A few “elite” words from the editor

044653191X 01  SCLZZZZZZZ This is the rare case where I want to pull a piece of a comment thread out front, since it deals with the actual purpose — the roots — of this blog.

Click here to catch up on the original thread. Click here to read the original Los Angeles Times report — still being promoted at the newspaper’s entertainment page online — that we are attempting to discuss, among the usual diversions into religion and politics.

See let us begin:

I don’t think Terry was using “elite” as a code word for gays and Jews, but a common theme in late 19th and 20th century anti-Semitic writings was to portray Jews as an elite trying to undermine Christian values, and a more recent trend among anti-Semites is to gripe about the Jews who control Hollywood.

Terry, I don’t think you’re a bigot, but really, you need to be aware of the implications of your words.

Posted by Avram at 10:31 pm on December 15, 2005

Adding to Avram’s point, adding to the Jews as “elites who control Hollywood” has been the recent addition of gays into a similar code and smear. It is fairly common theme among the more anti-gay social conservative organizations.

Posted by Michael at 11:04 pm on December 15, 2005

The word “elite” has been used in media-bias research since the late 1970s, where I encountered it in graduate studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Let’s say you are studying the beliefs of seminary professors.

If you attempt a study of all seminary professors, in general, that is one thing.

If you then separate out the professors at the top 10 ranked seminaries in the nation, the second study is called an “elite” study.

If you are studying the entertainment industry and you attempt — somehow — to study everyone who works in it, that is one thing.

If you attempt to study only those who have reached the level of Academy voters, studio heads, etc., then the second study is called an “elite” study.

Yes, there are people out there who say that EVERYONE in Hollywood constitutes a kind of ELITE in the wider American context. I think that is too vague a use of the word and, thus, I never do that. I think we should stay close to the definition that has been around for several decades.

Similar case: The term “culture wars” has been ripped out of the context given it by Dr. James Davison Hunter. I try to avoid uses of it at this site that muddy his original definition for the term.

As you have seen, GetReligion takes the same approach on the use of words such as “fundamentalist.”

And, as always, note that Avram and Michael do not address my concern about their smears on the views of those they oppose.

0807061794 01 LZZZZZZZTo site one example:

I wrote, in the comments section: If these voting pools — the subjects of the reports referenced — do not constitute an “elite” as studied by many scholars, etc., then what groups will?

Avram replies: Er, what? What does this even mean? What scholars are you talking about?

Read the words that I wrote: “voting pools.” I am talking about the people who vote on the Globes and the Oscars.

The subject of the LA Times story was concern about the impact of the Golden Globes nominations, which, you may have noticed, range far wider than the “Brokeback Mountain” pep rally issue. (Click here for an interesting Washington Post feature that includes all of the talking points on the left side of this story.)

The word “elite” is a perfectly good word, whether used by a Ben “The Media Monopoly” Bagdikian to describe conservate corporate elites or by E. Stanley Lichter to describe journalistic elites in the nation’s most powerful newsrooms.

Once again, it really does help if those leaving comments take the time to read the views of the people they are slamming. And it really helps if they respond to the posts that are written, rather than to the ones that they imagine were written. It really helps if you — you in this case meaning the tag team of Michael and Avram — address the issues at the heart of this blog, rather than turning everything into arguments about theology or politics.

Our goal here is fair and accurate coverage of a diverse culture, on left and right. I realize that some of our readers oppose this, because some of you see the people on the cultural right as not being worthy of coverage that accurately reflects their beliefs. You are not willing to tolerate those you consider intolerant. There are many MSM journalists who are in favor of your approach and many who are not. This debate inside many newsrooms is the subject of this blog. We are in favor of old-fashioned, American model of the press journalism that seeks accurate coverage of a wide range of groups. We are pro diversity.

Now, dare I ask: What did readers actually think of the Los Angeles Times article? Do you have any response at all to what I actually wrote about, which is the debate within Hollywood about the blowback from the Globes and the Oscars to come?

A note to the comments crowd: Please drop the “conspiracy” talk in this discussion. No one is alleging a conspiracy in Hollywood. There is no need for a conspiracy when a very high percentage of a community — let’s say Oscar voters — favor a particular position on a controversial moral/cultural/religious issue. What we are dealing with here is the opposite of a conspiracy. When the likes of Steve Martin or Robin Williams joke about this, they are simply talking about the normative worldviews in the creative community in which they live and work.

Another late note: A crucial point I forgot to include. In all parts of life, “Elites” hold more power than their numbers would seem to allow. They define what is normative for the industry and, most of all, they define what one needs to do and belief to ENTER THE ELITE (to move up in the power and financial chain). Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows this. In media theory, it is referred to as the “gatekeeper” effect.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Posted while I was still working on my reply to you in the original thread.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/ Joe Perez

    So by “elite” you didn’t mean to imply that the Hollywood powerful are pro-homosexual and anti-Christian? Interesting point. Looks like you should tell one of your readers on the right, Mark Shea. Here’s what he said about tmatt’s post on his blog, “Catholic and Enjoying It!” (this should be read as if it were spoken from the voice of a Hollywood elite):

    “Get Religion on Hollywood’s Latest Ham-Fisted Attempts to Say “Pay no attention to the Crucified Messiah, You flyover flatheads! When are you gonna get it through your neanderthal skulls that homosexuality is the source and summit of all that is true, noble, good, and beautiful? How much money do we have to sink into these loser movies before you start complying with the program?”

