The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

It’s Tuesday, March 29th, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler. And this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Slap Heard ‘Round the World: Moral Confusion as Tinseltown Honors Itself

Well, there is much we have to talk about on today’s edition of The Briefing, and we’re going to have to talk about the Oscars. On Sunday night in Los Angeles, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its 94th awards ceremony. And as usual, it attracted a great deal of attention. But what is most interesting about the size of the viewership is not the fact that it was large, but the fact that it was small, the second smallest in the history of the television age with the Oscars ceremony.

Now this has a lot to tell us, as we try to understand our society about the role of Hollywood, the function of motion pictures, the declining central symbolism in American society. But we have to talk about what actually took place. And we’re not going to talk about a list of those who won which Oscars award, we’re going to look at the bigger picture in just a moment, but we have to talk about the slap. We have to talk about what happened in the encounter when actor Will Smith got up out of the audience, went up on the stage and struck Chris Rock, the comedian, as Rock had been making comments and jokes, including one about Will Smith’s wife.

His wife of course is Jada Pinkett Smith. And she is suffering from a disease known as alopecia, which means a thinning of the hair. Chris Rock had made a joke about this along with other jokes, including jokes about other women, but Will Smith, the husband of Jada Pinkett Smith had evidently had enough. He later explained that he was defending the honor of family, but he went up and he physically struck Chris Rock leading to one of the most interesting moments in the history of the academy awards.

Now, was it a big deal or was it not? And if so, or if not, why? Well, anytime you have a spectacle like that, it becomes important simply because of the spectacle. And just recall that no one was in that auditorium who did not intend to be part of some kind of spectacle, but of course, most of the people who were there were more interested in talking about who was going to get the awards, who was wearing what, who showed up with whom. It’s all the Hollywood celebrity talk. It is also a conversation in the national culture about whether or not it makes a difference that an actor wears a shirt under his sport coat. You might say that the entire enterprise draws a new way of making a distinction among Americans, the Americans who care about this and the Americans who do not.

Now, as it turns out, given the audience ratings on television, the group that does not care is growing very rapidly. We’ll be talking about the meaning of that. But we also have to remind ourselves that as thinking Christians, there are certain conversation items, certain events, certain spectacles in the society that we at least ought to speak to one another about, as in, number one, is this important, and number two, why? What does this tell us?

Now, actually, I will argue, doesn’t make a statement of any great moral importance about the United States of America. The Oscars themselves come far closer to making a big statement. But nonetheless, it was an event. It was a spectacle. You did have one Hollywood celebrity making a physical assault upon another Hollywood celebrity, in a world in which that sort of thing is simply not supposed to happen, not especially among the glitterati of the Hollywood celebrity world. Much of what was actually said in the repartee between the two figures, Chris Rock and Will Smith, had to be centered because evidently it was so laden with profanity, but enough Americans could read between the lines or read the lip to have a pretty good idea of what was being said.

The whole bizarre situation turned only more bizarre when actor Will Smith was called back up to the platform in order to receive one of the three major awards of the Oscar ceremony, which was the award for best actor. And he was given that award in light of his performance in the movie known as King Richard, a movie that focuses on the story of the father of tennis celebrities, Venus and Serena Williams.

Now, the interesting angles on all this just come in a flurry for one thing, did you know that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a policy against one figure in the rooms striking another? Evidently, they needed the policy. Policy was in place. Will Smith violated the policy. According to the New York Times, that policy prohibits “physical contact that is uninvited,” and in the situation, inappropriate and unwelcome or coercive sexual attention. The policy also bans intimidation, stalking abusive, or threatening behavior or bullying.

Well, all you have to do is listen to those words and understand that most of them were implicated in one way or another in what took place on the Oscars stage on Sunday night. But it’s also revealing that as soon as the event happened, one of the major questions asked by people is whether or not it was actually a part of the entertainment, whether or not this was a planned event, planned spectacle. It took some authoritative statement from the academy to indicate, no, this was not planned. Furthermore, on Monday, the academy felt the moral need to condemn the actions of Will Smith, that’s the very night after the academy gave Will Smith one of its highest honors. In a statement released on Monday, the academy said, “The academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show. We have officially started a formal review around the incident and we’ll explore further action and consequences in accordance with our bylaws, standards of conduct and California law.”

