AMERICA’S HEART PROBLEM

As I look over the major events in our country over the last couple of years, I am left with one question: What does it mean to be human?

And what does that have to do with the ideologically polarized time in which we find ourselves, you may ask? EVERYTHING.

Studying and teaching film has its benefits way beyond cinematic critical analysis. Since film is a reflection of life, we can learn a lot about a people by analyzing motion picture art. Granted, much of what we study in film is in retrospect, but these same approaches can be used to study current trends in storytelling media, which often parallel events in real life.

For example, my area of expertise is the American Horror Film, and as I wrote in the chapter on horror cinema of the 1970s, in my forthcoming book Why Horror?, I found the parallels between 1970s America shockingly similar to 2020s America. From the fights over abortion to inflation to civil rights to the rise of the new right and new left, much of what we are experiencing now can trace its roots back to the chaos of the 1970s.

But I digress.

What does it mean to be human? 

Everything we are facing in our tumultuous socio-political landscape has its roots in that philosophical question. One of the many reasons why I love Star Trek, in particular The Next Generation, is because of its central theme: the persistent exploration of humanity: What does it mean to be human? If we can answer that question, then so many of our other problems will solve themselves. Can logic and reasoning solve everything? No. But it’s far less chaotic and more strategic than constantly addressing symptoms of a larger generational illness through ideological positioning.

What is that illness, exactly? I believe it is the lack of a moral compass.

While there has been a distorted, warped definition of what it means to be liberal, I want to remind you that pure liberalism is a philosophical approach that considers all available empirical and anecdotal evidence to arrive at a solution that opposes fascism and authoritarianism in all their forms. It is not—and should not be—used as a synonym for either the political left (or for progressivism), any more than conservatism (or legalism) should be used as a synonym for the political right.

It takes only one generation to bring about the demise of a society. Just like the Roman Empire imploded—fell apart from within—our own American Empire is crumbling from within. About one-and-a-half to two generations ago, our public school systems began to drift away from teaching morals and ethics in formal classrooms. Combine that with the dissolution of the American family and the widespread abandonment of parental responsibility for teaching morals and ethics, and we can trace most of our societal problems back to this shift.

Why? Because we began to devalue truth in exchange for opinion, expression, and relativism. And when there is no truth, there is no means to know what is right or wrong. Think of it this way: a compass rose would be useless for navigation if it didn’t point to the true north. If a user of a compass was able to simply choose which north they wanted, then it would render navigation an exercise in futility. There can’t be more than one north anymore than there can be more than one truth. Without compasses (or GPSs) that are fixed to recognize the geographic north, no one is able to successfully navigate.

By not teaching the difference between right and wrong, fact and opinion, etc., children and young people since the mid-to-late ‘90s onward have not been reared and educated to respect parents, leaders, peers, and even one’s adversaries. Contrary to popular belief, respect doesn’t mean weakness or complacency. One can completely and vehemently disagree with someone, yet still be respectful.

I cite how Maverick responds to his leaders in Top Gun: Maverick, or how Jean-Luc Picard responds to countless admirals in Star Trek: the Next Generation when he is at philosophical or diplomatic odds with them. Even when Captain Picard is addressing his subordinates, he is always respectful, yet may fundamentally disagree with them. A great example of this is when he wanted Lt. Worf to donate his blood to save the life of a Romulan, but Worf refused. Captain Picard could have ordered him, but he chose not to out of respect for Worf’s dignity.

America has a gun heart problem.

By eliminating morals and ethics from our public school classrooms, educators no longer teach what is right and wrong (in the eyes of the law and humanity).

Growing up in and being educated by a system that values relativism over logic and reasoning gives birth to the kind of rampant disrespect for humanity that we’ve seen in the Pulse Massacre (in which I lost a friend and former coworker), Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Robb Elementary schools, the mass shooting in Buffalo, NY, Columbine, Uvalde, and more. Are gun laws perhaps a little too loose? Sure, I’ll give you that. Should there be universal background checks? Probably. Should the age to buy a firearm be increased to 21? Perhaps. Should military assault-style rifles be banned to the general public? Many think so.

The shooters in all those examples placed greater value on what they wanted, what they believed, and what they felt was the appropriate course of action than on the value of each and every human life. When one is reared in an environment devoid of consistent respect for others, then there is no reason not to behave inhumanely. It’s not mental illness that is driving these mass shooters (although I’m sure there is some correlation), but it’s the devaluing of human life that is the root cause. After all, this abominable action is justified or true to them. It all gets back to the heart.

If we look at this issue from a biological perspective, from the time male puberty sets in, through adolescence, until early to mid-20s, young men have raging hormones. And while we tend to associate these hormones solely with sex drive, we often forget that these same hormones and other chemicals predispose a young man to increased aggression. While some countries choose to require military service after high school, the U.S. doesn’t have any programs like that. Why is this important? Because in countries wherein there is required military service after high school for young men, they are better able to channel their predisposition to aggression in constructive ways. Not only does this provide seat time while the chemicals level out, but it also forces young men to deal with and manage these emotions.

