DSPT 79th Annual Commencement Address
May 21st, 2011
I'm pleased and honored to be among the first to congratulate you on your achievements. I'm also greatly honored by this invitation, particularly because I'm not a philosopher or a theologian. As you have heard, I am, in status, a refugee, a wanderer from a strange and mythic land – Hollywood. It is mythic but hardly distant. My friend – and can one say “fellow Fellow”? -- Gil Bailie suggested that I should begin by admitting that “I have spent my whole life in Hollywood – but then so have you!”
“Hollywood” is, of course, a symbolic reference to the center of the mass media and entertainment industry as well as the state of mind that prolonged exposure to these powerful forces induces. The ubiquitous mass media presence with all its technological aspects now constitutes not just the dominant source of meaning and values for most Americans but for many the only source. This recognition should be sobering to all of us and its significance needs to be the subject of not just study but of prayer.
Despite my being born and raised in Hollywood and having worked for many decades in “the industry” as it is rather provincially designated by the locals, my understanding remains limited and has also undoubtedly been filtered by that environment and a life spent turning ideas into entertainment. I don't know if that's much of a recommendation as to my objectivity or even reliability but at least I'm familiar with the intersection of serious thought and the entertainment business, and the occasional collisions.
So I will not be offering a philosophical or theoretical analysis of what I think is mistakenly called “popular culture” but more an account of its manufacture based on my direct experience, more anecdotal, I admit, that evidential. As to the philosophical and theological ideas that penetrated our world, I'm not always sure what the great thinkers actually said but I have some sense of what we heard. I don't think it was always the same thing.
What I will try to offer is what in film terms is called an establishing long shot, a view from my perspective as a long-term survivor.
Timing is important in show business. As an adult convert, my engagement with the Catholic Church began in the last years of the Second Vatican Council, and our present timing is, I believe, significant because, now that fifty years have passed, there is, in my judgment, a need to re-assess the relationship of the Church to the misnamed “popular culture.”
I refer to the term “popular or mass culture” as being misleading and a misnomer because I don't believe that it is a “culture” by any standard definition.
I'm not just being semantically fastidious. This is one of the significant changes that has taken place.
The word “culture” is variously defined but the term assumes at least some minimal degree of coherence, at least a loose matrix of symbols, language, models and ideas that have continuity. Culture points to what more or less tells us who we are and maybe even where we're going. The “popular culture” of the media doesn't do this, if, indeed, it ever really did.
This is a judgment that I admit is severe and perhaps even rash, and will and should be challenged, but I offer it as a starting point more than a firm conclusion. To the extent that the so-called popular culture is incoherent and contradictory, it is not a reliable guide to life or beliefs. If it is no longer able to offer or sustain hope, and this is crucial, if this pseudo-culture no longer offers hope then this is a serious challenge to the Church, that is, to those of us in and of the Church.
When I entered the Catholic Church over thirty years ago, the goals of the post-conciliar period were articulated in terms of “enculturation,” the integration if not assimilation of Christians and their Gospel ideals into the present-day society. But can one speak of “enculturation” if there is, in effect, no “culture”? At the very least this objective needs to be seriously reconsidered in the light of the degree of alienation and the increasing social fragmentation. And I'm not just speaking of talk radio.
I'm not an historian, only, as I say, a survivor.
But I want to offer, first, some perspective as to how and why this cultural fragmentation has occurred and then some thoughts as to how we might respond.
The major changes in Hollywood's role in American society didn't come from changing ideas or lost ideals but from the necessities of the marketplace.
From the earliest days in Hollywood there have been attempts to turn the caprices of entertainment into a stable and rational business. Most have been frustrated, but in the 1950s the loss of the adult audience to television and other factors produced an even more desperate search for a reliable mass audience. This led to the creation of what was called the “youth market” – the shaping of a largely adolescent audience with, in the post-war era, unprecedented disposable income.
This was perhaps the first time in history that adolescents were targeted as a distinct consumer group. They were an ideal audience, very susceptible to mass marketing due to the natural adolescent dependency upon peer approval. This became the mass base upon which movies and music increasingly depended, and there were profound effects on society in general.
