February 28, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, February 28, 2017, I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Political Hollywood: What the Oscars reveal about American culture and worldview
On Sunday night in Los Angeles, we saw Hollywood, that great cultural engine of production, talking to itself, congratulating itself, and all before an audience of millions of viewers. As Brooks Barnes and Cara Buckley reported for the New York Times,
“Jimmy Kimmel, his everyman shtick carefully in place, opened the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday at the Dolby Theater with a plea for viewers to bridge divides, followed by a jab at President Trump.Show Full Transcript
“It promised,” they wrote, “to be a whipsawing night with Mr. Kimmel determined to deliver an effervescent ratings-lifting show and Hollywood in a sour political mood and itching to tell the world about it.”
Now, we often look at the impact of Hollywood in terms of American popular culture and furthermore, the importance of Hollywood as a net export from America to the rest of the world. In terms of worldview, our entertainment consumption and those products reflect something of an MRI or a CAT scan. They give us a revelation concerning our worldview and what Americans actually believe, or at least what for the present entertains them, and it also tells us a great deal about the worldview behind those who were most influential in terms of cultural production. Cultural production is not a basically democratic process. It is driven by elites, elites who have on the one hand artistic ability, and this would include in Hollywood not only actors but script writers, composers, and an entire host of others, right down to costumes and makeup. But it is also a world that is driven by elites, elites who have access to capital and for that matter access to the connections that make this kind of entertainment industry possible, and all of it rides on a great illusion. That illusion is that somehow Hollywood is able to tell the story that America will also identify with, buy tickets to see, and also be influenced by. The illusion is that Hollywood matters more than anything else. That was the illusion that above all was very evident on Sunday night there in Hollywood.
But as Barnes and Buckley reported for the New York Times, you’ll recall those words that Hollywood is in “a sour political mood” and remember how they wrote it’s “itching to tell the world about it.”
So Sunday night, what we were witnessing is several hours of episodes of Hollywood itching to tell exactly what they believe politically, and sometimes being abundantly clear in terms of their comments, sometimes even their sarcasm, in less obvious ways than they are often portrayed on screen. As the New York Times said,
“There is no larger platform for liberal views than the Oscars stage. More than 100 million people watch worldwide. And Hollywood rumbled with politics in the days leading up to the show.”
On Friday, we read that Jodie Foster, fired up, helped lead an anti-President Trump rally hosted by the United Talent Agency just as the directors of the five foreign film nominees voiced their “emphatic disapproval of the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see in the US in a joint statement.”
Perhaps the most important part of this New York Times analysis is a reference to the fact that,
“There is no larger platform for liberal views than Oscars stage.”
But this raises a really interesting question in terms of worldview analysis. Why would it be the case, why should it be the case that those who are behind artistic and cultural productions seem to lean so far to the left? Now one of the first things we need to note is the actual fact. The engines of cultural production, the artists, and the elites behind cultural productions do indeed overwhelmingly lean left. In the historical perspective, this isn’t even new. It might even go back to the actors of ancient Greece, but it’s abundantly clear that it has been true for a long time in terms of Western civilization and very clearly in terms of the most recent decades in which there has been this explosion in terms of consumer products for entertainment, the explosion and the influence of places like Hollywood.
Some more modern commentators have suggested that the reason why artists and those in the artistic community lean so far to the left is because in the first place they have the luxury of doing so. And secondly they have a platform that seems to demand some kind of political consciousness, or as some observers have argued, they simply think they have to come up with some great cultural or moral mandate for the importance of their art, and this includes actors. It raises a huge question. Why do we really care what an actor things about something having to do with public policy or politics? The answer is because in giving them access to our eyes and to our imaginations by their artistry, many actors and artists can then extend that influence to political imagination as well.
This raises a host of questions. Why should anyone actually value the political opinions of any actor or actress in Hollywood over their own? The fact is that there is no political expertise that comes with acting or with entertainment influence whatsoever. The fact is that those actors on the screen actually should be assumed to have absolutely no more political competence than the millions of Americans who watch their products. But that’s not the way the world works. The world works in one form of influence being leveraged for another form of influence, and sometimes among artists, especially we see this in Hollywood, there appears to be the moral mandate coming from one’s artistic peers that there is a mandate to leverage one’s influence from the big screen or from film into other forms of life, and especially in terms of public policy and politics.
