Reaganism, Capitalism and Sheilaism

If mice can have “>Science reported recently, then I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that cultures can have false memories planted in their brains by politicians and their media enablers.

What brings this to mind is “>talk, may leave a “warm glow,” but “the rise of consumer capitalism is really what undercuts traditional values.”  The genius of Reagan’s rhetoric was to assert that we can have it both ways – that the private quest for money and power is compatible with the yearning for public connectedness.  Reaganism encouraged Americans to believe that there is no tradeoff between unleashing the cowboy and empowering the community, that “we can have everything and not pay any price for it.”  Greed is good; greed is godly. 

It was “Habits of the Heart” that also put “Sheilaism” – a name for religious do-it-yourselfism – into the sociological lexicon.  The term Sheilaism turned out to be so “paradigmatic,” Bellah said, “that as I go around the country I find people talking about this before I have a chance to say anything.” 

Sheila Larson was the pseudonym that Bellah and his coauthors gave to a young nurse they interviewed.  She told them that though she couldn’t remember the last time she went to church, she did believe in God.  She had a private, personal faith that she called “Sheilaism.  Just my own little voice.”  Its tenets:  “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.”  Then she added this: “You know, I guess, take care of each other.  I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

Sheilaism became synonymous with the view – held by 80 percent of Americans at the time, according to a Gallup poll – that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.”  Even many of the people who do show up in the pews, Bellah said, “are Sheilaists who feel that religion is essentially a private matter and that there is no particular constraint on them placed by the historic church, or even by the Bible and the tradition.”  So at the same moment when fundamentalist leaders allied with Reaganauts were transforming right-wing positions on social issues into matters of religious doctrine, an overwhelming majority of Americans in fact felt that choosing what to believe or not believe about God – and also, arguably, about God’s political views – was legitimately a matter of individual personal freedom. 

Sheilaism, in other words, was a political threat, a challenge to power that the right reframed as a challenge to religion. The transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, a hallmark of Reagan economic policy, was cloaked in moral terms, a righteous restoration of the rugged risk-taker’s rewards, while the poor and vulnerable among us – far from being people the community have a responsibility to care for – were rebranded as loafers and takers unworthy of compassion or concern.   Before long, defending the country from a phony war on Christmas became the cover for waging a real war on government.  “You didn’t build that” – the ironic taunt of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, an attempt to depict Barack Obama as contemptuous of individualism – had its antecedent in the ’80s media deification of CEO cover boys, whose bootstrapped sagas somehow neglected to mention the public school teachers, or the publicly financed infrastructure and research, not to mention the regulations, and sometimes the corporate welfare, on which their ascendance actually depended.

The scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who were able to identify the individual neurons in mice brains that contained false memories were able to turn those memories on and off by using blue light transmitted by a fiber optic cable.  It’s tempting to imagine what it would be like if some of our human false memories – like: unbridled capitalism made America a more godly nation; individual religious freedom made America a less moral nation – could just as conveniently get the blue light treatment. 

Marty Kaplan is the “>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at

Art Spiegelman: Behind the Mouse Mask

Wearing a three-piece suit and looking more elder statesman than the artist he is, Art Spiegelman addressed an audience of about 100 at the high-toned Soho House on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood late in the afternoon of Oct. 9. The occasion was the taping of a conversation with book scholar Michael Silverblatt, host of the KCRW public radio program “Bookworm,” who on this occasion was recording for a new online-only program, “UpClose,” which KCRW will edit and then post on the Web on Oct. 19.

This conversation was, according to a media release, to be one of only three such public interviews Spiegelman plans to submit to on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his Pulitzer Prize-winning series, “Maus I” and “Maus II.” And in honor of this anniversary, Spiegelman has just published “MetaMaus,” subtitled “A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus,” a new book and DVD that includes exhaustive material explaining the making of the autobiographical books about his relationship with his Holocaust-survivor father and the telling of his father’s story, where Jews are drawn as mice, Poles as pigs, Nazis as cats and Americans as dogs. (Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch’s review of “MetaMaus” can be found

Disney, Boycotts and the Hollywood Elite

It’s hard to feel sorry for the Walt Disney Company, a multibillion-dollar mouse-forged empire that seems to own a part of most children’s hearts, including that of my own 2 1/2-year-old. Yet, in recent weeks, the venerable Burbank entertainment giant has been subjected to two major boycotts, one from the right-leaning Southern Baptists and the other from Latino media activists.