It led in time, for instance, to a change in the nature of fame and celebrity. The previous iconic figures of the movies were adult romantic heroes and heroines, but they were replaced, in time, by the restless adolescent rebel and finally the “anti-hero.” Figures such as James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and later The Beatles, whatever their talent, did not represent the aspirations of adulthood, and this marked a change in the very concept of what was desirable and acceptable.
Mimesis, the imitative factor, is quite naturally powerful among the young, and a phenomenon that Jacques Barzun observed with prescience then emerged – the oxymoronic “conformity of dissent” – an attitude of rebellion and a rejection of past standards that was, if anything, more conformist and compulsory than anything an adult authority could mandate.
The “rebel without a cause” was then, in effect, commodified and absorbed into advertising. By the end of the 1970s, an advertising agency appealed to major corporate sponsors by offering the image of a young, handsome, disaffected youth, staring defiantly at the camera. The appeal to the corporate advertisers was “buy this twenty-one year old and you get his friends free.”
This “youth orientation” has had a lasting effect not just on entertainment but on everything from clothing to food and soft drinks, but, most importantly, it led to an increased sense of disaffection and, equally significant, a separation if not break between generations.
Teilhard de Chardin said that the most difficult thing to determine is when something actually began, so I don't want to imply that the growing divisions and broken bonds within American society were primarily due to the effects of the mass media. I'm not defensive about Hollywood, but my experience suggests that the “counter-cultural” attitudes that later promoted indiscriminate sexuality and even drug use were themselves the effects of underlying social factors -- war, divorce and urban isolation. Hollywood wasn't selling ideas; it was selling products. And to this day the mass media mindset doesn't promote an oppositional “value system” but an aggregate of attitudes, many of them contradictory and confused.
As to the intersection and occasional collisions between the mass media and ideas, traditional or modern, my assessment is itself somewhat contradictory. I would say that, in general, Hollywood's heart was more sound than its head.
The Hollywood which I'm inclined to defend and even praise at times is the company town that produced what is sometimes called the “golden age” of the pre-war and immediate post-war period. Beyond the artistic merits of Chaplin, Fred Astaire and the Marx Brothers, there was a serious commitment to and even at times an advocacy of what were traditional and normative values -- though they were never allowed to interfere with the box office.
Movies, however, did promote the liberal ideals of freedom and, most particularly, equality. This is not to say that prejudicial racial stereotypes weren't prevalent, and especially ugly during the war, but even these eventually gave way to dedicated efforts to promote justice, human rights and universality.
The ideas underlying these ideals were, however, often vague and fragile. What Marx and Freud, both fashionable at times, actually said wasn't what was heard. Marx's radical critique led to a deeper alienation not its relief, and Freud's therapeutic concepts often became the basis of self-rationalizing egos and aggression. The later counter-cultural attitudes, as I've explained, were based more on marketing decisions than Marcuse or the Frankfurt school.
Perhaps more for your amusement than edification – I warned you of this inclination – let me illustrate this point with a true adventure story.
In 1965, my partner and I were young screenwriters at Columbia Studios -- so young that by the standards of that day we were known as “the boys.” This was the year that the student rebellion here at Berkeley was just beginning. The studio executives, and particularly the producer for whom we were working, became convinced that this outbreak of youthful energy could be the basis of a movie. However, they thought that it should probably be a musical.
You have to understand that our producer had never been to college himself, but had once been a dance director, probably at MGM, and had worked on the “college musicals” of that day. Student rebellion, for him, suggested “hijinks” and dance numbers with sexy co-eds. As the “boys,” the youngest writers under contract, we were thus sent packing to Berkeley. This led to me, tape recorder in hand, standing next to Mario Savio, the leader of the later Berkeley “free speech movement” as he gave his first speech to a mass gathering on the steps of Sproul Hall. Needless to say, it never became a movie, at least not at Columbia studios, and certainly not a musical.
It's good to be back.
Let me “pull back” a bit further in this “long shot” of the relationship between faith and the media.