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Here’s the direct link to Shea’s post, so you don’t have to wade through the rest of his writing.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    Geez. Can you say, “read the post, boys”?

    elite. n.
    A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: “In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them” (Times Literary Supplement).

    The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.

    Right there on dictionary.com. And I don’t think Mr. Shea writes for this blog.

  • Michael

    I don’t know that the dictionary definition was the point in this comment:

    What the bisexual sheepboy movie story is all about is Hollywood’s image OF ITSELF and its simmering anger at middle America. The elites (sorry, but the word really applies in LA) really do not like the mass audience all that much. You make POINTS in artisitic Hollywood by offending the mass.

    Beyond the loaded–albeit funny–reference to “bisexual sheepboy movie,” Terry went on to reference “simmering rage” and “maki[ing] points” and “offending the mass.” All of this in reference to “elites.”

    Undoubtedly, he meant the purely sociological and research definition of “elites” when he was using the term, but it was surrounded by some significant context.

    Thus, my comment:

    Hollywood “elites”—which could be seen as conservative code for gays and Jews—want to make money and they make movies that appeal to middle America.

    Note, I never said it was being used as a smear or that Terry was being intolerant. I was just pointing out the term COULD BE SEEN as code. In the context of the post, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to point out the cultural baggage attached to the phrase, just as Terry would quickly jump on the use of terms which have cultural baggage for cultural conservatives.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Thing is, it’s a word that — as Michael pointed out — has baggage.

    For example, some of you may remember Dan Quayle’s Murphy Brown speech back in 1992, when he accused movie and television makers of being a “cultural elite” with values alien to most Americans.

    So, if somebody says that some group of Hollywood filmmakers is an “elite”, do they mean that those filmmakers are the most talented filmmakers in the industry (one meaning of elite), or that they’re socially well-positioned among filmmakers (another meaning), or that they’re part of a wealthy and powerful subset of Americans (still another meaning), or do they mean, as Quayle did, that they have alien values and are trying to impose those values on the rest of us (a fourth meaning)?

    I think Terry meant something like meaning #2 (socially well-positioned), but that #4 meaning is still out there, still got currency. It’ll probably outlast us all.

    (Terry may also have come to the wrong conclusion about what I was saying because I pointed up the anti-Semitic origins of the “War on Christmas” movement in another thread. It probably looked like I was going all-anti-Semitism, all the time.)

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/ Joe Perez


    No, but he’s very talented at picking up subtext.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/ Joe Perez

    (that was in reference to Mark Shea)

  • Dan

    I remember Father Neuhaus’comment concerning someone who was charged with being an anti-Semite for having complained so loudly about Hollywood and liberal elites: he’s an anti-Semite of the worst sort, the kind who won’t criticize Jews.

    The idea that it is anti-Semitic to criticize Hollywood seems to validate the idea, also claimed to be anti-Semetic, that Jews control Hollywood.

    It is undeniable fact that Jews occupy many of the most powerful positions in Hollywood. This does not immunize Hollywood from the criticism it richly deserves.

  • Vigilius

    Thanks for the great job you’ve done on this thread Terry. It’s pretty obvious what your intent and spirit has been in this article. Keep up the good work!

  • Richard the Adequate

    Avram:“…or do they mean, as Quayle did, that they have alien values and are trying to impose those values on the rest of us (a fourth meaning)?

    I think Terry meant something like meaning #2 (socially well-positioned), but that #4 meaning is still out there, still got currency. It’ll probably outlast us all.”

    Help me out here.

    Hollywood produces a film that reflects values that are admittedly alien to a substantial portion of their potential audience. Where (and how) does this “imposition” of values
    take place?

    As I see it, we are all free to choose whether to view this film or not. We can then make our own singular judgments as to whether we enjoyed it, and how it may affected our own thoughts and values. Am I supposed to feel obligated to “buy in” to the particular value system being portrayed? Or can I merely view it and appreciate it purely as an art-form? Maybe I’m missing out on all the fun. I’ve never felt imposed upon by an artist, an author, musician or film-maker. I’ve often been entertained; sometimes I’ve been inspired or educated; many times I’ve been bored. In spite of this, I’ve managed to come out with my values (such as they are) intact.

    Has anyone here honestly had their personal value-system impacted in some significant way by veiwing a film? Anybody turn “gay” from it?

  • tmatt


    The Hollywood elites are opposed to the moral and doctrinal beliefs of traditional Jews and Christians, especially in public life. This affects SOME, not all, product in the world of entertainment (which is their right). The Hollywood elites are NOT anti-religious. Many there are very in favor of religious groups that back their worldviews. Spiritual is a positive word.


    You are right. “Elite” is certainly as loaded and harsh a word as “idiot” and “anti-Semite.”

    Have you read Gabler’s work on Jewish history in Hollywood? It is crucial to note that the Jewish presence in that region is directly linked to an attempt to FLEE Jewish practice and to actively ASSIMILATE. This has been a liberal vs. conservative issue inside the faiths since the start.