Why target Disney? To a large extent, notes the Anti-Defamation League’s David Lehrer, it’s simply a reflection of that company’s success. “Disney is a big target because it’s big and successful,” he says. “It’s an easy place to get attention if you go after it.”

Yet there may be something more serious lurking behind these boycotts, Lehrer and others suspect — a revival of the traditional concerns among various groups about “Jewish control” of the means of mass communications. Disney might be less exploitative and venal in its product line than the rest of Hollywood, but its leadership comprises some of the most visible and powerful Jewish figures in the industry (not the least of whom is Chairman Michael Eisner).

Although this linkage between Hollywood and Jews is rarely spoken of in press releases here, Lehrer says that it is once again a regular staple in the somewhat snide British press. More ominously, however, the Southern Baptist boycott comes from the very organization that last year openly advocated the mass conversion of Jews from their faith.

“Southern Baptists don’t talk about Jews; they talk about the Walt Disney Company,” says Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “But in the back of their mind, they are thinking about Jews in the entertainment companies.”

Rudin is no stranger to the religious right, having worked assiduously to improve relations between conservative Christians and mainstream Jewish organizations. He points out that the Southern Baptists have become increasingly hard-line in recent years on issues from homosexuality and abortion to the conversion of non-Christians. In the process, he adds, they have lost thousands of members and much of their grass-roots support. Many Southern Baptists, including those around Orlando, Disney’s Florida hub, have distanced themselves from the boycott.

But Rudin suggests that the boycott does also reflect a legitimate complaint — that Hollywood, and its largely Jewish leadership, is guilty of a kind of “elitism,” particularly when it comes to the views felt in the “flyover zone” between the coasts. “It’s a bigger issue about control of the culture by elites, and the Jews are part of it,” Rudin says.

If this is true of Southern Baptists, much of the same can be said of the other boycotting group, the National Latino Media Coalition. Like other non-Jews in the entertainment media, many Latinos have felt excluded in their access to jobs, particularly in upper management at the studios. Many of them complain that the Hollywood elite sees only stereotypical roles for Latinos in the media, even though they live adjacent to the largest Hispanic community north of Mexico City.

“All we see are the stereotypes,” says Alex Nogales, chairman of the coalition, which has won the support of such prominent figures as Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. “We have been people selling oranges under the freeway, the nanny, the gardener, the gangbanger. That’s what we seem to fit into.”

Nogales and other Latinos in the media believe that many Jewish executives, including Eisner, have become socially isolated from the diverse and complex multiracial Los Angeles that exists around them. Certainly, this is not only a Disney problem; Steven Spielberg’s wife, Kate Capshaw, once said that she wanted to move to New York to be in a “more diverse” city. One wonders whether she, and many other Hollywood types, ever sojourn east of La Cienega Boulevard.

This reflects a troubling tendency among Hollywood executives. Many of them may live in Los Angeles, the world’s most diverse major city, but are not of it. Instead, they cling to ethnic mentalities nurtured in the predominantly black-and-white environments of 1960s Chicago, New York or Boston of their youths. If they seek to open themselves to other influences, it tends to be more oriented to African-Americans, who have made huge strides into at least creative parts of the business.

“A lot of Jews have forgotten what it’s like to be a newcomer and have obstacles put in front of them,” Nogales says. “They have become so isolated — the Eisners and that type — they are now excluding others, just as the Jewish immigrant was once excluded.”

Although somewhat hyperbolic, Nogales’ assertions cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitic. For one thing, Nogales is married to a Jew and sends his kids to a Jewish summer camp. His concerns should also be those of our community: After being perhaps too solicitous of non-Jews in the days of the Mayers and the Warners, the Jewish Hollywood elite and others must face the fact that there is a growing chasm between the entertainment industry and large parts of its audience, as can be seen in repeated congressional hearings and in the growing movement to control and label Hollywood content.

This chasm represents an important issue that Jews, both inside and outside of the entertainment industry, will need to address among themselves in years ahead.

Not that the boycotts of Disney will do much to advance that discussion within our community or with outsiders. Although they work as publicity stunts, the two boycotts will likely fail to keep Baptist or Latino parents from their appointed rounds, taking their children to Disneyland, Disneyworld or to see “Hercules” at Hollywood’s El Capitan. What is needed instead is a more comprehensive dialogue between the entertainment moguls and their audience — both in the “flyover zone” and here in the heart of increasingly Latino Los Angeles — that addresses these complex issues in a less confrontational and more thoughtful way.

Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and author of “Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.”