Monthly Archives: February 2014

Why Some Americans Just Can’t Handle the Truth About Slavery

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify  human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional people. As the world’s dominant economic and cultural power for much of the last century, they tend to puff their chests and proclaim that, “We’re the best! Look at our wealth! Look at our military power! There are McDonalds restaurants in China!” But for all of America’s power, the idea of American Exceptionalism wouldn’t hold as much appeal if it wasn’t backed by a clear belief in American moral superiority. After all, plenty of civilizations have dominated the world in the past, but a key component to American Exceptionalism is the idea that, unlike those past powers, the U.S. achieved peaceful world domination via the exportation of freedom, democracy, and capitalism – not necessarily in that order.

No matter that the idea of a benign American Exceptionalism is patently untrue; what matters is that people believe it to be true, and this belief influences their interpretations of the American past. This is especially true of conservatives, particularly some fuzzy little libertarians who are always insisting that if we only found that pot of free market gold at the end of Ayn Rand’s rainbow, the U.S. would be a perfect society. Because humans are such rational actors that we’d never do anything to pull the rug out from under the glorious market utopia we work so hard to construct. But I digress.

Among those many libertarian leprechaun chasers is Fox News turnip Andrew Napolitano. In a recent segment, the judge and legal analyst got all hot-and-bothered over the Civil War. You see, Napolitano thinks that Abraham Lincoln was America’s “first dictator” and that the Civil War was unnecessary. In a recent segment for Fox News squawkfest “The Independents,” the self-proclaimed Lincoln “contrarian” employed a series of bogus arguments, which historians debunked about 50 years ago, to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The judge’s  statements are worth quoting in full so you can fully grasp the epic stupidity contained therein:

At the time that he [Lincoln] was the president of the United States, slavery was dying a natural death all over the Western world. It had just been expired by legislation in England. It had just died a natural death; that is, it was no longer economically feasible in Puerto Rico and Brazil, and the southern plantation owners were on the cusp of it dying here. Instead offer allowing it to die, or helping it to die, or even purchasing the slaves and then freeing them — which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost — Lincoln set about on the most murderous war in American history.

Napolitano then dropped this mind-blowing piece of nonsense:

Look, it’s not even altogether clear if slavery was the reason for secession. Largely, the impetus for secession was tariffs!

Now, I could go on and on about the many falsehoods Napolitano packed into a few short statements, but much of what the judge said has already been brilliantly ripped apart in a segment by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which you absolutely must watch (Canadian readers can view the Daily Show segment here). Instead, allow me to focus on his contentions that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, his idiotic claim that slavery would have died a “natural death,” and how a belief in American Exceptionalism demonstrates why folks like Napolitano can’t handle the truth human bondage.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

First off, let me put it as plainly as I can: the Civil War was about slavery. One-hundred percent about slavery. You got that? Every other issue that arose during the build-up to the war was also directly related to slavery. Oh, but what about “State’s Rights?” you may ask. Let me be clear on this as well: humans don’t go to war over abstract concepts alone. These concepts need to be reflected in real-world, day-to-day issues. Thus, when southerners complained about “State’s Rights,” they referred to state’s rights to own slaves; rights they believed would be taken away by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party.

I’ve discussed the southern states’ Declarations of the Causes of Secession in previous posts (which you can read here and here), but allow me to once again provide some choice quotes from these documents that were written by the seceding states explicitly for the purpose of explaining to the world that they seceded over the right to own slaves and perpetuate slavery.

Mississippi stated that, “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” Texas boldly claimed in a very Texas-y way that, “the controlling majority of the Federal Government” was bent on “acquiring sufficient power…to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.” Georgia likewise noted that the South held “numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” And good ole’ South Carolina whined that the northern states “have united in the election of a man [Lincoln] to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Unlike modern-day Libertarians, Confederates in 1860-61 weren’t shy about admitting that the South seceded to protect the “peculiar institution.” Seriously. Go read the whole documents at the links. Slavery was a big thing.

So why, if the historical evidence is overwhelming that the Civil War was fought over slavery (just check any scholarly book on the Civil War written in the last half-century) do people like Napolitano claim that slavery wasn’t the cause of the conflict and that it would have died out were it not for the meddling of Dishonest Abe? The answer lies in a discomforting fact: slavery was a deeply American institution that flourished because of – not despite – American values.

