Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Freedom from Speech

By now, San Francisco 49er's quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand during the pregame playing of the national anthem has been bandied about so much on both sides of the argument that the original reason for the protest has been overshadowed. As he explained after his first protest, he wanted to use his refusal to participate in the ceremony to bring attention to racial inequality and police brutality.

Many people saw his protest as a show of disrespect for the flag and for American servicemen and women and reacted in anger. When I expressed my own opinion of Kaepernick to my friends on Facebook, pointing out that good judgement was something that he neglected to learn in college all the while he was concentrating on throwing footballs to someone who could catch them, they made a point of defending the quarterback's right to free speech. This is what always happens when a protest, like the Black Lives Matter movement, degenerates into a free speech debate. Even when a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, chimed in on the subject, calling Kaepernick's actions "dumb," "ridiculous," "offensive," and "arrogant," social media erupted in harsh attacks on her. Probably amazed at the shitstorm her words elicited, Ginsberg has since walked them back, mollifying the same people who had cheered her the last time she shot her mouth off, dismissing Donald Trump a few weeks before. Her critics were merely citing the First Amendment, somehow forgetting that the Justice's job is to remind people of their Constitutional rights.

My remarks about Kaepernick's protest - and Justice Ginsberg's - were a response to the protest itself, the form in which Kaepernick chose to express his protest. I didn't say anything about depriving him of his right to make the protest. So why is everyone so vehemently (and so safely) citing the man's First Amendment right in response to everyone who disagrees with the manner - not the substance - of his protest? Why was Kaepernick's freedom to speak, by taking a knee, worthy of merit and mine (and Justice Gibsberg's) was not?

When I first learned of it, I thought about the reason - the real reason, not the avowed reason - for Kaepernick's distaste for having to stand up before every game. I thought about all the times I, too, had to stand up in movie theaters on military posts throughout my life, from when I was a boy into middle age before I left the Army at 42, in Albany, Georgia, Columbia, South Carolina, Okinawa, Japan and South Korea. In a movie theater there wasn't even an actual flag - just a projection of one on the screen. I remember a buddy on Fort Sill, Oklahoma one summer evening in '97 giving me a beleaguered look when he realized he had to stand up before watching Inventing the Abbotts. We were both drunk, and my friend even fell asleep during the movie, snoring so loudly that I had to wake him to make him stop.

Kaepernick probably resents the fact that his announced motivation has been overshadowed by the usual useless controversy about his First Amendment right of free speech. If pressed, what opinion would his defenders give about his protest? Would they express an opinion at all, or would they go on hiding behind the First Amendment? Freedom of speech doesn't exonerate one from speaking.

This is nothing but political correctness, which, as critic Robert Brustein once put it, is "freedom from speech." Arguing that Kaepernick's protest is purely a matter of free speech does several things to the substance of his gesture. The first thing it does is effectively neutralize it: instead of Kaepernick's solidarity with victims of racism in America, another front of the Black Lives Matter movement, taking center stage and getting all the attention, the issue of free speech takes precedence and obscures the meaning of the speech itself. It also insulates people from charges of racism. What they don't seem to understand is that using the old Voltaire line "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" announces their disagreement with the substance of the speech while silencing further argument. And one more thing that it does is cheapen the importance of speech altogether, which is always a problem in a liberal democracy. In a totalitarian state, the people are told to shut up, but in a liberal democacy they are told to talk all they want because whatever they have to say is of no consequence.

And there is even more to it than that. In his invaluable essay, "On Bullshit," Harry Frankfurt argues: "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person's opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world."

Unlike men and women in the military who are obliged to stand at attention and salute the flag, for civilians it is a matter of personal delicacy what they do during the national anthem. They aren't obliged to stand. They can remain seated (which is what Kaepernick did at first, before deciding to take a knee), and endure the disfavor of everyone around them. I am amused when I see some of the fans clumsily saluting the flag, which is a duty reserved for people serving in the military.

When I was in the Navy and the Army (in that order, believe it or not) if I was on a military outpost in uniform and a flag was being raised in the morning, I would hear a warning over a loudspeaker called a "tattoo." It is a signal to anyone standing outdoors to either face the direction of the flagpole, come to attention when "reveille" was played and salute the flag, or else I would use the tattoo as an excuse to duck indoors to spare myself the bother.

