egalitarian ideal, but we aren't exactly the best at practicing what we preach.
The sorry truth of the matter is that this country tolerates and sympathizes with the viewpoints of the far right much more than it ever supports those of the far left. We'll give the benefit of the doubt to the Alan Keyes' of the world or to the Bible-quoting, incoherent manifesto writer but if someone dares espouse that there might have been more to 11 September then what we were originally led to believe or that socialism might be a plausible solution to fix our problems, then many of us are fast to throw them under the bus and not without a second to spare. In these bizarre days in which at times I swear I'm living in an alternate universe, Republican legislators have, with a straight face, proposed that our President might not be an actual U.S. citizen and have advanced rumor in place of fact in documented instance after documented instance. One has no need to post them on YouTube as evidence of ulterior motive concealed. They are public domain.
What is our response? A mild sense of moral indignation, and then only in certain quarters. If, however, someone dares to state a far-left point of view, everyone's hackles are up instantly and phrases like "Un-American", "traitor", "Communist", and worse are heard from almost every corner.
Recent political history does factor into our response a bit, though the truth is that we've always been a country where conservative concerns held a kind of power and veracity in the American mindset that liberal ones did not. For example, the 1929 Cecil B. DeMille picture The Godless Girl addresses the atheist groups that sprouted up in high school and colleges over the country during the Roaring Twenties. This, a part of our nation's history scarcely discussed these days, drew a reactionary response was predictably harsh, highly unjustified, and disproportionately punitive. In the film, a daughter of an atheist starts a group in her high school entitled "The Godless Society". Threatened by its very presence, a young man and leader of a competing Christian group incites fellow students to attack the atheists, raising such a degree of hatred that a riot breaks out in the process. During the atheist meeting the police stage a raid, a staircase collapses in the resulting melee, and, tragically, a young girl is killed in the process. Arrested, charged, and found guilty for being directly liable for the young woman's death, both the Christian man and the Atheist woman are sent to reform school, where they suffer degrading and torturous abuse at the hands of their sadistic jailers. Quite predictably, by the last reel of the film their shared horrible experience has driven the previous rivals together into a romantic relationship, and, also predictably, now both of them have complete and unyielding faith in God and in Providence.
A particularly pertinent bit of film criticism sheds additional light on the film and how it reflects American society, then as well as now.
The film’s high school “Godless Society” was partly inspired by a controversy that broke out at Hollywood High School in 1927 when American Association for the Advancement of Atheism flyers were found in student lockers. The ringleader of the Godless Society, played by Lina Basquette, was loosely based on Queen Silver, a precocious agitator from Los Angeles, who at the age of 12 wrote a pamphlet on evolution that came to national attention during the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” For the reformatory story line, DeMille’s research team obtained affidavits from reform school inmates who testified to a variety of abuses, including whippings, water torture, and the use of straightjackets and shackles during solitary confinement. DeMille’s faithful scenario writer Jeanie Macpherson subsequently cobbled these elements together and fashioned a lurid script. However, with its penchant for spectacle and its exclamatory tone, the film undermined DeMille’s stab at realism. As DeMille historian Robert S. Birchard has noted, the film’s larger-than-life treatment of atheism and reform school is allegorical rather than realistic.
As much as we'd like to believe that the struggles of our time are nothing like those in our past, I have often found that digging a bit deeper than normal will reveal a multitude of instances in which the past reflects the present. These need not all be matters of deep profundity. They can also be more prosaic truisms as well.
Returning once more to to the film criticism,
Lina Basquette, the film’s star, credited the movie’s poor reception to its brutal subject matter. “[THE] GODLESS GIRL” she recalled in 1992, “came out just when people were getting used to the fluffy musicals Hollywood was pumping out. The American public didn’t want to look at reformatory schools, kids rioting, atheism, godlessness and the whole bit.”
Embedding social issues and social consciousness into films has frequently been a risky endeavor for movie makers. Whether upon intitial release a film is successful or a complete flop like The Godless Girl is all too often a matter of timing and luck. The Zeitgeist is the common thread which captures the collective spirit of the times, but it is often difficult to correctly discern. When we as a people are ready to be self-critical and ready to ask ourselves probing questions, then such films are unqualified successes. If we are not, then usually the picture flops. The film Network, for example, arrived at a time in the late seventies when a sense of deep pessimism and uncertainty typified the American consciousness and as a result it struck a powerful chord, becoming a box office success in the process. But for every unqualified success there are many films completely ahead of their time like 1921's The Ace of Hearts, which concerns a secret society of nattily dressed men whose stated agenda is to kill the capitalist of their choosing. A female member of the group offers her hand in marriage to any man who, having been dealt the Ace of Hearts from a deck of playing cards, eagerly accepts the responsibility demanded of him by nature of drawing that particular card, and successfully carries out his designated mission. Though its plot was transparently written to reflect the cultural fears and anxieties of the First Red Scare, which existed immediately following World War I, this film was out of step with the conventional tastes of its time and fared poorly in front of audiences. A country weary of war, weary of idealistic rhetoric, and weary of fearful uncertainty wanted fluff and guilty pleasures instead of social commentary.
To return to how I began this post, much of what spurs conservatives to be up in arms in vocal opposition to President Obama's speech is, in fact, purely a case of projection and sore loserism. Their own nagging concerns with themselves drive them to seek fault in every decision and to parse every word our President says in the hopes that it will provide some damning evidence of a secret agenda. One almost has to hand it to them. They've gotten pretty creative over the past several months building straw men and splitting hairs. I seem to recall that when we were out of power, not all that long ago, we were known at times to overreach and occasionally read more into what former President Bush had to say. At times we sometimes over-analyzed and speculated as to what lay underneath the surface, beyond our own knowledge. It must be said, however, that in many ways our response was completely justified. The Bush Administration's abuses, as we know now more than ever, were so numerous and predicated on such chillingly efficient manipulation that we certainly weren't splitting hairs or reading too much into everything when we raised our own objections. Recent revelations made by Bush cronies have proved that most of our criticism was legitimate all along and almost entirely based in fact rather than baseless griping. After all, sometimes things are what they appear to be and again, so many Bush Administration abuses were flaunted in front of us, as if to dare us to stop them. I do not, thank God, see that in Obama's Administration. If anything, I see the reverse---a reluctance to state too firm a position on any matter for fear of offending anyone else's sensibilities. This is its own problem, but at least I don't have to worry that I'll soon be living in a police state like I used to do.
What I also can't help but notice is that it seems like eight years of President Bush hasn't just left a lasting reputation among liberals, it has also deeply influenced conservative discourse and reaction. Nothing feeds conspiracy theories or encourages the belief that government is run by a secret, insular group of elite, highly influential people rather than a collective, Democratic effort of different voices more than the realization that for eight solid years, we were! If there is anything like logic which governs what the Right believes these days, it is partially reflected in the leftist arguments which many still hold that the 2000 Presidential election was stolen out from under Al Gore. The root conclusion of both vantage points is the same: a President obtained his office by means of a vast behind-the-scenes effort that falsified the truth and left the average person completely out of the process. When conservatives are in full out hissy fit mode that President Obama is going to brainwash American children into believing in Godless liberalism (which is, in fact, an exact argument I recently discovered on a web forum) I recall how President Bush used Christianity and his own warped faith to justify many of the decisions he made, the decision to go to war with Iraq being only one of them. I might be advancing too specious a comparative argument here, but it needs to be noted that Presidents and their agenda often reflect the popular opinion of their supporters, though not always. And to conclude: we might be wise to ask ourselves--To what degree does President Obama's policy influence us? Or, to what degree does our policy influence him?