February 25, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, February 25, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Commander in chief or entertainer in chief? Presidential candidate expectations have changed
First up, the intersection of entertainment and society—even American politics. Rick Hampson, writing a very interesting article for USA Today, argues that the next commander in chief will also have to play entertainer in chief. The subhead of the article,
“These days, every politician must show he or she is a regular guy or gal and venture where the public lives, that means in the entertainment culture.”Show Full Transcript
“Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich all say so: America is electing a commander in chief, not an ‘entertainer in chief.’ Civics teachers everywhere say, amen!
“But a candidate who wants to beat one outstanding entertainer (Donald Trump) for the right to succeed another (Barack Obama) must be able to put on a show, and to go on one. An ability to entertain — in even quirky settings — has become part of the job.”
This is an extremely revealing article, not just about politics and entertainment, but about the American people and what we expect out of a politician, even a president of the United States Hampson says that all this explains why 2016 presidential aspirants, current and former, have released videos of themselves doing things that no previous generation of politicians would be caught doing. A clear-eyed assessment of the situation comes from Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor and an expert on television and pop culture, who said,
“Being part of the entertainment-industrial complex is part of being president.’’
We need to ponder that sentence for a moment. Here being president, or at least a large part of being president, is defined as being part of what’s called “the entertainment-industrial complex.” Hampson says,
“Once, all a presidential candidate had to do was chat on a few late-night network talk shows. After you were elected, even that wasn’t required.”
Then the next words,
“Then came Obama.”
And that does represent a massive change. That is, President Obama’s understanding of the presidency has represented an unprecedented fusion between entertainment and politics. But before we leave that paragraph and Hampson’s article, we need to recognize that, as different as things are than they were before, this is not all to be laid at the feet of President Obama. He just, according to this article and many analyses, is better at doing this than many former presidents, not to mention many former candidates. For example, going back to 1992, then candidate Bill Clinton, the former Governor of Arkansas, helped to rescue his presidential campaign by going on late-night television and appearing as an entertaining figure. You can go all the way back to the telegenic John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who ran for president in 1960 and whose campaign was successful at least in part because he was perceived to be more attractive on television than his opponent, then Vice President Richard Nixon. Fast-forward to the Nixon administration when Nixon himself is president, and he famous- or infamously appeared on the Rowan and Martin television show “Laugh-In” then as himself, an appearance that turned out not to be all that funny or entertaining. Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1980, was first known to Americans as a star in entertainment, first on radio and then in Hollywood movies and then on television.
President Obama has set a new standard in terms of entertainer in chief. Robert Lichter, a George Mason University professor said in the article by Hampson,
“Obama is the first talk show president. He’s made these shows part of the permanent campaign, which is governing.’’
Now in that statement, two very interesting things: first of all, the assessment of President Obama as the first talk show president, but perhaps even more important, the assessment made by professor Lichter that what we now see in American politics is that governing is redefined as a permanent campaign, and entertainment is now defined as a part of that campaign—a very crucial part. We should also note how very recent this absolute merging of entertainment and politics has become. This is not, perhaps, because of any change in human nature that hasn’t changed, but because of the change in the opportunity. Entertainment itself has become so focal to our entire society that it’s hard for most Americans to imagine anything important that can’t be reduced to or presented within entertainment. Presidential candidates and other leaders in the past certainly had to have an entertaining personality, the ability to communicate. Aristotle’s advice to Alexander the Great went back to how he was to deploy rhetoric as a leader, but that’s very different than the modern telegenic age in which presidents must be considered as comedians, entertainers, and actors. This modern shift of merging entertainment and politics or political leadership can be traced back to the early decades of the 20th century and the rise of radio as a new medium. This was portrayed, we note, in a very entertaining way in the 2010 movie, “The King’s Speech,” in which then King George V was depicted as saying to his son, later King George VI,
“In the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family’s been reduced to these lowest basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors.”
And in this case, King George V was simply talking about the responsibility of speaking to the British people by means of a very formal radio address. That’s to be contrasted with President Obama making his appearance on late-night television, a staple of what is described here as the permanent campaign, which is explained as governance.