Honoring the flag is an obligation for people in uniform. Kaepernick isn't dishonoring it, as his vocal critics believe; he is simply declining to honor it. He is entitled to his beliefs. After everything we've gone through as a nation in the past few years, he probably feels the same thing when the announcer says, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for our national anthem," that I feel when a speaker announces, "Let us pray." Since I'm not a believer, what the hell am I supposed to do? I definitely can't take a knee.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Junkie's Lament

James Taylor is one of the most enduringly popular recording artists of the past fifty years. Although a product of the Sixties, few people would think of associating him with the drug culture of the time, and even fewer people remember him as a serious addict, or "junkie." Yet Taylor claims that he fought an addiction to heroin for twenty years.

As he told The Rolling Stone in 2015, "I had taken my first opiate in 1966. Joel 'Bishop' O'Brien, the drummer in the Flying Machine, was an addict. I spent a lot of time at his apartment, so it was just a matter of time before I tried heroin. I was pretty much born to shoot dope - it was the key to my lock, so I really was gone for the next 20 years."

Taylor's 1976 album, In the Pocket is one of his richest, despite the fact that only one of the twelve songs it contains, "Shower the People," became a hit. Like many other of his recorded songs, the rest of the album has remained virtually unknown since its first release. Two songs from the album, which I'm somewhat ashamed to say I heard for the first time last year, have since acquired a special value for me. As a substance abuser myself (alcohol), I found myself identifying strongly with the words to Taylor's songs "Golden Moments" and "A Junkie's Lament," both of which paint vivid pictures of the highs and lows of addiction.

The song "Golden Moments" is disarmingly lovely. It's subject is bliss, but Taylor's lyrics to the song give one clues about the origin of the bliss:

Now if all my golden moments could be rolled into one,
They would shine just like the sun for a summer day.
And after it was over, we could have it back again,
With credit to the editor for striking out the rain - very clean.
And all it really needed was the proper point of view.

No one's gonna bring me down.
No one's gonna stop me now.

Now I gathered up my sorrows and I sold them all for gold,
And I gathered up the gold and I threw it all away.
It all went for a good time and a song - come on.
The laughter was like music, it did float my soul along - for a while.
And all it really needed was the proper point of view.

No one's gonna reach me here.
No one's gonna know I'm gone.

You may think I must be crazy, and I guess you must be right,
But I know the way I feel today is out of sight.
I do not trust my senses to remember your name.
Without corrective lenses, things are never quite the same - anyway.
And all it really needed was the proper point of view.

No one's gonna bring me down.
No one's gonna stop me now.
No one's gonna reach me here.
No one's gonna know I'm gone.

What else could Taylor be singing about, in such diaphanously dreamy music, but getting high? He wants to escape, to be where no one can find him, where no one can stop him (or criticize him). What better ticket to oblivion than heroin? Like all drugs with which people self-medicate, it is a disease but also its cure. Escape can only be temporary, but while we are in its thrall, nothing can touch us. The world recedes to a faint murmur, a distant commotion on the horizon.

Taylor was honest enough with himself to celebrate his highs, and to give us a vivid impression of what they were like - but he didn't fail to describe, in telling language, his lows. If addiction were nothing but a constant high, no one would want to be rid of it. But unless the highs are evened out with occasional lows, a drying out, being strung out, the addiction would lead to inevitable overdose and death.

The other song from Taylor's album In the Pocket that, ironically, is on Side B,(1) that relates to us the other side of addiction, is called "A Junkie's Lament." It is the perfect companion piece to "Golden Moments."

While never having tried heroin, I know where Taylor is coming from in the tellingly direct words to "A Junkie's Lament":

Rick's been kicking the gong, lickety-split, didn't take too long.
A junkie's sick, a monkey's strong, that's what's wrong.
Well, I guess he's been messing around downtown,
so sad to see the man losing ground.
Winding down behind closed doors
On all fours.

Mama, don't you call him my name.
He can't hear you any more.
Even if he seems the same
to you, that's a stranger
to your door.
Go on, ask him what's he come here for.

Oh my God, a monkey can move a man.
Send him to hell and home again.
An empty hand in the afternoon,
shooting for the moon.