    ASSIMILATION is the key to this.


    See the above comment. Jewish practice, doctrine and moral traditions are just as controversial in Hollywood as are traditional forms of Christianity.


    Not all niches are created equal and there is no force in America more powerful than pop culture. The pollsters now refer to this as the “Will and Grace” effect.

  • tmatt

    A crucial point I forgot to include in the post itself.

    In all parts of life, “Elites” hold more power than their numbers would seem to allow. They define what is normative for the industry and, most of all, they define what one needs to do and belief to ENTER THE ELITE (to move up in the power and financial chain).

    Any one who has worked in a newsroom knows this. In media theory, it is referred to as the “gatekeeper” effect.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    Gatekeepers operate in more than one context. Here’s a 1992 quote from I dug out while I was doing some research into Christian publishing. It’s from Giles Semper, who was a senior editor with HarperCollins Religious:

    “a degree of censorship, which sometimes seems arbitrary, consigns potentially profitable books to failure from the outset.

    Christian publishers accordingly find themselves in a paradoxical position: while debate in the Church rages over an issue like homosexuality and gay priests, they can only offer one Christian perspective, namely, the conservative one, for fear of alienating Christian booksellers.”

    (“Soul Searching in an Age of Alternative Ideologies” in The Bookseller, 17 January 1992 p. 130.)

    Just thought I’d throw that in.

  • Michael

    I don’t disagree that Jews are heaviliy involved in Hollywood and clealry act as gatekeepers (i”ve read through some of Gabler’s work). I also believe gays act as gatekepper in Hollywood and one would be naive to assume gays don’t have significant influence on how Hollywood thinks.

    My point is that the fact that using the term “elites” and specifically “Hollywood elites” is a lot like “radical Muslims” or “right-wing extremists” in that it also becomes a smear used to raise money, justify hatred, and reinforce discrimination. It’s one thing when someone like Gabler talks about Hollywood Elites, it’s quite different when Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly or James Dobson uses it.

  • Michel

    Michael wrote:

    “It’s one thing when someone like Gabler talks about Hollywood Elites, it’s quite different when Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly or James Dobson uses it.”

    Which kind of lets the cat out of the bag: that this isn’t an argument about the legitimate uses of the word elite at all but rather an attempt to delegitimize certain views by imputing bad motives to the people who hold them.

    Mr. Mattingly originally asked an interesting question. There is this movie out there and there are a number of highly defensive postures in some articles, including one he has helpfully cited, suggesting that some group, call them an “elite” if you wish, was worried, even before this movie even hit the theatres, that it might fail with the general public. All of which suggests that some people feel that the success or failure of this movie is about more than the stock value of the companies that produced it. That it was supposed to send a message.

    So Michael and Joe, why are you determined to head off any discussion of this before it starts.


    PS: Similar questions have been raised elsewehere:


  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Michel, I actually think that these are related questions:

    Is the concern that many in the film industry feel about the success of failure of Brokeback Mountain a proxy for their concern about gay rights?

    Is the concern that some of us feel about talk about “Hollywood elites” a proxy for our concern about the growing belligerence of the Religious Right?

    Terry sees the ghosts of religious issues in news stories — “fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines.” I see the ghosts of anti-Semitism and anti-secularism in some issues, and I’m not the only one.

    (BTW, Terry or whoever is responsible for link maintenance, this story has a link to an earlier, 404′d, version of the “What we’re doing here” essay, that I’m guessing predates the move from TypePad to WordPress.)

  • Michel

    Avram wrote:

    “I see the ghosts of anti-Semitism and anti-secularism in some issues, and I’m not the only one. ”

    And if there was even the vaguest suggestion that Mr. Mattingly meant a group operating a secret conspiracy when he said “Hollywood Insiders” or “elite”, I’d say lets give this argument a hearing. But there is not!

    Here are two questions for you.

    First an argument by analogy. There is no doubt that for some people on the farish left and right “neoconservative’ has come to mean code word for “Jewish intellectual favouring Israel”, would you, on that basis raise red flags every time you saw the word “neoconservative” used?

    Second, the articles Mattingly cited (and even more markedly in the article Mickey Kaus cites in the link I give above) use aggressive language without any provocation. Doesn’t this suggest that there is enough belligerance to go around without signalling out “the religious right” for unique blame?


  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Actually, Michel, the argument has had a hearing. Terry quoted it above, and you can see my reply to it, thanking him for clarification, in the original thread. Now, for your questions:

    First: No, not every time. The word “neoconservative” has of recent coinage, and has a well-known and established use. While I’ll grant that there may be cases of people using it as a sly synonym for “Jewish intellectual favoring Israel” (though I’ve not myself seen any such cases, merely the complaints about such cases, never made with a link or an actual quote with context), the anti-Semitic usage is less common than the original.

    In the cases of “elite”, the use Terry mentions dates back to the 1970s, while the word’s use in anti-Semitic smears goes back, well, Wilhelm Marr, the Austrian who coined the term “anti-Semitism” in the 1870s, was an unemployed journalist who claimed that he’d lost his job because the Jews were running everything. Terry’s technical sense has to fight against at least a century’s worth of earlier, more widespread, contrary usage.