One of the things we have watched on The Briefing over the years is how those in Hollywood sometimes assume pet projects, and those pet projects are infused with massive moral importance. Sometimes we should note they deserve them, at other times the issues don’t deserve that kind of importance whatsoever. Again, the most important line from this particular article is the suggestion that there is no larger platform for liberal views, notice it didn’t say political views—there’s a very clear ideological determination. There’s no larger platform for liberal views than the Oscars stage. Later in the same article the New York Times says,
“Left to bridge the gap between people watching from their sofas in Kansas City and the theater filled with coastal elites was Mr. Kimmel.”
Now this gets back to the host of the Oscar ceremony, which is basically a very long television production, but the important thing here to recognize is that the New York Times is underlining the distinction in worldview and also in politics between those who are “watching from their sofas in Kansas City” and those who were in the theater, that is, “the theater filled with coastal elites.”
Now on the one hand, that’s the kind of language we often use on The Briefing. It’s the kind of reality that we point to again and again. What makes this rather astounding is that this particular dichotomy is made right there in black and white print in the pages of the New York Times. If Hollywood is Ground Zero of the political influence of the artistic class, then the New York Times is itself Ground Zero of the influence of the media elite.
To its credit, the New York Times also ran yesterday a front-page story entitled,
“Assailing Trump’s White House From Hollywood’s Glass House”
In this case, the mediator column of the New York Times was written by Jim Rutenberg. He raises a really interesting points He raises the fact that Hollywood is absolutely committed to diversity everywhere but Hollywood. He points out that this year there was a great deal of backlash from last year’s ceremonies when there was an absence of African-American actors and others in the film industry in terms of the awards and the nominations for those awards. That was at least somewhat rectified this year, and there was a determined influence at inclusion. But as Rutenberg points out that was only basically what you saw on the stage of the Oscar ceremony. When it comes to the larger power elite of Hollywood, well, it’s still very pale and very male.
Without going into detail, several of the speeches last night did indeed veer into the political, all of it pretty predictable as a matter fact, but what’s also interesting from a worldview perspective is the self-importance of Hollywood in terms of the self-congratulation that takes place, both on and off the Oscars stage. But what took place Sunday night was the film industry honoring the film industry, actors honoring actors, producers honoring producers. It’s not necessarily just a false project. It’s just incredibly revealing of how Hollywood works. But beyond that, it’s pretty revealing of how humanity works. In this case Hollywood just puts all of its egos, all of its self-congratulatory patterns on display for the world to watch and then commercializes the product.
So my point in this is not so much to blame Hollywood for being Hollywood. We simply have to expect Hollywood to act like Hollywood always acts. But what is important is for us to understand that Americans give an outsized importance to the entire entertainment industry. No one is watching hours of realtors who are congratulating realtors, or for that matter, biologists who are honoring other biologists. What interests and fascinates Americans is celebrity, the culture of celebrity, and the culture-production complex that is centered right there in Hollywood. It’s not accidental that the audience for Sunday night’s program at the Oscars was estimated to exceed 100 million people. Just think about it. 100 million people watching that program on Sunday night. Many of them, of course, knew exactly what they were watching. The scary thing is millions of them clearly did not.
Our political moment: Cadillac ad attempts to bridge the nation's political chasm to sell luxury cars
Next we shift to a different dimension of culture production, in this case advertising. That means our scene shifts from Hollywood, California to Madison Avenue in New York, the Ground Zero of the advertising industry. Many Americans, including American Christians, fail to recognize that even as our entertainment products reveal a great deal about our worldview, it might be even more true that advertisements do the very same, and often far more subtly, and perhaps even more insidiously than is the case with overt entertainment. And remember, of course, that it is the advertising industry that helps to underwrite Hollywood and the entire artistic industry.
James B. Stewart, writing for the New York Times offers us a headline,
“Cadillac’s Ad Gambit: Selling Luxury Cars by Promoting Unity”
Now, of course, Cadillac is one of the most venerable automobile brands in the United States. It has been a staple in terms of luxury automobiles for the better part of a century. But Stewart writes about the new advertising campaign timed not coincidentally for the Oscars that has been undertaken by Cadillac, its marketing gurus, and its advertising agency, James Stewart asked the question,
“Can a luxury auto ad help bridge the deep political chasm in America — and, while it’s at it, sell cars?”
