- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

On Nov. 2, in terms of popular culture, Americans gave two thumbs up to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and two thumbs down to Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

So say the postelection reviews of many analysts who were surprised to find that moral concerns were an important factor in voters’ choices.

Yet cultural critics caution that the verdict, in Washington as in Hollywood, is not so clear-cut. After all, Mr. Moore’s Bush-bashing movie grossed $120 million to become the most successful documentary in history and Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry received 48 percent of the popular vote.

Although “moral values” were a smash hit on Election Day — cited by 22 percent of voters in exit polls — those box-office returns don’t necessarily portend a happy ending in the culture wars.

“I think the most immediate effect will be an attempt by the popular culture to figure out what the heck is going on,” said Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation. “You might see some backing away from more of the edgy things they are producing.”

The cultural elite might grasp the “moral mandate” from middle America, said Gary Bauer, president of the American Values Institute, but they probably won’t be quick to do it.

“Hollywood and a good bit of popular entertainment does promote values that are contrary to what a lot of middle Americans would like to see,” said Mr. Bauer, a Reagan administration official who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. “Nonetheless … ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ made an awful lot of money. I think the popular culture itself will be very slow to react to election returns.”

The entertainment world, he said, has refused to acknowledge the majority of Americans who do not embrace liberalism.

“It’s one of the ironies of modern life that many people in entertainment, who consider themselves worldly and cosmopolitan, often have a very provincial bias of America and the world, and thus, they keep getting shocked by election returns,” Mr. Bauer said.

The immediate reaction to the election by left-leaning celebrities — including Mr. Moore, who offered his fans “17 Reasons Not to Slit Your Wrists” on his Web site (www.michaelmoore.com) only confirm the chasm between the entertainment elite and ordinary Americans.

“It’s very interesting to note the extent to which all the pop-culture figures who are reading this election misread it,” Mr. Spalding said. “[They think] this proves that the American public are ignorant and unenlightened. It shows the extent to which [Hollywood] is severed from mainstream America.”

But the success of family-friendly films such as “The Incredibles” suggests that the entertainment industry is making a shift toward traditional values, said Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission

“Hollywood has been moving to produce more and more family films with redemptive content and less R-rated films,” Mr. Baehr said.

The election results are “highlighting a trend that is [already] going on,” he said. “The apparent reaction was shock and awe [from Hollywood], but that’s always a superficial reaction.”

The commercial success of a film like “The Passion of the Christ” — which has grossed $370 million in the United States and nearly $240 million overseas — inevitably will catch the attention of profit-hungry producers, Mr. Baehr said. He sees a continuation of a trend that started in the 1990s, when the number of R-rated films began to decline.

“The people who run the studios have to answer to Wall Street … and they need to make movies that make money, whatever their politics are,” Mr. Baehr said.

Beyond mere profit, however, Hollywood has its own moral values — including peer pressure, said Ed Vitagliano, spokesman for the American Family Association.

“If they can produce movies that can make a lot of money, that’s what they’re in the business of doing,” Mr. Vitagliano said. “But at the same time … people in Hollywood want the approval of their peers. You are applauded if you transgress culture and morality and anything that is considered ‘taboo.’”

Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, agreed.

“If Hollywood was rational and truly interested in the bottom line, they would begin producing more movies aimed at reinforcing traditional values,” said Mr. Knight, whose institute is affiliated with Concerned Women for America. “But given the ample evidence over the years that they’ve ignored the fact that [moral] movies make more money than any other, I’m not so sure that they will ever learn.”

The minds behind popular culture, Mr. Vitagliano said, will not start listening until people stop paying.

“Until people express [their] sentiments [against Hollywood] from their pocketbook … the culture will continue to drift the way it’s drifting,” he said.

“The marketplace can be a wonderful teaching tool in that regard,” Mr. Baehr said. “I do think that ratings and some of the boycotts we’ve seen of some advertisers who advertise on questionable shows can have a counterbalancing effect on those in Hollywood whose first instinct is to keep pushing the envelope.”

Yet, there always will be an audience willing to spend its money to make the most questionable show or film a hit, Mr. Spalding said, no matter what the moral majority says.

“What Hollywood plays to are the passions,” Mr. Spalding said. “These things are attractive, but they are attractive in a decadent way. That’s human nature; we aren’t going to change that.”

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