    Second, sure, there’s plenty of belligerence all around. But the particular term in question has long been used by political right-wingers, and now by the religious right as well. If scholars of media bias had chosen some other word, we might be having a different discussion.

  • Michel

    Seriously now, you are claiming that in the five centuries the word “elite” has been part of the English language that the sort of usage typical of people such as Wilhelm Marr has so dominated all other usages that we have to red flag it every time it comes up?

    And I would add that you have produced zero arguments that there is any reason for concern here beyond touchiness about this word.

    Look, this is a very serious concern you have raised here, you owe us more than argument by asociation.


  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    No, Michel. If someone says “Bill is one of the elite among skiboaders” or “Sara’s an elite model” or “The sheet was printed in elite type”, no, none of those set off warning bells.

    I’m not quite sure what you’re asking for when you say “you have produced zero arguments that there is any reason for concern here beyond touchiness about this word.” I’ve admitted that it’s the word I’m touchy about. Specifically, the word in this particular context. What else do you think I’m saying that you want me to address? Are you saying I’m wrong to be touchy about it? I disagree; I think Terry and his fellow scholars of media bias ought to use it carefully if they don’t want to be lumped in with the William Donohues and Bill O’Reillys of the world.

    BTW, does anyone have a citation for an earlier use of the phrase “cultural elite” than Dan Quayle’s 1992 speech about the Murphy Brown show?

  • http://www.urbanangel.net andy chamberlain

    I am speaking as a pastor here…This thread is a bit like the pastoral equivalent of the slightly crazy guy in your church who writes a letter to you (as leader) that is hand written, almost illegible, and over 15 pages in tiny script, telling you why your leadership sucks and how unbiblical you are. It’s a black hole and you soon learn (as a leader) to say “God bless you brother” and abort the whole correspondence.

    The response is so ingrained that I have often wanted to ignore this thread, but the thing is the subject is fascinating! So…

    Hollywood has a difficult task. If films/movies are viewed purely as product to be made and sold then the approach would be simple – hammer out the formula and look at internal rate of return! But if films/movies are an art form only then again you would ignore the financial aspects, and maybe even the popularity of a film.

    But film media exists in a mysterious middle ground, and supporters and opponents of any one film, or even the industry, can take sit on one side or other of the money/art divide and criticse from there.

    The telling piece in the LA Times report was the simple, profound truth uttered at the end of the piece by Carlo Petrick, communications manager for Marcus Theatre Corp., based in Milwaukee:

    “if it comes down to choosing between ‘King Kong’ and ‘Brokeback,’ people who go to the movies to be entertained will probably choose the former.”

    Here’s the deal – people go to the movies to be entertained. If they don’t think they will be entertained by a gay love story then they wont go, even if the film is an excellent piece of art and the subject matter approached carefully with empatheically – as I suspect is the case with ‘Brokeback’.

    If any of us, ciritics, film goers, film makers… forget that film exists in this middle ground, then we will get hurt and confused by reality at some point.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Actually, Michel, “neoconservative” has already gone BEYOND “conservative and Jewish” to become “conservative I dislike and want to demonize”. I have seen recent voices in the blog commentosphere labeling, e.g, Buckley as “neoconservative” AND “libertarian” (which would suprise every libertarian *I* know.)

  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    Amen, Andy. As long as we’re using “Art” as a term of approbation, I have great hope that the movie will do the Art job of busting up many myths, stereotypes, and pat answers, maybe even including some of those in this discussion. Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times article “Masculinity and its Discontents” quotes author and Artist Annie Proulx on the facile use of another term related to the movie:

    “Excuse me,” said Ms. Proulx, “but it is not a story about ‘two cowboys.’ It is a story about two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids in 1963 who have left home and who find themselves in a personal sexual situation they did not expect, understand nor can manage.” Jack and Ennis are not cowboys (if anything the two are shepherds), but they are, in Ms. Proulx’s resonant words, “beguiled by the cowboy myth.”

    Art movies can be difficult to watch precisely because of that refusal of the general and easily understood and their insistence on the complex particulars of experience, an approach that tends to bust myths and challenge preconceptions without necessarily having that as a primary purpose. For that reason, if “Brokeback Mountain” turns out to be an Art movie, I’m sure there’ll be some gay people who dislike it without watching it, too.

    And then there’s squeamishness, which I hope Artists will continue to have no patience for.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Will, hasn’t Buckley (I assume you mean William F) described himself as a libertarian? I know he wrote a book titled Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist, and I’m pretty sure he’s come down in favor of some libertarian policies like drug legalization. I have a vague memory of reading an essay he wrote in which he described himself as a libertarian, or having leanings in that direction, but I can’t remember it in any useful detail.

  • Joel

    As noted, the average person pays for entertaiment to be _entertained._

    Hollywood has a big disadvantage in trying to find an audience: the listen to what critics, industry leaders and Academy(R) voters say. By definition, these elites are not average movie goers.

    I was a movie reviewer once, so it’s easy to recognize the syndrome. If you’re Roger Ebert, and you see 2 movies/week for 25 years, you want something novel, different, fresh. Since most of the standard boy-meets-girl stories were tried by 1955, what you end up choosing from is a) new special effects; b) pushing the envelope on interpersonal relations; or c) something that looks “trite”, “predictable”, or “formulaic.”