But Christians should think even more deeply about a second concern, and that was well articulated by the late Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he argued back in the 1980s that Americans were reducing everything to entertainment and thus were robbing America’s public life of a great deal of necessary meaning. There is simply no way that the most significant issues facing this nation can be reduced to anything that can be presented as entertainment or as entertaining. Postman’s indictment of modern America as amusing ourselves to death was very prophetic at its time; but that was the 1980s. Now in the digital revolution—not even on the horizon of Neil Postman when he wrote that important work—the reality is that we’re amusing ourselves to death over and over again, virtually 24/7. And we also need to note that this not only redefines politics, it also redefines entertainment. When you can’t tell the difference between the two, America or any civilization is in deep trouble.
A final thought about this particular issue: when I looked again at Rick Hampson’s article, insightful as it is, I noticed not just what was present but what was missing. There’s no moral judgment. There’s not even a cultural judgment, a sociological judgment made here. There’s no implication in this article as to whether it might be a good thing or, not to say, a bad thing, that entertainment and politics have become so fused. Maybe that’s because in the eyes of a newspaper like USA Today it’s not so much that this might be good or bad, just that, unquestionably, it is. And we’re supposed to just deal with it.
Literature's power to influence culture made clear in two prominent authors' obituaries
Next, the power of literature to shape a culture. Much of what takes place in cultural change is most obvious in court decisions and politics and can be traced to sociological analysis. But Christians need to understand that behind the trajectory of a culture is its literature, and that means books and, in particular, it means stories. This was brought to our attention in recent days in two obituaries. First, the death that was announced over the weekend of novelist Harper Lee. As William Grimes in the New York Times tells us in a front-page story—and the fact that it is a front-page story also tells us something,
“Harper Lee, whose first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, about racial injustice in a small Alabama town, sold more than 40 million copies and became one of the most beloved and most taught works of fiction ever written by an American, died on Friday in Monroeville, Ala., where she lived. She was 89.”
“The instant success of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the next year, turned Ms. Lee into a literary celebrity, a role she found oppressive and never learned to accept.”
It is interesting to look back to the original review of To Kill a Mockingbird in the pages of the New York Times as published on the 13th of July in 1960 when reviewer Herbert Mitgang wrote,
“All the magic in truth that might seem deceptive or exaggerated in a factual account of a small town unfold beautifully in a new first novel called To Kill a Mockingbird.
“At a time when so many machine-tooled novels are simply documentaries disguised behind a few fictional changes, it is pleasing to recommend a book that shows what a novelist can accomplish with quite familiar situations. The author, Harper Lee, is a woman in her early 30s, even though she seems to be recapturing the fleeting memories of childhood, clearly she is working harder to create a pointed story for the reader. Here is a storyteller justifying the novel as a form that transcends time and place.”
What that reviewer in the New York Times recognized back in 1960 was that Harper Lee wrote about that which she knew: life in small-town Alabama. The character in her novel, Atticus Finch, the attorney, was modeled on her own father, another small-town Alabama attorney. But what made To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American society, so decisive in terms of American literary history, was how the story moved Americans on an issue that was then of frontline concern, and remains even now. And that is the issue of civil rights. What was depicted in the story To Kill a Mockingbird is the basic humanity shared by every single human being, something that was denied, in terms of the race theory and the segregation of Americans in the 1950s; something, we should note, that continues even as segregation itself is legally ended.
We are looking here at the power of a story to change not only Americans’ civil conversation, but the way Americans thought and felt about an issue as basic as the humanity of their own neighbors. It was noted a very long time ago that God made us in his image as storied creatures. We are, as human beings, creatures who love to tell a story and even love more to hear a story. Stories are actually essential to us to such an extent that even as in the Latin we often refer to ourselves as homo sapiens, the thinking creature. We are also homo narrates, we are the creature that cannot help telling stories. And why? It’s because we cannot know ourselves, even in terms of our self-identity, without a story. Our own personal story has to do with our origins and the circumstances of our lives. Harper Lee the novelist was inseparable from her community of Monroeville, Alabama. Likewise, our own stories are inseparable from the facts and circumstances, the events and experiences, of our own lives.