Now at this point, perhaps it would be best just to pause and ask the obvious question — at what point in American history did we start turning to Cadillac or some other automobile manufacturer and its advertising in order to bridge America’s political divide? When did we start looking to Cadillac or any other automobile brands for morality or politics rather than for an automobile? Well, it turns out that Stewart answers the question in terms of this new advertising campaign undertaken by Cadillac to be timed with the Oscars. We’re told, by the way, that the Oscars are second only to the Super Bowl as an advertising opportunity. Stewart writes,
“In an effort to distinguish the company from its German and Japanese rivals in the luxury car segment, Cadillac’s advertising slogan for the past three years has been ‘Dare Greatly.’ In the opening line of its new 60-second ad, that’s just what Cadillac seems to be doing. Over footage of a street demonstration, the narrator says bluntly, ‘We are a nation divided.’”
The marketing spokesman, indeed the chief marketing officer for Cadillac, said,
“We had to get the elephant out of the room.”
He went on to say,
“You can’t deny this. At the same time, you hear this, and you stop immediately. It gets your attention.”
The article then tells us that the opening line ends with a subtle but important qualifier,
“‘That’s what they tell us, right? This chasm between us.’ It then moves swiftly to a far more positive and inclusive message: What ‘they don’t tell us’ is that ‘we carry each other forward, no matter who we are, or what we believe, or where we come from.’”
Then we’re told that the chief marketing officer for Cadillac told the reporter emphatically,
“that he was trying to avoid any partisan stand. ‘We can have a point of view without adding fuel to any controversial political debate,’ he said. ‘We did a lot of soul searching. What has happened to the American dream? We wanted to celebrate what America is capable of.’”
Now I have to admit I really find this fascinating. I have to wonder why in the world the chief marketing officer for Cadillac would say,
“We had to get the elephant out of the room.”
Since when was that Cadillac’s business? Since when did an automobile advertisement shift from telling us about the automobile to telling us about America and how we can solve America’s deepest political and moral problems? Now I have to admit that I find this very perplexing, but it’s also crystallizing in effect. What’s crystallized is our understanding that major American corporations, representing major American brands, now feel that they have to posture themselves politically. They have to engage in their own form of moral signaling. They have to be taken seriously as a moral agents. But that would seem to be a very complicated procedure and, furthermore, it would seem to come with a lot of risks. Here you have the chief marketing officer for Cadillac saying that he wants to make a serious political statement but without risking any political controversy, and he also said those words,
“We had to get the elephant out of the room.”
What exactly is the elephant that the chief marketing officer Cadillac thought that it was within his power or purview or responsibility to get out of the room? No, let’s be very honest. Cadillac is not going to bridge America’s political divide. Cadillac is not going to resolve America’s most intractable moral and political problems. Cadillac really doesn’t want to get involved in the intricacies that would be necessary if they engage in real political debate about public policy. No, what Cadillac wants to accomplish by means of this advertisement is an emotional connection to the viewer that signals that Cadillac is a company on the right side of history. This is the kind of emotion driven advertising that wants to engage in moral signaling without taking any real political responsibility. The marketing officer tried to say something serious when he said,
“I didn’t see how we could shy away from the division in the country. We didn’t want to enter the political debate. We wanted to transcend it.”
All that, I guess, is supposed to tell us what was behind the Cadillac advertisement that one hundred million people evidently watched on Sunday night. But there’s another statement made in here by yet another observer who said,
“‘Cadillac realizes that it needs to connect with buyers emotionally.’ Ms. Sewell said. ‘That’s never been more true than now in the luxury space.””
So there we have it. What’s really behind this is what we thought from the very beginning, Cadillac’s ambition to sell more cars in what’s described here as the luxury automobiles space. And evidently the way they think they can do this is to connect with an audience emotionally. So that also tells us something. That was what was behind the advertisement, not so much a serious political statement, but an emotional connection. Well it’s a good thing that we’re warned. Now we know what the advertiser was really all about.
Transgender "boy"—a girl undergoing testosterone therapy—wins girls state wrestling title in Texas
Finally, I was recently in Denver, Colorado, where there was a great deal of attention in the Denver Post to the fact that there was a high school girl who made it all the way to the state wrestling championship for boys, to the state wrestling tournament. And that of course was a story into itself. And it’s also clear that neither the Denver Post nor in its anticipation the readers of the article would know exactly what to do with this, a high school girl wrestling with boys. On one hand you have the moral imperative of inclusion to which the schools are now very committed, and on the other hand you have the very natural understanding that there is, let’s just say, a difference between girls and boys that creates something of at least a complication when it comes to the sport of wrestling. Let’s just leave it at that.