    So Mr. (or Ms.) movie critic has seen 100s of romances, and finds the idea of boy-meets-boy novel, interesting, pushing the envelope. Meanwhile, the average movie-goer who goes to the movies once a month (if that) wants something to take his/her mind off day-to-day life. “Mindless escapism” is used as a pejorative term (e.g. for a Schwarzenegger shoot ‘em up). But 9 times out of 10, the moviegoer wants some sort of escapism. Meanwhile, the reviewer is recommending something that appeals to the movie critics, film studies majors and Holywood directors (i.e. an elite), so it’s no wonder that “critically acclaimed” usually means “box office poison.”

  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    Edgy for edgy’s sake movies also tend to be bad: they merely plan their “escapist” routes in counter-cultural directions. The opposite of “escapist” is not “edgy”; it’s “engaged.” In the morass of b.s., wish-fulfillment, and cultural self-justification that is popular media, life itself is an eternally “novel, interesting, pushing the envelope” source for art. I’m hopeful that “Brokeback” will stay true to Proulx, in which case that’s what we’ll be looking at.

    Seeing life afresh is the good way to dodge formulae, and I think it’s also the secret ingredient of many Art films that break out. For the makers of such films and the critics who recommend them, “elitist” is the wrong word, since they tend not to make very much money or have very much influence. When’s the last time you saw Jim Jarmusch on “E!”?

  • Michel

    Andy wrote:

    “I am speaking as a pastor here”

    Dear Andy,

    That made my day. Do pastors differently when you are not being a pastor? I mean is a pastor like an actor that they are in the role sometimes and out of it at others?

    The answer to that question is none of my business of course.

    So let’s get to the meat of the issue. Entertainment is just about making money and art, don’t you know, is about feeling (although it has to be tarted up so we use Greek and speak of empathy). And entertainment doesn’t have that kind of feeling; it’s just money making—sort of beyond the pale for some kinds of higher questions—but art, now there we can get the higher moral juices flowing.

    Art, for example, might expose us to those things we don’t want to face. “If they don’t think they will be entertained by a gay love story then they wont go, even if the film is an excellent piece of art and the subject matter approached carefully …”

    It sort of makes you wonder if there can’t be smoke without fire,can it possibly be there is no cultural elite what with all this cultural elitism about.

    I say that as a incurable cultural elitist myself. Although not a convincing one, just playing a part really. Maybe I should look up the Greek word for just playing the part, would that tart it up? Would it make me feel better about myself?

    Yes, you’re right, that’s not very charitable, I should really follow the higher road you established with your opening comments.


  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff Gill

    This may not add much to the substance of the discussion, but i was ruminating on the nature of A-leets while sitting here listening to the Today show, where Joan Didion and her book “The Year of Magical Thinking” was once again praised to the skies.

    Now, i’m a midwestern Protestant Christian pastor, having spent the last quarter-century watching and participating in the middle of America where the mass of people, religious and not so much use ages old traditions and rituals to deal with death and tragedy.

    Dunne and Didion were, for most of that time period, novel writers and script writers and occasionally even more deeply involved creative laborers on both coasts. But from reading the original article in the NYT Mag (we do see these things in the non A-leet portions of the country) and then browsing the book at B&N, apparently the A-leet groups around the Dunne-Didions and who control the media gates of what’s a story and all, right down to the Today show, have found out something remarkable.

    They have seen through Joan’s eyes that death is shocking and sudden, brings dislocation and disorientation, and requires certain new structures and re-evaluations for the living to keep going on.

    OK, so they ain’t religious; actually, i guess i assumed that about coastal A-leets and all, but i am shocked by the way that both the book and reaction have taken the tack of “who knew? why didn’t anyone tell me about this? how is this reality so hidden from “us? (and finally) watch me create, painfully and from scratch, a shaky set of responses to this situation.”

    There is essentially no acknowledgment that there are people and institutions who have been working with these realitites, faith oriented or otherwise. The stunner is not that they have no knowledge or willingness to affirm religion, but that all the critical acclaim is around the valiant attempt to create these processes “ex nihilo.”

    And that’s what not only bugs, but worries me, about A-leets, whether on Brokeback Mountain or walking out of an emergency room at 2 am. The go-it-alone, do-it-yourself, utterly-autonomous individualism no matter what is not only normative, but blind to alternatives even in the face of sweet reason.

    et in terra pax,

  • tmatt

    Wow. What Jeff said.

    The left-of-center folks that produced the 1993 Freedom Forum report on religion news woes concluded that the biggest problem on the beat was simple ignorance. Jeff, what you are saying is closer to the veiwpoint of Bill Moyers and, well, me. The media is TONE DEAF to religion. They have no taste, on experience, or, above all, no direct contact with religious people — especially (says the Washington Post, the LA Times and tons of other people) traditional religious believers.

    FF study: http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=3987

    A piece I did related to this topic:


  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    Of course, tmatt and Jeff, you’re assuming two things: that the “coastal A-leets” have no religion nor traditions, and that traditional religion tends to handle big life events constructively and well. (Here I am in the buckle of the bible belt, having been raised among the extremely traditionally religious, and I can’t see it that way, not that I haven’t sporadically kidded myself mightily in an attempt to do so.)

