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Fifty Shades of Shame: Playing at Torture

04/22/2015 03:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

I don't usually comment on trash -- life is too short -- but when a piece of trash makes a cultural statement, I brake.

Fifty Shades of Grey, a tale of sexual bondage that began life as a novel breaking all sales records and print runs, has now taken on extended life by becoming a blockbuster movie, very likely playing at a theatre near you. All sorts of subsidiary spin of this phenomenon are being exploited, including hotels offering special Fifty Shades of Grey weekends (the ads are unclear what the special add-ons are). Two sequels to the book are out, forming a trilogy of trash.

All of which noise has made its creator, E.L. James, the world's richest author, eclipsing even J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, thanks to a heretofore untapped taste in the general public for sex of a kinky kind.

And "trash" is the appropriate term to apply to Fifty Shades. Critics, not always diligent in executing their responsibilities as cultural gatekeepers, in this instance have met their duty and pretty universally savaged both the book (here and here) and the movie (here and here) as poorly conceived, plotted, written. Anecdotally, readers and viewers who partake admit they do so as, tee-hee, a "guilty pleasure."

So how is all this a cultural statement? Why isn't it just an anomaly of publishing or a new low in pop culture?

Because -- dare I say it? -- a moral point is involved. Or rather, it was missed entirely. The public ignored a moral crime -- more specifically, a war crime -- and instead, via a vehicle of trash, turned this crime into a fun thing. We are talking about torture and the varying reactions to it.

When news of Abu Ghraib broke in mid-2004, exposing the atrocities of torture inflicted by the U.S. military on detainees suspected of terrorism, some of us doubled over in shame at how this great nation, once upon a time a moral beacon to the world, could trash the Geneva Conventions and descend to torturing those in our custody. The searing images from Abu Ghraib and other "black sites" -- showing, among other methods, men shackled to walls or ceilings, hanging in extreme pain or unconscious -- propelled some of us to protest in the streets, in public forums and in print.

Our numbers in protest were never huge, though. The broader public seemed not to share in our revulsion at the obscenity of Abu Ghraib, but reacted with a shrug ("Meh").

So it came as no surprise, sad but no surprise, that the image of a shackled human being -- in a tale cunningly titled Fifty Shades of Grey -- rather than generating pity and protest, instead was broadly seen and embraced as a massive turn-on.

In other words: Playing at torture is now fine, while actual torture is disregarded.

Moreover, while the masses were turning on to play-torture, they missed their chance at a reckoning and redemption for the real thing: Last December, the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee released its report describing in more gruesome detail than previously reported the methods and extent of the torture the U.S. used against foreign detainees during the Bush administration. Given the massive media spotlight, some of us hoped for an accounting and moral repair -- at long last! -- for the war crime of torture committed in our name.

But, alas, that outcry soon faded. Moral protest was smothered by the general public's indifference and the masses went back to their cheap thrills, like a cheesy bondage novel-turned-movie. To paraphrase what Noel Coward said of some popular music, "Extraordinary how potent cheap literature is."

Of course, I will be thought as uptight, unsophisticated about contemporary sexual practices and confused about the line between the private realm and the outer world. Still, one's private realm should not prevent one -- nor blind one -- from rising to a test of national character, taking necessary action in the outer world, most especially moral action.

What all this Fifty Shades-generated noise says about the American character and culture is sad, even tragic. What a falling-off there has been from the moral clarity and fire of the civil rights movement of recent decades, and before that, the role America played after World War II in establishing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our staunch support over a century's time of the various Geneva Conventions governing the rules of war and war crimes.

Now we play at torture -- and giggle about it -- and let the real crime of torture go?

For shame, people. Fifty shades of shame.

Carla Seaquist has written often on torture, including for her 2009 book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," and her latest book, due out soon, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."