This is where American Exceptionalism makes some people want to ignore the uglier aspects of U.S. history. If you believe, as Peter Beinart of the National Journal writes, “that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it’s an exception to the global rule,” then something as un-freedom-like as slavery can be pretty hard to accept. Of course, it seems that slavery is antithetical to American values. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say that “All men are created equal”? Isn’t slavery the very antithesis of freedom, which is the most cherished of all American ideals? The answer to both of those questions is “yes,” but with some very essential qualifications.

The Declaration of Independence is a statement of values and intent, not a binding legal document. The Constitution, by contrast, is the binding legal document in America, and for 78 years it stated that holding slaves was perfectly legal. The Constitution made slavery legal because the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued that outlawing slavery was an attack on their property rights. You see, whenever you discuss freedom, you have to consider what “freedom” actually means. “Freedom” as a concept always has qualifications (freedom for whom? freedom to do what?), and when the U.S. embraced an ideal of freedom that was intrinsically bound up with the Lockean emphasis on private property rights, that property included human beings.

These individuals, known as "Tariffs," were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

These individuals, known as “Tariffs,” were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

For better and for worse, Americans have always linked capitalism to their interpretation of freedom. Simply put, capitalism is an American value. The right to free exchange of goods and services in an open, competitive marketplace has always been essential to American identity. Capitalism, however, is also distinctly amoral: its has no intrinsic values of its own, and its consistent need to commodify everything leads it to reduce human interactions to an endless series of monetary exchanges. Capitalism, like any other human-devised system, can be used for good or bad. Yet its tendency towards unequal wealth concentration, and the way it bequeaths political power to those it enriches, is precisely why slavery flourished in America, and why those who benefitted the most from slavery fought so hard to preserve it.

If you reason, as the did the slaveholders (and most Americans, for that matter), that freedom cannot exist without property rights, then you’ll understand why the Confederate States of America existed and why some people still have a hard time accepting that hundreds-of-thousands of Americans fought for the freedom to deny freedom to others. Among the many dangers of equating capitalism with freedom is that doing so risks valuing the right to market exchange over the right to human flourishing. Slavery was first-and-foremost an economic institution that existed because Americans believed that the right to buy, sell, and own property extended to the buying, selling, and owning of other humans. For pro-slavery Americans, this right trumped African-Americans’ right to flourish as free individuals. So valued was the trade in black bodies that modern Americans often find it difficult to believe that a value they still hold dear – the right to market exchange – once underpinned slavery.

Furthermore, slavery was about more than just economics. Never underestimate the very real – and very dark – human desire for domination over others. Slavery was an economic system, but it was also a social institution that gave one group of people total legal power over another group. As historian Walter Johnson observes in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, people’s’ identities “as masters and mistresses, planters and paternalists, hosts and hostesses, slave breakers and sexual predators were all lived through the bodies of people who could be bought and sold in the market.”*

Thus, while you can put a dollar value on slavery – the total value of southern slaves in 1860 was 3 billion, nearly equal to the combined value of all northern industry and railroads – you can’t put a dollar value on the appeal of domination.* Yes, slaves were property, but they also provided unlimited concubines for planter men and served as literal punching bags onto which plantation mistresses unleashed their frustrations over the existence of “mulatto” children that looked suspiciously like their husbands. Finally, even for common, non-slaveholding southern whites, the existence of black slaves provided comfort in the knowledge that even the poorest cracker was socially and economically superior to the lowly negro.

While slavery as an economic institution gave southern whites political power, it also gave them the power to absolutely dominate millions of people in the most intimate of personal spaces. Those given such power over others are seldom in a rush to give it up. This is why, Andrew Napolitano’s claims notwithstanding, slavery wouldn’t have died “a natural death:” too much of southern – and American – identity was bound up in human bondage. Such facts don’t fit the black and white moral framework of American Exceptionalism. Nonetheless, the things that many people believe make America exceptional: its commitment to market capitalism, its Constitution, and its love of freedom were all used to justify and uphold black slavery. Any reasonably intelligent and compassionate mind can recognize this fact. Andrew Napolitano and his ilk cannot.  

* See Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.

* See James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 28-29.


From Puritans to Ken Ham: The long history of creationism in America

Ken Ham. Nothing this guy says is correct.