I believe we have entered a new historical era. We are no longer “modern people” but have, in effect, witnessed, as Guardini and others anticipated, the “end of modernity.” Now I know that this is a major subject of contemporary philosophy and the term “post-modern” is central if not definitive of the discourse. I cannot address the underlying issues but I do believe that many of the assumptions of my youth, the ideas about culture, history and politics during my university days, are now largely inoperative.
We have entered, spiritually and intellectually, into what Walker Percy, almost a generation ago, termed “the No Name New Age,” and what George Steiner has referred to as the “post-word era”- insights that anticipated our fragmented condition.
Hollywood's engagement in ideas –even the cracked-mirror reflection of ideas and ideologies – also reflects this “no name new age” and had changed radically by the end of the century.
This is what I have called “the death of the local gods,” and is most clearly evident in the changing Jewish perspectives. Clearly for anyone to address the influence of our mass media or popular culture in general without acknowledging the historic role of American Jews is to be either myopic or overly sensitive. As I grew up in what was then a “Jewish town” I am Catholic by faith but probably more Jewish by attitude and orientation. In any case, my view is again deeply personal and sympathetic.
Hollywood today is no longer a Jewish town. It is more of a banana republic owned by foreign interests, but during much of my time it was governed by Jewish entrepreneurs and animated by Jewish talent.
No one promoted and protected the “fruits of modernity” – freedom and equality – more than the Jewish people, themselves immigrants who fled from oppression.
There was, however, a deep strain as well of what I would describe as a “radical romanticism.” It came, I believe, from a messianic impulse that had appeared in Europe by the time of Heine, the poet, and flourished in the avant-garde of Vienna and Paris. It usually took the form of radical politics, Marxist but also anarchist, as well as what were considered “progressive” notions of artistic and sexual liberation. As late as the counter-culture of the 1960s this radical romanticism produced a once-bohemian, then “beatnik” and finally “hippy” attitude that in effect rejected not just the established order but the world itself as presently constituted.
Obviously, this was not primarily a Jewish phenomenon though many, from Heine to Emma Goldman and Trotsky to Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, embodied it. Ultimately, this radicalism, particularly in political terms, was a disaster, and a tragic one, for the Jewish people – first in Germany and then in Soviet Russia.
Succinctly, with apologies for such a crude condensation of twentieth century history, this disillusionment led to “the death of the local gods” in Hollywood. Perhaps the most significant casualty was a coherent concept of “progress” itself. The “progressive” rhetoric is still alive as well as remnant sentiments, but the quasi-religious idea that a “new human being” or “new society” could somehow be engineered no longer has any philosophical or ideological foundation.
The result has been a growing fear and despair, sometimes concealed, but barely, by an artful cynicism. In that I personally believe that this angst can only be addressed by faith, I observed some time ago that I deeply regret that Woody Allen never had the chance to meet Jeremiah.
A postscript to this: In the face of this increased anxiety I believe many young American Jews will be seeking the religious roots of their identity. We should welcome the return of any people to their biblical origins and tradition, but let's also be aware of the increased sense of vulnerability this implies.
Let's make efforts to make sure that the remarkable progress we've made in mutual understanding – much of it due to the work of our blessed John Paul – isn't lost or diminished.
Let me make a final observation about the interaction of the mass media and religious moral values. I have not seen many films in the last few years as I was living in Mexico but my impression, based on the most favorably cited movies, is that sexual freedom and, indeed, unlimited choices in sexual behavior have been a frequent if not predominant theme. I cannot comment on these films in particular but I have some sense of what they reflect.
During the 1990s I taught graduate students at the USC film school where I supervised a number of their MFA thesis screenplays. Many were highly talented and sensitive writers and I urged them to write without compromise as to what most concerned them.
A striking number, and I'm inclined to say the best, wrote about sexual intimacy.
These were not, I stress, exploitive or superficial works. I became aware that intimacy and sexuality was, so to speak, the spiritual arena of this generation.
The stories also reflected the reality of what I've called “L.A. loneliness” not that it is restricted to Los Angeles – though many people are uprooted there. This was a loneliness that reflected a loss of identity, family connections, and the most defining human relationships. What the stories were about were people literally “clinging to each other in the dark.” This suggests to me that much of the angry and even irrational public discourse over the “sexual issues” isn't as much about sex and the law as it is about the fear of the loss of any relationship – even, or perhaps especially, if the relationship is inherently fragile and transitory.
