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!

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“The Post” movie review

The Fourth Estate, triumphant! Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a historic biographical drama depicting the story behind the infamous Pentagon Papers that set a monumental precedent in the US Supreme Court following a ruling in the favor of the freedom of the press. Probably the most significant ruling affecting journalism, this film goes beyond the cold, hard facts of the case and into the offices and houses of those who were responsible for shedding light on the lies the US government was spinning to keep the War in Vietnam going. In a manner of speaking, this film could be read as Spielberg’s ode to US journalism, and by extension, to the free press at large. While traditional ink and paper newspapers may be slowly becoming a thing of the past, Spielberg’s film shows that the press has an important place in a democratic society. Without the free press, a nation’s government could easily lie and maliciously mislead its people to serve its own gain. No surprise, Meryl Streep’s and Tom Hanks’ acting is simply brilliant; while the rolls may not seem incredibly complex, it’s the beauty in simplicity that demonstrates the excellent commitment to character that we all have come to respect over the years for these Oscar-winning actors. The Post is a historical drama brought to life for the screen through precise editing, beautiful cinematography, and a gripping score.

Unrest grows at home while the US is deep in the middle of the Vietnam War. With conflicting reports coming out of the warzone, the people of the United States have only the word of their government to assure them the war is going well but they have to continue sending the boys overseas to “win.” After a rogue journalist leaks papers from the Pentagon describing how the US is losing and it keeps sending boys overseas to keep up appearances to the New York Times, the attorney general places a restraining order on the iconic newspaper to prohibit it from publishing the classified material. After word of this unprecedented extension of power, the editor-in-chief of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (Hanks) comes to have a copy of the papers and desires to publish them in order to show the American people what the government has really been up to. Only one small problem, the owner of The Washington Post Katharine (Kay) Graham (Streep), the first woman to own a major newspaper, is unsure if the papers should be published because she seeks to take the paper public and this could damage that–not to mention that she and Bradlee could go to jail. Go beyond the pages of a history book to witness the thrilling drama unfold as you find out just why The Pentagon Papers was such a big deal.

While many critics and fans of the movie are touting it as the “best movie of the year” or commenting to managers at cineplexes that it’s “amazing,” I am not convinced that it truly is “the best” or as “amazing” as it’s being heralded. Before you go questioning my taste in movies, I completely agree that The Post is an excellently made film–there is nothing wrong with it. For all intents and purposes, it is a perfect film. But just because it’s figuratively perfectly produced and directed, does not mean that it is “amazing.” In many ways, this movie reminds me of Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. It too is a perfectly made historic drama (coincidentally also starring Hanks) that falls within the same subgenre of drama as The Post. When I think of a Spielberg film, I have come to expect a wow factor. And it’s that lack of a wow factor that troubles me in awarding this film with an accolade such as “best picture.”

Usually, there is a particular scene that evokes strong emotion, perhaps it’s a powerful monologue or heated emotionally-driven exchange between two characters, there are other methods for evoking an eruption of feeling and emotion within the mind and body. Never once did I feel my emotions run high with this film. And I happen to be an entertainment journalist, I teach media writing at a popular university, and spent time in broadcast news. I have a love for the media, the press, and publishing. I also spent time in a media law class in graduate school analyzing the very papers in question, and I still did not feel emotionally woken up by the film. I find the film very well written, produced, shot, directed, acted, scored–everything is done with extreme precision. But, that’s what I have come to expect from Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks. Yes, to be able to consistently deliver excellence is nearly uncanny; but when I know what to expect, it’s much more difficult to surprise or wow me. That’s what is missing from this film in my opinion–the wow factor.

On the socio-political spectrum, I find the commentary on women in leadership is brilliant! Quite happy that the film chose such an incredible woman’s story to tell so cinematically well. The character of Kay Graham is not only an inspiration to aspiring female leaders, but she is an inspiration to all who find themselves in positions of influence or power for which society does not feel he or she is suited. Whereas this prejudice can affect men and women, history has shown that is has affected women more. And this film is a breath of inspiration for young women who will become future leaders around the world. Brave. Kay Graham was an incredibly brave woman who fought the good fight and proved that she could make the tough decisions that are required in order to grow a company. I also find that The Post serves as a beacon of hope that the press is here to serve the American people in a day and time that our government’s leaders claim that the press at large is “fake news.” Newspapers are here to serve the governed NOT the governers. Let the Pentagon Papers be a sign that our leaders are not past deception even if it means sending our military to certain death in order to keep up appearances.