Ken Ham. Nothing this guy says is correct.

Have you ever wondered why America seems so receptive to Creationism? Well, today’s post is an article for Salon that explains it all. Follow this link!

Nicholas Kristof and Anti-Intellectualism in U.S. History

Democracy: it's America's gift to the world.

American intellectualism at its finest.

Pity the suffering American intellectual. I’m serious about that statement. Despite hosting the finest universities and producing some of the most ground-breaking scientific research in the world, the United States has always been a haven for an especially virulent strain of anti-intellectualism that never seems to go away. These days in particular, it seems as if we’re living in the “Age of Uncuriousness,” if not the “Age of Willful Ignorance.” Okay, neither of those phrases are catchy, but damn if they don’t describe the intellectual rabbit hole down which the U.S. has descended in the last 50 years. Heck, we even have a Tea Party that’s twice as nutty as the one Alice experienced.

America might very well be getting dumber. Recently it was host to a live-streamed debate between Bill Nye the Science guy and Ken Ham, a transplanted Aussie Christian fundamentalist, over whether evolution is real and whether the earth is 6,000 years, not a few billion years old as scientists maintain. Of course, that’s just one recent example of American numbskullery. There’s plenty of others. A Republican lawmaker in Utah, for example, thinks none too highly about human-caused climate change despite the scientific consensus, and wants to spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere “for the needs of the plants.” Also, Americans came close to electing this person as Vice-President.

But don’t despair, my deep-thinking compatriots, for Nichols Kristof, opinionator for the New York Times, yearns for an America in which intellectuals once again reach out to influence the public sphere. In a recent piece lacking in some major self-awareness, Kristof laments the apparent retrenchment of academic intellectuals into their university fortresses writing important stuff in language that nobody outside of their arcane areas of expertise can understand. Yes, Kristof chides people like me – who hold PhDs but supposedly spend all of our time producing impenetrable jargon – for not making a more concerted effort to bless the general public with access to our rich well of refreshing wisdom.

First off, let me just say to Kristof in the most colloquial, non-jargony way possible, “up yours, buddy.” After all, what in Sam Hill else am I doing writing this blog if not trying to touch the proletarian rabble, King Midas style, with my priceless intellectual gold?! (Note to readers: I don’t actually think of you as proletarian rabble, at least not all of you…) You can click the above link to read Kristof’s piece for yourself, but among the most offending lines was as follows:

[I]t’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves…There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

Notice what Kristof doesn’t say in the above paragraph. He complains about the lack of public engagement by smart academics, but of course makes no mention of the fact that the neoliberal domination of the American economy has all but squelched any opportunities for paid public commentary by academic intellectuals. The dominant corporate culture in the U.S. is just fine with that, of course. After all, intellectuals ask questions and frequently challenge the status quo, which benefits financially from promoting anti-intellectualism. Keep people from thinking too hard and they won’t show up at your mansion’s gate wielding torches and pitchforks when you, I don’t know, crash the economy. This is why the Times employs opinionators like Kristoff and scribbling mush melon Tom Friedman instead of opening up its pages (and payroll) to those who might more vigorously challenge business-backed anti-intellectualism.

Nicholas Kristof occasionally writes some good material, but seriusly dude, knock off the academic-bashing.

Nicholas Kristof does write some good material, but seriously dude, let some academics write for the Times!

Over at his blog, political science professor, and all-around awesome guy Corey Robin not only lists the multitude of academics writing for public audiences, but he also explains Kristof’s obtuse lack of self-awareness:

The problem here is not that scholars don’t aspire to write for “The New Yorker.” It’s that it’s a rather selective place… If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything… He doesn’t see the many [academic] men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand…The problem here…[is] the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism [my emphasis].

As Robin observes, Kristof and his ilk complain about academics’ lack of public engagement while tacitly supporting the neoliberal power structure that disdains any intellectual challenge to the Walmartization of American culture. By the way, let me really step off of my academic pedestal for a moment and cite Wikipedia’s fairly succinct definition of neoliberalism as “a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society.” That’s right, neoliberalism is, in fact, conservatism, and for decades it’s been shredding safety nets, decimating wages, crashing economies, and generally advocating profit maximization as both the means and end of American life.

