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Can the coarsening of culture be stopped?

By Kevin and Marilyn Ryan
Posted: 10/16/2009

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Arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood, the culture capital of America, is Harvey Weinstein, the producer of ‘‘Pulp Fiction,’’ ‘‘Shakespeare in Love’’ and ‘‘Scary Movie 4.’’ Outraged by the arrest of Roman Polanski, he has been leading a campaign to release convicted child rapist, Polanski. This was a despicable drugging and unnatural act performed on a child who was 13 years old at the time.

What is even more astonishing is the defense by celebs excusing such evil behavior. We half expect Weinstein to suggest that movies are the ultimate democratic vehicle: if people don’t like the message, they won’t see the movie.

Okay, Polanski is just another creepy old guy like David Letterman, who recently used his show to reveal his several affairs with staffers. Faced with threats of blackmail, Letterman chose to go public on-camera with his smarmy confession. The worst part was the laughter of his adoring audience greeting the news and then the subsequent upward spike in his ratings.

The production company Letterman works for, and probably owns, is called World Wide Pants, Inc. Memo to advertisers: We are awaiting the news whether General Electric, American Express or Staples pull their advertising as they did when Don Imus made a racial slur. We wonder if the advertisers think a racial slur is worse than using your show time to reveal your very private and sordid life.

Today sex is a commodity like gold or crude oil. It is the background of television forensic fictions and movies about crime. CBS’s “CSI” and other crime stories pruriently focus on the human body, particularly the female body. Few shows fail to involve sexual liaisons and varieties of undress as part of the story. Even our cute, girl-next-door Pam on “The Office” is pregnant five months before her wedding. What once shocked the citizenry is today commonplace. Well, everybody does it.

Your basic Hollywood movie we reserve film for something higher is written and shot for a 14-year-old male. As readers quickly guess, there are many “14-year-olds” out there buying tickets for the 7:00 p.m. show. Older folks remember the phrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know pornography when I see it. But do 14-year-olds know it when they see it? It seems as though old men are toying with boys, our boys. They are being excited and manipulated.

The coarsening of our culture proceeds unabated as our appetites for more titillation descends to lower depths. We have been here before. Every school boy and girl knows about the decline of the great Roman Empire, its descent from a powerful, innovative culture to one held together with bread and circus diversions featuring gladiatorial duels to the death and the sight of Christian men, women and children being ripped apart by wild beasts. They will do whatever it takes to grab and hold an audience.

Hollywood has been in business for almost a hundred years and, as this segment of the creative community habitually does, it has been pushing the envelope of acceptable to public standards for most of that time. For the first half of Hollywood’s reign, our Church and an organization called the Legion of Decency were together a strong counter force that kept Hollywood in check.

Why it lost its authority may be due to vesuvial cultural change. Post Vatican II, Catholics went on the defensive. We became preoccupied with reform in the Church and left defense of the culture to others. If the media world, which currently surrounds us and regularly instructs our children about the real meaning of life is any indication, others didn’t show up.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsors the Office of Film and Broadcasting, which maintains a useful website ( for guidance not only for current films, but also TV shows. On the other hand, the Legion of Decency was a much bigger deal 50 or 60 years ago. It could bring Hollywood to its knees. If a bishop deemed a movie unsavory, Catholics would leave it alone, bringing financial ruin to the film company. Recognizing the importance of a Catholic audience, the moguls worked with the bishops.

What is needed, however, is not just a revival of the Legion of Decency with the Catholic Church being a brake on a runaway, play-to-the-pit entertainment factory. We need an authoritative cultural megaphone to educate us about entertainments -- books, films, television programs -- that reflect the Christian messages. We say Christian because we share this American culture with the Protestants, and many others, churched and unchurched who are just as vulnerable to the toxicity of Hollywood as we Catholics. Also, the more people, the more potential to collar the Weinsteins, Polanskis and Lettermans.

In the 1976 media satire, “Network,” the news anchorman, Howard Beale, fed up with the hypocrisy and corruptions of the world he is reporting, galvanizes the nation with his rant, ‘‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!’’ Going increasingly mad, he urges his national audience to open their windows and yell out to bring about reform. Yelling out the window or at our TV sets about the violence and licentiousness on the various screens we watch won’t help here. We need a plan. Here are three suggestions for starters.

One, ask your pastor to speak and write about the USCCB’s the Office of Film and Broadcasting including giving the website in the weekly parish bulletin.

Two, call or write to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at 3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194 or 202-541-3000, urging them to be more aggressive about the despoiling of our culture.

Three, rally your friends and families to email sponsors and networks about unacceptable program themes and scenes.

We’re mad as hell and...and you know the rest.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.