But let’s also note the obvious, and that is that if this were not an item of interest, it wouldn’t have made successive articles in the Denver Post. But at least in the Denver Post in terms of this particular issue everyone understood what we’re talking about, a girl wrestling with boys in a high school wrestling tournament. But when it comes to another set of headlines also about wrestling, also about high school, also about a tournament, well, there our postmodern, post-Christian confusion in this culture just gets, well, extreme. And it gets extreme in this form. Here comes a headline,
‘The first boy has won the state girl’s wrestling championship in the state of Texas”
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported it this way,
“Mack Beggs, a star wrestler at Trinity High School near Fort Worth, has a new victory under his belt. On Saturday, he became the first transgender boy to win the girls state title in Texas.”
We then read,
“Mack, who was born a female and is transitioning to a male through hormone therapy, is at the center of a controversy here over a Texas rule that requires high-school students to compete as the gender listed on their birth certificate.”
The Wall Street Journal article continued,
“The dispute comes as the 17-year-old capped off an undefeated season this year, in which he beat the 56 opponents he faced, each of them girls.”
Now, here you see this confusion just writ large. But we also see one of most tragic aspects of the LBGT revolution, especially in terms of the T dimension, the transgender issue. Here you have a 17-year-old high school student who was born unquestionably female but is now transitioning to being male, referred to quite politically correctly in terms of the article of the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere as a boy, “he.” competing amongst girls with the personal pronoun “he” used repeatedly, and the issue comes down to the fact that this wrestler has won 56 different bouts this year against girls. And at least part of the reason it is suspected is because of the hormone treatments he’s receiving, as you just heard, in transitioning from female to male. This means very high doses of testosterone creating an imbalance, an unfair imbalance, between this particular wrestler and the girls with whom the wrestler is wrestling.
But of course viewed from a biblical perspective this is indeed a girl wrestling with other girls. This is simply a girl who claims to be transitioning into a boy, but to further complicate the matter is also undergoing hormone therapy. The state of Texas finds itself being criticized by advocates of the LGBT revolution because the state adopted a policy for its high school athletics that requires wrestlers to compete according to the gender on their birth certificate, and of course that was overwhelmingly supported by the school districts in Texas, and it furthermore simply comports with common sense. But that common sense is now not only politically incorrect, it’s also angular and awkward in terms of the moral revolution.
But we also need to recognize a couple of things here that could easily be missed. One of the things we need to recognize is that there is a very real 17-year-old at the center of this controversy, and this 17-year-old is reflecting exactly what the community, exactly what Hollywood and the elites are communicating in terms of the fact that gender is merely a social construct and that personal autonomy trumps everything else, including biology. But we’re also facing here those who are the ideological drivers of this LGBT revolution and in particular of the transgender dimension of that revolution. And you simply have to wonder exactly what they would do with this particular quandary. Or are they just going to wash their hands of it?
You can understand on the one hand why transgender advocates would say this is actually a boy. Remember that New York Times editorial about the transgender boy, as the child was identified, who was now to be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts in terms of a Cub Scout Troop. Remember that New York Times editorial saying that the child is now merely being treated as a boy, “which is what he really is.”
We simply have to wonder if that makes any sense in terms of a wrestling tournament. At least if you go back to Denver, Colorado, the controversy and interest had to do with the fact that there was a girl wrestling boys, but there really wasn’t any confusion about the difference between girls and boys. That was actually the nature of the story. So what in the world are you going to do in an entire world of athletic competition, an athletic world that has been divided between men’s sports and women’s sports, between boys and girls teams, what are you going to do with the fact that gender is nothing more than a social construct and that every single individual gets to decide who he or she is, even as he or she at any given moment? It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s the kind of nonsense that has been absolutely intoxicating to our culture.
So we’re now living in a culture in which it’s supposed to make perfect sense that we can have a pregnant “man” who gives birth to a baby, and it makes perfect sense that we can have the first “boy” who wins the Texas state high school girls wrestling championship. The massive confusion that is evident here is a deep confusion that should not only bring us great concern, but also great moral anguish. A story like this should simply break our hearts. There’s great sadness here because that brokenness is a brokenness that is being fed and fueled by the ideologues for this sexual revolution. But they really never have to take responsibility for the revolution they have spawned.
Oh and one final question, if this really isn’t supposedly a thing, if this is not supposed to be a matter of interest, if this is not supposed to be news, then why in the world did this story find itself headline by headline into almost every major American newspaper and media source? It’s because we all know that this is a story. It’s a big story. And if it were simply be taken for granted, it wouldn’t be a story. But it is a story because there’s a deeper truth here that simply, no matter what the headline, says cannot be denied.