One of neoliberalism’s (and conservatism’s) most tried-and-true strategies has been to stoke America’s long predisposition towards anti-intellectualism as a way of inhibiting legitimate challenges to its power. The historian Richard Hofstadter examined this American suspicion towards excessive smarts is his 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”* He noted that business has always had an antagonistic history towards intellectualism, given that “intellect is always potentially threatening to any institutional apparatus or to fixed centers of power.”* But Hofstadter also observed that the relationship between business and intellectualism isn’t inherently antagonistic – heck, plenty of business people are intellectuals! But he traced corporate power’s nonetheless very real resentment of “eggheads” back to America’s industrial era, which cemented business leaders as the supreme power players in U.S. culture.

I'm not sure what exactly this guy is trying to say, but go 'Murica!

I’m not sure what exactly this guy is trying to say, but go ‘Murica!

Hofstadter qualified that anti-intellectualism has by no means been limited to business, but the influence of corporate anti-intellectualism has been outsized because “business is the most powerful and pervasive interest in American life.”* He argued that a historical proclivity towards practicality has manifested in both American civic and religious life and contributed to business’s general antipathy towards intellectualism. The combined notions of self-help and up-by-the-boot-straps advancement have historically been the ideological drivers of the American economic spirit. Beset with “ample land and resources,” Americans long ago “set a premium upon technical knowledge and inventiveness” that could exploit the nation’s resources.* The rise of America as an industrial power in the mid-19th century also gave rise to a notion, rooted in the old reverence for “practicality,” that bred “disdain for all contemplation which could not be transformed into practical intelligence.”*  

Therein lies the historical origins of the recent strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture. To the country’s reigning corporate and financial elites, contemplation that examines society from deep and critical angles seems impractical in a business sense because it doesn’t invoke an immediate profit incentive. Moreover, this contemplation might also threaten the neoliberal culture that views “business” as interchangeable with “America.” If you’ve ever lamented over the excesses of American materialism, it’s because in the U.S., materialism has long symbolized practicality and profit, while contemplation has often been viewed as flowery at best, outright hostile to material gain at worst.  

Anti-intellectualism, then, continually foils academics looking to apply their abilities as paid members of the public media sphere. Corporate interests, for example, have provided the hiding-in-plain-sight Astroturf support for the anti-intellectual Tea Party since day-one. The same pro-corporate, anti-intellectual culture also discourages would-be college intellectuals from studying the humanities and seeking “majors that employers do not value.” And the same culture has resulted in the Walmartization of the American university, in which the majority of academic intellectuals are stuck in adjunct positions that pay a pittance for their labor.

It’s no wonder, then, as Corey Robin notes, that academics’ thoughts don’t populate the opinion pages: they’re too busy trying to pay the bills in a culture that, Nicholas Kristof’s claims notwithstanding, doesn’t value their work. The reigning American cultural notion holds that contemplation is often bad for business, and until that notion is dispelled, people like Kristof have no right to complain about “self-marginalized” intellectuals.

* See Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1963), 7, 233, 237-39.

The GOP and the Historical Obsession with Work in America

Rep. John Bohener (R-Isengard), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Mordor), and Se. Mitch McConnel (R-TN) promote squeezing the most out of workers at the lowest possible cost to employers.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Isengard), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Mordor), and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-TN) advocate squeezing the most out of workers at the lowest possible cost to employers.

Americans love to work. Just ask any politician or corporate stooge, particularly of the conservative variety, and they’ll reaffirm this eternal truth. In American culture, work is everything: it’s how we spend the majority of the time we are so graciously granted on earth; it’s how we afford the necessities of life, like feeding and clothing ourselves, procuring shelter from the elements, and affording the cable through which we experience high art like “Duck Dynasty.”

Americans simply must love to work. Heck, they work longer hours than anyone else in the industrialized world, even though they’re getting less and less out of work as wages continue to stagnate, unions have been decimated, and vacation times wither away along with retirement-savings. Americans also love to toil even as study after study continues to highlight the health dangers associated with excessive work. If that’s not evidence that Americans are the ultimate large-scale ant farm, than what is?! After all, the French don’t work nearly as much as Americans and often report being happier, and Americans love to mock the French. Continue reading

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Historical Triumph and Tragedy of American Movies

Philip Seymour-Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Truman Copote, the brilliant but tortured American writer whose life provided perfect fodder for American cinema.