    Both those assumptions reveal an opposite and equal ignorance and arrogance of the precise kind you object to. Don’t you imagine we could stack up a big pile of religious leaders and movie-makers, and the rest of us, I suppose, and have to dig a long time before we found something other than a self-righteous, fearful, control-driven, opposition-obsessed opportunist?

    Both sides fear the same things from each other; and they’re right to do so.

  • tmatt


    The evidence is that the NEWS elites consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious,” or that they tend not to be PRACTICING any particular form of religion. My experience — such as it is — is that newsrooms are packed with people who were raised in a religion and no longer practice it. They escaped.

    Journalists tend to say they have religious FEELINGS but they are not involved in PRACTICE.

    And it was the Freedom Forum that pegged this on ignorance, not me. I tend to use the word “worldview.”

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff Gill

    Actually, Jody, i didn’t say the traditionally religious always handle death and crisis well, but that they do have processes and traditions around handling those things. Nor did i say that no one on the coasts has a faith, but was specifically pointing to the boook and hoo-raw around “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which startlingly speaks as if there is no such structure or mechanism in the American culture for managing the shock and dislocation of death. Truly, if there were dismissive or contemptous comments about ham and green bean dinners or calling hours or jahrzeits or whathaveyou, my reaction would be very different: the weird thing, that has a whiff of elitism and its blinkeredness, is how this discussion has proceeded from the assumption that, of course, Joan Didion has to do this entirely on her own, from scratch.

    California, i’m told, has a growing industry around family-scripted funerary events (with nice markups for enterprizing funeral directors); this isn’t traditional religion in any sense, but it is the community coming together around a felt need. I don’t like it, but don’t spend a lot of time bemoaning it, either. When large numbers of people in a society don’t go to church or other ritual systems on a regular basis (Masonic lodges, opera performances, civic ceremonies), a new set of observances will inevitably rise up, and some will be better than others.

    The “A-leet” thing is the rigorous individuality even when it makes no sense other than as a, well, tenet of faith, if you will. And the Didion interviews i’ve read and heard all do obesiance to that set of beliefs.

    et in terra pax,

  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    Well, worldview, tone deafness, lack of experience and direct contact, all of which I hope you’ll excuse me for construing as “ignorance.” I actually think it is flat-out ignorance, in Hollywood and elsewhere, but would invite you to consider the extent to which it goes both ways across whatever cultural divide we’re talking about.

    I’m glad to take your word on the journalism religion scene, and I’d be interested to get the Hollywood low-down. I’d be willing to bet there are more practicers. But as I’m learning from Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus, the non-practicing spiritualist, specifically the non-practicing Christian, is itself a bona fide tradition.

    Would you agree that practice is a mixed bag, and if so, to what extent?

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff Gill

    Jody, i’m just sayin’ — in regards to media gatekeepers — if you plan to be the medium between particular realities and the wider culture of 300 million people, you should not know a little more about big chunks of that social reality (widely and wildly varying, i grant right off, but with some 100 million strong shared phenomena in media res), but you ought to acknowledge it in some way.

    My whole A-leet observation was that the tone was, and is, around the Didion book of “you had to do this on your own, and you bravely took on this lonely task” as if there were little or no paths through that admittedly tangled wilderness of loss and doubt. If you don’t hear that tone (de gustibus non disputandum), feel free to say so — that’s the question, if you will, i was asking — but i can’t see how you’re taking me as saying that individualism is an invalid practice. I do think it’s ineffective, which you’ve no doubt (accurately) inferred and are perhaps reacting to, but my point has nothing to do with whether there are individualismic materialists out there trying to develop an ethos and lifestyle for major occasions (weddings and coming of age, let alone funerals and mourning). I do think they’re a small number, but vastly overrepresented in media gatekeeping, which is why folks like Mel Gibson and Philip Anschutz have risked a fair amount of personal capital, fiscal and status-wise, to see if there isn’t a pretty big “niche,” or void left unrepresented.

    To which i think we have an answer, box-office-wise.

    But i really don’t know *why* the ‘tween-coasts/middle-class viewpoint is underrepresented (IMO, of course). Some say by conspiracy, and i spend too much time around the fringes of a number of media outlets to believe that. You suggest outright unmalicious ignorance (i think, correct me if i’m misreading *you*!), and that could be, but we’re talking the most well-read and thoughtful folk of the culture here — hence the beginning of all this in elite/A-leet talk. I truly suspect that the answer is something much more subtle and anthropological or psychological, which is why i like reading and joining these comments. That, and because this phenomenon so closely tracks with the puzzle of the vast divide between lay members and middle/upper judicatory staff & leaders in mainline/oldline Protestant denominations.

    I know personally many of those folk in multiple denoms, and they aren’t malicious, and they ain’t stupid. But how did a dozen faith groups, most with very different polities, all end up with exactly the same problem of a national/general staff that doesn’t get when they don’t actively resent the ticket-buying public who . . . sorry, i mean offering-givng laity who are the “other” 95% of their faith tradition? They aren’t conspiring together (much) and they know durn well what the general beliefs of their memberships are, but they keep framing things in ways that are ludicrously farther out of step with the bill-paying majority than they actually are. Yet they ain’t stupid, neither, except when they get panicked over staff cuts and just lapse into trying to abuse their adherents into sending checks.