In recent years, members of the academy have been expelled only for charges or allegations of very grotesques sexual behavior. Those expulsions would include Harvey Weinstein in 2017 and Bill Cosby in 2018, also Roman Polanski. There would be no shortage of irony if the academy in a short amount of time were both to give Will Smith one of his highest honors and then boot him out of the academy itself. It just might happen. All this reminds me of what the late Librarian of Congress historian Daniel Boorstin referred to as the pseudo event in the age of celebrity. He defined celebrities as those who are famous merely for being famous. Well, Will Smith is now famous for more than just being famous. He’s also famous for a slap.

But as you think about the moral confusion of our age, just ask yourself the question, was that slap a noble act or was it a crime? Was it a good act or a bad act? You might say that question has an obvious answer, but just consider the kind of confusion seen in the fact that Liberal Democratic Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts had put on a tweet shortly after the event in which she congratulated Will Smith as being one of the few real men who would stand up for their wives “in the face of daily ignorance and insults.” So there you had a liberal Democratic female member of Congress say, this is a good thing, but evidently The Washington Post reported she took that tweet down just about as fast as she had put it up. She found herself on the wrong side of, well, her own side, when it came to a political judgment here.

Alyssa Rosenberg writing for The Washington Post accused Will Smith of being a representative of toxic masculinity. She went on to write, “The definition of real manhood as the willingness to land a blow on a woman’s behalf is sour and cynical as well as retrograde.” Well, that raises a very interesting historical question. Look through the history of the films that have been awarded the highest awards by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and understand that many of them portrayed the very kind of behavior, if in a more elegant and artful sense, than was carried out by Will Smith on Sunday night. Was that act noble or was it irrigable? Was it morally right? Was it morally wrong?

The fact is Hollywood has sent not only an unclear signal on this, it has sent many different signals over many different decades, all reflecting the prevailing moral consensus of the time, but the moral judgment of our time largely depends upon who is making the moral judgment. And make no mistake, Hollywood is a group. The Cultural Creatives are a group. And that group had at least some who wanted to say, this could be really interesting. We’re not even sure this is real, but wait a minute. No, it was real. So it must be wrong. How can it be wrong to a group that affirms almost no moral absolutes, but they’ve been trying to find a way to say that certain behaviors are wrong, but it is unlikely that any of this has any deep moral meaning. And that might be the most important observation for the rest of America.

Now, the Will Smith, Chris Rock debacle aside. The fact is that if you want to look for moral meaning, in general terms, Hollywood is the wrong place to look. And if it’s categorically wrong for a man to act in a way that even uses violence in order to defend women, then you’re going to have to take an awful lot of films out of the canonical collection of great Hollywood films, and that includes Tarzan. Tarzan has no place at the academy awards in 2022. But the same thing is probably true of most of the leading men in most of the leading movies throughout well, most of Hollywood history, but those movies are now history and Hollywood is now the Hollywood of a postmodern, post-Christian age.

Back during the 20th century, there were actually laws and codes in place that required Hollywood to defend and to reflect American moral judgements, to uphold a sense of honor and decency even the American way. But by the time you get to the end of the 20th century, not to mention the opening decades of the 21st century, it is abundantly clear that the creative class in general and Hollywood in particular wants to do everything it can to try to break down and subvert that moral consensus.

Part II

Hollywood’s Centralized Control Over the Culture Wanes as New Media Forms Overtake Influence of Movies

But that raises another issue, is Hollywood and are the products of Hollywood, all that relevant to most Americans anyway? All you have to consider here is the displacement of the big movie of the film world of Hollywood from the lives of most Americans. And that might sound like an exaggeration, but a little bit of historical context will help here.

If you go back to the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, films, big films, Hollywood films, big screen films, they help to define the central symbolism of a developing American culture in that age. When you look at the leading pictures, the most influential pictures, millions and millions of Americans had seen them to the point that the films gave vernacular to the American people, lines from films, expressions in films, metaphors from films, dominated in the larger cultural consciousness in the United States. And even if many people had not seen the films, the films are so central American culture, that if you were a part of the contemporary conversation, you at least were exposed to the meaning of those films and a part of a cultural conversation. That shared symbolism coming from Hollywood exists no more.

Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling writing before the ceremony for the New York Times wrote this, “It doesn’t seem as if many people had seen this year’s nominated movies. According to a poll conducted by Screen Engine/ASI, of 4,500 people in early March, 6% had seen one of the films, 4% had seen another. Now, look at those numbers, they are tiny. You’re talking about 6%, 4% in a culture in which just a few years ago, those numbers would’ve been not only in the double digits, but in major double digits, that world doesn’t exist anymore. But that doesn’t mean that Americans are not consuming as much culture. It simply means in the internet age and the age of social media, in the age of streaming entertainment, there is more for Americans to watch than ever before and Americans are watching more than ever before, but the Hollywood film industry has lost its centralized control over the culture. But that does not mean that the culture has moved in a more conservative direction. No, the cultural creatives are now operating with even fewer rules than before.

In an entertainment complex that is continuing to transgress, that is to push the boundaries ever outward, Hollywood simply because of its institutionalism actually has a hard time keeping up with developments that are even more radical on the leading edge of the entertainment world.

Ross Douthat always thoughtful on these matters and a film reviewer himself as well as a columnist for the New York Times on Sunday long before any of the awards had been presented, pointed out that what we are seeing now is basically the end of the movies. Now for many people, this will come as a lament because they had seen movies as such an important part of their lives and of American culture. They’re going to grieve the loss of these common blockbuster movies and the narratives that they had given to American popular culture.

Looking at the larger picture, Douthat simply wrote what we are watching right now is the end of the movies, capital E, capital M. He writes this, “What looks finished is the movies, big screen entertainment as the central American popular art form. The key in engine of American celebrity, the main aspirational space of American actors and storytellers, a pop culture church with its own icons and scriptures and rights of adult initiation.” He goes on to say, “The end has been a long time coming, but in the internet age, in the high technology age, that end is coming quickly.”

Douthat writes that the cultural order with the film at the center of that order was really experiencing its Twilight years in the 1990s, but that wasn’t understood at the time. But looking backwards, we can see that from that period until now, Hollywood has receded as a film industry in terms of its preeminence in American culture. But what is missing from this equation, I would argue, is the fact that entertainment has become an even larger portion of American life, a larger and more driving force in American entertainment and an American culture. And frankly, we have to concede when it comes to moral liberalism and moral progressivism and secularism, a far more dynamic force, a far more powerful force than Hollywood could have mustered even during its heyday period. And that’s because in the golden age of Hollywood, you had to go to the movie theater to see the movies and you didn’t watch the movie alone. It was a communal experience.

As Ross Douthat says, it was in cultural terms, something like a Hollywood church. But that church has been busted up. The cartel is over. And now anyone with a smartphone, not to mention a laptop or an iPad has a constant array of entertainment choices. As a matter of fact, it is statistically impossible for anyone to see much, not to mention most of what is now produced by an entertainment mad culture. But the moral messaging coming out is just another example of the confusion of our day. When it comes to Will Smith’s slap, how is that to be interpreted, toxic masculinity?

Well, you also have Catherine Shoard writing at The Guardian telling us that the Oscars feminism has been going for years now, rapidly backwards. But you look at this and you just have to wonder, does anyone actually care about these things other than the self-referential, I’ll go on to say narcissistic world of the cultural creatives. Now narcissism as a sin, as a matter of pride can happen anywhere, but let’s just face it, in most arenas of life, you do not have anything akin to something like the Oscar ceremony with everyone getting dressed, and the cameras pointed at everyone and the communal event of self-presentation and self-congratulation. That simply doesn’t happen in most arenas life, or if it does happen, it happens without the obvious self-congratulation that takes place at the Oscars.

There once was a day when evidently Americans love to watch it, but the ratings indicate both at the movies and at the academy awards, the audience has left. It’s very doubtful that it’s ever coming back. I didn’t even and intend to talk about the Oscars, but thank you Will Smith, here I am doing that very thing.

Part III

An Obstacle to the LGBTQ Movement’s March Through the Public Schools: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Signs ‘Parental Rights in Education’ Law

But next, let’s come back to the real world. And in this case, the real world is Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has signed into law what the enemies of the law called the don’t say gay law. What is actually entitled, the law that will protect parental rights in education. Parental rights in education is the language that is most important here. The governor of Florida has signed into law this bill that made its way through Florida’s legislature to great controversy. It prevents official instruction in gender, sexuality, and other issues related to that in grades K through three, including references to transgenderism and gender identity, and furthermore, it would ban inappropriate instruction on these themes for older grades as well.