Philip Seymour-Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Truman Capote, the brilliant but tortured American writer whose life provided perfect fodder for American cinema.

On February 2, 2014 – Groundhog Day – America lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom many critics considered to be “the best actor of his generation.” The forty-six-year-old actor was found dead in his New York City apartment building of an apparent drug overdose; a reasonable conclusion given the needle that still pierced his arm. Thus, in a turn of events that has long since become tragically clichéd, Seymour Hoffman joined many a brilliant artist from all mediums and from all parts of the world whose genius was too large a burden, driving them to self-medicate and self-destruct.

Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death spurred an outpouring of grief and well-wishes both from the film industry and from the general public as well; a testament to the profound influence his screen-presence rendered on American culture. Indeed, the tragedy of Seymour Hoffman’s death speaks volumes about the unique role the film industry has played in shaping American culture since the early 20th century, for better and for worse.

Hollywood films promote the triumph of America by highlighting its dominance as the world’s pre-eminent cultural empire whose influence touches all corners of the earth. But some of the best American movies also highlight the inherent tragedy of a culture that’s constructed on the sandy foundations of materialism, narcissism, and the blind pursuit of money, fame, and power. Many of the films in which Seymour Hoffman demonstrated his best work dealt with the paradoxical tragedy of American abundance; a situation in which all of the attendant trappings of wealth and fame can lead not to serene contentment, but to self-destruction. Seymour Hoffman’s life and career epitomized this tragedy.

Film critics always described Hoffman as lacking in the traditional qualities of a “leading man.” Rather than being a dark-haired, rock-jawed, deep-voiced, possibly gay Adonis, Hoffman was, in fact, a schlubby, sometimes paunchy, sandy-haired, jovial, soft-spoken Everyman. He was the consummate actor not because of how he looked, but because of how he disappeared into roles, often portraying individuals who existed in society’s corner margins, either by choice or necessity, and forcing viewers to acknowledge the existence of these people.

Seymour Hoffman’s best roles were often not leading roles; rather, he specialized in turning supporting characters into people from which movie-goers couldn’t avert their gaze. Consider his role as the doting lackey to the pompous titular millionaire in The Big Lebowski (1998), or his similarly devoted nurse to Jason Robards’ dying t.v. producer in Magnolia (1999), or his turn as legendary music critic Lester Bangs – a man who critiqued rock stars like Led Zeppelin that were otherwise worshipped by audiences – in Almost Famous (2000). In these roles, Seymour Hoffman played the people who serve or observe those in power; people who Americans usually ignore despite their omnipresence. We ignore them because they don’t fit the American ideal: they aren’t wealthy and powerful, they only wait on those individuals who are. Americans are bathed in a culture that tells them that they can – nay – should be the millionaire, not the millionaire’s servant. Seymour Hoffman made people at least pay attention to the servants.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as the devoted lacky of arrogant millionaire Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) in The Big Lebowski.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as the devoted lackey of arrogant millionaire Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) in The Big Lebowski.

Even in his leading roles, when he portrayed powerful individuals, Seymour Hoffman chose to play people whose powerful positions masked deep insecurities and weaknesses that ultimately led to their downfall. Take his Oscar-nominated role as a suspected pedophile priest in Doubt (2008). His performance was bracing because he embodied a figure, the clergyman, traditionally respected and revered as a symbol of earthly and celestial authority who was nonetheless torn down by his own weaknesses and the tenacious efforts of a nun, a member of society’s lower orders that usually lives to serve, not to challenge authority figures.

Similar dynamics appear in his Oscar-winning portrayal of American writer Truman Capote in Capote (2005). The writer of literary classics like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1965-66), Capote’s genius brought him widespread fame, but his personal life was wracked by substance abuse and the burden of being openly gay in an era when such as admission had, to put it mildly, personal and professional risks. Seymour Hoffman’s depiction of the brilliant but haunted Capote perfectly captured the tragedy of American celebrity culture, which Hollywood both revels and critiques. Wealth, fame, and power all promise fulfillment, but too often act as drapery concealing personal demons that no amount of awards and million-dollar salaries can tame.