    Which is dumb.

    So that’s my angle of interest, and i look forward to this discussion continuing even as this post sinks further into the site, as anyone is so interested!

    And a blessed Advent to all, observing and indifferent alike;

    et in terra pax,

  • http://www.urbanangel.net andy chamberlain


    I am trying to decide whether you where poking fun at me gently, or genuinely intrigued, or maybe a bit of both.

    When I said ‘speaking as a pastor’ I was putting in to context my next comment – namely that this long blog was a bit like the long letters pastors sometimes get. In fact, the thing God most wants pastors (and others) to do with those with whom they don’t agree is listen and love. That seems to be the way it is. We all learn a lot from the pain of a loving disagreement.

    Do pastors act? Yeah, sure sometimes, like most other people. The fundamentals stay the same though – love God and love the people who choose to put themselves, in some sense, under your authority – because you are going to have to give an account for what you do with them one day!

    I am not sure what you are saying after that. I don’t think entertainment and art are mutually exclusive. I recon “Lost in translation” was both, “The Incredibles” was both – two really excellent films. Some people might put them either side of the divide, I’m not sure I would. Both entertained me and both moved me.

    And I don’t believe in the ‘if you want to send a message use Western Union’ school of thought (sorry if I have slgihtly misquoted) but I think film has to entertain at some level, and then it can challenge and provoke.

    But here’s a thought, why might people in theaters laugh at the trailer for ‘Brokeback’ – was it funny? Probably not, rather I guess they were embarassed, because what they were seeing was something outside their cultural relgious comfort zone; they might not go see this film because there is something about the homosexual act that makes them uncomfortable if they see it; maybe they think this film will embarass them or preach at them.

    If anyone (I am not saying you) then lampoons these people as cultural and/or religious fools they won’t say “gee, sorry you are right” they will just walk away and shamelessly watch Narnia or Kong.

    I’d respond more, but I am genuinely not sure about what you are saying, or whether you want a response.

    But thanks for the post!


  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu


    We’ve got too many groups to keep track of. Let’s throw out the elite thing and start calling the people who make big movies “Hollywood Power Brokers” and the people who make honest Art films and honest Joan Didion, Annie Proulx (and C.S. Lewis) books “Literary Types.” Then there are the “Edgies.” I don’t like to talk about them, except to wonder whether “Brokeback” is to be perverted into the Edgy or will remain Literary. As I said, Edgy-ism isn’t real, either.

    Part of my point was that Hollywood and Literary are different, and at odds. I think your displeasure is more properly aimed at the Edgies, who are dark phony, and Power Brokers, who wouldn’t know real if it gnawed off their ears, and who respond to everything with respect to its money-making potential.

    I semi-privately wondered whether you might object in general to art which deals frankly and honestly with subjects about which people are squeamish, drawing no distinction between “treatment” and “glorification.”

    Religious people have more in common than they think with Literary Types, because good religion and good literature are both about grappling experience rather than denying, escaping, or exploiting it. You know, you speak classical: katabasis, and all that.

    The ex nihilo objection is curious to me, since I take it for granted that to be meaningful, religious experience at some point has to come to one as if for the first time, and the old lessons have to be perennially learned anew, rediscovered, and of course re-realized in art in terms of contemporary experience. Jesus is ancient, but my identification with him has to be new. Less ex nihilo, more de novo.

    Yes, it’s nice if you have a religious tradition around to help you through all that, but the literary tradition will do in a pinch. Of course neither is a proof against error, and they’re by no means mutually exclusive.

    In any case, I’m sure the reaction you heard to the Didion book has also been uttered in reaction to Beth Moore bible studies, or T.D. Jakes sermons, or Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It could be that my church buddies who used to grab at each other at camp and on mission trips will have that reaction to “Brokeback Mountain,” but I have a feeling they wouldn’t be too forthcoming in that case, so we may never know.

    Take “Napoleon Dynamite” for an example of this Literary/Religious crossover potential. Art film; made between the coasts, off the grid; completely freaky but strangely real, much more like my high school experience than I’d care to admit; and cussword free because of the Mormon connection. Also a big breakout.

    Annie Proulx, for one, would be surprised to have her work associated with either coast. Cormac McCarthy, Ray Carver, Louise Erdrich, Flannery O’Connor ditto, and I could go on and on. Iowa, for instance, is still a big literary powerhouse. Those people are misunderstood in Hollywood, too; but if they occasionally get a movie made, there’s no reason to hold Hollywood against them.

  • Michel


    To gently poke fun. To spell it out, I thought “This thread is a bit like the pastoral equivalent of the slightly crazy guy in your church…” was uncalled for. Doubly so after prefacing it with “Speaking as a pastor.”

    I think it is possible to say that a thread has not been very coherent without invoking “slightly crazy guys” even if, as I suspect might be the case, you meant to compare the thread to the slightly crazy guy and not any of the posters.