I’m not stating that this is the only option the U.S. has for providing a method for young men to manage this biological and cognitive developmental stage, but it does demonstrate the need for a means for young men to have an avenue through which they can be educated as to how to behave like gentlemen and control their urges. Whether in military service or education, young men should be taught the difference between recognizing an impulse and acting upon it. Between inaction and impulse, there is a realm of good taste that is begging for attention.

Moreover, this stage in life also demonstrates why it’s important for a young man to have a father or a father figure in his life, because he needs to know how to be a man. Without a father at home or even a father figure in a boy’s life, there is an increased risk of inability to deal with the raging hormones and other chemicals as childhood transitions into adulthood.

For every action we take, there are consequences, be they good, bad, or indifferent. And contrary to postmodern belief, we ARE responsible for our actions. Does that mean our actions aren’t influenced by our environment? No, they most certainly can be, and often are. But at the end of the day, we—not the world—pull the trigger on our actions and are responsible for our decision(s)

But addressing these issues only fixes symptoms (i.e. the clear bigotry that motivates a variety of violence and hate speech). And by only treating symptoms, the root cause will continue to fester and get more septic over time. We will be better off by treating the cause, and then the symptoms correct themselves. Much more efficient. Children and teens today (and I’d venture to include young adults) have little fundamental understanding of (1) what it means to be human and (2) human dignity. When human life is devalued, then the risk of violence increases exponentially.

When does life become human?

Think of it this way: a baby can’t not be human until it is any more than it is human until it isn’t. It’s either human or not. It’s not complicated. Logically, the fetus is either a human child or a benign tumor, because it cannot simultaneously be both. Moreover, if we are in agreement that ending human life (when not in self-defense of one’s life or defense of one’s country when at war) is murder (and I’d hope we’re all in agreement on that), then ending unborn human life is also murder. But, if a human is only human when we decide it is, then it’s not murder because there is no standard for human life.

A great example of protecting sentient life (in all forms) can be found in the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode “The Offspring.” This is the episode wherein Data creates his child Lal. We witness Picard protecting the human rights of Lal when Starfleet informs Data and Picard that it will be removing Lal from the Enterprise to study her. Picard delivers this wonderfully profound line, “There comes a time when men can no longer blindly follow orders.” And he is willing to put his career on the line for a life.

Science, science, science. We hear so much about science nowadays; however, many only cite science when it supports their ideology. Science is science, regardless of what one believes. The great thing about scientific observations is that they can be either proven or disproven.

While science cannot answer questions that are a matter of philosophy or faith, such as the origins of the universe or is God real, science can help us to understand a great many things, such as the heartbeat in a sentient being indicating life.

So if we agree that intentionally ending a human life is murder, and murder is immoral, then we have to then conclude that intentionally ending the life of an unborn child is also murder. Moreover, this decision also influences whether or not the murder of a pregnant woman is—in fact—a double homicide. If the unborn child isn’t human, then there isn’t a double homicide; but if the unborn child is human, then a double homicide has been committed. Again, the unborn child can’t simultaneously be both human and non-human, as that would be illogical. If we begin to decide when a baby is or isn’t human (based upon personal opinion or choice), then we will be living by double standards and ignoring the science.

Well, what about surprise pregnancies? Okay, perhaps we need to revisit high school biology. Other than an immaculate conception, no pregnancy is a complete surprise. If you’re hetero, and you do the deed, a possible consequence is pregnancy. It’s not rocket science. It’s barely high school science. What there are, are unplanned or unintended pregnancies. Big difference between surprise and unplanned.

The only sure-fire method for preventing pregnancy for hetero couples is to not have sex. But we’re all human, and have human needs. And according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, sex is a basic need. Therefore, the reasonable solution is to offer morning-after pills, easy/free access to contraceptives, and financial assistance for mothers that have little to no means to care for a child.

Fortunately for most people in the United States, there is likely a Department of Health office or clinic in your area, and they have condoms they will gladly give you. Many offices, you just walk in and take a bunch out of a basket. There IS easy and free access to contraceptives. For those who fear this SCOTUS decision could affect alternative pregnancy procedures, such as IVF or surrogacy, there simply isn’t evidence to support that conclusion because those procedures seek to create and foster human life, not end it.

Earlier in the Next Generation episode “The Offspring,” Data informs Picard that he can deactivate Lal if her creation is problematic. Picard sharply responds, “It’s a life Data, you cannot simply activate and deactivate it.”

