Sex, Violence, And The Superbowl

Not being a fan of watching professional sports apart from tennis, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. I did however manage to catch Lady Gaga’s performance during the Halftime Show. It was a high-energy blend of art pop, hair metal, and 1980’s-style excess, recalling diverse performers such as David Bowie, KISS, and Madonna. Whatever you may think of her, if you understand music and dance, you appreciate that Lady Gaga certainly knows how to put on a show.

Among the commenters in my timeline, some expressed disgust at the messages of sexual immorality which Lady Gaga put on display. Others thought that this was no big deal, because there were other, more positive messages about family and patriotism which she conveyed as well. I don’t think it’s worth my time or yours to turn a pop star’s performance into an academic thesis, but I do think it’s worth considering whether there are a couple of hard truths that we can learn, from thinking about how we apply standards of morality to entertainment, not only with respect to sexuality, but also with respect to violence.

The display of both sexual behavior and acts of violence as mainstream entertainment is not something that came into existence in the 1960’s. Take opera, for example. Here are the plots of three of the most popular operas ever written, with apologies for the admitted oversimplification:

– A hooker seduces a man into leaving his fiancée, then runs off with another man; her jilted lover later tracks her down and murders her. (Carmen)

– A hooker is forced to leave her current lover for a more powerful one, whom she eventually murders before committing suicide. (Tosca)

– A man marries a hooker, leaves her in order to commit bigamy, and the hooker kills herself. (Madama Butterfly)

Stepping off stage however, it’s interesting to note that many who criticize musical entertainers, are the same people who give a pass to sports entertainers. Professional football is a semi-controlled form of genuinely violent entertainment, perhaps preferable to the gladiator fight to the death, but which still almost inevitably involves serious physical injury. Moreover, when it comes to sexual behavior, whatever a singer may be doing on stage, at the end of the day it’s still play-acting. Hardly anyone ever dares to publically criticize a famous athlete who is notorious for committing serial adultery in real life, however. It seems as though our culture has developed quite a double standard in this regard.

What is lacking both in entertainment and in real life is not the knowledge that our own bad behavior eventually comes back to bite us. We still intrinsically know this, and we have not yet fallen so far into secularism that we are so entirely unaware of such things. Yet the solution to a libertine society filled with hypersexual and violent entertainments is not to join the Amish in cultural retreat: “Utopia”, after all, is a work of fiction.

Instead, what we need to cultivate is a greater sense of balance, particularly as consumers of entertainment. We can both foster our appreciation for genuine talent, creativity, and skill, while at the same time criticizing and refuting when necessary those behaviors and philosophies associated with it which only lead to destruction. To ignore the former is to display one’s ignorance; to refrain from the latter is to pretend that what we do here has no significance in the hereafter.

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask that we even attempt to seek such a balance today, when pagan attitudes toward sexuality and violence are regaining their former footholds. At least for now, the woman in the spangled shoulder pads surrounded by drones, and the man in the plastic shoulder pads under his football jersey, are merely entertainers on a stage. The vanity that has brought our society to levels of self-destructive behavior not seen in centuries is not going to disappear simply of its own accord. It’s time we wake up to that fact, and balance both a genuine appreciation of our entertainers with our legitimate criticism of them, when warranted.

Learning To Listen: A Farewell To Radio Pioneer Ed Walker (1932-2015)

For those who do not regularly read my grunts and grumblings on social media, chances are that you are unaware of what has been a regular part of my Sunday evening routine for many years now. WAMU FM, one of the PBS radio stations here in Washington, airs a program called “The Big Broadcast” on Sundays from 7-11pm Eastern, featuring classic radio shows from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. During each broadcast a host of stars such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eve Arden, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, and countless others come pouring out of the speakers once again, as they once did many decades ago. I’ve always made it a point to tell my social media followers about it on Sunday nights, asking them to tune in on-air or online, as collectively we sit back, relax, and listen to great comedy, drama, and music.

The host of “The Big Broadcast” for the past 25 years was Ed Walker, who died yesterday. Mr. Walker, who was 83, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and on the advice of his physicians had reluctantly agreed to retire from radio in order to focus on his treatment. The last episode he hosted was recorded a week ago, from Mr. Walker’s bed in Sibley Hospital here in DC.

For regular listeners this was a particularly poignant broadcast. Although Mr. Walker did not sound at all well, and clearly had some idea of what was coming, on the occasion of his final show he took the opportunity to select some of his all-time favorite recordings, explaining why he enjoyed them. This included the brilliant radio play version of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, with Humphrey Bogart and Walter Houston reprising their original roles from the classic film. Reports are that when “The Big Broadcast” aired this past Sunday evening, Mr. Walker listened to the show surrounded by his family, and then passed away a few hours later.  

Mr. Walker was an institution in these parts, having been in radio for well over 60 years. Generations of Washingtonians grew up hearing his voice; with the advent of new media, he reached many more listeners well beyond the confines of the Capital Beltway. Tributes have been pouring in from all corners of DC media, many of which have noted that his appeal was such that he continued to reach new, young audiences right up until his passing. Comments on social media and blogs over the past 24 hours have revealed how many people across the generational divides – Greatest Generation-ers, Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, Millennials – loved listening to his work.

While “The Big Broadcast” was never about Mr. Walker himself, his gentle humor and enormous knowledge of the radio genre made the program something more than a compilation of old recordings. He always gave listeners interesting tidbits and commentary about what we were listening to, such as pointing out the appearance of a then-unknown future star in a radio play, or reminding us of a connection between performers of yesteryear which we might not otherwise know. However what was perhaps most remarkable about Mr. Walker, and something which he rarely if ever alluded to on the show out of his own modesty and self-effacement, was the fact that without alluding to it, he brought us into his world, and showed us what it means to make the most out of our lives.

