Firstly, apologies for the later-than-I-wanted follow-up. If you’re doing me the courtesy of reading my ramble, I thank you as always.
If what I was driving at in my last post was that blind religious faith is dangerous, it wouldn’t have been worth speaking on. That’s something that even a decent portion of religious adherents understand—or think they do at least. However, growing up surrounded with that kind of mindset does bestow one with a unique perspective on dogma that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their life. The mindset of the adults that constitute your social world growing up is something you absorb and emulate. Half the point of growing up is to figure out what he hell the grown-ups are saying, just watch The Wonder Years. I say this to offer that the reason I’m on about it is actually because I’ve found that it publicly generalises far beyond religious or political conservatism.
For the longest time, I thought that this kind of semi-elective thought process was isolated to communities with a heavy Christian presence and more generally to the Southern United States. And while this is a hotspot for that kind of thing, it spreads far further. Indeed, it is become the American baseline. All societies need a societal hub; a place where they can come together to establish their norms and mores. In America, that place was the church. Of course, being religious and even Christian isn’t particularly unique to Americans as opposed to other “Western” civilisations, but America itself was a unique creation indeed. During the earliest phases of North American colonisation, the majority of Europe was rather theologically hostile to Protestants in general, and even the societies making pretences towards being republics were decidedly anti-democratic. Nothing as liberal as America had really been attempted yet. It was as radical a form of government and society as could be. Being majority-Protestant and so rooted in a foundation of religious flight, it was perhaps predictable that the pulpit would become not just the place for spiritual enrichment, but also a mainstay of political proselytization as well. To this day most political candidates make forays at crowd-pleasing by visiting highly visible churches so as to legitimise their faithful credentials for the campaign trail.
And this new experiment of a nation was—and still is—quite young. And in its youth, it’s been expected to absorb every new school of political thought and social pressure coming before or after it in rapid fire. Like any child, it was inevitably and fundamentally changed over and over again as it grew to the late adolescence it finds itself in now. As its culture developed, the blind faith borne of its Christian childhood got recycled into different representations but still kept its overall structure. Our heroes, much like those of ancient societies, were so deified in and of themselves, and we were taught to believe in them. Even though John Wayne is dumb as a bag of hammers and maybe a bit rough around the ethical edges, he is still the “good guy”. Being the good guy he is thus naturally worthy of our faith that he will go and handle the bank robber, the Commanche raid on the wagon train, and the barbaric Imperial Japanese forces on Iwo Jima.
However the most striking similarity between our heroes of stage and screen and those of myth is also unique to the American conscience: they always win, and this winning is in and of itself a justice. The flawed protagonist exists, but is a relatively immature development in American culture, and rarely understood for what he is. When they appear, they are still lauded and celebrated for their innate goodness, all their shortcomings covered by the divine mercy of the goodness for which they fight. Consider the character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, an individual with heavily problematic tendencies who wants to assassinate a politician to impress a girl he likes. He ends up murdering the pimps controlling access to an underage girl that he desires control of stemming from the rejection of his adult love interest. His brutal vigilantism is uproariously lauded by the people of New York City, who have a deeply-rooted—and kind of understandable—us/them mentality in the seemingly hopeless crime-ridden New York City of the late seventies.
This film had, generally speaking, two main receptions among mainstream audiences. In one, the film is a disgusting descent into the mindless wanton violence perpetrated by a deranged man and should have not been made. In the second, Travis is a beautiful anti-hero who conquers his shortcomings through them and becomes the emblem of American bad-assery, and the film itself is lumped together with a wave of 1970’s vigilante films of far less cinematic quality. Of course, neither of these two takes even begins to understand the movie or its nuances. This isn’t the result of the general public being too stupid to grasps narrative complexity—the American public is not near as stupid as it often appears. No, we had been trained to believe so steadfastly in the concept of the hero winning against something bad that they could not think of Travis Bickle outside of this over-simplified context. He was either the devil or an angel because being the protagonist meant he could not be a mere man. Both interpretations orbit around the same morality dynamic. Travis Bickle is a vigilante. Travis Bickle is a psychopath. There is no need for most to differentiate between the two. Of course, many critics actually did (and do) delve deeper and speak to the films finer themes of social alienation, shifting social values, and American loss of innocence, but reading and digesting that is a hassle, isn’t it? Who needs that when Travis is either shooting the bad guys for you or being hopelessly violent? Isn’t that all you really need to know about him? Can a film like Taxi Driver actually have a socially beneficial impact if only the film buffs and cinema academics bother to have the meaningful discussions about Travis?
Church was where we gathered in 1776, but in the middle of the twentieth century we huddled together in movie theaters or switched on the television. The pulpit switched venues, and so too did our demands for heroes and our need to smite our enemies get a flavor remix. We switched from one binary moral paradigm to the next just as easily as we switched from Dragnet to Taxi Driver. As the Soviets marched into and sacked Berlin as we backed them up with air cover. For together, we were angels marching arm-in-arm with us to defeat the devil of fascism. It only took a few years to remind Americans that the real great Satan was the one with the hammer and sickle’d horns of Bolshevism; suddenly remembering every Soviet atrocity so conveniently forgotten about just six or seven years prior. The fifties embodied this hardline switch. We as citizens, by and large, commissioned a screen culture so bereft of any demonstrable conscience or personal challenge, so rife with censorship and rampant consumerism to the point it seriously begs the question of whether entertainment—in and of itself—is actually culture at all. It is perhaps just that we most remember the televised comedies of the fifties more than anything else, as were largely a blind and laughable people. Musicians and writers had tendencies towards mesmerizing despair during this time, perhaps best embodied by Ginsberg’s “Howl for Carl Solomon”. It is a poem sadly most remembered solely for its opening lines and then mostly as a mockery and parody of beat culture. Consider that Ginsberg and Company were screaming in a crowded room, desperately trying to get people to turn their heads away from Mayberry.
In time we managed to break the shackles of the Production Code (read: the censorship guidelines) and finally shuffle into the era of New Hollywood. However, we never really cut out that moral binary tendency; a people are much more than just its culture of course, and we had the a Cold War active. Film evolved beautifully, but we stayed largely the same. We still needed our heroes to be all-good and devour the all-bad. The American audience, without enough people pushing them to do otherwise, did the job that the Code was meant to do and manufactured the easy heroes and villains in their own heads. Many saw themselves as seeing the complexities of a rapidly-changing world, but in truth they had merely moved from two halves of black and white to a cross-hatching that they convinced themselves, standing ever-so-distant, was actually grey. As Americans only begrudgingly accepted the barest of progressive reforms for the marginalised and disenfranchised citizenry, in too great a number they similarly rejected attempts at artistic societal enrichment. By and large, the public refused to challenge themselves. They continued to submit to their shopping centers and mortgages well into the 1990’s, and this time they really only had themselves to blame, not that we yet knew we were hurting ourselves.
And even though we are just barely starting to realise that we have responsibilities and consequences with the rest of the world, we’re still quite mired in the toxic faith mentality.