Protected rights and expression

We are all deserving of respect. Respect from those with whom we agree and disagree. The gross lack of human dignity and respect I observe around me, whether in real life or online, is dangerous. When young people are brought up not to value human life (including the life of those with whom they disagree), then they will interpret respect and dignity through their own eyes. Schools and other organizations that are focused on consistently highlighting the differences between people are actually fueling the problem.

From a position of logic, there is no white America, black America, hetero America, homo America, or Hispanic America, there is only America. Likewise, there aren’t white humans, black humans, Hispanic humans, hetero humans, homo humans, etc. Only humans who happen to be one or more of the above. Each with their own respective worldviews, beliefs, dreams, and fears. Once we begin to think of ourselves as one people, one nation, then we can fix so many of our problems.

On a biological level, there are two sexes: male and female. That’s it. Not opinion. Fact. It’s science, plain and simple. That said, while we are either male or female biologically, the manner in which we express ourselves is not limited by that binary; we can express our gender any way we want. You can be a feminine man or a masculine woman, or even androgynous. It doesn’t change the anatomy or chemistry; but fortunately, we are not limited to a binary means of expression.

The latitude of creative personal expression is as wide as the color spectrum! Every human is deserving of respect and dignity. Be different! It’s okay! Be proud of who you are, in whatever aesthetic form that takes! Just know that some will not accept your gender expression; but that’s unfortunate for them, because they will miss out on getting to know you.

The recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of the coach from Washington state that was disciplined by his school administration for holding prayer after football games at the 50 yard line, is another hot topic. 

Instantly, I saw countless posts on Twitter citing the separation of church and state. What many people don’t realize is that the principle has far more to do with State-sponsored or State-mandated religion than it does religious expression.

Moreover, it is not the equivalent of freedom from religion. That is a gross misinterpretation. What this separation means is that the State will not forcibly impose religious beliefs on citizens. Even though there is a movement (largely within the woke ideology) to dissociate the United States from its foundation in morality, the Constitution and our laws are influenced by Judeo-Christian principles (and for this, let’s look at George Washington’s farewell address):

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

While morality and religion are at the foundation of our great country, federal, state, and local governments are not to force matters of faith on citizens. According to The Constitution, these rights are endowed by our creator; therefore, the Constitution protects innate rights, rather than granting rights that were not present to begin with. We have human rights from our very beginning as a human. Allowing for or permitting religious expression is not the equivalent of forcing it on someone.

Make It So

Life is unfair. Shocking, I know. And no amount of legislation can ever make it fair. Utopia is an idea, not a destination. Some people will always have it harder than others. But that is why we create systems that provide tools to individuals that want to reshape their future. It takes hard work. But just like working for your first car, you will value it so much more than if it was given to you. It works against all logic and reasoning to devalue one group in order to place greater value on another. Or blame one group for the problems of another. It’s counterproductive.

From the time we are born, we are selfish. We have to learn not to be selfish. If we are not teaching our children the value of respect, logic, and selflessness, then they will grow up ignoring those foundational concepts and grow in selfishness, which can lead to destructive behaviors. That would be a far more constructive conversation than the age at which discussions of sex and gender expression should take place.

Let’s do the next generation a favor by showing them that they need a moral compass to successfully navigate life and to know what it means to be human.

One of the reasons why Star Trek’s Q is fascinated by humanity, in particularly Picard, is humanity’s moral center, which is something lacking in the Q Continuum. Let’s start instilling into our children and young people the importance of morals, ethics, and logic. Next time you are faced with a loaded sociological or political question, think about it from a logical perspective, because it will help to place you on a stable path devoid of counterintuitive, cynical theories.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others (which are mostly film reviews and deep dives) and FOLLOW this blog!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Don’t Pass GO, Don’t Collect Your Oscar

Corporate monopoly is the enemy of creativity and variety. The biggest news in entertainment this week was the talks between Disney and Fox to sell most of 21st Century Fox to The Walt Disney Company. Whether the talks are still going on behind closed doors or not presents a fascinating topic to discuss! This deal, which would be the biggest film/media deal ever, has far reaching effects upon the industry. Some may even argue that it has danger written all over it. If there wasn’t already a rigid oligopoly amongst the studio/distribution companies, there will be if this goes through. Should this go through without the government swooping in to save the day with monopoly claims in the vein of the historic Paramount Decision, the lion’s share of the cinematic marketplace would be controlled by Disney, TimeWarner (Warner Bros.), and Comcast (Universal), with Sony (Columbia) and Viacom (Paramount) bringing up the rear. Five. That’s right. Five companies would essentially determine the future of the industry, and control the majority of the motion pictures released in theaters and the content on cable television (and the streaming services that access it). It’s a mirror image of the 1940s. Instead of The Big Five and The Little Three, we have The BIG Three and the Little Two.

