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by Craig Smith
   When I was a kid, watching television or going to the movies was considered something special.  On a rare occasion, our parents would take us to a movie on Saturday or Sunday.  During the 
summer, families might go to a drive-in theater several times, where two or three movies could be seen for a few dollars for the carload.  Television was also reserved  for somewhat specific reasons or occasions.  Young kids mostly watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, and maybe Howdy Doody or the Mickey Mouse Club when they came home from school.  Adults  watched the news, and maybe a favorite prime time program during the week.  On Sundays, the whole family would gather to watch Bonanza and the Ed Sullivan Show.
   Back then, movies and television had a couple of things in common.  First, they were watched sparingly, and as entertainment  -  not as an alternative or replacement for activity or thought.  Secondly, most conveyed life lessons directly related to basic principles that were commonly shared by most people in society; principles like honesty, loyalty, obligation, responsibility and compassion  -  principles all contained within a single concept of unified thought and action known  as "honor".
   Every television program, except for variety type shows, contained a lesson concernng one or more of these principles.  Whether a drama or situation comedy, each presented, addressed and properly resolved the most challenging of life's dilemmas.  Movies were the same, though their longer running time allowed them to penetrate deeper into the angst of the varying situations.  The  themes, though different, usually followed a formula that revealed to us the  presentation of the moral or ethical problem to the hero or central character, the temptations or challenges faced by that hero or character in making their decision or  holding to their position of moral or ethical certainty, the overcoming of the temptations or challenges, and the positive outcome that results from that triumph.
   I was raised on movies like El Cid, Spartacus, Beau Geste, Ivanhoe, the Alamo, and almost every western or World War II movie cranked out by Hollywood.  The message was clear, and matched what we were taught at home and in church: character was of the utmost importance, and holding to one's properly formed principles, regardless of the resistance or attacks of others, was the highest expression of moral strength and a properly formed spirit and personality.
   Things have changed dramatically.  And those changes are reflected in the movies, television and other entertainment  that, while reflecting the changes, also serve to reinforce the societal acceptance of those changes.  No longer is the person of conscience or moral conviction held up as an example to be emulated.  Instead they are held up as examples of rigid intolerance or  "extremism".  No longer is the person who stands up against injustice admired (unless, of course, the injustice against which they stand is one of the accepted "causes" de jour).  Instead, they are denigrated as troublemakers or conspiracy nuts.  No longer are those who require  integrity from others in their personal and business dealings respected.  Instead they are thought of as judgmental and mean-spirited.
   More often than not, the central characters of today's  movies or television programs are morally flawed, psychologically fractured and pathetically confused as to what life "is all about". He (or she) is the perfect hero to that growing portion of society he or she reflects  -  the child/adult who believes that their inability to stand for or against anything with any certainty is proof of both  their open-mindedness and the adorable individualistic need for the help and understanding of the universe.  Subscribing to the old saying "you've got  to go along to get along", they see themselves as being "realistic" as they discard or ignore those principles which would require behavior that they feel might threaten or hinder the attainment of their personal goals or the comfort of their daily lives.
   This avoidance of principles brings with it a great freedom  -  the freedom to act in any way one might view as being in one's own self-interest.  From this freedom comes the right to expect non-judgement from others for one's behavior, as well as the right to refuse to hold others to account for theirs.  In this mutually non-judgmental world of non-responsibility, it is permissible to lie, as long as it is about sex; or about obstruction of justice; or about abuse of power; or about improperly collected FBI files; or about people you don't like, or about yourself to make yourself look better, or, I guess, just about anything.  After all, who's to say what's right and what's wrong?  And after all, again, aren't we all just as pathetically screwed up as everyone else?
   Thankfully, no. -  there are still many people who live their lives by principle.  But sadly, they are dwindling in number compared to society as a whole, and their impact, fragmented by the fact that they are only found here and there, is not felt as readily as it once was when they made up the core of society instead of the fringe. In a society where the majority of students feel it is perfectly acceptable to cheat on exams, their honesty is considered quaint and idealistic.  In a society where bankruptcies are setting new records each year (in a period of unprecedented prosperity), their integrity in their business dealings are considered backward and unsophisticated.  In a society where divorce and serial marriages are considered the norm, their commitment to their vows of fidelity are considered almost humorous.
   Like jello, many  in our society sink and conform to the lowest part of the vessel that contains them. Solid in appearance as long as they stay within their container, they are unable to stand on their own if brought out into the heat of moral or ethical challenge. Proud of their "moderate" indentity or political persuastion, they have forgotten  -  if they ever knew  -  Thomas Paine's admonition that, while moderation in temper is always a virtue, moderation in principle is always a vice.
   Principles are those things which hold us above what our baser instincts would often call us to do. They are not situational, nor are they abstract. They do not change with the weather, the seasons, or our mood of the day. Rather, they are constant. They are the standard that directs behavior and against which behavior is measured. Principles support us above the morass of unfettered self-interest. By holding us to a higher plane than we would travel without them, they give us a slightly different view of life and our part in it, allowing us to see beyond the immediate problems, opportunities and circumstances of our own lives. They serve as a foundation for us to stand on, an anchor to hold us during rough times, and a guidon by which to steer our course in life.
   The principled man or woman is the foundation of a society, a community or a family. There are still a few around, and, working together they can increase their influence in their society or profession. It is important that those of principle work together in whatever areas their interests coincide, and that they do not let the unprincipled continue to thrive by default. 
   Expect honesty from those in your world. Demand integrity. And don't be accepting of less.

Standing on
Columns by Craig Smith