The Culture War Is Really a Culture Circus

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I went to see The Passion of the Christ last Wednesday afternoon in a working-class neighborhood of the Bronx, with an audience—a full house—composed mostly of blacks and Latinos. It was a stunning experience in a way that I didn't expect. The first scene of scourging, in which giddy, leering Roman guards torture Jesus with canes, cudgels and whips studded with glass shards, evoked a powerful reaction from the audience. There were gasps and audible sobbing, which continued for some time. But as the torture went on, and on, as Jesus staggered through the Stations of the Cross, punched and kicked and flayed again, the theater fell silent. By the time of the Crucifixion, the audience seemed emotionally exhausted and numbed to the violence. There was no catharsis. I saw only dry eyes as we left.

This dispiriting experience was not merely a failure of Mel Gibson's art, but it also seemed to be evidence of a growing American affliction: we are addicted to the explicit and then quickly inured to it. We are in need of ever more shocking images to stimulate our attention, impervious to nuance or subtlety. There are political implications to this. Democracy isn't easy in such an environment. "The things that shock are the things that get through," says John DiIulio, former director of the Bush Administration's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "Meanwhile, serious consideration of issues of monumental importance to the public good has become impossible."

Some elections skim the surface of American life; others cut very close to the bone. In this campaign we have already been buffeted by exceedingly powerful social and political images—men kissing other men on the steps of San Francisco's city hall, Saddam being pulled from a hole, John Kerry hugging a man he saved in Vietnam, Janet Jackson's exposed breast at the Super Bowl, George W. Bush prancing prematurely in his flight suit, Howard Dean screaming, Bush bringing turkey to the troops. The chaotic rush of images—and the President's constant invocation of incendiary words like war and evil—suggests a portentous, emotional year in the offing. It is possible that the passions raised by such images will lead to an intense national debate over the decisions made by President Bush: to go to war in Iraq and confront the threat of terrorism the way he has, to drastically cut taxes, to create an expensive new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement. But it is also possible that a public besotted with the sensational will be unable to engage in a substantive argument—and instead be deflected into periphera like the quality of Bush's Vietnam-era service, the controversy surrounding Kerry's antiwar protests and the need for a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. In 2004 the quality of the debate may be the election's most important question: Are we going to be serious about this or not?

It is not hard to argue about two guys kissing, or a teenager getting a late-term abortion, or the death penalty, or school prayer, or flag burning, or smoking marijuana. There are even some broader principles that can be discussed: Should the question of gay marriage—or abortion, for that matter—be decided by the judgment of a court or by legislation? Is there any way to limit our commercial culture's ability to narcotize children with an endless stream of sex and violence? But those deeper arguments usually get as much attention as the size of the budget deficit. In fact, the Culture War isn't really a war; it's more a public entertainment, a Culture Circus. Wars require combatants. The general public is not up in arms but plastered in armchairs, occasionally roused to flaccid pique by a handful of show-biz gladiators—Rosie O'Donnell, Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken, Jerry Falwell—who fight carefully selected papier-mache lions.

The real question here is a matter of proportion, the tendency of lurid cultural issues to crowd out the more important stuff. Even Iraq has settled into the dim middle distance. Few images from the war are as startling—as "spontaneous"—as Justin Timberlake's ripping Janet Jackson's bodice. The violence of combat is sanitized into banality by squeamish editors. And there are no compelling images to convey the absence of weapons of mass destruction or how difficult it will be for an American Secretary of State to bring a credible argument for war to the United Nations anytime soon.

Then again, voters in the early Democratic primaries, a perversely serious minority of the electorate, rejected the passionate Howard Dean in favor of John Kerry, a candidate nuanced to the point of paralysis. In the dictionary, passion is defined as "suffering" first and then as "emotion ... as opposed to reason." Kerry isn't emotional, and he certainly isn't addicted to the explicit. In the year of The Passion, he stands as a quixotic reproach to the prevailing sensationalism, an unintentional rebel against our shock-a-minute culture.