RERUN–An Incident at the Movies

Originally posted 7/11/2004

I read about this incident in December, 2001, and have been thinking about it ever since. (The article appeared in Information Week, of all places.)

In May 2001, the writer went to see a movie in the upscale NYC neighborhood of Chelsea:

Before the movie started, the coming attractions included a public-service ad–you might have seen it on TV–showing a mother and small child in a home, then the outside of the home, then into the air to show the neighborhood, then higher to show the city, then miles up into the sky showing the whole country. And then it showed a pilot in a jet high above the earth from whose perspective the earlier scenes were viewed: a pilot in the U.S. Air Force patrolling the skies while the audio played the gentle song, “All Through The Night.” When the audience realized that it was an ad for the military, many people hissed, booed, or laughed derisively.

Several unpleasant forms of human behavior were on display here–for starters, ingratitude, class snobbery, and a generally jaded and sneering attitude. It strikes me that no society in which such attitudes prevail is likely to long survive.

And something else strikes me. The probability of individuals behaving in the way that these people did is directly proportional to their educational level. It’s very unlikely that people with only high school diplomas would have responded to the film in the way that these theatergoers did. It’s more likely that college graduates would respond in such a way. And it’s very likely indeed that those with graduate degrees (in the “humanities,” not the hard sciences) would respond as this audience did.

(I have no proof for the above conclusion, but it seems pretty obvious based on the way that attitudes in our society tend to be distributed across educational levels.)

In C S Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength, the principal character is captured by a sinister cabal. He is put through a process of training which is aimed at killing “all specifically human reactions” in a person.

To kill the “specifically human reactions” in a person and substitute something else…is that the effect of higher education–especially graduate education–as often carried out today?

Please understand that I am not arguing against education in general or against humanities education in particular. Judging by its fruits, however, something is much amiss with higher education as conducted in America today (and, I suspect, in Europe as well.) It often seems to create and/or reinforce in an individual a set of unloveable attributes such as:

–An unmerited assumption of superiority toward his fellow citizens
–An inability to appreciate skills other than the ones he himself possesses (such as, for instance, the ability to fly a jet fighter)
–An inability to engage on an emotional level

In the Information Week article, the writer (editor-in-chief Bob Evans) expresses the hope that the attitudes expressed at the movie would, in the light of 9/11, become a thing of the past.

This undoubtedly was true in some cases (as evidenced from the stories of many denizens of the blogosphere.) But the positive reactions to the Michael Moore movie (which almost certainly come mainly from the same class of people who jeered at the film in Evans’ article) indicate that the malign spirit of which he wrote is still very much alive.

8 thoughts on “RERUN–An Incident at the Movies”

  1. PST…thanks…I fixed the link.

    It is extremely irritating that the print-legacy media, and even *some* new media, seems unable to understand the concept/importance of a Permalink. If I follow links on an old post, the odds that it will still work–if it is to a blog–are about 80%. If it’s to something run by a large media organization, the odds are less than 50%. Generally the content is still there, but the URL structure was changed.

  2. The Brits became cynical about grandiosity and sentimentality after WWI; we did after the Civil War. Such suspicions of grandeur were not wrong. But they lead to nihilism – if nothing is worth dying for, then nothing is worth living for. And much is more important than we are – the next generation for instance. But such a view leads to grabbing what you can while you can – don’t work or save for the future. Art & economics & productivity & humility are all bound together.

    For academics, I suspect the subversion of thought that remains unacknowledged realized (unconsciously it would seem) that it didn’t work. Instead of humbly realizing mistakes and figuring out why, instead of the cleansing change of heart that led to the vigorous ideas of those who turned right, the vision of these people, remote from the real world, narrowed (that’s what Haidt is noting, for one thin) and many succumbed to inertia, nihilism. But underneath it all was a dirty kind of pride – I don’t want to accept my mistakes, if my ideas are worthless, all ideas are.

    Content is important. This isn’t humanities education, this is education in a set of beliefs that are peculiar (if historically persistent) to this time and place. Is sneering skepticism the view of great artists throughout history? Or of the people who appreciated them? I am more and more sure that you are right – a week-end in Austin reminded me of what our generation saw, heard, and produced. It is not a pretty sight.

    Hemingway’s response to WWI was to say only what was real and hard – a town’s name, a rock, etc. – was worth talking about. But as it would be good to reclaim our government from those with a materialist, vulgar, and statist vision, it may be time to reclaim the humanities from those who sneer at what they cannot understand and to encourage humility before the sublime – in action & in art.

  3. Also…”The Brits became cynical about grandiosity and sentimentality after WWI; we did after the Civil War.” I think this was the case in all of the European belligerent countries, because the grandiosity and sentimentality were viewed as having been used by those who either didn’t know what they were doing or didn’t care about it’s impact.

    Here’s the former idealist Ludwig Breyer, in Remarque’s novel The Road Back:

    “They told us it was for the Fatherland, and they meant the schemes of annexation of a greedy industry.–They told us it was for honour, and meant the quarrels and the will to power of a handful of ambitious diplomats and princes..They stuffed the word Patriotism with all the twaddle of their fine phrases, with their desire for glory, their will to power, their false romanticism…And we thought they were sounding a bugle summoning us to a new, a more strenuous, a larger life. Can’t you see, man? But we were making war against ourselves without knowing it!…The youth of the world rose up in every land believing that it was fighting for freedom! And in every land they were duped and misused; in every land they have been shot down, they have exterminated each other.”

    But cynicism and nihilism can be used for ill, every bit as much as sentimentality and patriotism.

  4. NZ…I’ve read Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory and various essays) and suspect that many of the other contributors and commenters here have as well.

  5. “Is sneering skepticism the view of great artists throughout history?”

    Sneering and skepticism are not detectable in modern quantity in the exhibitions of the great painters in museums, nor among the medieval works in museums, nor among the Greco-Roman works in museums. Certainly none of my favorite paintings from Circe Invidiosa to Oath of the Horatii are either sneering or skeptical, nor are the vast numbers of inspired and beautiful paintings of the saints and the Madonna.

    I wish I lived in a time wherein my society had the power to honor its virtues and the virtuous.

  6. Several thoughts. Ginny, the Brits were cynical throughout WWI that their own government was making up atrocities by the Germans for propaganda purposes. This was put forward continually by the British Left, especially the pacifist wing. When, after victory, the reports were revealed to be true, they were still disbelieved. This was a great advantage to Hitler in the 30’s, that the English did not believe that the truth was true. “Chesterton on War and Peace,” newspaper columns he wrote as this was occurring, documents this well and predicts the result accurately. He also notes that pacifism only really got under weigh in the West when the possible opponents were socialists of various ilk, and speculates why.

    David, the election data gives some support for your education hypothesis, but I would note the following: Pew Research identifies a single group in America that has little contact with the military – the 16-19% identified as “true liberals,” the largest group in the Democratic coalition. Of the 9-10 groups Pew usually finds, this group has first-, second, or third-most education, but there’s a twist. They have only an average amount of science and technology training, but trend toward education and social sciences. As about 35% of all advanced degrees are in education, I submit that Republicans have a higher level of education even at the graduate level (insert your own stereotypes here.)

    What you saw was people with a lot of the trappings of education.

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