As you can imagine, the cultural mavens are not happy with this. Patricia Mazzei writing for the Times tells us, “The law could have far reaching implications to children in other grades, and without any connection to LGBTQ issues, it will allow parents to opt out of counseling and mental health services and to sue school districts for any perceived violations, districts will have to cover the cost of those lawsuits.” Well, after all, who otherwise would pay the cost of those lawsuits?

Now you have the left, and particularly the LGBTQ movements saying that this is backwards. It is repressive. It is oppressive. It cannot stand. It must be unconstitutional. And furthermore, what this reveals more than anything else is the fact that the moral revolutionaries have been counting on the public schools as one of the major engines for forcing their ideology upon the American people. And that is not conspiracy talk, that is in the official goals and in the traceable actions of the LGBTQ movement. And furthermore, in the long march to American institutions, that movement has been tremendously and disproportionately successful not only in Hollywood, but also in higher education. And that has been filtered down into the public schools, and that has not happened by accident.

And here you have the governor of Florida signing a bill he knows is going to be challenged in court. And by the way, politically, that is a no lose situation for Ron DeSantis. If the law stands, he has signed it, his signature is on it. If it is challenged, he is defending the rights of parents. And just ask Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, whether or not that is something that is appreciated by voters in his state. This is a no lose situation for Ron DeSantis. And that’s true both in the state of Florida and the national level, and more elected by politicians need to learn this lesson. That lesson needs to be learned by the Republican governors in the states of Utah and Indiana, who have vetoed legislation that, for example, would’ve limited girl sports to biological females. Governors, get a clue.

There’s going to be a lot to watch in the immediate aftermath of DeSantis signing the bill for one thing, watch corporations, watch larger cultural institutions as they seek to resist this. Look at companies like Disney. We’re going to be talking more about that in coming days. Look at many other institutions, including higher education, just look at the activist community. Florida’s going to be ground zero for this fight and the Florida legislature and Florida’s governor appear to be quite willing to enter into that fight. And that just gets to another issue that Christians need to recognize. Given the steam roller with which moral progressivism is proceeding in our society, any pushback is going to be costly, any pushback is going to be controversial, and any policy that actually makes a difference is going to be hated. It’s going to be challenged, but it also becomes an illuminating moment in society. If you were against this bill, what would you put in its place? Your answer to that question is going to be extremely important and incredibly revealing. And the political leaders in Florida have figured that out.

Before leaving this issue, it is important to recognize that state legislators in Utah voted on Friday to override their own governor’s veto of the legislation, and thus Utah becomes the 12th state in the union to codify legislation that limits girls sports to those who are biologically female of all things.

Part IV

What Makes the News Makes a Culture: Citizens Oppose School’s Placement of Female Hygiene Products in Boys Bathrooms

But as we think of about our culture’s attempt to escape sanity on these issues, just a couple of other issues before we close today, one story comes from La Grange, Illinois. I am going to use very restrained language here, but there was a headline in the local paper there in La Grange, Illinois, about the fact that there was a controversy in the local school system, the public schools about whether or not the boys’ bathrooms should include certain kinds of products used only by females.

One parent attending the school board meeting just pointed out that boys don’t need these product, and thus, they don’t need to be in the boys’ locker room or bathroom. The father evidently had a couple of other concerns on his mind and he concluded his speech by saying, “Stop lying to the kids about the gender issue, fix the baseball field and get those things, I’ll simply say that, out of the boys’ bathroom.”

One other issue here, and I am not endorsing the desecration of property, but it turns out that the boys in the bathroom didn’t want the products there and kind of well, saw too, their removal. Once again, we reach another point of definition in our society. Another moral point in our culture that we simply have to understand a break point. And that is whether or not you think that those items need to be in a boy’s bathroom in the local public school.

If you are on one side of that equation, I can pretty much predict where you are on an entire range of issues. If you’re against it, I can do the same, and you can do the very same moral math. It tells you something about our morally confused age, that it makes news when a father at a school board says, basically let’s let the girls’ bathroom be for girls, the boys’ bathroom be for boys and school board fix the baseball field. That that makes news is itself news.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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