The Post is definitely a movie that all journalists should watch. And not just “conventional” journalists. But anyone who takes part in publishing written, audio, or video media content. Especially those who cover governmental affairs should watch this historical drama highlighting a huge turning point in the freedom of the press.

Woman in Gold

WomanInGoldAn absolutely beautiful film about art, history, and seeking justice. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but The Weinstein Company and BBC’s Woman in Gold is demonstrably worth 120 pages of words. Woman in Gold is a powerful movie with a timeless, unparalleled story about returning Nazi-stollen art to its rightful owner. Veteran actors Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds deliver commanding performances in this film based on the true story of one of the cases in Austria’s Art Restitution program. Follow along for a compelling journey that is both an historic investigation and a gripping courtroom drama that goes all the way to the US Supreme Court. Witness one woman’s fight to have returned what is rightfully hers, but meeting with seemingly unsurmountable obstacle after obstacle along the way. Woman in Gold is one of those films that will quickly become a favorite of many because of the passion, beauty, and determination showcased in this true story about justice.

Woman in Gold begins with the death of Maria Altman’s (Mirren) sister. Following the funeral, she discovers paperwork that reveals that now-famous paintings, that once belonged to her family prior to the pillaging by the Nazis, are hanging in the Belgrade Museum in Vienna. Also at this time, the Austrian Government has initiated an Art Restitution program to return artwork to its rightful owners–art that was unjustly stolen and illegally acquired by the Nazis. The painting, known as Gustave Klimt’s Adele, is the Austrian equivalent of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Facing the daunting fight to get the painting back, Maria hires newly-minted lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds) to lead and advise her in her legal quest. Their battle will take them from Maria’s quiet Los Angeles bungalow to the bustling historic streets of Vienna, and eventually all the way to the US Supreme Court. Join Maria and Randol for an adventure to right a wrong that dates all the way back to WWII.

Women in Gold is a beautifully produced movie that comes complete with art, history mystery, and litigation. The bedrock of a film like this one requires an incredible screenplay, otherwise, it could turn out to be nothing more than a National Geographic or Smithsonian Channel docudrama special. Alexi Campbell’s screenplay is meticulously written to include both the present action paired alongside the historic events that lead up to the case, which would come to be known as Republic of Austria v. Altman (2004). It is important to note that movies that heavily use flashbacks can take away from the importance of the story at hand; but Campbell’s screenplay strikes a powerful balance between the two, keeping the present story center stage. Director Simon Curtis takes Campbell’s words and brings them to life for the screen. His ability to create a dynamic experience for the audience is showcased well in this film–he truly brings the audience into the world of Maria and her impossible battle for justice. Underscoring the visuals and the gut-wrenching words is an incomparable score by Hans Zimmer. He successfully pairs a classical sound with a modern flare to match the mood of the film set by Curtis, Campbell, and cinematographer Ross Emery in each and every scene.

Once again, Helen Mirren shines beautifully, as she always does, in the roles she plays.  Without a doubt, she was the best choice for this historic role. Her elegant mannerisms with her sharp tongue and quick wit bring Maria to life. The role of Maria is a complex one that required Mirren to have the faced of strength and determination whilst revealing vulnerability and frailty. Playing her counterpart, is the handsome and talented Ryan Reynolds as lawyer Randol Schoenberg. Reynolds was an excellent choice for the role because he can both deliver the character of an underdog lawyer and boyish charm concurrently. His chemistry with Mirren is evident in each and every scene. Even though most of the film is spent with just the two actors principally, the audience will never grow tired of their arguments and banter back and forth. Supporting the principle performers, is an excellent cast that creates the world in which this story of justice and love of art takes place.

For lovers or art and history, this is definitely a movie to catch while in theatres. Seeing the famous Klimt Adele on the screen is overwhelming at times. Thankfully, the world can still see the painting, acquired by Ronald Lauder, in the Neue Museum in New York City. Although this film has not received the attention it deserves, it could very well be one of the year’s first films on its way to an Oscar nomination since Oscars 2015 proved that movies, released early in the year, can make it all the way to the Academy Awards. If you enjoyed The Monuments MenBig Eyes, or Museum Hours, you will likely fall in love with this film.