Reigning example: Tony Soprano, mob boss in the TV series "The Sopranos," whose job – it can't be called a quest – is "whacking" rivals who move in on his turf. Would Tony Soprano appeal to our better angels? "Fuhgeddaboutit." Tony's grail is power pursued at absolutely any price.
Tony's ilk is the result of a cultural imperative since the 1960s to "push the edge." Invariably, "edge" defines humanity down, below the moral line, into pathology. Critics enamored of "transgressive" art hail this cracked morality. Yet for all its alleged truth-telling, "edge" has not made us happier or wiser. In truth, its view of amoral humanity reflects a culture not worth saving.
Once upon a time, US popular culture did offer a life-affirming vision: the movies of the 1930s to 1960s. Amid the Great Depression and World War II, many films offered all the things humans crave: hope, beauty, wit, escape, and, often, triumph.
In contrast to Hollywood today, these movies featured real heroes and heroines: ordinary people in quest of defensible objectives. Often the objective was love. Or it was the plight of "the little guy," on whose behalf Mr. Smith went to Washington. And sometimes the objective was no less than saving the world, in combat or by sacrifice at home. It was an idealized vision, yes. Left out were the scars of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism.
But in "Casablanca," every refugee at Rick's cafe wanted to get to this America. The solidarity conveyed in these movies, viewed from our post-9/11 divisions, makes one weep. Clearly, fighting a "good" war, as opposed to bad ones (Vietnam, Iraq), is everything. And unlike today, the characters were grown-ups – adults in a serious world taking responsibility. They made decency classy. Conversely, the villains were always vanquished.