Monday, Mar. 5, 2018

The Briefing

March 5, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, March 5th, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events, from a Christian worldview.

Part I

And the Oscar goes to...virtue signaling and moral contradictions

Last night, many around the world witnessed one of the biggest annual exercises in the human art of self-congratulation. We’re talking of course about the Academy Award ceremony in Hollywood. The awards themselves are known as the Oscars and those supposed experts in Hollywood, who prognosticate about the Oscars, well they are actually known in the city as Oscarologists. But this time, the so called Oscarologists were largely right, especially when it came to the movie that won Best Picture, that was The Shape of Water. Leading up to the Awards, it was the leading favorite and it won four awards last night, including the biggest of all.

There were other major winners. When it comes to the two biggest acting categories, Gary Oldman won for his depiction of Winston Churchill in the movie, Darkest Hour. Frances McDormand won best actress for her leading role in Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri. One of the interesting things to note in those big three awards, is the fact that when Gary Oldman won for his depiction of Winston Churchill, he was rewarded as a male actor for taking on a huge historical role, playing one of the great men of history. One of the greatest certainly, one of the leading characters on the world stage in the 20th century. And also, playing a role when it comes to Winston Churchill, of one of the greatest defenders of western civilization and it’s values.

Those kinds of roles, those kinds of characters, are largely out of step with Hollywood today. But it is very telling that when it comes to the best actor category, it is still considered a big tribute for a male actor to have the opportunity to play one of these roles, and to play it so well. Much of the energy and the expectation in the Academy Award ceremony last night however, had less to do with the movies themselves or with the artistry or engineering behind it, but rather with the moral posturing.

The virtue signaling, that was sure to take place. The host of the ceremony, comedian Jimmy Kimmel, said and I quote, “The world is watching us. We need to set an example,” end quote, this coming just five months after the fact that Harvey Weinstein, one of the leading figures in Hollywood for decades, was toppled from power in a sex scandal. A sex scandal that led of course to the hashtag movement, Me Too, and has led, we are told, to a moral reformation now underway in Hollywood.

Weinstein had been such a dominant figure for so long, his absence was glaringly apparent. And of course, we’re being told that, that’s itself a huge moral achievement. But we also need to rewind history just a little bit and understand that as Lorraine Ali reports, as the television critic for the Los Angeles Times, in the Oscar speeches held between 1993 and 2016, Harvey Weinstein had been personally thanked by many of the leading figures of Hollywood. He was actually thanked more often than God, according to this news article and it’s survey.

But what’s really important here, is to understand that what was known about Harvey Weinstein then, is really no less than what was known about Harvey Weinstein when he was toppled from power. The question is, what was the moral statement being made by those who thanked him over the past say, 20 years, as compared to those who condemn him now? What happened? What changed?

In a separate story, the Times tells us that right now, Harvey Weinstein, instead of being last night at the Oscar ceremony, is somewhere in Arizona, in what’s described as rehab for sex addiction. That’s where Hollywood customarily turns in the aftermath of a sex scandal. It’s also noted in the article that this particular rehab center, undisclosed and unidentified, is remarkably posh. That’s no surprise either.

From a Christian world view perspective, the big issue to watch is the fact that Hollywood has such an out sized influence in popular culture, and the moral change that is taking place around us. This has to do tremendously with the products that come out of Hollywood. But it also has to do with the corporate and individual influence of so many figures who are powerful in Hollywood. Celebrities who have such an exaggerated influence in popular culture.

But as we’re thinking about the claim that Hollywood has this new moral position when it comes to sex, sex abuse and other issues related to sexuality and gender, well Stephanie Zacharek, writing for Time Magazine, in the days leading up to the ceremony wrote, and I quote, “This wild domino chain of events could have taken place only in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall,” which she says, “Sparked an unprecedented reckoning in Hollywood and changed the way talk about sex and power in the world at large,” end quote.

