Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2001 / 6 Kislev, 5762

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Hollywood's mixed messages? -- WHEN Hollywood honchos participated in a recent Sunday morning get-together with White House representatives, the resulting "summit meeting" produced great fanfare along with considerable trepidation. Leaders of show business expressed an unabashed desire to help fight the war on terrorism, but simultaneously worried that their efforts might become too closely identified with a nationalist agenda.

Comparing the role of the entertainment industry in the current struggle to Tinseltown's enthusiastic engagement in World War II, Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart commented: "The present conflict poses more complex problems for Hollywood, however. There is heightened sensitivity to the possible injection of propaganda into the media bloodstream."

This observation seems odd on several levels. First, anyone who suggests that today's "media bloodstream" remains pure and unpolluted by propaganda is someone who hasn't been paying attention. Movies and TV shows already display a wealth of propagandistic messages, self-consciously preaching to the public on Hollywood's pet issues.

Any episode of NBC's The West Wing, for instance, offers a rich array of political posturing. On the Wednesday before the Hollywood summit, the fictional president and his aides crusaded for gun control and an international war crimes treaty.

Then there is the treatment of homosexuality. Some two dozen gay characters turn up regularly on prime-time TV - and they all come across as decent, funny and deeply likable. Many (if not most) Americans applaud sympathetic treatment of gay themes as an important contribution in building a more tolerant society, but no one can deny propagandistic purposes. By the same token, the frequent reappearance of certain stock bad guys in movies and TV - neo-Nazis, greedy tycoons, religious fanatics, industrial polluters, right-wing politicos - suggests an agenda beyond entertainment.

With so many politically correct messages in so much contemporary entertainment, why should the industry fear the inclusion of some new pro-American, anti-terrorist themes - for instance, showing CIA or FBI agents as consistent heroes, or Islamic fundamentalist schemers as bad guys?

Dedicated civil libertarians believe close identification with governmental objectives represents a far more serious threat than support of the goals of any private organization. Pop culture power brokers may advance the environmental lobby's interests, for instance, but that force in American life, as powerful as it is, remains far less formidable than the federal government and the military establishment.

Hollywood's wary approach to the prospect of full mobilization in the war on terrorism also reflects the collapse of reflexive, universal patriotism. Sixty years ago, movie moguls unreservedly joined the rest of the country in waving the flag and heralding America's greatness. Patriotism permeated every segment of the society, because even elite opinion conceded that we needed it, and we deserved it. We needed it because a nation of immigrants could come together as one people only if we glorified common symbols and commitments. And we deserved it because the Greatest Generation recognized that America, with all its faults, remained by far the most benevolent, generous and freedom-loving country in history.

In the past 30 years, the popular culture has adopted new themes that suggest American nationalism is neither necessary nor appropriate. It's not needed because multiculturalism now constitutes a more trendy, up-to-date model than the emphasis on a melting pot that forges a single, national identity. The heroic efforts of the Civil Rights Movement gave birth to an explosion of "black pride," which led in turn to our current obsession with diversity and multiculturalism. That obsession denigrates the notion of a single standard of Americanism, built around shared patriotic themes, and substitutes the concept of numerous, irreconcilable but equally valid forms of national authenticity.

We've also reached the conclusion that old-fashioned patriotism is inappropriate and undeserved. The wrenching doubt surrounding the Vietnam War has brought about three decades of increasingly insistent challenge to our traditional, unquestioned assumptions of national superiority.

Today's school children focus on the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Indians, without the necessary perspective indicating that every other significant nation practiced similar enslavement and suppressed indigenous populations with far greater ferocity.

The current international crisis has fostered an explosive upsurge in patriotism precisely because it provides us with new context for our national shortcomings. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, we look at our past and present with reference to an evil and implacable enemy - and compared with the monstrous tyranny of the Taliban or Iraq, America's flaws seem easily forgivable.

We also feel new urgency to transcend our differences (hence, the ubiquitous "United We Stand" banners), and again need patriotism, with its cherished songs and waving flags, to bring the country together for our common defense.

The response of Hollywood will help determine whether our renewed pride amounts to a major shift or a fleeting fad. No one expects top movie stars to drop their careers and enlist in the armed services - as so many (Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable) did in World War II. Nor will the major film studios and TV production companies engage as directly in creating pro-war propaganda as they did in the 1940s; for one thing, those corporations have become far more dependent on the support of overseas audiences than they were then.

But even a slight shift in Hollywood's attitude would help the war effort at home and abroad. Entertainment, for instance, might portray obsessive anti-Americanism as poisonous, irrational and self-destructive - just as it generally portrays racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism. We might begin to de-emphasize movies (like the Oscar-winning American Beauty, or the current, absurdly over-praised Life as a House) that suggest the American suburban dream is actually a decadent nightmare.

If nothing else, such changes will help the entertainment elite connect with the current nationalistic mood of the public it's supposed to serve. It's also possible that a corresponding alteration of the pop culture will help us return to a national consensus that in this diverse but inescapably decent country, instinctive patriotic pride remains both profoundly necessary and entirely appropriate.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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