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Vignettes of the State of Culture

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Vignette # 1: My wife has an interest in the ways that corporate influences have infiltrated the public schools, and so it's no surprise that she called out to me the other evening when she encountered this little snippet in the publication THE WEEK:

A Minnesota high school is selling advertising time during a student production of It's a Wonderful Life. Mounds View High School's theatrical rendering of the 1946 James Stewart classic, about a man discovering the true meaning of Christmas, will pause periodically for students to read ads from local businesses. The cost of a spot is around $75, and businesses can also rent signage space on the stage set's backdrop. "In a perfect world, we probably wouldn't need to go ahead and sell advertisements," said Principal Julie Wikelius. But "it's what keeps programs afloat."

Schmookler commentary:

It really does seem clear, when we consider how principals like Ms. Wikelius sell out for a mess of potage: we surely don't live in a perfect world.

Occasionally, one comes across a news story that seems meant to frustrate parodists: they are so extreme that one could hardly know how to caricature them. How could one exaggerate this vignett --interrupting "It's A Wonderful Life" to have the students shill for businesses--to a further extreme?

The issue is not the ads themselves so much as it is the message that this Faustian bargain sends the children: "We don't care much about the idea that there are boundaries that must be respected regarding what is for sale and what is not."

What's next: a corporate logo under the crucifix in the front of a church, or illuminated by the eternal light hanging over the ark where the Torah is stored?

From my personal experience, I can add just a bit to this story. I have some familiarity with Mounds View High School. Mounds View was our arch rival when I went to Alexander Ramsey Senior High School in an adjacent suburb of St. Paul (I am class of '63). And let me tell you: Mounds View is far from an impoverished district. It is a middle to upper-middle class suburb.

So why does the principal of Mounds View need to commercialize her students' theatrical productions in order to keep her "programs afloat"?

One wonders: what does it mean about America that bargains like this (and things like reduced library hours) are seen as necessary now, when they were not necessary forty years ago, when our economy was not nearly so rich (in constant dollars) as it is now?


Vignette # 2: If I hadn't already heard about it from Keith Olbermann on Countdown, I'd have found out from the article appearing on Huffington Post.

Kevin Federline, it is said, is threatening to go public with a sex tape of him and his soon-to-be-ex wife, Brittney Spears. Reportedly, he is trying to coerce her to cave in to his demands for money that he agreed he would not get when he signed their pre-nuptial agreement.

First point: what do Olbermann and Huffington (or the people they work with) have in mind in making sure that we hear about this revolting conduct? Do they have a point they want to make? Do these people --who on so many issues have lately been among the most courageous and outspoken in America-- believe that their treatment of this story will help us rebuild those moral structures whose degradation this story of Federline and Spears helps to exemplify?

Second point: It does puzzle me, just why Mr. Federline expects this tape to exercise such great leverage over Brittney Spears. Blackmail usually involves the revelation of dark secrets, and I'm assuming that this tape merely illustrates graphically a reality that, far from being secret, could reasonably be inferred from Ms. Spears having borne over the past year or so two children.

Third point: That issue aside -- of how effective an instrument of blackmail that tape could be-- can there be anything more contemptible than a man blackmailing his wife to compel her not to enforce an agreement he willingly entered into?

Fourth point: Is it too much to hope that, before I die --give me another 30 years-- I can live in an America in which someone who publicly engages in such despicable conduct will have committed a kind of social suicide, completely disqualifying himself from any standing whatsoever in American society henceforth? It certainly does not seem to be the case now, where the distinction between fame and notoriety has pretty well been erased. (Consider the case of Newt Gingrich --whose unforgivable hypocrisy in denouncing Clinton about Monicagate, while he himself, it turns out, was clandestinely engaged in much more serious lapses of the same kind, should have made it impossible to show his face in public again without at least blushing in shame-- has become again a respectable and important political figure.)


Vignette # 3: My wife likes to watch the occasional episode of Jeopardy. The other day I joined her just for the last question. The "Final Jeopardy" question brought forward the fact that --because Gone With the Wind had Clark Gable delivering that famous line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"-- David O. Selznick was forced by the motion picture industry, because of the word "damn," to pay a $5,000 fine.

Surely, there must be a middle ground!
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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