Just the other day, while handling a building permit in Pismo Beach, I found out that as part of a lawsuit settlement the city council had decided against opening its sessions anymore with a prayer. “We’re getting everything we asked for,” proclaimed a board member of Atheists United (which along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation had instigated the lawsuit). And then some, I’d say. In the interest “of carefully managing taxpayer funds,” the city attorney decided not to “contest the suit through trial.” Nevertheless, the city council agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees ($47,500) plus $2 total in nominal damages. Evidently, an unpaid chaplain, who from Jan. 1, 2008 to Oct. 15, 2013 had inaugurated most council meetings with a prayer, “offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated” at least one of the plaintiffs in the suit (Lambert, 2014).
I understand that lawsuits are prone to overwrought language. Still, short of a presentation of torture instruments, I’m not sure how a Christian invocation can be received as offensive, disenfranchising and intimidating. As with the overwrought controversy of secondhand smoke, I wish the civically sensitive were as plainspoken as Bruce Ames (1994): prayers, like cigarette fumes, are not noxious so much as they are irritating, and for that simple reason alone should be banished from the public square. Mind you, I speak as a person allergic both to tobacco and to piety more unearthly than the Pascalian gamble. On the last point: like most Americans (at least those polled), I’m in favor of public prayer, so long as it is “generic and not specifically Christian” (Grossman, 2014). Our first president, after all, never mentioned Jesus by name. As Ike, whom Bellah (1967) was fond of quoting, once said, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith – and I don’t care what it is.” As for me, at one with Brendan Behan, my money is on the Druids (Coogan, 2000, p. 98).
Perhaps the Constitutional Grinches unwittingly bolster America’s internalized fatwa – that worrisome trend of deleting religious exhibition and commentary from the public square for fear of offending pyrotechnic religionists (Malik, 2009). Setting that aside, I am doubtful that religious expression within the hallowed grounds of civic land signifies a serious threat to the republic. As Molly Ivins (1999, p. 50), at the expense of Allegheny County courthouse, once joked, a Nativity scene “may be the only way they’ll ever get three wise men in that building.” The same can be said of any governmental structure. Take that ACLU.
What’s amusing is what’s allowed to be displayed publicly in the meantime. Take a movie billboard at a bus stop where school kids congregate. A few times as I walk up Lake Avenue to work I’ve been struck by an image announcing the latest cinematic venture into torture porn. Mind you, the kids don’t notice: they’re preoccupied with the gaggle around them and the chatter on their handhelds. Still, relative to the image, a Christmastime crèche in Palisades Park seems a welcome exception. Its political removal hardly warrants a hallelujah for secularism (Gold, 2012), what with the ugliness on display in the gentrified streets. “The purpose of separation of church and state,” said Madison, “is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.” We instead get blood-soaked spectacles on the silver and computer screen.
Mind you, I don’t accept the claim that violent images trigger violent behavior. As a species, we don’t require much prompting. The claim’s evidence, anyway, while politically appealing (Ferguson & Kilburn, 2009) and thus too often compromised by “echo attribution” (Savage, 2012), is anecdotal at best (Levine & Ferguson, 2013). As a character suggests in Loomer’s play, Distracted, “anecdotal” is a pedantic way of saying “bullshit” (Loomer, 2009, p. 41). Besides, I’m not behaviorist enough to fret about metaphysical triggers of human action. I just wonder about images themselves.
I remember thinking back in 1992, when Silence of the Lambs won the Academy Award for best picture, “Is this the movie America wants to present to the world as the best we can achieve cinematically?” It’s a finely made and finely acted flick, but the plot is run-of-the-mill, if exceptionally riveting, trash. While comedies, though more difficult to pull off, always get short shrift at the Academy Awards, to my mind, City Slickers and The Addams Family should have been thoroughly honored. Of course, Beauty and the Beast was a more realistic contender for best picture. A priest I knew at the time, like me an erstwhile Scorsese fan, recounted how he walked out on a showing of Cape Fear and traded his ticket for a second viewing of Beauty and the Beast. I wish I had done the same. (I was still young and tolerant.) And I wish Beauty and the Beast had won best picture. This all may sound prissy. Keep in mind, familial recollections of Blowtorch Bob impressed me with the knowledge that state terror and sexual torture go hand in hand. In such world, truth, beauty and the good are not at all schmaltzy; they are defiant assertions. As Augustine perceived and Sissela Bok affirms, mayhem is entertainment for suckers (Bok, 1998).
