In coming out in favor of gay marriage on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden said:
And by the way, my measure, David, and I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes. I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done.
Biden’s right about that last part. For those who don’t know, Will and Grace was a wildly popular sitcom airing on NBC from 1998 to 2006. Its three main characters were Grace, a Jewish interior designer, a Will, a fetching gay lawyer, and Jack, their gay friend played to stereotype.
Readers of Mere Comments are in all likelihood different from the general population in that we attempt to engage the fundamental questions of what it means to be human, what it means to seek goodness, beauty, and truth, what our common life together should look like, and so on. But most people don’t really engage in that quest, I think, even among our best and brightest in our most elite institutions, whether ecclesial or secular. Most of our leaders are simply given over to utilitarianism and pragmatism; at best we can hope for a stodgy, quaint Kantian to make a stand every now and then.
Sure, everyone has deep existential moments of angst and sturm und drang as well as deep joy, especially as we come of age, and asks questions about God, nature and humanity. But while these moments can lead to the sustained pursuit of truth, for most people it goes away when they become part of the machine that is Western life, where existence is (to quote Bridget von Hammersmark, a character from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) reduced to the fundamentals of “smoking, drinking, and ordering in restaurants.”
Indeed, I’ve found many people nowadays in the modern, technocratic West know three things and three things only: pleasure, pain, and media. They avoid pain and seek pleasure with the aid and guidance of the media.
If you are a convert from simple day-to-day living in the West as part of the machine to something with a substantive worldview and praxis — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or a particular political philosophy, like Communism or Distributism — try to remember what it was like before that transforming moment. For my part, I grew up a normal kid in the upper midwest. I was raised ELCA Lutheran and went to Sunday School but dropped out of confirmation in junior high, being more interested in hockey and music and the social scene (such as it was at Erik Ramstad Junior High in Minot, ND) than religion. Growing up with MTV (I was born in 1974 and MTV launched 1 August 1981), I remember having my worldview shaped by media — the movies and TV I watched, the music I listened to. The popular media of the day became my matrix for understanding the world. And thus like most everyone else, I simply wanted to fit in, get a girlfriend, get a pickup truck, get a decent job down the road after college, and enjoy myself. I didn’t think at all about the Big Questions of God, man, and nature. Until a serious illness almost killed me as a freshman in high school, and I had my own transforming moment, and decided that life was short and eternity long.
So Biden is right when he says the sitcom Will and Grace “did more to educate the American public” regarding gay rights “than almost anything anybody’s ever done.” The media of film and song shape us profoundly in ways most people never notice. Video has become our matrix.
But if visual media comprise our matrix, we need to take the red pill. We need to study media ecology (=Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, Walter Ong) to learn to think about how media shapes culture and attitudes. Too many times, church leaders lay and ordained talk about how we need to use various media to communicate the gospel, as if the gospel were mere content that could be poured into myriad forms. But form and content are never finally separable; some, like McLuhan, would say everything is form, while others would take a more mediate view. But if the medium isn’t the message, it certainly shapes the message, and it’s naive to think otherwise. Time indeed to take the red pill of the study of media ecology (start here and here) to understand what’s happening to us, and to understand how we can become more effective Christians in our current media ecology.
Indeed, most people missed the deeper subtext of Will and Grace: an Augustinian examination of disordered desire. Cathleen Kaveny penned the best piece ever written about Will and Grace in the Sept. 27, 2002 issue of Commonweal:
Will & Grace exemplifies Augustine’s view that sexual desire can escape from human control in a way that causes great anguish all around. Will and Grace are soul mates, best friends who live together and are there for one another, for better or worse. In every respect but one, they look and act like a married couple. It would be better all around if Will could refocus his sexual energies on Grace; it would be better all around if Grace could let go of Will, to find someone who could be a complete partner in her life. Neither, however, is going to happen. The saga of their relationship proceeds with a raucous humor undiminished by the sad dilemma that lies at its heart. In fact, rumor has it that they will soon have a baby together. [...]
Like Augustine, Will and Grace believe that desire is reliably fickle. It cannot remain true to itself and be folded into a stable relationship. Sexual passion is grace (understood in secular terms). It is serendipitous and ecstatic, a bolt of lightning. Friendship is not like that. It involves knowing and loving people as they are without glamour and even with the flu or chicken pox. Friends are more or less patient with each other’s neuroses. Friendship requires seeing the other’s soul, not in an idealized form but as a bundle of noble aspirations and base fears. It is will (understood in secular terms). In this perspective, except in the rare case, the miracle case, one cannot expect both friendship and long-lasting sexual passion with the same person in the world of Will & Grace.
Kaveny wrongly thinks Augustine would get on board with modern sexual mores even as she states ancient Carthage and modern NYC aren’t all that different, but for all that, her piece is brilliant: Why else name the series Will and Grace? If was just about two gay men and their straight female friend, it could have been Bob and Jane, or something similarly anodyne. Unfortunately, most people missed the profound anthropological dynamics of the sitcom, and in a mediated soporific narcosis, egged on, perhaps, by a subtle serpent, picked the low-hanging fruit.