Performers on the New Moral High Ground

     Tendre Gaussain, quoi! si jeune et si belle,
     Et votre cœur cède au premier aveu!
     Que voulez-vous, cela leur fait, dit-elle,
     Tant de plaisir et me coûte si peu.

     “What is this, sweet Gaussain? So young and so pretty,
     Yielding your heart at the first supplication!
     Well, what can I do, I know it’s a pity,
     But it costs me so little to relieve his frustration.” 
          an epigram on the French actress Jeanne-Catherine Gaussain (1711-67)

     Professional entertainers, especially actors, actresses, and dancers, have had a rather squalid reputation throughout much of history. Starting for the sake of convenience with ancient India, there is a Pali text called the Tālapuṭa Sutta (SN 8.42.2), in which the Buddha informs Tālapuṭa, the leader of a troupe of entertainers, that performers in entertainment shows go to hell, or are reborn as animals, for intensifying the passion, aversion, and/or delusion of their viewers, and for considering themselves to be doing something meritorious rather than otherwise by it (thereby cherishing a wrong view). To this day, Buddhist laypeople keeping eight precepts instead of the usual five do not watch entertainment shows involving acting, singing, or dancing.

     In classical Greece, it was deemed appropriate for women to dance and sing at certain traditional festivals, but they were forbidden to act on stage, with all feminine roles played by men, and were discouraged even from attending the theater. Some Greek moralists, including Plato apparently, considered acting to be morally degrading, as male actors would imitate “inferiors” such as women and slaves.

     In ancient Rome, actors, actresses, and professional dancers had their legal and social status degraded to the level of infamia or “infamy,” which deprived them of the rights of full citizens. Their testimony was not permissible in a court of law, and they could be punished by flogging, which was otherwise permitted only for slaves. They shared the status of infamia with other “disreputable” professions such as prostitutes, procurers, and gladiators.

     After Rome converted to Christianity the reputation of professional entertainers sank lower, with early Christian thinkers like Augustine declaring drama to be a kind of satanic plot to corrupt souls, and acting on stage to be a sinful mockery of God’s creation.

     The sixth-century Byzantine Emperor Justinian was constrained to appeal to the Senate of Constantinople to repeal an old Roman law forbidding a man of senatorial rank from marrying an actress, so Justinian could marry Theodora, a former actress. In fact Theodora was no run-of-the-mill actress: she was a very notorious burlesque show performer, practically a striptease dancer, who was more lewd offstage than on, and famous for saying that she wished she had a fourth altar to the goddess of love at which men could pour out their libations (so to speak). But despite Justinian’s passion for a female entertainer, he acted the good Christian and finally had all theaters in the Empire, which had been tolerated since pagan days, officially shut down.

     During the middle ages in Europe actors in secular drama were denied many common rights, such as marriage and proper burial, and were sometimes excommunicated into the bargain. In some places, such as England, actresses were completely forbidden on stage. This prohibition of actresses continued throughout Shakespeare’s time, with all female roles played by prepubescent boys—which helps to explain why Shakespeare has relatively few female characters in his plays. Things actually got worse after Shakespeare, as under the Puritan administration of Cromwell, all theaters were closed, being deemed a kind of den of vice, “the porch of Hell.” 

     In early Puritan Massachusetts also, theaters and drama were strictly forbidden. The theaters weren’t closed; they were not allowed to be built in the first place. Then again, in places like puritanical Boston even the “frivolous” and “sinful” celebration of Christmas was illegal well into the 19th century.

     Setting aside the old-fashioned idea that frivolity itself is degrading or immoral, it may be of interest to consider why actresses and dancing girls in particular—female entertainers—were often under stricter prohibitions than their male counterparts. The thing is, that throughout most of history female entertainers have been considered little different from prostitutes; in fact throughout history a great many of them were essentially prostitutes. It does make a certain sense: young women who have gravitated toward performing on stage tend to be attractive, exhibitionistic, and rather uninhibited. They flaunt their gifts in front of crowds of men, many of whom naturally admire them, desire them, and pursue them. Some of these men are wealthy, powerful, dashing, or otherwise worth a woman’s while. So it would take a woman with remarkable strength of resolve and a firm sense of—what? moral uprightness?—to resist such a chronic bombardment of attentions, affections, and gifts from high-status, attractive men. And once a person gives in once, it is very, very much easier to give in the next time; until many female performers really have been habitually quite promiscuous and without shame, up to the present day. People have known this much of human nature since ancient times. But just as prostitution could never be totally abolished even in the most rigidly puritanical societies (at least not in cities), so also flute girls and exotic dancers, at least, could never be completely stopped from being available for stag parties and other private entertainments. I suppose there have even been some clandestine “black market” acting troupes during times of prohibition.

     Human nature remaining fairly stable over time, the situation with “show business people” is really not so different now. Consider as a case in point Madonna, who was approximately as notorious as Theodora in her day, and who, before the latest presidential election, publicly offered to give any man who voted for Clinton a free blowjob. We are living in a morally permissive, “decadent” age, so the lifestyles of actresses scandalously moving from man to man, and actors scandalously moving from woman to woman, raise few eyebrows. Neither does the occasional celebrity jailing or case of narcotic addiction. It appears that only during such times of “decadence” as we are rolling in now are entertainers (rather than, say, saints) raised to the level of social heroes and cultural icons.

     That actors and musicians are superstars and role models now is not so surprising or ironic; it simply follows the standard patterns of civilization and human nature. But what is really ironic to me is that these same entertainers have now set themselves up as champions of righteousness and claim the moral high ground over, say, traditional religious people in the West. (The Empress Theodora did so too, but only after reforming and becoming a devout Christian.) Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general have demonized President Trump, for example, as a kind of personification of all that is unethical and unjust in the world, and are on a kind of progressive crusade to destroy him, to abolish nationalism, freedom of thought and expression, and maybe Christianity besides, and to replace it all with politically correct “social justice” as a kind of new world religion. It should hardly be necessary for me to provide examples. Celebrities using microphone time at awards ceremonies to bash Mr. Trump, creating public service announcements practically begging anyone and everyone to renounce him and everything he stands for, and of course all the infotainment stars on the leftist propaganda outlets practically crying for his blood and taking care not to be politically incorrect while they do it. (Not to mention more generally all the feminist propaganda movies in which the toughest, bravest, strongest, butt-kickingest hero in the film happens to be a glamorous young woman, white males portrayed as bungling oafs on TV commercials, actors, directors, and singers praising the extremist acts of the “resistance,” etc., etc.) They don’t seem to have much use for religion or spirituality. They don’t seem to need it. The new left is their new religion.

     I see two main reasons for this strange phenomenon of a class of people who have been despised for millennia for their perceived depravity now claiming the moral high ground. First, it was fashionable for entertainers (and academics too of course) a hundred years ago and less to favor Marxism, with the communist/socialist ideology masquerading as a kind of enlightened moral code, the next stage beyond mere religious superstition. Amazingly, many of them continued to endorse Marxism and the Soviet Union well into the 1950’s, until the genocidal atrocities of Stalin had become too obvious even for starry-eyed ideologues to ignore, and until the Red Scare and McCarthyism pretty much shut it down, or at least diverted it into a more subdued closet admiration for Chairman Mao. Marx, Mao, and neo-Marxists like Herbert Marcuse continued to be emulated by the more intellectual hippies in the late 1960’s, some of them eventually becoming academic demagogues of today. For a few decades professional entertainers contented themselves with being “bleeding heart liberals,” so to speak, who continued to live a relatively wanton lifestyle, but occasionally made contributions, ostentatious or otherwise, to humanitarian causes. But now a bastard child of Marxism has arisen and become fashionable, and has provided the glittering people of the entertainment industry yet another opportunity to fling themselves towards the anti-religious extreme left, devoting themselves to another political movement masquerading as a kind of enlightened code of ethics (without, of course, curtailing their hedonistic lifestyles). They are evangelists of the stylish new gospel: Equality for all. Humble the oppressor. Save the earth.

     Secondly, “morality,” and thus the moral high ground, has been radically redefined (like many other terms and concepts have been conveniently redefined by the new left—maybe I’ll compile a list someday) to have nothing to do with lust and sensuality, and little to do with aggression and delusion, with aggression being forbidden only against the in-group and delusion consisting primarily of ideological heresy. (The one sexual “sin” still holding is rape, which, however, may now include even kissing a woman without her expressed permission, thereby violating her “autonomy.”) Forgiveness of those who wrong you is obviously out the window also, unless they happen to be members of victim groups, in which case their wronging you is your own fault anyway. The new morality seems to have degenerated into a political ethos, plus some feminized emotionality, with one single commandment: “Thou shalt not offend a member of a victim group.” Or, maybe a little more precisely, “Thou shalt not do or say anything that might offend the most touchy, hypersensitive leftist or brown person on the planet.” To offend white heterosexual males is fine, to offend Christians is fine, to offend conservatives and libertarians is fine, to offend Israelis is a positive virtue, even to offend dark-skinned conservatives is fine, hysterical ideological witch hunts are fine, rioting is fine, orgies are quite OK (though not quite mandatory), to call for the murder of the President is fine, to deprive people of their right to free expression is fine, hating those who refuse to follow the ideology completely, and sometimes even attacking them while shrieking with rage, is fine…and so on. With a moral high ground like this, it doesn’t take any climbing gear to get there. No oxygen tanks are necessary. One could get there on a toboggan.

     Considering all this, and considering how mesmerized Western people tend to be by pop stars, movie stars, and media hype in general, it is truly heartening to me that so many Americans have enough backbone, so far, to dismiss the leftist glitterati’s pervasive propaganda and attempts to be moral guides to the masses. It is heartening that some signs of strong resistance have manifested, the most amazing example of which is the election of President Trump. And it is really heartening to me to find that Americans, most of them anyway, haven’t totally degenerated into brainwashed, spineless sheep willing to conform to what is essentially a spiritually and morally bankrupt suicide cult. Western Europeans appear not to be so fortunate. The millennia-long attitude hasn’t completely died after all: we are willing to watch actors’ performances, and even to enjoy and appreciate them; but we are not yet willing to have much regard for their personal political opinions, any more than we would have any special regard for the political beliefs of a wanton exotic dancer. Long live freedom of spirit. Well, for that matter, long live religion also.

POSTSCRIPT/AFTERTHOUGHT: In conclusion, or whatever comes after the conclusion, in some way partly to moderate what I’ve already said, I don’t think “show business people” will necessarily go to hell (or be reborn as animals). Some performers really are relatively virtuous I suppose; and some drama is quite uplifting, as is the case with Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, just to mention one little group of examples. I’m not even quite opposed to extravagant, opulent rascality, although as a monk maybe I should be. But even so, to indulge habitually in extravagant, opulent hedonism, or public sexual flaunting, pretty much debars an individual from standing up as a champion and guide of righteousness with any semblance of credibility. The whore with a heart of gold is pretty much of a modern fairy tale.



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