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Ross Douthat is right to say that the decline of the Oscars was overdetermined—but the rapidity, extent, and shamefulness of that decline was a matter of choice. Hollywood, like so many of our elites, has chosen short-term advantage (and sometimes momentary satisfaction of narcissistic urges) over the health of shared institutions.

Start with Jimmy Kimmel. He has distinguished himself as the late-night comedian who occasionally delivers Democratic talking points. For his troubles, he gets around three million viewers per night—about as much as Fox News’s primetime line-up. Kimmel is a peer more of Sean Hannity than of earlier late-night hosts, who had mass appeal: Johnny Carson, even Jay Leno or the 1980s version of David Letterman.

The liberal-late-night-host shtick works better when you’re shooting for three million viewers than when you’re shooting for tens of millions. Kimmel’s crack during the Oscars, that “we make [films] to upset Mike Pence,” was ribbing on the square, but it is also a lousy way to live. Who wants to watch a movie in the hopes that some politician will hate it? The answer is, people who watch Hannity or Rachel Maddow. Added together, the audiences for those two shows make up about 2 percent of the American population. The vast majority of viewers (and voters) don’t care what movies Pence or Hillary Clinton like or don’t like.

The anticipation of cheap, tiresome, dim-witted partisanship may have played a role in the decline of the Oscars’ ratings. It could also be argued that all of the decline was caused by technological changes, such as the increasing use of streaming media, but that claim needs some qualification. 

The Super Bowl saw a 7-percent decline in its ratings this year (and the NFL itself had a rough year in terms of public relations). The Oscars saw a 19-percent decline. That twelve-percent difference could be called the margin of failure. It may demonstrate the Academy’s incompetence in nominating films. It may also demonstrate the public’s perfectly correct anticipation that Hollywood would respond to the revelations of industry-wide sexual abuse by doubling down on self-righteousness.

And double down it did. Perhaps the best example was Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech. McDormand asked all the female nominees to stand up and at one point said, “Meryl, if you do it, everyone else will.” Calling on Meryl Streep to act as a moral leader is ironic in all kinds of ways.

It would make sense if McDormand had singled out Streep in order to shame her. While accepting a Golden Globe in 2012, Streep had referred to Harvey Weinstein as “God,” despite the fact that his abuse of women was an open secret in Hollywood. Streep is a perfect example of how rich-lady feminism can shield powerful sexual predators (call it the Clinton Paradox).

The uncomfortable, confused applause for McDormand was also amusing. The audience didn’t know how much to cheer, or what they were cheering for, but they understood that they had to cheer. The entire farce revealed poseurs more concerned with seeming to do right than with actually doing right. Read ironically, McDormand’s speech was a masterful condemnation of Hollywood as a place where concern for sexual equality is as phony as Jar Jar Binks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t ironic.

One final detail is the daintiness with which the Oscars dealt with the award for Animated Short Film won by Kobe Bryant, who had been accused of rape in 2004 and delivered a public apology that included the statement, “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” It’s quite something to watch an industry vow to take accusations of sexual assault seriously and hand out pardons at the same time.

The hypocritical and self-righteous politics of the Oscars isn’t just about Hollywood. It is part of a much broader crisis of character among American elites. That crisis involves the decline of institutions like CPAC featuring Sebastian Gorka, and the reticence of mainstream media outlets to report on the ties of liberal activists and Democratic politicians to the anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. In each of these cases, people who should know better prioritize short-term comfort over the health, mission, and principles of their institutions.

This year’s Oscars presented a picture of entitled rich people who resent that they no longer have the influence they think they deserve and are irritated at having been called on their hypocrisies. They responded with defensiveness and partisanship.

They could have chosen better. But, like many of the stewards of America’s institutions (on the right as well as the left), they failed to—not because of market segmentation or technological change, but because they lack the character to be custodians. They will, of course, be the last to recognize how their vices resemble those of the most recent entertainer to enter the White House.

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.

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Photo by Prayitno via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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