Rodin's Burghers of Calais (1886)
The Closing of the American Mind
When Cultural Pre-Judging Is a State of War
Rick de Yampert/January 20, 2006
T o anyone protesting the film “Brokeback Mountain” or the new TV series “The Book of Daniel,” I say: Shut up! That is, shut up unless — UNLESS! — you have actually seen the film or the TV show. As our nation prepares to enter the next battles in the culture wars, I will not be surprised to witness the clueless hurling verbal hand grenades at “ Brokeback Mountain ,” that so-called “gay cowboy” film. Ditto with “The Book of Daniel,” a new NBC series about an Episcopal priest who’s addicted to pain pills, has a gay son, a randy straight son, a daughter who deals marijuana and a wife who drinks. Oh, yeah — this priest also has conversations with a Jesus who is more a mellow fellow Zen master than a Bible-quoting, Bible-thumping, righteous preacher. If history is any indication, and it is, we’re about to be bombarded by the “America is going to hell in a handbasket” gang. And if history is any indication, many of them will not have bothered to engage the source of their ire.
As an entertainment writer and pop culture columnist for a daily newspaper, I have discovered that to be the case in numerous past skirmishes in the culture wars . . . with Martin Scorsese’s quite human Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ” . . . with the homoerotic, bullwhip-up-the-butt photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe . . . with Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photo . . . with shock jock Howard Stern . . . the “shock rock” of Marilyn Manson . . . the “shock rap” of Eminem. Here are some early reports from the field in the latest battles:
Six NBC affiliates, including those in Little Rock , Ark. , and Terre Haute , Ind. , refused to air “The Book of Daniel,” and a Nashville station pulled the show after receiving complaints following the broadcast of the series pilot.
As “Brokeback Mountain” broke into the nation’s consciousness last month, numerous film critics penned glowing reviews, the Golden Globe Awards honored the flick with its Best Dramatic Picture award, and the Southeastern Film Critics Association and Florida Film Critics Circle voted it the best movie of 2005. While howls of protests by cultural conservatives and religious fundamentalists seemed to be lagging way behind the curve, such a muted response is changing now that the movie is moving from limited release to nationwide showings.
A Salt Lake City , Utah , theater announced it was showing the film, then backed out. An article by Craig D. Lindsey in the Raleigh News & Observer reported that various bloggers and Web-site commentators are claiming “liberal media” are “trying to guilt-trip” the film’s detractors. In an article neatly summarized by its headline, The New York Times’ John Leland recently reported on a “New Cultural Approach for Conservative Christians: Reviews, Not Protests.” Not so fast, said Ted Baehr, the founder of the conservative Christian Web site movieguide.org.
On his Web site, Baehr says the Times article is “very subtly, though perhaps innocently, disingenuous because it may lead an already confused church down the primrose path of irrelevant subjective movie reviewing. In fact, one major ministry called me all excited about the article and assuming that reviews would change the Entertainment Industry, while boycotts were counterproductive. Neither of these two positions is true .¤.¤. Boycotts that are focused and based on clear standards do work” and “are an important tool of cultural influence.” Tom Snyder, a reviewer on the site, rates “Brokeback” as “abhorrent,” the lowest rating on movieguide.org’s scale of “moral and theological issues.” In the Times article, Snyder also denounces Hollywood ’s “leftist homosexual agenda, which goes along with radical feminism, and a misunderstanding of what Christianity teaches.” I do give some credit to Snyder — he actually viewed the film before labeling it “abhorrent.” And I give some credit to Bob Waliszewski, a reviewer for the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family. He actually viewed “The Book of Daniel” before proclaiming it “extremely repulsive in its portrayal of Jesus Christ and intentionally offensive in its flippant attitude toward behaviors almost universally agreed upon as unhealthy to society, morally bankrupt, and, dare I say it, sinful.”
History has taught me that many of their flock will parrot these conservative Christians’ pronouncements, then call for boycotts, staged protests and letters to editors — often without having viewed the object of their wrath. Yes, I know it would gall you religious fundies and cultural conservatives to have to shell out eight bucks to see “Brokeback Mountain” and thus “support” Holly-Sodom-and-Gomorrah-wood. It would irritate you folks to sit and watch “The Book of Daniel” for an hour. Just as you gagged on the idea of actually spending $15 on an Eminem CD before barking about it. Just as you balked at investing a few hours to read the novel “Cracking India” by Bapsi Sidhwa before calling for its ban from reading lists in schools in Volusia County , Florida . Just as you wretched — site unseen! — at the mere mention of Mapplethorpe’s full-frontals.
But please, spare me. If you haven’t seen “Brokeback” or “Daniel,” don’t write, call or e-mail me with your complaints. I don’t need you to regurgitate the conservative Christian party line and its fatwas. I’ve already encountered those. If you want to peddle in the marketplace of ideas, then don’t pack your knapsack with secondhand wares. Tell me what you thought as you engaged these or any other pop culture offerings, and I’ll listen — and expect you to do the same for me in return.
Rick de Yampert is a columnist and pop culture writer for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, where a different version of this column appeared. Reach him at Rick.Deyampert@news-jrnl.com