March 13, 2003
Is Hollywood Against the War?
Across the country, Americans are wondering, "Why is Hollywood against the war?"
On TV programs and TV and radio talk shows, in magazines and newspapers, they see actors and actresses opining, talking the talk and walking the anti-war walk. This has led to a separate thread of programs and opinion pieces about whether Hollywood stars should even be called upon to discuss national issues. Around and around it goes.
I can't speak for Hollywood. But from where I sit, here in Tommywood, the true nature of this discourse seems obvious. Like so much in our culture, it is about ratings.
As our president put it so eloquently in a recent press conference, "Nobody likes war." It's natural. Most people are reluctant to engage in armed battle and cause grievous harm to our own and to others.
I've been studying Civil War history recently, and we weren't so enthusiastic about that war on our own soil. Many times, even during the course of the Civil War, there was pressure on President Lincoln to get out.
Americans were reluctant to enter World War I. We didn't rush into World War II either. Pearl Harbor, as Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay instructed us, brought us into a battle we had been avoiding. So let's just say there is a natural reluctance to enter war.
This natural reluctance is given all the more reason to vent because our president has done a poor job of rallying the world, as well as our citizens, to his cause. Case in point: After Sept. 11, you didn't see a lot of complaining about going into Afghanistan (some, but not a lot).
But in a situation where the president must argue by alluding to "secret evidence"; talking about stocks of weapons that have disappeared, rather than showing us actual weapons of mass destruction; where he must convince us to engage in what is now being called a "pre-emptive" war, that feeds the natural ambivalence.
But back to the original point: why is Hollywood perceived as being against the war?
For the most part it's because a small number of celebrities appearing on TV and radio can garner a disproportionate amount of attention.
Producer Robert Greenwald, co-chair with actor Mike Farrell of Artists for Winning Without War, gives a rough estimate that their group of more than 100 celebrities has been able to reach more than 120 million people with their anti-war message through traditional and nontraditional media (i.e., entertainment shows and magazines). The artists include a wide range of talents going literally from A to Z -- from Gillian Anderson to Howard Zinn.
"Our goal," Greenwald says, "was not to change peoples' minds. Our goal, with the disappearance [post-Sept. 11] of any opposition, was to get attention for another point of view."
In that, Greenwald believes they have been successful.
When he started the organization last fall, dissent was deemed not "patriotic." Today, he believes that more and more people are comfortable expressing their opposition to a "pre-emptive" war.
By contrast, Hollywood celebrities who support the war have been relatively absent from the media. Some, like Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, have expressed support for regime change in Iraq, but many more have remained silent.
Sandy Frank, a co-producer on the political drama "Mr. Sterling," believes that conservatives in Hollywood are in such a distinct minority that they are afraid, or know better, than to speak out. The problem, as Frank sees it, is that "conservatives think liberals are wrong, but liberals think conservatives are evil." Nonetheless, the majority of TV and radio talk show hosts are conservative, and they all want one thing: higher ratings.
Who is making the case that Hollywood is against the war?
It is the celebrity-driven newsmagazines. It is the conservative commentators in the press, on radio and TV who, for the most part, are not really journalists -- they are entertainers. They would prefer to "debate" celebrities than engage in discussion with political scientists, politicians and foreign affairs correspondents.
There are many important academics both in this country and in Europe who have their misgivings about this war. There are foreign policy experts who believe in containment or who argue for greater coalition building.
I will not make their arguments for them. However, if you want to hear their opinions, you can watch "Charlie Rose." Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman, for example, appeared recently to talk about his deep misgivings about America's Iraq policy. But that is public television. You won't find Hoffman on "Hannity & Colmes."
Which brings me to another point. Walk by a newsstand. What sells magazines?
Celebrities. We know it; the TV and radio programs know it, and guess what? The celebrities know it, too. So there is a dance whereby the shows want the celebrities who have opinions they know they can express that might not be heard otherwise.
The shows are only too happy to oblige them so they can have their cake and eat it, too: they can benefit from the improved ratings, and then dismiss the celebrities as nitwits if they so chose.
How does Israel calculate into this arithmetic?
Â Although there is every reason to believe that war with Iraq could mean Iraqi attacks on Israel, the global anti-American brigades are filled with friends they saw the week before at anti-Israel protests. This was brought to light in a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece by Tikkun's Michael Lerner, who found himself banned from speaking at a peace rally in San Francisco, because Lerner, who despite being a vocal critic of the Sharon government, was deemed, "too pro-Israel."
By contrast Hollywood may be one of the few places one can be proudly pro-Israel and anti-war. Is that a reason for Hollywood to support the war or be against it?
I called Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, whose congregation represents a cross-section of Hollywood, to discuss this topic. Reuben recalled that he came of age protesting the war in Vietnam. Yet, now he feels ambivalence about protesting this incursion. And he feels his ambivalence is shared by his congregation.
But the rabbi told me he will not protest this war; he will support it. He feels he has no choice, because of Saddam.
"Recently we mourned Ilan Ramon," Reuben said of the Israeli astronaut who perished in the shuttle disaster. "Ramon was a hero because he participated in the Israeli air attack on Iraq's Osiris [nuclear] reactor."
As the rabbi pointed out, that was a pre-emptive strike against Saddam. How can we oppose one now?
So, is Hollywood actually against the war?
Of course not. Hollywood is filled with people who are for, against and, for the most part, ambivalent -- like the rest of the country. But the reasons for ambivalence and for support of a war, if and when it happens, are equally obvious: 1. Saddam Hussein is a bad guy; 2. We know that if he gets access to weapons of mass destruction, he will use them; 3. There is no scenario under which a year from now he is a better guy.
In the end, we may feel about going to war, as the Economist put it so memorably, "Saddamned, perhaps, if you do; but Saddamned, also, if you don't."
That may not be a reason to go to war, but it is reason enough to support one. As no doubt Hollywood will do. But don't take my word for it, you'll read all about in People Magazine. Â
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column on art and culture will appear every two weeks in The Jewish Journal.