Not so long ago, when Western democracies were Judeo-Christian in disposition, sermons were delivered on Sundays for the predominant Christian congregations and a day earlier for the smaller Jewish gatherings. The decline of Christianity in the West has been accompanied by the rise of other religions. However, the tendency to sermonise has been embraced by essentially secular institutions. Initially universities. And now Hollywood, the entertainment industry.
This week, nominations for the 2017 Academy Awards were announced. Meryl Streep is on the shortlist for best actress. for the film, Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s possible she will put on a performance to match her gig at the recent Golden Globe Awards. Streep used the opportunity of a captive audience, primarily of fellow leftist luvvies, to berate Donald Trump without naming him.
Streep’s sermon to the secular church of Hollywood was watched by many more than will ever see her on screen or stage. It oozed self-importance along with a conviction that the actress and her audience had greater intelligence along with a higher morality than Trump or the 60 million or so who voted for him.
Streep’s contempt for those who supported Trump was evident when she told the Los Angeles audience: “What is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. If you kick us out, you’ll have nothing to watch except for football and mixed martial arts — which are not arts.”
President Trump is not contemplating deporting any movie stars. Moreover, there is nothing inferior, with respect to intelligence or morality, in those who prefer to watch football or mixed martial arts than observe Streep playing the role of an early-20th-century socialite who was an embarrassingly bad soprano.
The first signs of the decline of religion in the West were accompanied by the move of sections of the intelligentsia to take over as the go-to moralists of their time. This was evident in Hazel E. Barnes’s The University as the New Church (1970).
The American philosopher seriously argued that “the university should become the new church”. Barnes wrote that the university “has long been functioning as a church (in) that it has defined truth and human good and taught values as well as knowledge for many years but surreptitiously and without admitting the fact”.
I attended university in Australia around the time Barnes’s book was published. In 1970, one of the so-called “truths” being taught on Western campuses was that the murderous dictator Mao Zedong was a benign ruler.
Just as the growth of education in the West was accompanied by a decline in religious belief, so the explosion of tertiary qualifications has diminished the status of the tenured men and women who Barnes maintained were entitled “to assume openly the role of guardian of conscience”.
In the age of social media, the new (self-appointed) guardians in our midst are actors along with comedians and writers and performance poets. Academics who are not also media stars play a lesser role than a half-century ago. The leaders of the political opposition since the US elections are not such Democrats as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer but, rather, Streep, Madonna, Alec Baldwin, Robert DeNiro, Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda and the like.
Madonna was the star of the Women’s March on Washington. This white woman declared that women “are in danger” under Trump — despite the fact that a majority of white women voted for him. Having commenced her talk with a “welcome to the revolution of love” evocation, Madonna proceeded: “Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I am outraged. Yes, I have thought an awful lot of blowing up the White House but I know this won’t change anything.”
This is a shocking statement. In the early 1970s, members of the radical left Weather Underground bombed the Capitol and the Pentagon. In American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (2016), Jeffrey Toobin writes that in the early 70s there were about 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the US.
If a white male right-wing extremist had delivered a speech in Washington eight years ago declaring he was angry and had thought about bombing Obama’s White House, an arrest would almost certainly have followed.
Speaking out in defence of Streep’s address, Fonda declared she had been told to “shut up” over the past half century because she was a celebrity. She added: “What celebrities can do is they can bring attention to things that wouldn’t necessarily get attention.” In fact, “Hanoi Jane” Fonda was criticised for seeming to support the North Vietnamese Army while visiting Hanoi in 1972. At the time, the NVA was attempting to kill members of the US military in the field. Fonda, who later apologised for her actions, was not told to shut up but to desist from supporting the enemy.
There was no shortage of opposition to the US commitment to Vietnam in the early 70s, just as there is no shortage of opposition to Trump today. Actors have no more wisdom than anyone else and their morality is no higher than that of footballers or mixed martial arts practitioners.
In time, society saw the need for a division between church and state. It’s time the likes of Streep and Madonna recognised the case for a division between Hollywood and the White House.