When I was a kid, I was a trekkie and couldn’t get enough of Star Trek. So when, Star Trek: the Next Generation came along, I thought I would be in for more of the same. Unfortunately, it ended up that I couldn’t watch more than a couple of minutes of that show before I became utterly repelled by its rampant, aggressive political correctness. I think the total time I spent watching the whole show was less than an hour. Recently I started viewing the new Battlestar Galactica series on DVD. Excellent show, but the one thing that struck me while watching it was how much the political correctness of the 80’s has receded.
For instance, smoking is popular on the battlestar. The ship’s doctor - a sympathetic character - smokes, even while examining his patients! When the ship’s captain (the show’s hero) is given an order by the new President of the 12 Colonies that he doesn’t agree with, he says, “I don’t take orders from a schoolteacher!” referencing the fact that she had been the Minister of Education before the cylon attack and only became President because everybody in cabinet of higher rank (23 people) had been killed. In another incident, when a captured cylon saboteur says he planted a nuclear device somewhere in the fleet, he is ‘aggressively’ interrogated by having his head repeatedly stuck into a bucket of water. After the President (the same female former schoolteacher) intervenes to stops the waterboarding and the prisoner starts spouting a lot of peaceniky, touchy-feely universalism stuff about why-can’t-we-all-live-in-piece, my cringe meter went off. I thought, here we go, now the political correctness begins, especially when Starbuck, one of the interrogators, starts to buy into it. At that point, the former-kindergarten teacher, now President, has the cylon flushed out the airlock. She then proceeds to tell Starbuck that she has lost her perspective, that the cylon was propagating poisonous ideas that can be more destructive than a warhead because they are designed to cloud human judgement and weaken humanity by creating rifts among people. Whoah! This is different. No United Federation of Planets kumbaya stuff here.
This TV moment captures a phenomenon I have been quietly noticing for some time, namely, that in pop culture, it has now become ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’ to break PC taboos. Take the HBO series Mad Men about advertising executives in the early 1960’s. While I have no doubt that the show’s creators are doctrinaire liberals, mostly because Mad Men portrays the ‘dark side’ of early 60’s suburbia (a tired liberal trope, if there ever was one), if that’s all the show had going for it, it would be DOA. What brings it to life is the way it portrays how different life was in pre-PC days. Everybody smoked; children played around in their parents cars rather than sit passively in a protective cocoon of child restraints; at work, sexual harassment was something you did rather than something you were charged with; racist and sexist jokes were commonplace; adults were confident enough to discipline other people’s children if required; children were allowed a latitude in play that is unthinkable for today’s helicopter parents; and drinking and driving was what you did when you left the party. I am not sure what the producer’s intentions are, but it is a fact that Mad Men’s principal charm comes from showing the viewer how much more fun life was when political correctness hadn’t gotten us by the throat yet.
In the 60’s it was edgy to push kumbaya universalism, a’la the civil rights movement and the UN (which was still sufficiently unsullied that it could be taken seriously in some quarters as the world’s de-facto government). Hence Star Trek, with the Enterprise’s mixed race crew, the United Federation of Planets and the prime directive (that Captain Kirk never followed). In the 60’s that was edgy. That was the stuff that scared the suits at NBC. In the 80’s it was edgy to push PC doctrine and directly attack traditional values. Same ideology, 20 years advanced.
But today, the pendulum has quietly reversed. In 1979, the blasphemy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian was controversial. Today, it is the piety of Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ, that earned the animosity of Hollywood’s gatekeepers while at the same time making it a runaway success with ordinary people. When Madonna was ‘crucified’ on her Confessions tour in 2006, her blasphemy was largely unremarked. The ‘high art’ world is in crisis because it has run out of acceptable targets to shock. A crucifix in a jar of urine - been there, done that. Need something new. ‘Street artist’ Shepard Fairey lives with his wife and two daughters in LA and makes enough money to donate $100,000 to his favourite charity. His ‘street art’ poster was used by a successful mainstream Presidential candidate. In spite of all his street-wise affectations, he is as mainstream as Norman Rockwell’ Saturday Evening Post covers were 70 years ago (though he lacks Rockwell’s talent). In the early 21st century, pious white squares like Stephen and Alex Kendrick and their Baptist church in Georgia are the real rebels, routinely making films like Fireproof that are able to gross 60 times their production cost in theatres. Unlike Fairey, upon whom the establishment elite can’t shower enough favours onto, establishment Hollywood assiduously ignores the Kendrick brothers in spite of their continued box office success, most likely because they are repelled by their pro-family message and their evangelism - in other words, by their subversive, anti-establishment values.
Today, the rebels have become the establishment and the establishment the rebels. Unfortunately this state of affairs has created internal conflict in today’s baby boomer elite. Their values (they judge people by how ‘edgy’ and rebellious they are) clash with their worldly success. People like Toronto’s mayor David Miller still want to believe they are still taking it the ‘man’ (a cool term from the 60’s now made fun of in commercials), when they in fact are the ‘man’. They want to be rebels but can’t admit to themselves that today, it is the conservatives and the Christians who play that cultural role, and as a consequence, suffer the deprivations and collect the rewards that that lifestyle offers.