Have you ever watched a mentally disabled person crudely act out a pathetic version of some behavior you recognized as part of your own routine? Perhaps they wildly exaggerate aggrievement over some minor wrong that was done to them, aiming to gain sympathy and the moral high ground. Maybe they offer up a transparent attempt at flattery, two minutes before the cupcakes are handed out, openly leering at the box of chocolate treasures as they heap praise upon their distributor.
At first you might react with disdain, even if it is coupled with compassion. You look down on their little performance because it is so easy to see all the wheels turning. The poor things, for all their Herculean strength, couldn’t con a dog into chasing an unthrown tennis ball. But then you realize that you routinely engage in the same ploys and manipulations. The logic of your behavior, the formulas running through your head, are essentially the same. You have the same crude motivations. You’re just a bit more artful about it. So what makes you better? Guile?
This is pretty much the process I went through upon viewing trailers for the Christian film, God’s Not Dead, which is the number four movie in America this week, grossing over $9 million. Many films are adapted from novels or real events. Less sophisticated films are adapted from comic books and toys. This is a movie adapted from the apocryphal stories of chain e-mails, forwarded to you by your great-aunt who sends you gift certificates to Woolworth’s on your sister’s birthday. That might be funny, but it is not a joke. That really is the source material of this film. You’ve almost certainly seen these stories, so I’m just going to present you with my favorite parody of them.
Now, here is the trailer for God’s Not Dead. Please, watch it. It’s one of the most incredible trailers you will ever see.
Hilarious, right? The only college classes even remotely resembling this one are restricted to members of the basketball team at UNLV, and they probably have to copy down something less controversial on their piece of paper to pass. No college professor has ever behaved this way. If he did, you could just go above his head and the class would probably be canceled. Certainly, you could withdraw from it, without penalty, and almost every student would, including the atheists. I’ll use my education in philosophy for the first time since I finally got my diploma after coughing up overdue library fines and point out that what you see does not remotely resemble real philosophy or real philosophy classes. Yeah, Nietzsche said “God is dead,” but he said a lot of things and most philosophy professors don’t even like him that much. True, religion doesn’t do so well when run through the philosophical obstacle course, but some believers remain. In any case, you don’t walk into an econ class to be accosted by a professor who yells at you to write “Comparative Advantage!” on a piece of paper, or else debate him on the subject. But if you can understand this article, you already know all that, so I’ll shut up about it.
Then we have the cameo by a Duck Dynasty guy. The big secret about Duck Dynasty is that, apart from the show’s fans, a few bloggers trying to generate content and a few keyboard warriors who read those blogs, nobody gives a shit. When it came out that one of them hated gays and they were in the news, most of the conversations I had involved me and others expressing surprise that the show was so popular. “I didn’t know anybody really watched it until I went into Wal-Mart to get some batteries and they were selling Duck Dynasty brand toilet brush holders,” we’d say. It seems to me that this is a rare case of some ultra-rich demagogues manipulating the conservative masses into believing that they’re all just regular folk, circling the wagons against marauding liberals who want
you to have better pay, more vacation time and good health care to take your guns so everyone can be forced to have interracial, gay sex. In this scene, a reporter asks Duckman number 4 about his courageous stance against those who object to him mentioning Jesus on the show. Of course, nobody ever raised such an objection. The whole farcical controversy involved one of the Duckmen making strong, anti-gay statements. Very few people really gave a shit about that either. The whole drama was all a sort of soft collusion to draw attention and money to professional blitherers on both sides.
So we are examining unvarnished idiocy here. Witnessing the crude clockwork of the American, religious right without the casing. This is a movie that depicts a fictionalized version of an account of reality that is pure fantasy. Basic facts of our day to day existence are distorted to accommodate the prejudice of the viewer. All of the motivations that drive that fantasy are out in the open. The shrill and false aggrievement of people who live to persecute those different from themselves, meekly pretending that they are the ones being persecuted. The Duck Dynasty guy leering at the chocolaty money of those he flatters and panders to. And, of course, the anti-intellectualism, born of fear, resentment and hatred of knowledge beyond one’s reach and those smug bastards who possess it.
What can you do? Laugh? Sure. Make fun? There’s no reason not to. I laughed at this thing till my eye popped out of my head, putting me at risk of facing Obama’s Sharia Death Panels.
But it occurred to me that this is what almost all movies do. Our kind of monkey sees everything as stories, but the story generating mechanisms in our heads, which are heavily regulated by denial, don’t often accommodate what happens in the world. So, we edit reality, or just make stuff up. We can smell our own bullshit though, and this causes stress. Movies sooth us by presenting stories for us to observe that fit the molds we already have in our heads. Evil people are punished. The lonely find love. The truth prevails. Even when we confront something horrible in the movies, it’s usually distant and easily understood. Slavery or Nazis. Certainly, we would have been Oskar Schindler or participated in the underground railroad if we’d lived in those times. Luckily, nothing that bad happens in our time and place. We’ve got it figured out now. Surely, future generations won’t look back at us as laughably ignorant and immoral. That’s only applicable to all of human history up to the moment of our birth. So our heroism can remain sheathed and we can be outraged at our ancestors, or the people who brutalized our ancestors. Not to mention right-wing fundies and their idiotic movies.