11/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Popular Culture Empowers The Joe Wilsons Of This World

In politics, in life and in the movies, whatever happened to the idea of good fellowship and manners?

The whole flap with Joe Wilson made me ashamed to be a fifty year-old white guy. Did anyone hear Mark Shields (someone who makes me feel considerably better about being a fifty year-old white guy) on Friday’s Jim Lehrer NewsHour program?

Referring to the Wilson incident, Shields said it reflected a “coarsening in our political and national life." Linking how we act with what we see and hear, he then referenced the sour, cynical, base tone of much of today’s film and TV entertainment as being either contributors to, or outcomes of, the same troubling condition (take your pick).

Shields makes a worthy and salient point regarding the link between the plummeting standards in both our national discourse and our popular culture.

Before hearing his words, I might have said that I prize classic black and white movies because they tend to feature better scripts and stories. I now also realize I love them because they actually comfort me, taking me back to a friendlier, more innocent time when good manners and thoughtful conduct were actually revered and practiced in day-to-day life.

(And just notice: even the villains wore ties then, were well-groomed, and could summon up twice the vocabulary of today’s drooling, psychopathic bad guys!)

Yes, I think in the current climate we have something to learn from the good old days, and a long-unavailable title brought it all home to me. Through Warner’s new on-demand Archive Collection, I just screened a film called The Magnificent Yankee (1950) about the early twentieth century Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Recreating his Broadway triumph in the title role is Louis Calhern, a smooth, patrician actor I’ve admired since seeing him in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), as Cary Grant’s C.I.A handler, and most impressive, as the doomed crook leading a double life in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

“Yankee” is that lost relic: an unapologetically sentimental depiction of one man’s ascension to the nation’s highest court late in life, set against a tender love story of an adoring marriage.

In these cynical times, the film will seem corny to many people, but I adored it. Specifically, I was captivated by the sweet, gentle way this devoted nineteenth century couple treated each other. In the light of Joe Wilson, I realize I wanted to bask in that time when two married people could go a lifetime without exchanging profanities.

And surveying this loftier, more idealized world makes it only more evident that we must take a sobering lesson from the likes of Wilson, one of those mediocre, small men who have always occupied the fringes of influence but to whom, in bygone days, it would never have occurred to insult a sitting President.

Mark Shields is right: our mainstream movies and TV do project a jaded, aggressive, and negative tone. The idea of portraying authentic role models in film has receded so that now, too often we see only types, and not very inspiring ones at that, propped up by hyper-adrenalized violence and special effects.

Disturbingly, all this is particularly evident in media aimed at our kids. Meanwhile, stories that reinforce positive human values and interactions seem significantly harder to find. (And I should know -- I spend my life looking for them!)

Now I am neither a closet evangelist nor a moral beacon. But essentially, I still like the idea of being a gentleman, or at the very least striving to be one most of the time.

And I’d greatly appreciate more movies that help me teach and reinforce this fundamental idea to my children. Otherwise, we risk growing into a nation of Joe Wilsons, do we not?

When last night, I finally viewed Carlos Reygadas’s sublime Mexican film Silent Light (2007), I was reminded there is still hope. Here is a film about passion and adultery that nevertheless concerns love more than sex; a film that uses technology to create images of poetic beauty without resorting to special effects; a film made with non-actors who give distinctive, wrenching performances; a movie that evokes deep and universal human conflicts with grace and subtlety, rather than the blunt hammer we too often use in this country.

Rather than deal solely with our worst impulses, "Silent Light" depicts essentially kind, principled human beings who must still traverse the messy, unpredictable business of being human. Thus, “Light” conveys a deep and profound truth about life while affirming the basic good intentions, even nobility, of mankind.

If we ever needed to re-discover our “better angels”, that time is now, as the troubling state of our politics, our nation, and our popular culture attests. And this vital challenge to raise and then maintain a higher standard of discourse in this country will remain long after Joe Wilson has returned to his richly-earned obscurity.

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