Seymour Hoffman effortlessly embodied those is power who experienced spectacular falls. This was, in part, due to his immense talent, but also because he worked in an industry that simultaneously encourages and destroys the great artists it employs. Historically, Hollywood has acted as both promoter and critic of the excesses of wealth and fame, and in this respect, it perfectly mirrors the larger American society it attempts to portray on-screen. This society somehow knows that pursuing wealth and fame doesn’t guarantee happiness and fulfillment, even if it can’t quite figure out viable alternatives to these pursuits.

The act of cinematic entertainment promoting the ideal of material success goes back to the earliest days of American movies. Historian Lauren Rabinovitz observes in her book Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity, that American movies emerged at the turn-of-the-century as a form of “artificial distraction” that ultimately served to sooth the anxieties of a racially and class-divided American society. “Movies represented new kinds of energized relaxation that also functioned to calm fears about new technologies and living conditions of an industrialized society,” Rabinovitz writes. Movies helped define a sense of “national belonging” via the participation in a new consumer society by combining “industrialized experiences with the sense of a new national corporate culture steeped in manufacturing.”*

By appealing broadly to an otherwise motley American populace divided along lines of gender, race, class, and ethnicity, movies helped define and portray the all-inclusive essence of the American dream; a dream that embraced industrialization, technology (especially mass-media) and hyper-capitalism via the assembly line as tools towards the greater end of happiness for all. As film scholar Steven J. Ross notes in Movies and American Society, “going to the movies and watching films quickly emerged as a common cultural denominator that provided a wide variety of Americans with similar social rituals.”* If American consumer culture could create something as wonderous and uniting as cinematic entertainment, then surely it held the keys to contentment itself.

As this garish 1926 premier of the film Don Juan at Manhatten's Picadilly Theater shows, movies have always epitomized the American embrace of mass consumer culture.

As this garish 1926 premier of the film Don Juan at Manhattan’s Piccadilly Theater shows, movies have always epitomized the American embrace of mass consumer culture.

The role of movies as advertisements for the materialistic American dream is a role they retain with even greater importance in the contemporary age of 24-7 mass-media. America is a nation utterly transfixed by celebrity culture because for a century the idea of the movies has epitomized the unrivaled abundance of American society. The wealth, fame, and adoration experienced by actors has historically validated America’s place as the indisputable world power of the 20th and 21st centuries. What other country could spawn such enviable demigods as American movie stars? The answer is none, you Commie. The very existence of movie stars, therefore, has provided many with sufficient proof of American greatness.    

Yet, as much as films have acted as promoters of America’s wealth and consumer-obsessed culture, they’ve also played an important role in critiquing this very same culture. Mass art has always challenged a society’s dominant notions, and movies are no exception. As Ross notes, “in shaping our vision of the promises and problems of American life, movies matter the most about the things which we know the least.”* And a good many Americans know little about true contentment.

Movies are part of the broader entertainment industry that reaps billions of dollars from consumers seeking distractions from real life. But there still remains the nagging suspicion in American society that earning more money, buying more stuff, and getting more famous doesn’t really lead to fulfillment. It’s no coincidence, for example, that so many movie stars are attracted to nutbag cults like Scientology that cater to those who have it all but still want something more. Average Americans have historically found themselves in a similar bind as they have tried to reconcile their embrace of a mass-media consumer society with that society’s inherently hollow core.

The triumph of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life and career lay in his ability to lucidly depict the real weakness and faults of characters both marginal and powerful in society. The tragedy of his life was that he became one of the wealthy and powerful who ultimately self-destructed. Through his performances and then his untimely death, he explored the utter mystery of how to achieve contentment in a consumer culture in which “artificial distractions” like the movies may only present the façade of worldly fulfillment. In this respect, his death highlights the paradox of American society. If a man who reached the pinnacle of the most admired and watched industry in the U.S. nonetheless felt compelled to seek solace in the point of a toxic needle, what hope is there for the millions who look to celbritydom as the golden ticket to happiness?

I don’t claim to have any clear answers to these eternally difficult questions, but they’re nonetheless questions still worth asking if we ever hope to stop losing people like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps one day Hollywood will make a movie about his life. No doubt it would be equal parts brilliant and tragic: just like the man himself and the industry and American culture in which he so ably plied his trade.

* See Lauren Rabinovitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 2, 7.

* See Steven J. Ross, ed., Movies and American Society (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 2.