Will Ferrell mines laughs out of Alzheimer’s in a forthcoming film about Ronald Reagan.
The Telegraph describes the project as “a new comedy about Reagan’s second term in office – a period during which the head of state suffered from Alzheimer’s.” But Reagan did not suffer from Alzheimer’s during his presidency. His diagnosis came more than five years after he left office, and the numerous doctors tending to him in the White House uniformly reported their patient did not exhibit symptoms as president. The film, which seeks laughs as a secondary purpose, has already achieved its primary purpose — to create an impression that dementia ruled the man who ruled in the free world — before even reaching the silver screen.
Politics blinds Ferrell into mistaking bad taste for a good laugh. It also deludes him into equating the laughter generated from ideological solidarity with that generated from genuine humor.
Will Ferrell is funny. This isn’t.
Ideology is a lot like any number of deadly diseases. Once it takes over, it kills it unless aggressively treated.
Politics turns science into speculation, literature into propaganda, and history into a commentary on current events. It transforms inherently interesting fields into boorish ones. Science, literature, and history captivate most when they periodically challenge assumptions, not when they reflexively conform to them. When used as a brickbat to batter adversaries into submission, conclusions strike as arrived at independent of inquiry.
William A. Wilson offers an important article in First Things on how agendas corrupt science. Citing the Open Science Collaboration project that discovered it common for the findings of studies to defy replication, Wilson notes that “when a phenomenon is investigated by a researcher who happens to believe in the phenomenon, it is far more likely to be detected,” and observes, “If peer review is good at anything, it appears to be keeping unpopular ideas from being published.”
My layman’s dalliance with medical literature in researching The War on Football provided numerous emperor-has-no-clothes moments. When researchers find a case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a famous fallen football player, the anecdote generates headlines as though a single case lends itself to sweeping generalizations (the New York Times boasts more articles on the disease than documented cases of it). When massive studies, such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) discovering that professional football players outlive their peers in society and that the pros avoid cancer, suicide, diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular illness, and other killers at a remarkably better rate than the joes watching them, journalists dismiss them as outliers. League of Denial, for instance, only mentions the NIOSH study in passing at the book’s end.
“When cultural trends attempt to render science a sort of religion-less clericalism, scientists are apt to forget that they are made of the same crooked timber as the rest of humanity and will necessarily imperil the work that they do,” Wilson writes in First Things. “The greatest friends of the Cult of Science are the worst enemies of science’s actual practice.”
Agendas, generally of a more overtly political variety, similarly transform stories into sermons. Common books assigned to incoming freshman and novels honored with prestigious prizes share obsessions with race, class, gender, sexuality, or some other bugbear but not a consistent literary quality. This comes as nothing new. But at least 70 years ago, men of the Left disagreed on whether pamphleteering under the guise of storytelling represented good form.
“I have come to believe that the accepted understanding of art as a weapon is not a useful guide, but a strait jacket,” Albert Maltz wrote in “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” in the New Masses in 1946. The screenwriter counseled his fellow Communists, “First of all, under the domination of this vulgarized approach, creative works are judged primarily by their formal ideology. What else can happen if art is a weapon as a leaflet is a weapon? If a work, however thin or inept as a piece of literary fabric, expresses ideas that seem to fit the correct political tactics of the time, it is a foregone conclusion that it will be reviewed warmly, if not enthusiastically. But if the work, no matter how rich in human insight, character portrayal and imagination, seems to imply ‘wrong’ political conclusions, then it will be indicted, severely mauled or beheaded — as the case may be.”
It is as it was, only such category mistakes as judging aesthetics by politics now bizarrely shift to sports and pop music. ESPN fired three-time World Series-champion Curt Schilling last week for opining on Facebook that males don’t belong in the ladies’ room and females don’t belong in the men’s room, a view almost universally held just a few years — or was it months? — ago. Beyoncé, approaching, as few do, her second decade as a pop star, suddenly embraces a political edge, surrounding herself with Black Panther-chic dancers and casting the moms of slain teens Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown in a new album-long music video that sees America’s sweetheart smashing police surveillance cameras. The critics now treat her the way her fans always have. “Beyoncé is the sun of her own universe,” Vox gushes. “Everyone else orbits around her.”
Total politics makes for a tedious world. The conclusions it preordains for scientific studies, literature, history, and even sports commentary makes for a delusional one, too.