When human beings meet one another, the only way meaningful communication can really take place is by telling one another a story. The story may not take a literary form like the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but even when we sit down next to someone on an airplane and begin to tell them who we are and discover who they are, it requires, in one way or another, a story.
The other thing this points to is the fact that stories change hearts and minds—telling a story the right way, hearing a story at the right moment, a story taking cultural centrality at a particular moment in history—this points to the fact that even as we are made in God’s image as narrated beings, as creatures who are storied, those stories have a potential to do great good or, we should also note, a potential to do great evil. Here’s where Christians need always to keep in mind the worldview of the Bible that tells us not only that we are made in God’s image and thus storied creatures, God reveals himself to us in terms of the story then in Scripture begins with the words,
“In the beginning”
But we also come to understand that in a fallen world corrupted by sin, a story cannot only do great good, a story can do horrifying evil. Our fiction, our interest in fiction, our cultural fascination with a particular kind of fiction, reveals the moral contours of the society itself. To put the matter more personally, the stories we read and the stories we enjoy not only shape us, they also reveal a very great deal about us. The death of Harper Lee is a reminder to Christians of the importance of literature to a society, not only of books, but of stories. And, perhaps most importantly, even as we recognize the power of story to change a culture, a civilization, or a nation, we need to recognize even more urgently the power of a story to change us and to change the way we feel, to change the way we think, and that is why we as Christians have to check every story, evaluate every story in light of God’s inerrant and infallible word. That story that does begin, because this is how all history begins, with the words,
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”
The gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news is itself a story that can only be presented and can only be defined in that narrative form, speaking of what God did for us in Christ and, in particular, in his death, in his burial, and in his resurrection from the dead.
A second obituary, coming at virtually the same time, also draws our attention to another lesson about the intersection of literature in worldview. As the New York Times reports, Umberto Ecco, a semiotic scholar who became a best-selling novelist, died at age 84. Umberto Ecco was an Italian scholar and professor in what Jonathan Kandell describes as,
“The arcane field of semiotics.”
And yet he became the author of best-selling novels, most notably and famously a medieval murder mystery entitled The Name of the Rose. Now what makes Ecco really important is this: most Americans probably have no idea that he ever existed. His most important novel, The Name of the Rose was made into a Hollywood motion picture, but it wasn’t seen by an audience anywhere near as large as those that watched Atticus Finch portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Rather, the death of Umberto Ecco reminds us that it’s not only what the culture at large reads and the stories that shape that culture more generally, or popularly that we should note, but also the stories that reach the intellectual elites. Because they read certain stories and enjoy certain stories, their worldview is impacted by certain stories that even though the stories may never reach the masses the worldview implications do or, to put it another way, even though there are millions and millions of Americans who have never heard the name Umberto Ecco, that doesn’t mean they haven’t heard his stories.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and ex-Polish President Lech Walesa denies charges of corruption
Next, another article in the New York Times that points to issues of great worldview significance. The headline in the article by Joanna Berendt is this,
“Walesa Denies Informant Claims in Newly Released Files.”
“A Polish national archive released portions of decades old files on Monday that indicate former president Lech Walesa, the leader the Solidarity movement and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient was a communist informant in the early 1970s, even though Mr. Walesa has insisted that the documents are forged.”
She explains the documents, including what are said to be Mr. Walesa’s work and personnel files under the codename “Bolek,” have not been verified by a handwriting expert to determine whether signatures were his. The Institute of National Remembrance, which released the files and allowed journalist to examine hundreds of photocopied pages on Monday, has made no claim about the documents’ authenticity. Lech Walesa, we need to remember, in that shipyard was not only a great champion of democracy and freedom, he is not only a key agent that led to the overthrow of the Polish communist government, he was also lionized around the world receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. He became Poland’s president, and yet what’s very crucial to understand here is that even in the beginning there were accusations that he had been an informant for the communist regime against other labor unionist and freedom fighters during the 1970s and perhaps even before. But what makes this story really rich and important from a worldview significance is this: we are looking at what happens necessarily, in almost every situation, under the situation of the evil of a totalitarian government, a government that shuts down freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, that doesn’t recognize human rights, a government that turns citizen against citizen, as we have seen in so many regimes, especially communist regimes during the 20th century. Just think of the Soviets, who actually tried to turn children as informants against their own parents, and in China where husbands and wives were expected to be informants over against one another. We also saw this in the 20th century, of course, in the infamous fascist regimes of Mussolini’s Italy and, most classically, Hitler’s Germany.