    To turn to your arguments, I am highly suspect of any argument that links art with moral significance and it seemed to me, that you were making such a claim. A bad unartistic movie can easily carry a far more worthwhile message than a good one. The Triumph of the Will is a superb work of art.

    Likewise, Luke is the most successful gospel as a work of art but it is no more or less truthful than the other three for that.

    I think by the way, that the tread is slightly incoherent and I am sure I contributed somewhat to its getting that way. I can only fall back on the classic excuse that my intentions were good.

    Regards, Michel

  • http://www.urbanangel.net andy chamberlain

    Hi Michel,

    Yes, I see how my comment could have been interpreted, my apologies to all – I cast no slur on anyone here, and I am joining in, so if I meant any criticism I would be pointing it at myself as well!

    I don’t think good art equates with moral significance, although I suspect that many artists do. I think I was saying that in film at least art and entertainment can be combined – and the effect when they do is wonderful.



  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff Gill

    Hollering back upthread to Jody, i can certainly go along with “Part of my point was that Hollywood and Literary are different, and at odds.” Usually, often, and consistently that’s so, and i’m still thinking about your statement “Religious people have more in common than they think with Literary Types, because good religion and good literature are both about grappling experience rather than denying, escaping, or exploiting it.” Yep. I got nuttin’ more to say than yes to that; the “de novo/ex nihilo” take on religious experience i’d love to dispute in a friendly way in this cultural context, but i’ve got three worship services to help plan and one more trip to the post office and stores with a seven year old in tow, so i’m going to have to bow out for now.

    But may God be good to Mr. Dunne, and his widow, especially through the Holiday season; still, they were/are Hollywood Power Brokers more than Lit’rary icons in my accounting.

    And to all (still reading down this far…) a Blessed Chrismukahzaa Epiphanic Festivusmas!


  • Maureen

    Avram, I know you, and I know you’re a reasonably sensible person. I realize this is just one of those hairtrigger cultural things, like the way I freak out if British people suggest I must have given money to the IRA because I have an Irish name. But honestly, nobody around here seems to be using “elite” as any kind of codeword except for “people who make more money than I do, but not in a reality-based business”.

    Look, I grew up in Ohio, and not in an area with a vast Jewish population. I have a very hard time remembering which Polish and German names are supposed to be Jewish names. I was a rabid Trekkie and trivia hoarder. And I heard that William Shatner was a Canadian a good twenty years before I ever heard he was Jewish, and I think of him as Captain Kirk and a horsebreeder a lot more than either of those. So no, I do not think the vast majority of us associate the “Hollywood elite” with Jews. I think the vast majority of us think the only Jews in Hollywood are Barbara Streisand and Madonna.

    (Especially since you never see Entertainment Tonight covering the stars’ or execs’ weddings at Temple Beth Whatever. You never see “Hollywood Seder” or “Menorahs of the Rich and Famous”. Which is a pity, although probably a lot easier on the rabbi of Temple Beth Whatever.)

    The general public associates Jewish people chiefly with being hardworking, knowledgeable, and having different holidays and Sabbaths. (The bigoted public assumes some kind of devious evil overlord tendencies, I guess.)

    The general public associates Hollywood chiefly with people who are too rich, too airheaded, too drugged, and too anorexic to have any sense, and who are doing their best to forget anything they ever knew about the rest of us. As you may notice, this is pretty much the opposite of the mental picture of Jewish people. (If there was an evil Hollywood overlord, he could hardly be devious. He’d be an oversexed, overdrugged barbarian demagogue.)

    Because we regard the Hollywood A-list as largely immoral and stupid, an endorsement of a film by certain people is seen as an indicator that the vast majority of us shouldn’t waste our money on it, since it will only raise our blood pressure.

    Moving from perception issues to business ones…

    The major problem with the movie industry today is that it is driven by those at the top (the producers) and not by those at the bottom (the audience). The folks at the top have total control over what movies they want to make. The folks at the top, however, cannot force those at the bottom to pay for tickets for those movies.

    The folks at the bottom, however, can at least attempt to make some suggestions about what they would like to see instead. The folks at the top can either listen or let the movie industry lose a lot of money on depressing flicks, just like they did in the early seventies.

  • Pingback: CaNN :: We started it.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Maureen, it looks to me like you’ve mischaracterized both Terry’s use of “elite” and my questions about that use.

  • Molly

    Some weekend box office figures for recent movies.

  • Michel

    Yes, those are interesting numbers. So far, the marketing plan for Brokeback has been brilliant.

    I have often wondered how many people went to see The Passion as a way of voting. If the people behind it manage to create a sense that going to Brokeback is a way of saying “I’m on this side”, it could be a hit.


  • Stephen A.

    Michel: People think exactly that way, and WILL go to see the movie just to “vote” for it. I’m certain folks did that with the Passion and with Michael Moore’s films, too.

    When I worked at Barnes & Noble many years ago, Howard Stern had just come out with a book. A woman came in and asked for it, and as I rang her up, she admitted that she was NOT a fan, and actually hated him, but, “I want to support his First Amendment right to speak out.”

    Talk about confused, but that’s how liberals think, and apparently some conservatives, too, though I bet few went to see the Passion who didn’t actually want to.