I hope what I've offered is more provocative than discouraging, a signpost not a stop sign. What I observe beyond social entropy is the emergence of something new and possibly inspiring. This “no name new age” is not just a time of disorientation and diminished hope but, I believe, a time for a crucial discernment, perhaps even a time of prophesy.
It seems to me that we American Catholics are also now engaged in an historical transformation, an emerging “age of convergence.”
I'm not referring to just the assimilation of Hispanics, though that is highly significant, but the convergence of many different cultures in an unprecedented way. We are witnessing the birth of something new in America. We Catholics, at least, are becoming truly Catholic.
I have lived in Mexico for a number of years and have written about what I believe are the “gifts” of the Mexican Catholic culture – the experience of sanctity and beauty in ordinary life and relationships, gifts that will hopefully strengthen this dimension of our shared way of life.
By beauty I don't mean merely decoration or even art but Beauty as revelation, a glimpse into the inner harmony of God's creation. This is, as you know, a theological perspective that has deep roots in Catholic thought from Augustine to Bonaventure and to von Balthasar in our own day. John Paul's Veritatis Splendor, beauty as the splendor of truth, affirmed this tradition, and Pope Benedict has remarked that we Catholics will be judged ultimately by “our saints and art.”
Beauty has a different vocabulary and speaks not an inferior but a different language of faith. I think this “gift” from the south is vitally important at the present time. When conceptual thought becomes clouded by controversy it is Beauty that speaks directly if not imperatively to us. Augustine recognized this in his own conversion and it is what Dostoyevsky meant when he predicted that “Beauty will save us.”
How should we as Catholics respond to what we might call the “spiritual crisis of post-modernity”? How might we renew our dialogue with the contemporary society?
The degree to which our neighbors and fellow citizens are perplexed or despairing only increases our obligations. The question, as I see it, remains “whom can we serve, and how?”
I have no clear answer but, as you can see, I have no shortage of opinions. A friend of mine once said that I had so many opinions that I had to be right about something simply based on the laws of probability.
I'm not sure if that was a compliment or not. In any case, I'm following Eliot's advice that “old men should be explorers.”
My first observation is that the crucial dialogue is now an internal one, that is, a process of discernment among ourselves. Whom and how are we to best serve in these changing circumstances? And, may I add, those of you now educated in theology and philosophy will have a vital role to play in this discernment.
Such a discernment can only be made within a faith community. We have, at least for the moment, lost our secular dialogue partners, and, to some extent, perhaps even our ecumenical ones as well. This is not due to a lack of charity but because for a meaningful dialogue to take place the partners must have sufficient confidence in what they believe as to permit disagreement and conflict. As Rabbi Heschel observed, before you can have “inter-faith” talk, you must have faith.
I believe our dialogue “with the world,” so to speak, that is, a resumption of a dialogue with anyone of good will must resume. It may, however, have more of a foundation in the experience of relationships than ideas or concepts.
As Pope Benedict has said, we Catholics will be judged by “our saints and our art.” I take that to mean that how we present ourselves to others must take a form far beyond argumentation. Benedict, in his sermons on the Church Fathers, observed that what drew Augustine to Ambrose wasn't so much the Bishop's brilliant sermons or intellectual attainments, but the example of the Christian community Ambrose had formed in Milan.
If I may use another movie analogy, I think we American Catholics are now called to create a “silent movie” of who we are – that is, a living, visible alternative way of life. We can add the dialogue later.
Some of what I've suggested might sound insular and even triumphalistic and thus some will disagree. I accept this is a natural and healthy conflict.
Beneath all of my attempts at analysis lies a hope and faith which I know you share, and that will, in the end, suffice. As we make the effort to determine where we are and what we must do, we must remain rooted and united in faith and charity. We must try to remember and fulfill Jesus' prayer to His Father: “Father, make them One, as you and I are One.”
Again, I congratulate you and wish you God's blessings!