That’s an astounding comment. That’s an incredible claim, made about an event that took place five months ago and can hardly had now been claimed to change the world. But she also goes on to write, “Although Hollywood has long been a wash in liberal thinking, it’s also a place steeped in tradition and habit.” And she says, “Let’s hang on to some healthy cynicism, it is absolutely a place where making money takes precedence over just about everything else.”

Similarly, Robin Abcarian, writing in The California Journal, also for The Los Angeles Times, tell us, “On Sunday at the Oscars, Hollywood will celebrate itself yet again. This town,” she says, “Spends so much time patting itself on the back, it’s a wonder any movies ever get made.” But then she goes on to make very clear, just how selective this new moral superiority is in Hollywood. Harvey Weinstein is out and of course, he should be out, of any civilized context. But as Abcarian writes, “Hollywood is extremely selective, even when it comes to the individuals not to mention the issues, that it considers important.

Because even as Weinstein’s out,” Abcarian writes, “In 1977, Roman Polanski, who is still a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was charged with sexual offenses against a minor. He agreed to plead guilty to having an unlawful sex act with a 13 year old girl. He spent 42 days in jail for psychiatric evaluation.” Abcarian continues, “When he realized he would probably be sentenced to prison, he fled the country and has never returned.”

Now keep in mind, they were talking about the same Academy. And we’re talking about horrifying events that were admitted to in a guilty plea, in 1977. But a full 26 years later, that’s 26 years after 1977, this same Academy that was marked by so much virtue signaling last night, awarded an Oscar for the Polanski film, the Pianist. And they presented the Oscar to Roman Polanski as its director. He received a standing ovation, even though of course, to avoid arrest and imprisonment, he was not present for the award.

In the days leading up to the ceremony last night, there was a lot of conversation in Hollywood about whether or not the film industry is losing its grip and influence in the larger culture. Just to take the ceremony itself, and it’s televised audience, it’s expected that the audience size last night’s only a fraction of what it was 10 years ago. About 30 million people were estimated to have watched but that has to be compared to over 100 million who watched the Super Bowl and multiple billions we are told, who watched the World Cup Soccer final.

Of course, last night the moral contradictions of Hollywood were made glaring apparent, but one of those contradictions didn’t get enough attention. One of the movies that was much touted, first in the art houses and then in the film contests and then later, in the lead up even to the Academy Awards, when it was one of 10 nominees for best picture, was the film, Call me by Your Name. Without going in to excessive detail, it was a movie, lush in cinematography, that featured as its major theme, a sexual relationship between an adult man and a 17 year old boy. It was tremendously celebrated by the movie critics.

It was one of 10 nominees for best picture. And even as all this virtue signaling was going on, the bottom line is that Hollywood considered and celebrated a movie that has to do with sex between an adult and a minor. In this case, both of the male … But that just makes the point about the contradictions of Hollywood. This movie was celebrated over and over and over again, for its depiction of this sexual and romantic relationship. But in the aftermath of the Weinstein affair, well Call me by Your Name, started to lose traction among the critics. But they are still stuck will all those enthusiastic comments they made in months previous.

By the way, there is another big moral point to be made in considering the awards last night and what Hollywood means in the culture. Of one the things we need to note is that the movies loved by the Academy are often, to put the matter bluntly, not the movies loved by the public. Ben Fritz, writing for the Wall Street Journal, points out that up until 2006, most of the best picture awards went to block buster movies, but no more. American’s are going to see movies that the critics don’t like, and the critics like movies that Americans aren’t going to see, at least in large numbers. The financial figures themselves and box office sales, tell the story.

One of the biggest movies of the past season was Christopher Nolan’s movie, Dunkirk. Worldwide it earned at least $525 million. But that movie so acclaimed by the critics, about that romantic relationship between a man and a boy, Call me by Your Name, worldwide, it took in only $29 million. It is unlikely that, that $29 million in global box office sales will even cover the cost of the movie. But that just makes the point. Hollywood regardless of what Hollywood would have us to think, is really about sending a moral message. It is about influencing the culture. It is about moral posturing. It’s about virtue signaling and it’s about a demonstrated and very proud leftward tilt of the Hollywood establishment and the fact that that tilt is very much reflected in the movies that are made and especially as you saw last night, in the movies that are celebrated.

Part II

The real reason why it’s impossible to clone a dog’s soul

But next we turn to a related story, a bizarre story to be sure. And oddly enough, a story that earned at least a quick reference in the Academy Award ceremony last night, by Jimmy Kimmel, the host. This story demonstrates once again, just how much moral and world view distance separates so many of the major figures. So many of the celebrities in the entertainment culture, from the rest of America, and especially from those who operate out of a biblical or Christian world view. The New York Times on Sunday ran an article, this is the article that Jimmy Kimmel mentioned as a comedic reference. But it’s not a comedic article.

It’s a serious news article, a first person article, that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. The author of the article is Barbara Streisand. And as the article is introduced, we are told that last week, in a frank and lengthy interview, in Variety, Barbara Streisand, dropped one very notable aside. That two of her dogs were clones of a previous dog, Samantha, who had recently died. In comments made to the New York Times, Streisand explained, “Why I cloned my dog Sammy.” She explains that she was devastated by the loss of her dear dog, after 14 years together. She said, “I just wanted to keep her with me in some way. It was easier to let Sammy go if I knew I could keep some part of her alive, something that came from her DNA”.

She had a friend who had cloned a dog, and this friend told her about a laboratory in Texas that would offer the service of cloning her dog. She went through the process, but wasn’t sure that the DNA sample would be sufficient for a cloning, a successful cloning. She adopted another dog and then yet another dog, but then she found out that there had been four cloned embryos of her late dog Sammy. Now, as it turns out, two of those dogs are now a part of Barbara Streisand’s life. Of those two successfully cloned dogs, from the DNA of her previous dog, who was deceased, Sammy, she writes, “You can clone the look of a dog, but you can’t clone the soul. Still, every time I look at their faces, I think of my Samantha.”

Well let’s just remind ourselves that the Bible reveals that human beings have souls and that, that’s a part, a central part, of what it means for human beings, uniquely and alone, to be made in God’s image. Ms. Streisand, a major figure in American music and movies, since the 1970’s, think that she has cloned the appearance of her dog, but the cloning didn’t reproduce the dogs soul. But the reality is, her dog never had a soul. That’s true of the dog that is now dead, and it’s true of the dogs’ cloned from the dead dog. None of them, not one of them, has a soul. But as you’re thinking about that world view distance, just think about the cost involved in this technology, the cost of cloning dogs.

And then think about the moral complexity. Actually, there’s no huge moral problem when it comes to a dog embryo or cloning a dog, but the reality is that that cloning technology will not remain limited to animals, whether dogs or otherwise. There are already those who have declared their intention to clone human beings. But as we think about that brave new world of reproductive technologies, taking place around us, a revolution, so threatening in so many ways to human dignity, recognize that what was mentioned last night on the Oscars, in the ceremony where Barbara Streisand, it was joked, has cloned her dogs, well just realize, that story’s not a joke. It’s very real, the jokes on us.

Part III

Should there be a moral mandate for absolute gender equality in every field?

Next, last night there was a lot of conversation during the Oscar ceremony, a lot of virtue signaling, about the moral mandate for gender equity and equal number of men and woman in nominations and equal number and percentage of men and women in the Awards. And equal involvement of men and women at every level of the film making and the performing industry. But all that aside, it’s interesting to know that the very same arguments have been made routinely in the context of higher education, in schooling and of course, in the vocational sphere as well. The argument is that there should be an absolute equality and balance, and equal balance between men and women, boys and girls, in every field, and every job.

