If you’re looking for a good reason to vote Clinton this November, let me point you in the direction of this video. Movie director Joss Whedon has set up an organization dramatically labeled Save the Day, and is making some short videos staring an assortment of celebrities, mostly from his Avengers movies, with a few “ordinary” people thrown in the mix for good measure and implied humility. While the video starts by discussing the importance of voting, it doesn’t take long to realize that the only votes that Whedon values are those against Trump. That’s how the day will be saved, if Trump loses.
For the sake of this discussion, I am not concerned with the politics of who is more likely to save (or ruin) the day. What interests me is the mode of the communication.
Is the video convincing? Well, consider the tactic. The assumption is that because these people are famous, and because they’ve entertained you throughout your life, you’re supposed to care about their opinion. To be fair, they don’t just lean on their celebrity. A few reasons are offered to support their cause, one of which is that Trump is a “racist abusive coward who could permanently damage the fabric of our society.” This claim is apparently both compelling and requires no evidence, because it’s espoused by a celebrity. Furthermore, Scarlett Johansson makes the impeccably logical point that it might not be a good idea to give nuclear weapons to a man who “fires things.” Oh, and in case none of that is convincing enough, there’s one more incentive they’ve thrown in. If Hilary is elected, one of the actors, Mark Ruffalo, will appear fully naked in a movie.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It is clear in the video that this particular incentive is a joke—Ruffalo acts as if he knows nothing about it, but the other actors continually reassert the promise. The fact that they make a joke, and the fact that the joke is about that fact that, as Robert Downey Jr. says, “Mark Ruffalo is gonna have his d*** out” demonstrates a disturbing point.
This video offers real insight into the state of rhetoric in the modern West. Apparently, the way to convince the masses is to entertain them. Joss Whedon seems to be under the (quite probably accurate) impression that entertainment is the soma of the West, and therefore the way to manipulate its citizens is through the old adage, “make ’em laugh.” Such thinking is not new. You might remember a similarly star-studded video from 2008 urging Americans to vote for Obama. But this type of thinking goes much further back than that, in fact it has been a hallmark of many great and troubled civilizations throughout history. Consider the Romans.
Saint Augustine, in The City of God, explained the moral mood of Rome as follows:
Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it once possessed (2, 20).
The true gods of Rome were perpetual excitement and cruel and voluptuous pleasures. Everyone that spoke against such pleasures was to be branded a public enemy. It seems unnecessary to point out that such a statement could be made with startling accuracy about the current state of Western civilization.
Saint Augustine wrote The City of God as a response to Roman claims about Christianity after the sacking of Rome. There were very public grumblings amongst the people, suggesting that the reason that Rome had been destroyed was because they had abandoned their old gods and started following Christ. As he writes, “…the multitudes who now reproach the Christian religion, and impute to Christ the ills that have befallen their city; but the preservation of their own life … they attribute not to Christ, but to their own good luck” (1, 1).
Again, this statement reads as a prophecy of our times. There is one word in it, however, that should be changed. The modern West does not attribute its fortune to luck, but to something far more pernicious—to their own human genius. Whereas the Romans thought themselves merely lucky to avoid the sword, modern man sees himself as his own great liberator. The fact of history that is ignored is of course that it was the genius of some specifically Christian people, that contributed so much to humanity’s advancement. In an Orwellian rewriting of history, the connection between Christianity and human flourishing through science and discovery is suppressed into non-existence. The view is now that through sheer willpower and intellect, man can save himself.
But save himself to what? To what end is humanity to be saved? Recall that the campaign of Whedon’s video is called Save the Day. Assuming for now that the day needs to be saved, what shall it be saved to? The answer, again, is offered by Augustine.
Depraved by good fortune, and not chastened by adversity, what you desire in the restoration of a peaceful and secure state, is not the tranquility of the commonwealth, but the impunity of your own vicious luxury … so abandoned are you, that not even when crushed by the enemy is your luxury repressed. You have missed the profit of your calamity; you have been made most wretched, and have remained most profligate. (1, 33)
Augustine recognized that adversity did not create a space for society to reflect upon its own nature and correct from within, rather, the reason to escape adversity and restore order was to further pursue hedonism. Even in their moments of calamity, the Romans played the blame game. The enemy was bad because they prevented pleasure, and all those that spoke out against pursuit of pleasure were the enemy.
This is where one of Augustine’s most repeated points in the early books of The City of God finds its most profound connection to our society. He writes that “Rome, which was founded and increased by the labors of these ancient heroes, was more shamefully ruined by their descendants while its walls were still standing, than it is now by the razing of them” (2,2). Rome fell internally before it fell externally. It was ravaged by an interior cancer which left it hollow and brittle—ready for the onslaught of the Gauls.
This internal rot was of the moral kind. Even “the wisest pagans” agree with Christianity that there are moral evils which are evils of life and conduct, and that it is by these kinds of evils that “states are ruined while their cities stand uninjured.” In Rome, the pagan gods “made not the smallest provision for preserving their worshipers from these evils, but, on the contrary, took special pains to increase them” (2, 16).
This is where we find ourselves. Inhabitants of a civilization with walls, but one that is being internally eaten away by moral corruption—the kind of corruption which flourishes when humanity creates an altar for personal pleasure and entertainment and sacrifices all that it is to that god. The kind of corruption that convinces itself that famous people speak truth because of the empty distraction they offer us. The kind of corruption that even considers convincing people to vote with the lure of a naked celebrity. The kind of corruption that wants to save today so it can ruin tomorrow. The kind of corruption that maintains this day should be saved “for the sake of our children,” yet does so by campaigning for a person who promotes the systematic eradication of children. The kind of corruption which is so in love with its own desires, and so hardened against those that suggest personal pleasure is not the meaning of life, that logic cannot penetrate their hardened exterior.
The persuasive powers of logic, it seems, have reached an all-time low. There is a lack of basic commonsense logic in public debate that manifests itself in an infuriating flexibility of ill-defined terms, tactical ad hominem maneuvers that are more convincing than truth, and entire discussions building and breaking down straw men. As a teacher, I have often blamed the state of education for this complete inability to effectively disagree amicably and logically—a requirement of effective democracy.
But, once again, Augustine reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. As a defense of his writing, he says that “if the feeble mind of man did not presume to resist the clear evidence of truth, but yielded its infirmity to wholesome doctrines” then the truth would easily “refute the errors of empty conjecture.” But apparently, even back in the fifth century, this “mental infirmity” was more “prevalent and hurtful than ever, to such an extent that even after a truth has been as fully demonstrated as man can prove it to man, they hold for the very truth their own unreasonable fancies, either on account of their great blindness, which prevents them from seeing what is plainly set before them, or on account of their opinionative obstinacy, which prevents them from acknowledging the force of what they do see” (2,1).
Humanity, it seems, has not progressed very much at all. We may be able to travel faster and further, communicate over long distances and visit faraway planets, but our inner condition is unchanged, and whatever good technology has done, our wicked hearts have also invented ways to use it to further our own depravity. Nothing has changed since the time of Augustine. Perhaps this may give us despair, but seen in another light, it can fill us with hope. Rome was depraved and Rome fell—but the Church did not. The City of Man will fall and be rebuilt, but the City of God is unshakeable. As we look around at these uncertain times, and ask how it came to choosing between these two candidates, it might appear, that the world is falling to pieces. It is not. The West might be, just as Rome did, but the world is God’s and God will not forsake it.
If, like me, you are tempted to accept all as futile, let us remember the words of Augustine in his preface.
“But God is my helper. For I am aware what ability is requisite to persuade the proud how great is the virtue of humility.”
The City of God will prevail, and God is our helper.