President Obama visited Hollywood last week. He stopped by DreamWorks Animations Studios, where he watched some movie production in action and met with many industry big-wigs. He also attended big-ticket fundraising events at several private homes (“mansions” is the word used in some of the coverage). These homes included those of music and TV producer Haim Saban (where guests included Tom Hanks, Paul Reiser and Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, with attendance costing over $32,000 per couple); TV producer Marta Kauffman (a co-creator of Friends); and basketball star Magic Johnson (guests there included Samuel L. Jackson, Diane Keaton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi).
Sounds fun, for sure.
But I have to admit to being a bit stunned by the comments the President offered in his formal address to the folks gathered at DreamWorks, several thousand strong. I mean, I know it’s important to be respectful of your hosts, and we should also acknowledge that the stuff DreamWorks puts out is far better than much of what comes out of the other Hollywood studios. But this was an address on Hollywood in general, and the people who gathered in his audience included (the Hollywood Reporter reported) “executives from rival movie studios.” So much of what the President had to say strained credulity. (The quotes below are also from the Reporter coverage.)
- “Believe it or not, entertainment is part of our American diplomacy. It’s part of what makes us exceptional.” That’s true, but there are too many ways our entertainment makes us exceptional that are nothing to brag about.
- “You helped shape the world culture,” the President said, and mentioned tolerance, diversity and creativity as values that Hollywood has exported. True enough. He might also have mentioned, among the gifts we’ve given to “the world culture,” consumerism, glorification of violence, and the sexualization of anything and anyone with a pulse.
- The President made reference to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Will & Grace, and Modern Family as examples of Hollywood’s “remarkable legacy.” There are plentiful examples, of course, that add up to another sort of “remarkable legacy,” but again, not the kind we’d want to brag about.
- Here’s the big eyebrow-raiser: “You can go anywhere on the planet, and you’ll see a kid wearing a Madagascar T-shirt. You can say, ‘May the force be with you.’ They know what you’re talking about. Hundreds of millions of people who may never set foot in the United States, but thanks to you, they’ve experienced a small part of what makes our country special.” Think about that last sentence long enough and hold it up to the light of what you and I know very well about much that we get from Hollywood, and you might get a little queasy in the stomach.
I’m willing to bet that observations similar to these have already been made by now by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity — and probably in tones that were far more rapacious! I don’t know for sure; I listen to/watch them less frequently than I have the oil changed in my car (and usually enjoy the oil change more). But if they did, I’d say that in this case, the President had it coming. Sure, Hollywood has done some good things, but to single the industry out for this kind of praise seems to be a little like praising bank robbers for having left a few coins in the drawers before leaving with the stash.
We certainly must, as I said, be willing to acknowledge the genuine contributions of our entertainment industry to society. I enjoy movies, and movie-going is a favorite choice of my wife and I for date nights; there are quite a few movies I’m pleased to see my kids enjoy; and I’m glad to be able to provide family movie night in our house from time to time. (I Am Number Four was a big hit here during Thanksgiving break.)
Still, Pope Francis offers a valuable counterpoint to the President’s comments. This from the brand-new Evangelii Gaudium:
In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances. In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated. This fact has been brought up by bishops from various continents in different Synods. The African bishops, for example, taking up the Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, pointed out years ago that there have been frequent attempts to make the African countries “parts of a machine, cogs on a gigantic wheel. This is often true also in the field of social communications which, being run by centres mostly in the northern hemisphere, do not always give due consideration to the priorities and problems of such countries or respect their cultural make-up”. By the same token, the bishops of Asia “underlined the external influences being brought to bear on Asian cultures. New patterns of behaviour are emerging as a result of over-exposure to the mass media… As a result, the negative aspects of the media and entertainment industries are threatening traditional values, and in particular the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family.”
Our entertainment industry may indeed be, as President Obama pointed out last week, “one of the bright spots of our economy.” But Pope Francis has just reminded us, in same document, of the danger of “cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated” (n. 64). It doesn’t take much of a stretch to think it’s our own culture that the Pope had in mind there or that our entertainment industry has something to do with that debilitation.