But Susan Pinker, writing in The Weekend Edition of the Wall Street Journal suggests that that might not be actually fair, not just to boys, but also to girls. Not just to men, but also to women. She writes, asking the question, “Why don’t more women chose STEM careers?” Of course, that refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As the numbers reveal, there is still a disproportionate concentration in both studies and universities and in vocational positions, where there are far more males than females in these particular fields. The question is why? Well Susan Pinker is writing that it probably has to with many reasons but one of the arguments is that whatever those reason are, they must be corrected so that there is an absolute equality. But Pinkers argument is that that might actually not be something that is good for women.

Why? Because she says, “That when you look at the societies where there is an equal proportion of men and women, males and females in those fields, they turn out to be overwhelmingly politically repressive regimes.” Just think about Cuba or China, or think about the Soviet Union and decades past or even Russia now. There are some really interesting figures in Pinkers article. She says that, “Absolute equality has almost been reached in medical schools, 50.7% of new American medical students are women. That’s up from just 9% in 1965.” Another astounding statistic is that eight out of 10 veterinary school students in the United States are women.

But when it comes to majors and STEM in major American universities, only 20% of those students are female. But Pinker says that a recent study published in the Journal, Psychological Science, looking at half a million adolescents, from 67 countries, found out that when boys and girls at aged 15 were compared, girls were not behind the boys in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. They were actually about even. But they were far ahead when it comes to reading.

So Pinker says, this disproportionate employment and furthermore, disproportionate concentration of academic majors, probably just reflects the fact that boys and young men are playing to their natural strengths whereas girls, and young women, actually have more options. In Pinkers words, “The distinction between 15 year old boys and 15 year old girls worldwide, in 67 different countries, is that boys are more lopsided in their expertise and interest, as compared to girls.” Pinker writes, “If boys chose careers based on their own strengths, the approach usually suggested by parents and guidance counselors, they would be most likely to land in an STEM discipline or another field, drawing on the same sorts of skills.” “Girls,” she says, “Could chose more widely based on their own strengths, and both of course, would pursue their particular interest as best they could.”

In the most outstanding portion of her article she says, “That in order to achieve equality, when it comes to men and women, males and females, in these STEM fields, it is actually revealed that in order to achieve parity, it would require coercing females rather than males.” Pinker concludes, and I quote, “The conclusion should prompt a rethink if women are most likely to choose STEM careers in societies that offer less equality and fewer personal freedoms, then that’s a steep price to pay just to say, we’re 50/50.”

Part IV

A brave new world on the California freeways: Beginning in April, there may not be a driver in the driver’s seat of that car driving next to you

But finally, as we’re thinking about technology, a remarkable story that appeared in recent days in The New York Times, the story tells us that California is now going to let driverless cars leave drivers seats empty. As the report tell us, California regulators have given the green light to truly driverless cars. The States Department of Motor Vehicles has said that it is eliminating a requirement for autonomous vehicles to have a person in the driver’s seat to take over in the event of an emergency. The new rule, we are told, goes in to effect on April the 2nd.

We are further told that California as a State, has given 50 companies a license to test self-driving vehicles within the State. The new rules, according to the Times, also require companies to be able to operate the vehicle remotely. As the Times points out, this is roughly analogous to what the military does, flying drones remotely, even in to combat. But it’s one thing to imagine a military drone being flown remotely, it’s another thing to imagine the car next to you on a major California highway. A car that disconcertingly enough, doesn’t have a human being in the driver’s seat. A spokeswoman for Uber said, “This is a significant step towards an autonomous future in the State and signals that California is interested in leading by example in the deployment of autonomous vehicles.” A spokeswoman for the California DMV said, “This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California.” She went on to say, “Safety is our top concern, and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California.”

It may be that this turns out to be a sign of the future, a significant advance. But I’ll admit, it does make me uncomfortable to think that a car might be next to me on the freeway with no one in the driver’s seat. And this isn’t a brave new world, somewhere way out there in the future. According to the New York Times, this future is scheduled now to arrive in California on April the 2nd. Beginning on that date, the driver’s seat in the car next to you in California, may not have a driver.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Los Angeles, California. And I’ll meet you again tomorrow, for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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