MORAL RELATIVISM, PBS-STYLE
In 1934 old barriers were torn down in societies around the world. In the United States Cole Porter wrote the score for Anything Goes. In Germany, Hitler thought anything goes as well and he ordered the murder of Austrian Chancellor Englebert Dolfuss. That very year the government of the United States sanctioned the murder of John Dillinger. Also in the United States, Franklin Roosevelt launched a series of social programs to temper capitalism. In China, another movement to temper capitalism was afoot as Mao Tse Tung inaugurated his Long March to install Communism in China. Meanwhile, that same year, upon the death of Hindenburg, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Hitler, too, had plans to modify capitalism to suit his own needs. As did Elijah Muhammad, who became leader of the Nation of Islam in the United States. Back in Germany, Hitler exhorted the people to reject decadent culture. Ironically, that very year Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was published, but it was banned in the United States. The forces of cultural tyranny were on the march everywhere.
Now, anybody who read the above paragraph with a glimmer of attention and even a dim spark of intelligence would find at least a few things wrong. Yes, all of these things happened in 1934. But the idea, for example, that Cole Porter’s Anything Goes has anything to do with Nazi machinations in Europe is at least silly and is certainly offensive to many.
But that is precisely the reasoning the producers of the PBS series The People’s Century employ. Last night, in the process of my never-ending search for something mindless to watch on TV, I stumbled on this program. At first I thought it was simply a documentary about the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Iranian Revolution. But as it unfolded it became clear the producers were trying to do something else. The Iranian revolution, explained the narrator, gave inspiration to religions and religious movements around the world. When I heard this I said to my couch, “What other religions could they be talking about?” Since the little lady was watching TV with me she answered instead, but first she said, “Don’t call me couch.” Then she joked, “Why, the Christian Coalition and other zealots of the Reagan Revolution of course!”
Unfortunately it was no joke. The program, “1979: God Fights Back,” used the same logic that I used in the first paragraph of this column to make it sound as if the Religious Right and Hezbollah were morally, politically, and intellectually similar if not identical.
In television this logic is far more powerful than in any other medium. We are accustomed to watching television as a narrative. A happens, then B, then C. By simply cutting images of A, B, and C in succession, the impression that they naturally flow is achieved. Trust me, I was a TV producer for five years; it is very easy to do.
Especially if you have no professional conscience.
“God Fights Back” was a hate crime against history. In order to make the comparison between Jerry Falwell and — I’m not kidding — the Ayatollah believable, the producers needed to temper the horrors of the Iranian Revolution and play up the excesses of the Christian Right. The Iranians were simply reacting to the decadent excesses of a murderous right-wing tyrant, while the warriors for God in the United States threatened to overthrow the democratic system. This is precisely the kind of moral equivalence PBS producers and European viewers love. In their view, the Iranians need to be seen “in context” but the Americans are far worse zealots than they will ever admit.
The fact that the Christian Right and the Moral Majority in the United States were always and everywhere talking about voting themselves into power, not shooting their way into it, seems lost on the producers. The fact that the Moral Majority, despite its flaws, was wholly consistent with the American tradition of religious movements influencing American politics seems utterly lost on the makers of “God Fights Back” as well. Was the March on Washington in 1963 an example of the rise of religious zealotry? Why not? It was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its headliner was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who boasted about the central role of religion in everything he did. Indeed, until recently, almost every major social movement in American history was driven in large part by people with profound religious convictions. Today social movements are often driven by the profoundly anti-religious. Indeed, one suspects that such animus goes a long way to explaining the motives of the producers.
For example, in one segment of the documentary, the narrator explains that Iranian fundamentalism was exported to other nations. They spent a few minutes on the spread of Iranian-style Islam in Egypt and the eventual assassination of Anwar Sadat by fundamentalists. We, meaning she and I, had to leave, but we were determined to first find out where the Christian Right had spread its equally pernicious message. Were Christian activists flooding the Philippines with voter education cards?
The documentary eventually zipped back to the United States and, of course, the election of Ronald Reagan. But the parallel of America exporting fundamentalism abroad didn’t materialize. Instead, the producers simply implied that the Republican takeover of Congress was the equivalent of Iran fomenting religious violence in Egypt. I turned it off before it was over.
GENTRIFICATION, COURTESY OF HILLARY
The speculation over where Hillary Clinton will live when she moves to New York is reaching fever pitch. Supposedly NY real estate agents are making a fortune by selling properties to people who are hoping to be Hillary’s neighbor. Today Richard Cohen writes in the Washington Post that Hillary’s staff is hard at work trying to figure out where Hillary’s domicile would have the biggest political impact.
Well, I am not accustomed to giving Hillary good advice but I do have an idea that would be beneficial for her and for New York. If Hillary Clinton were to move to Harlem or, better yet, the South Bronx or East New York, she would be doing more good for New York than any three of her gitchy-goo programs. By simply collecting her mail in an impoverished neighborhood she’d be pumping more money into the local economy than Webb Hubbell could bilk in a lifetime.
Would it be a crass political move? Of course. But this is the woman who was considering adopting a child while in the White House because it would bolster her nurturing image. But in this case she could admit it. She could simply say that she knows that wherever she resides, a real estate boom will follow, and therefore she is taking advantage of this fact to help her constituents. Fifth Avenue doesn’t exactly need a spike in property values and the local Brasseries will do fine without the hundreds of cameramen buying their morning coffee there. But the local bodega in the Bronx could probably really use the lift.
And for conservatives who are horrified by the idea of giving Hillary good advice, there’s a silver lining. When she loses in her Senate race she would have to either stay in some shoddy-but-recovering neighborhood or explain why she no longer wants to live there now that the political benefit is gone.