But what we need to note is that this comes part and parcel with totalitarianism, the desire to control everything, with this state becoming an idol unto itself, with the aims and existence and survival of the state and of its government being the only moral good that is recognized by a totalitarian regime. The very word totalitarian points to an understanding of government in which the state, the government, takes on a total significance. That’s why you have the word totalitarianism and, in this case, you have the great evil of that system of horrifying governance made clear in accusations that Lech Walesa was himself a communist informant. Even long-time defenders of the former Polish president are now at great pains to explain how in the world these documents are to be understood. They appear to be a searing indictment of a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize as an agent of peace and liberty and democracy, who is now credibly charged with having been an informant against his own people.
But this is where Christians need to look at this and recognize: this is the evil of totalitarianism made very clear. There are far too many Americans today, including many American Christians, who have forgotten or perhaps were not alive to know the horrors of totalitarianism as we saw it before our eyes. But then again, that’s inexcusable when you consider the fact that totalitarian governments now survive in places such as China, where as we saw the pastor of China’s largest congregation has disappeared into one of its dark prisons. And in North Korea, where you have a classic totalitarian government in which the survival of the state and of the family at the center of that state, the Kim family, is the only significant issue the government recognizes. Everything else is subverted, every human relationship, every friendship, is to be sacrificed for the good of the state. Husband is to be turned against wife and wife against husband. Children are to be turned against parents and parents against children. Under the years of the Soviet Union’s atheistic regime, believing churches where they were gathered together illegally always had to wonder if someone joining them was actually a fellow believer, a brother and sister in Christ, or an agent of the state, a spy sent in to infiltrate the church. To many living Americans, this news story from Poland may seem about something far away and a long time in the past, but it’s a headline we should not miss with lessons we must always remember, lest we forget.
Entrepreneurs seek to capitalize on cannabis by removing "stigma" around weed
Finally, a news story that tells us great deal about moral change. It comes in the Financial Times, a major newspaper out of London, with the headline,
“Seed exchange to weed out stigma of cannabis”
—otherwise known as marijuana. The reporters Gregory Meyer and Shannon Bond write about the fact that there is a new exchange, much like a stock exchange or a market exchange, in Chicago that has applied to a U.S. regulator to become a trading venue for financial contracts on industrial hemp, the cousin of marijuana, found in such products as fabric, shampoo, plastics, building materials, and food. But make no mistake. The real effort behind this is to set the stage for an exchange in marijuana itself, setting the stage for the opportunity to make vast profits when marijuana, as this article implies, is inevitably legalized and culturally accepted. But you’ll notice something really significant in the headline. It’s that one word “stigma.” According to this article, this financial exchange is being set up because the very existence of this exchange in a city like Chicago recognized by U.S. regulators would go a long way in removing the moral stigma around marijuana. That tells us a great deal. It tells us, first of all, that moral stigma still exists, and it still attaches itself to one degree or another to marijuana. But there is also the assumption that that stigma can be removed, that moral change can happen and can be advanced simply by the setting up of a financial mechanism recognized in public that will eventually make very clear that there’s no problem, no moral problem with marijuana.
To put the matter another way, if you can sell it in public and make a market out of it, if you can turn a cannabis market into something like the stock market, then you can effectively argue, there’s no problem here. There is nothing to see; it is simply a new reality. That point was made emphatically clear by Brian Liston, identified as the new market’s president, who said he hopes to offer three contracts tracking markets for hempseed, whole hemp plant, and extract. The next words are really crucial,
“He says he wants to wipe away what he calls the stigma around the commodity.”
Then listen to his words,
“We will be successful when it is normal and when it is boring.”
That’s exactly how a moral revolution works, and how it works full cycle. You take something recognized to be wrong and dangerous and make it legal and boring. Marijuana is just the latest commodity to reveal that moral cycle.