“But let the soul fall in with the Ugly,” says Plotinus, “and at once it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.” Quoting this very passage, James Hillman (1992, p. 125) puts a therapeutic spin on it and muses on the aesthetics of good citizenship. Therapy in his hands turns both artsy and activist. As “psychological citizens,” we must demand not only social justice, but “aesthetic justice” too. Amidst the “pretentious buildings, noisy ventilation, oppressive meeting rooms, irritating lighting, vast undetailed parking spaces,” not to mention billboards, pollution and secondhand smoke, we should announce our objections – “to stand for beauty in the public arena and speak out about it.” Instead, we protest manger scenes.
On Tuesday, April 8, my wife and I attended a viewing at the Alex Theatre of 1979′s Time After Time. Malcolm McDowell, interviewed by none other than Nichele Nichols, was in town to discuss it. He joked that in 1979 his name could be found in the top ten lists for the year’s best and worst movies. Caligula was among the worst. Today it proves the prescient forerunner to HBO’s Rome: middlebrow torture porn replete with British accents.
“Ninety years ago, I was a freak,” says Jack the Ripper (played by David Warner) in Time After Time. “Today, I’m an amateur.” Delightfully, McDowell’s H.G. Wells and Mary Steenburgen’s Amy falsify the claim. He’s still a freak.
Ames, B. (1994, November). Of Mice and Men. (V. Postrel, Interviewer) Retrieved from http://reason.com/archives/1994/11/01/of-mice-and-men
Bellah, R. N. (1967). Civil Religion in America. Dædalus, 1-21.
Bok, S. (1998, June 23). “Mayhem” as Entertainment. (D. Gergen, Interviewer) Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-jan-june98-bok_06-23/
Coogan, T. P. (2000). Wherever Green Is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora . New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ferguson, Christopher and Kilburn, John. (2009). The Public Health Risks of Media Violence: A Meta-Analytic Review. The Journal of Pediatrics, 759-763.
Gold, S. (2012, December 3). Santa Monica Nativity scenes to move to private property. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/03/local/la-me-1204-santa-monica-nativity-20121204
Grossman, C. L. (2014, April 21). Most voters favor prayer, minus Jesus, at public meetings. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/most-voters-favor-prayer-minus-jesus-at-public-meetings/2014/04/21/0eca6816-c99f-11e3-b81a-6fff56bc591e_story.html
Hillman, James and Ventura, Michael. (1992). We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy And the World’s Getting Worse. New York: Harper Collins.
Ivins, M. (1999). Peace on Earth? Not as Long as There’s a Creche Controversy. In You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You (pp. 50-52). New York: Random House.
Lambert, C. (2014, April 16). Pismo Beach City Council agrees to end prayers at public meetings. The Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2014/04/16/3023816/pismo-beach-prayer-chaplain-lawsuit.html
Levine, Michael and Ferguson, Christopher. (2013, March 15). Video Games and Societal Violence: Cause for Urgent Action or a Bridge Too Far? Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-levine/video-games-and-societal-_b_2859598.html
Loomer, L. (2009). Distracted. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc.
Malik, K. (2009). From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy. London: Atlantic Books.
Savage, P. (2012, December 20). Violence and videogames: we look at the studies cited in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. PC Gamer. Retrieved from http://www.pcgamer.com/2012/12/20/violence-and-videogames-we-look-at-the-studies-cited-in-the-aftermath-of-sandy-hook/