In Why We’ve Let Actors Become Our Moral Guides, Jonah Goldberg provides a fascinating account of this stunning turn of events. As Goldberg explains, actors have not always occupied the moral perch they presently dwell upon. According to Goldberg:
For most of human history, actors were considered low-class. They were akin to carnies, grifters, hookers and other riffraff.
In ancient Rome, actors were often slaves. In feudal Japan, Kabuki actors were sometimes available to the theatergoers as prostitutes — a practice not uncommon among theater troupes in the American Wild West. In 17th century England, France and America, theaters were widely considered dens of iniquity, turpitude and crapulence. Under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan dictatorship, the theaters were forced to close to improve moral hygiene. The Puritans of New England did likewise. A ban on theaters in Connecticut imposed in 1800 stayed on the books until 1952.
Obviously, actors have come a long way from being enslaved in ancient Rome. In 2017, Mark Wahlberg earned $68 million for starring in Transformers: The Last Knight and Daddy’s Home 2. Some of this is a testament to the insatiable demand for entertainment that currently exists in American culture. Athletes, musicians, and myriad other “entertainers” are paid handsomely for simply providing an escape portal for Americans.
However, among the entertainment profession, actors hold an extra-special place. Unlike most other ordinary entertainers, actors are now put on a pedestal high atop the moral universe. Alongside their economic influence, they also wield a newfound social influence. As Goldberg explains, the spectacle is relentless.
Watch the TV series “Inside the Actors Studio” sometime. It’s an almost religious spectacle of ecstatic obsequiousness and shameless sycophancy. Host James Lipton acts like some ancient Greek priest given an audience with Zeus, coming up just shy of washing the feet of actors with tears of orgiastic joy. I mean, I like Tom Hanks, too. But I’m not sure starring in “Turner & Hooch” (one of my favorite movies) bestows oracular moral authority.
Similarly, to watch the endless stream of award shows for Hollywood titans is to subject yourself to a narcissistic spectacle of collective self-worship. In 2006, George Clooney gave an (undeserved) Oscar acceptance speech in which he said, “We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It’s probably a good thing.” He went on to deliver a semi-fictional though no doubt sincere account of how actors are like a secular priesthood prodding America to do better.
The most recent Golden Globes ceremony has already been excoriated for being a veritable geyser of hypocritical effluvia, as the same crowd that not long ago bowed and scraped to serial harasser and accused rapist Harvey Weinstein, admitted child rapist Roman Polanski and that modern Caligula, Bill Clinton, congratulated itself for its own moral superiority.
Regardless of how detached Hollywood presently is, the more significant issue is why Hollywood has become the moral authority of the nation. Historically, children received moral guidance from parents, teachers, religious leaders, and others who occupied a prominent place in the societal hierarchy. An almost universally-agreed upon moral code was administered in schools and other institutions across the nation.
Although far from perfect, this moral code did permeate throughout much of American history. In good times and bad, Americans generally adhered to a set of values and ethics that were instilled from one generation to the next. Yet, in recent years, celebrities have become the arbiters of morality.
The interesting question is: Why have movie stars and other celebrities become an aristocracy of secular demigods? It seems to me an objective fact that virtually any other group of professionals plucked at random from the Statistical Abstract of the United States — nuclear engineers, plumbers, grocers, etc. — are more likely to model decent moral behavior in their everyday lives. Indeed, it is a bizarre inconsistency in the cartoonishly liberal ideology of Hollywood that the only super-rich people in America reflexively assumed to be morally superior are people who pretend to be other people for a living.
I think part of the answer has to do with the receding of religion from public life. As a culture, we’ve elevated “authenticity” to a new form of moral authority. We look to our feelings for guidance. Actors, as a class, are feelings merchants. While they may indeed be “out of touch” with the rest of America from time to time, actors are adept at being in touch with their feelings. And for some unfathomably stupid reason, we now think that puts us beneath them.