For as it happens, Mr. Walker was born totally blind.

Ed Walker was the first blind student to attend his alma mater, American University, and in 1950 he helped launch the original WAMU on campus. Despite his disability, Mr. Walker went on to a successful career in broadcasting, beginning in 1955 with his good friend (and future NBC “Today” show weatherman) Willard Scott, on their comedy show “The Joy Boys” from 1955 to 1974. He also worked at various television and radio stations around Washington, until he took over the captain’s chair at “The Big Broadcast” in 1990, to date the longest-running program on WAMU since it first aired in 1964.

Never having been able to see with his own eyes, Mr. Walker nevertheless lived in a rich world which allowed him to see with his mind, and to teach others how to do the same. The radio broadcasts of yesteryear require no visual stimulation whatsoever on the part of the listener, who creates the scene in his head, rather than having it placed before him on screen. The brain is highly stimulated because it is forced to imagine, relying upon the sounds reaching the ears to understand and process the information being sent. For these few hours a week, at least, Mr. Walker and his listeners were united in a way that demonstrated how much more alike than different we all are. Whatever our abilities, we human beings experience joy, sorrow, apprehension, and humor together.

Although it has been announced that “The Big Broadcast” will go on, the loss of Mr. Walker’s calming, grandfatherly voice on Sunday nights will be deeply felt. He always asked his listeners to put their cares (and fear of Monday morning) away for a few hours, in order to spend time together enjoying good stories and good music. In a cacophonous and hyper-stimulated world, his call to simply be still and listen is something that ought to resonate with us all the more.

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Ed Walker (L) and Willard Scott (R) in 1965

Phone Booth Friday: Let’s Give Our Superheroes A Break

Yesterday I read this criticism of superheroes by Vlad Savov in The Verge, because a well-intended reader of this blog sent it my way, wondering whether I would care to comment on it. In his piece, Mr. Savov raises a number of points, but his general thesis is that the superheroes with whom we’re familiar don’t seem to be very super.  Despite their powers and abilities, they do not eradicate evil and suffering from the world, they only beat it back for a time, and sometimes not very successfully. In essence, the author is asking the question, “What are superheroes for?”

The most important thing to consider when attempting to answer this question is the rather obvious, though perhaps easily-forgotten fact, that superheroes don’t actually exist.  They’re beings inhabiting works of fiction, no different in their way from other characters in adventure tales such as Captain Nemo, Michael Strogoff, or The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Even when there are traces of their being drawn from the lives and experiences of actual persons, theirs are not stories about real people.  As vivid as Bruce Wayne or Steve Rogers may be, they are still just characters in a story.

In most cases, a fictional character is created primarily for the purpose of entertainment.  Not all fictional characters exist devoid of deeper meanings or significance of course: they can often serve important pedagogical purposes, such as teaching us things about human nature, or about anticipating the consequences of our actions.  The best literature, oftentimes, not only entertains, but informs and enlightens.  Yet while one can easily learn a life lesson from The Little Engine That Could just as well as one may do from Thérèse Desqueyroux, in the end if their stories are not entertaining, no one is going to read them.

When we complain that superheroes don’t appear to solve the problems of the worlds which they inhabit, we’re playing a version of the classic game known as the “omnipotence paradox”, i.e., can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?  If Superman is so powerful, why doesn’t he work to eliminate all crime instead of fighting against it with his fists?

If superheroes fail to fix everything that afflicts mankind, it is because they have a fundamental belief that it’s important for people to solve their problems themselves whenever possible.  Certain threats against humanity – an approaching asteroid, a water supply poisoned by The Joker – they will step in and act upon.  Yet to remake the world in their image would be to set themselves up as all-powerful gods or benevolent dictators, negating the ability of ordinary people to exercise their own free will.  As Gandalf points out in “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo offers him the One Ring, he would try to use its power for good, but in the end the temptation to turn it to his own selfish desires would be far too great for even him to resist.

This is because appearances to the contrary, superheroes are vulnerable.  They get shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, poisoned, and otherwise mangled and mistreated on a regular basis.  While they may have miraculous powers of self-healing, they still have to suffer in the course of their lives and work as we do. They do so in ways which are less mundane than paying the gas bill or being stuck next to a screaming baby on a plane. Yet they keep going, fighting for what matters to them, because they believe that the values which they fight for are more important than their own personal comforts, and because they recognize that the abilities with which they have been gifted call them to a different level of commitment and self-sacrifice.

By no means is this meant to be a complete response or even a riposte to Mr. Savov’s piece, which despite my disagreement with his assumptions and conclusions is worth reading for some of the points and criticisms it raises.  However, the takeaway from this is to remember that the superhero genre is meant to be, first and foremost, a form of entertaining literature: it is FUN, and it is perfectly acceptable, indeed laudable, to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.  While it might be nice for all of our problems to be solved by these beings endowed with unbelievable powers, the reality is, each one of us is called to work out our own problems ourselves whenever possible, rather than having all of our solutions to the difficulties of life handed to us.

So let’s give our superheroes a break, gentle reader.  Give them a chance to kick off their boots, and put their feet up after a hard day of fighting crime.  And let’s encourage those virtues of selflessness, self-reliance, and courage in the face of evil in our lives which, as fictional characters, they try to exemplify in their own.

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross