The Corner


How Entertainment Shapes Our Expectations in Suicide of the West

I finally finished Jonah’s Suicide of the West — which took longer than I thought, not because it was bad or plodding, but because every few pages I wanted to go to some isolated hilltop, gaze at the horizon, and contemplate deep thoughts about democracy, culture, Western Civilization, communities, technology, change, and values. This is Jonah’s masterwork.

I could write a review of every chapter, but for now I just want to focus on two important points that Jonah makes about the nature of entertainment and how it shapes society. First, in a section discussing the film Dead Poets Society and how it exemplifies a “neo-romantic” mentality of noble rebellious souls defying authority and convention:

What [Robin Williams’ teacher character] is not doing is teaching the boys to think for themselves. He is teaching them to embrace the romantic imperative of finding truth – or at least the only truth that matters – within themselves. In other words, he is not teaching them to think for themselves, he is teaching them not to think at all. Dead Poets Society is a rock-and-roll song minus the rock and roll.

All of this matters, because films like this do not merely reflect our culture but also shape it, giving it voice and validation. Voted the greatest “school film” of all time, Dead Poets Society’s influence has been profound, not just on how normal people view education, but on how educators view themselves.

Of course, the conventions of entertainment, and particularly Hollywood and the Joseph Campbell “hero’s journey” template, make it almost impossible to make a successful film with the inverse messages — that adherence to authority is a virtue, that large, well-established institutions are trustworthy and beneficial, and that taking your place as part of a larger whole is noble and good. If an authority figure is wise in a movie, he’s likely to be an outsider to larger societal forces (Yoda, Morpheus, Dumbledore, Professor X). In Star Trek, the Federation may be good, but Starfleet’s captains are heroic and its admirals are almost always wrong or corrupt. In Hollywood, ever since Joe Friday turned in his badge, every big crime has been solved by the “maverick cop.” Almost every police official above captain is incompetent and an obstacle. We’re constantly told that one person, trusting his gut and defying all the rules, ends up solving the problem – or at most, a small team. You’ll never see a movie about how a department-wide community-policing initiative ended a crime wave — unless it’s about a maverick reformer police lieutenant who has a bold idea and has to overcome institutional resistance.

Later Jonah writes:

The desire to be entertained has rewired much of our civilization, because it has rewired our minds. When everything needs to be entertaining, we judge everything by its entertainment value. Entertainment is fundamentally romantic and tribal. It cuts corners, jumps over arguments, elevates passion, and lionizes heroes. Try to make an exciting movie about how laws are made and policy is implemented – without creating heroes of willpower and villains of greed, without skipping the reasonable arguments on both sides. It is almost impossible.

For reasons of drama and pace and retaining the audience’s attention, entertainment is unrealistic. But because it is unrealistic, it leaves the audience with unrealistic expectations of how the world should work and how people achieve what they want.

One of my favorite online essays of all time appeared in Cracked, an online humor magazine that sometimes sneaks serious points in amidst the jocularity. David Wong wrote that the 1980s movie The Karate Kid “ruined the modern world.” Or more specifically, movies that featured montages leave many people in the audience with a collective misunderstanding of how much time and effort is needed to learn something or improve ourselves.

You know what I’m talking about;  the main character is very bad at something, then there is a sequence in the middle of the film set to upbeat music that shows him practicing. When it’s done, he’s an expert…

Every adult I know — or at least the ones who are depressed — continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock…

America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, “If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc).”…

How have we gotten to adulthood and failed to realize this? Why would our expectations of the world be so off? I blame the montages. Five breezy minutes, from sucking at karate to being great at karate, from morbid obesity to trim, from geeky girl to prom queen, from terrible garage band to awesome rock band.

He points out, accurately, that it is extraordinarily unlikely that Ralph Macchio could become the best martial artist in a tournament in a matter of weeks, just by training with Mr. Miyagi. In reality, someone who begins studying karate in elementary school and practices for years will be much, much better than even a talented newcomer.

I think it’s inevitable that our view of the world is shaped by a mix of both reality and works of fiction in pop culture. We may or may not get ever get a chance to ever travel to Australia, so our idea of it will be heavily shaped by Crocodile Dundee. (Sorry, Australians.) Oliver Stone fueled beliefs about the Kennedy assassination with JFK.  Juries have increasingly unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence in criminal cases, shaped by CSI and other shows. We can’t be experts in everything, so what we consume as entertainment fills in the gaps of knowledge.

How many of our fellow citizens stumble their way through life, perpetually frustrated because their real-life experience doesn’t match their sense of what life ought to be — a sense heavily shaped by the realms of entertainment and fiction?


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