From the big screen to the small screen, you will notice the effects in the programs you watch. When one company controls the majority of any marketplace, it usually spells disaster for the consumer; furthermore, it means that there will be a primary gatekeeper in future artists getting his or her work out there. Not to mention that the programming on FX and other Fox (non-broadcast) subsidiaries could begin to gradually feel and look more like ABC programming. Could this put shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy on an endangered species list of sorts? Not right now. The deal, in off-and-on talks, would sell off 21st Century Fox (movie studios) and not Fox or Fox Sports (an acquisition of that sort would not be permitted because it WOULD be illegal). So, even if this buyout were to happen, The Walt Disney Company would still continue to be the brunt of many jokes on The Simpsons and Family Guy. A buyout could mean, however, that program options will seem less varied and just more of the same ABC-schlock that already pervades the bandwidth. The two companies that have the most TV programming are Fox and Disney, with Sony (CBS), Viacom (non-broadcast Nickelodeon), Comcast (NBC), and TimeWarner (CW) trailing in original programming. That being said, TimeWarner has done very well with The CW, and I hope it continues to churn out programs such as Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Riverdale, etc.

Beyond the negative impacts on content, which, in all honestly, can be quite subjective in nature, are there legal or ethical implications here? Is there perhaps a past precedent that could be used in the courts to stop such a buyout (or sellout rather–Fox)? Let’s look at the most famous suit brought against the major motion picture studios: The Paramount Decision [(U.S. V. PARAMOUNT PICTURES, INC., 334 U.S. 131 (1948)]. Prior to the Paramount Decision, the motion picture industry was controlled by a few companies that were heavily vertically integrated. The Studio owned the facilities, production companies, staff (under long-term contracts), the films themselves, distribution channels, and the movie theaters. When the studios were growing so large that they began infringing upon the free marketplace, the US Government forced the (then) eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking (meaning, films would now be sold on an individual basis), divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (though, this would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. There are many similarities between the situation in the late 1940s and today. In fact, it’s a little worse today because the industry is mostly controlled by five (instead of eight) companies, and these companies have heavy investments in streaming and television programming.

The problem with the current state of capitalism in the Unites States isn’t worries of monopolies but oligopolies (monopolistic practices between a few firms that essentially control a market). Certainly the state of the film industry already lends itself to an oligopoly because of the few companies; but the buyout of 21st Century Fox by The Disney Company would greatly increase this issue of a blatant oligopoly. If a monopolist (in many other industries) did what Disney is doing, neither the public nor the government would stand for it; but because it’s Disney, and because it’s the film industry, most of the general public is unaware of the negative consequences of such a buyout. Technically speaking, oligopolies are not illegal nor is monopolistic competition; however, this can be a slippery slope towards stifling creativity or making is increasingly difficult to break into any given industry as a newly emerging competitor. Incidentally, monopolistic competition causes the variety or level of differentiation of similar products (i.e. moves and TV shows) to become less heterogeneous and nearly come across as homogenous. For many, it will feel like there are only two primary companies controlling the majority of programming on TV and a few companies controlling a large portion of the movies that get released in movie theaters.

When a strong oligopoly exists within a specialized industry (for our purposes, media & entertainment), one of the side effects is a concept known as parallel exclusion. This concept can be described as the collective efforts of the few industry leaders who essentially act as the main gatekeepers to prevent or make it difficult for would-be newcomers to enter the arena. Parallel exclusion is nothing new, and has been in the news as recently as the last 2-3 decades within the airline and credit card industries. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Visa and MasterCard essentially blacklisted any bank that set out to do business with AmEx. Thankfully, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in when the manner in which the exclusionary rules were written crossed legal, fair trade boundaries. There were similar issues within the airline industry as well. When a few companies control the content or services in the marketplace, antitrust issues are raised.

Although we are not facing a technical monopoly with the possible acquisition of Fox by Disney, we are looking at an abuse of power that leads to anticompetitive conduct. If nothing else, the consumer should be worried about having fewer options for programming. Not that the number of programs or movies will shrink, but there will be little difference between what is released under the Disney banner and the Fox name (if it’s still even called that). In a deal like this, it’s the consumer who gets the short end of the stick. The consumer would be wise not to give Disney a pass just because there are a small group of big film studios instead of just one. While Marvel fans may be excited that the X-Men can join the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), there is the possibility of a lack of competition between brands thus mitigating innovation and ingenuity. Competition is the mother of innovation just as necessity is the mother of invention.

Because the Walt Disney Company is primarily focussed on producing the biggest movies possible (after all, they made five of the 10 most successful films last year), the mid-budget dramas and comedies that used to thrive in Hollywood–you know, the ones that cause you to cry and laugh–would dwindle in number–there would be little room for them to make their respective ways into theaters in a predominantly Disney controlled industry. What we are essentially talking about here is a corporate cinematic monolith, the likes of which, has never been seen before.

Written by R.L. Terry

Graphic by Tabitha Pearce