George Will Hates E.T.

Everybody’s favorite bow-tied conservative, George Will — known to peregrinate peripatetically, as he might say, from one asinine talk show to another — apparently hates E.T.   Back in 1982, the columnist was one of the only commentators to pan Steven Spielberg’s beloved sci-fi family film.  He saw it as an affront to both traditional values and, oddly enough, science.  Why?

The hot breath of summer is on America, but few children feel it. They are indoors, in the dark, watching the movie “E.T.” and being basted with three subversive ideas:

Children are people.
Adults are not.
Science is sinister.

Subversive, for Will, means disrespecting your elders and losing faith in the power of science and technology — a malady of the post-Watergate world, in which Americans were increasingly distrustful of the media, government and other institutions.

A wasting illness brings E.T. to death’s door just as a horde of scary scientists crashes through the door of the boy’s house.  Throughout the movie they have been hunting the little critter, electronically eavesdropping on the house and generally acting like Watergate understudies. They pounce upon E.T. with all the whirring, pulsing, blinking paraphernalia of modern medicine. He dies anyway, then is inexplicably resurrected. He is rescued from the fell clutches of the scientists by a posse of kid bicyclists and boards a spaceship for home. This variant of the boy-sundered-from-dog theme leaves few eyes dry. But what is bothersome is the animus against science, which is seen as a morbid calling for callous vivisectionists and other unfeeling technocrats.
What to make of this?  Republicans have been making political hay out of this cynicism toward experts and authorities for decades.  Meanwhile, columnists like Will and David Brooks have made lucrative careers out of carrying water for the GOP, the political vehicle of religious fundamentalists who oppose stem cell research and the teaching of evolution, deny climate change, and vilify college professors and other educated “elites” as tyrannical leftists.  The alliance is uneasy at times — Will and company have worried aloud recently about Sarah Palin’s anti-intellectual populism — but the party’s brainy wordsmiths and its activist base seem comfortable with each other more often than not.  Conservatives who decry any kind of government spending or intervention cannot be fond of NASA, the NIH, or the NSF — massive spigots that keep taxpayer dollars flowing to the technocrats.  But, twenty eight years ago, one finds Will rhapsodizing on the majesty of science and the value of government funds in a moving passage:
Science does more than its despisers do to nurture the wonderful human capacity for wonder.  U.S. missions have revealed that Saturn has braided rings and a ring composed of giant snowballs. The space program is the greatest conceivable adventure; yet the government scants it and Philistine utilitarians justify it because it has yielded such marvels as nonstick frying pans. We live in (let us say the worst) an age of journalism: an age of skimmed surfaces, of facile confidence that reality is whatever can be seen and taped and reported. But modern science teaches that things are not what they seem: matter is energy; light is subject to gravity; the evidence of gravity waves suggests that gravitic energy is a form of radiation; to increase the speed of an object is to decrease the passage of its time. This is science; compared with it, space elves are dull as ditchwater.
Of course, he also vaguely implies that Steven Spielberg could be executed for poisoning children’s minds — you know, like Socrates — so it is a bit of a split decision.
The yuckiness of adults is an axiom of children’s cinema. And truth be told, adults are, more often than not, yucky… Surely children are unmanageable enough without gratuitously inoculating them with anti-adultism. Steven Spielberg, the perpetrator of “E.T.,” should be reminded of the charge that got Socrates condemned to drink hemlock: corrupting the youth of Athens.

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