And the Circus Goes On…

18 12 2012

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I’d heard disturbing rumors from my students about a performer with the unfortunate stage name Ke$ha whose hit song “Die Young” apparently (poor girl) went from #3 to Nothing virtually overnight because it had the following lyrics, which, given the Sandy Hook tragedy, were determined by the music and entertainment industry to be in bad taste:

I hear your heart beat to the beat of the drums
Oh what a shame that you came here with someone
So while you’re here in my arms
Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young

We’re gonna die young
We’re gonna die young
Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young

What disturbed me, of course, weren’t the lyrics. After all, the greatest anthem of teenage rebellion has a similar line (and, I might add, is a much, much better song):

I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss

What was truly disturbing was the sudden and self-righteous response of the entertainment industry, who apparently grew a conscience over the weekend and decided to take the song off the air. The very purveyors of tawdry filth and violence felt compelled to bow their heads in a mock gesture to the dead. Touching.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “if you live today, you breathe in nihilism.” But it’s not only in the air, it’s in our games, and in our sports, and our toys, and our music and movies and television. It’s everywhere, which makes nixing a song because of some lyrics about dying young just plain silly. Really.

In another moving gesture by Hollywood, we learn from the AP wire that:

“The Connecticut school shooting rampage compelled Hollywood to air disclaimers before violent television shows, swap some programs for others, cancel film openings…”

The article goes on:

“Showtime gave its viewers a special warning Sunday before the season finales of the thriller series “Homeland,” and “Dexter,” a series about a serial killer. . . . In light of the tragedy that has occurred in Connecticut, the following program contains images that may be disturbing,” said the disclaimer before both programs. . . . Another cable network, HBO, postponed airings of the 2012 crime thriller “Contraband” over the weekend. . . . The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York canceled Monday’s screening of Tom Cruise’s violent new movie, “Jack Reacher,” that was to include a conversation with the actor. A scheduled premiere of the movie in Pittsburgh had also been postponed over the weekend. . . . In Los Angeles, the Weinstein Co. canceled Tuesday’s planned premiere of the violent movie “Django Unchained.”

And then we were reminded by one of their own that this sort of thing is

“a ritual for entertainment companies in the wake of national tragedies . . . . The network’s series and promos are all looked at carefully with an eye toward whether any of them could be considered insensitive with the news still fresh in mind.”

Apparently it takes national tragedies like the mass killing of 20 small children and half a dozen adults to inject sensitivity into Hollywood. And yet, the parade and glorification of violence will continue from its bowels for one simple reason: violence makes money — lots and lots of money.

And so the circus goes on.

But nihilism comes in much more innocuous packaging than your run-of-the-mill slasher film or ill-timed song lyrics from Ke$ha. Nihilism, like evil, rarely looks the part and generally comes in the form of your basic objectification of humans and their relationships. In other words, it comes in the form of things such as the utterly backwards priorities we have as a country when it comes to our attitudes about the various professions that make up the tapestry of modern American culture.

Two weeks ago in the news we heard about an NFL football player who killed his friend and teammate because he crashed while driving drunk. And then this past weekend we heard of a teacher who threw herself between a deranged killer and her 1st grade students and died doing so, and of a school principal and school psychologist who rushed the same man, who was loaded to the teeth with ammo, in order to save the children of that school. (Kind of makes what your average NFL football player does look a bit wimpy.) But here’s the rub: the average pay for an NFL football player is around one million dollars (depending on the position, of course ~ quarterbacks get the most, tight ends the least… huh?!?), while the average pay for a teacher in this country hovers around forty-four thousand dollars.

And so the circus goes on.

If we care to do something to curb the epidemic of violence in this country, we might want to start where it all actually begins: with our insatiable desire to objectify everything, down to our very lives (ahem, Facebook profiles). Or maybe we should start with those industries that stand to gain the most from objectification: Hollywood, and the world of sports, and the modeling industry, and the fat-cat executives of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, and the sadistic visionaries who invent the video games we apparently all love so much (Grand Theft Auto 5, anyone?). These are not exactly the sorts of people we want our children to emulate, and yet we revere them as if they were gods for embodying and doing what we would loathe in anyone else. We encourage them to treat human begins like objects, or to be objects themselves, and then reward them handsomely for obliging.

To wit: the number one selling video game of all time is Halo 2, which is described as “a first-person shooter video game.” And speaking of Grand Theft Auto 5 (see just above), here’s the latest pre-release review:

GTA 5 is not going to follow any previous formulaic styles, but is rather going [to] guide gamers into a more dynamic world where stealing cars and shooting people will be last on the priority list. If the trailers are anything to go by, it seems the missions are going to involve more direct and goal-oriented missions that still give gamers the freedom to maneuver through it however they choose. There are scenes that showcase planned out robberies, trains crashing into each other (who hasn’t been wanting to see that), and lighting a whole house on fire to make a point.

I couldn’t make this shit up.

You see, that’s where it all begins, with the objectification of human beings. Why? Because you can’t love an object. You can only lust after it. And lusting, like killing, is so much easier to do than its opposite: which, in both cases, is loving.

O’Connor was right. Nihilism is the very air we breathe. And how, after all, do you get rid of that? We might do well to re-read chapter 40 of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (from about 646ff  in the Harper Brothers edition), where one is reminded anew that the internal quarrels of the empire over the pursuit of wealth and power and prestige did far greater damage than any outside threat of force. Rome essentially rotted from the inside out. Could it see it coming? Likely not. It all happened so slowly, so imperceptibly, and under the guise of such pomp and nobility and, well… fun.

The AP article quoted above ends with this little doozy:

“The View” invited ABC News’ Chris Cuomo and forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner to talk about the incident. One of the show’s co-hosts, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, asked Welner with tears in her eyes, “How can this happen?”

Seriously, Elisabeth? Seriously?

And the circus goes on.

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