It's halfway sick and it's halfway stoned.
He'd sure like to kick but he's too far gone.
They wind him down with the methadone.
He's all on his own.
But baby, don't you throw your love away.
I hate to seem unkind.
It's only that I understand the man
that the monkey can leave behind.
I used to think he was a friend of mine.

La la la la la la la la . . .

As Taylor explained to The Rolling Stone:

"I've got a lot of recovery songs. This one's ["A Junkie's Lament"] a warning not to think of a junkie as a complete functioning human being. Heroin should've killed me about five times, but it never did....People take drugs to be in control. They want to short-circuit any risk that they might take in life, any uncertainty, any anxiety. They just want to find the chemical route, to just push the button that gets the final result."

As I said, I didn't become acquainted with these two songs until the summer of 2015, during my last bad bender. Having been a habitual drinker since the death of my father in 1988, with occasional respites, all the way up until 2004, when I began to routinely experience serious withdrawals (without knowing exactly what they were at first), it was late that year that I discovered a dangerous solution to my withdrawals: the hair of the dog that bit me - i.e., continuous drinking. Eventually, this discovery contributed to my losing two jobs, which forced me to move in with my sister, abandoning an apartment full of furniture to fly from Des Moines, Iowa all the way to Anchorage, Alaska. Since then, however, I have interspersed extended stretches of sobriety with occasional benders. I never quite know what provokes them. They arrive out of the blue after sometimes months of abstention.

What I have learned is the same thing that Taylor evidently learned a much harder way: what every addict must face before he goes too far is the choice between life or death. He cannot go on using or he will end up dead. It's always the same choice: get clean and live or go on using and die. Choosing life has its obvious perks, but how enticing those beautiful dying notes from "Golden Moments" sometimes seem.

In the treatment of bi-polar disorder, physicians do us no favors by informing us that depression is nothing but a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with prescription drugs. What is happiness, then, but a similar treatable chemical imbalance? Having taken Prozac for awhile in 2006, during a long sober stretch, after about a month of low doses I suddenly felt as if someone had turned on all the lights. I was awake for the first time in more than a year. Unfortunately, the drug also made me more confrontational and argumentative, unsatisfied with my life. And within weeks I was drinking again. For the untreated, self-medicating user, withdrawals (depression) is the price he pays for getting high (happiness). What he must figure out - "all on his own" - is whether or not it is worth it.

(1) In actuality, the track listing for In the Pocket places "A Junkie's Lament" on Side A, Track 2 and "Golden Moments" on Side B, Track 6. Significantly, the album closes with Taylor's evocation of opiate bliss.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Assault on the White House

This past week, parents all across America have had to talk to their daughters about a video in which Donald Trump talks openly and brazenly about how he forces himself on young women, kissing them and grabbing their genitals. At the October 9 debate, two days after the news broke, Donald Trump was told that what he was describing in the video constitutes a crime - sexual assault - and he was asked if he indeed commits such acts on women. He denied that he actually did such things and claimed that he was engaging in "locker-room talk." Living currently in the Philippines, I watched the news throughout the week as, one by one, more women have come forward to relate their experiences of Trump forcing himself on them, kissing them and grabbing them by their genitals. So far he has denied the accusations, claiming that there were no witnesses and that there was "no way" he would ever have done such things to the women accusers, suggesting that they weren't attractive enough for him to even consider assaulting them.

Two days ago, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech at a Clinton rally in Manchester, New Hampshire that seems to have galvanized women's feelings about Trump's remarks and alleged actions:

"This wasn't just lewd conversation. This wasn't just locker banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior and actually bragging about kissing and groping women, using language so obscene that many of us are worried about our children hearing it when we turn on the TV."

I have a 14-year-old step-daughter who has been exposed to the repeated news reports about Trump's boasting about his sexual assaults. By now, she knows that Trump is a candidate for president and that the election is on November 8. She also knows my opinion of the man from well before his announcement to run for the Republican nomination last year. I have always thought that he is an obscenity as a human being, let alone as a candidate for president. I knew that his disgraceful character would eventually become an issue in the campaign and that it would be his downfall. But when my step-daughter expressed to me yesterday her bewilderment at the attention that Trump is getting for this latest "gaffe," I turned off the TV and tried to explain things to her.

Though English is her second language, she understands just about everything I say to her - even if she sometimes pretends that she doesn't. I told her that Donald Trump was born a millionaire, that his father was a wealthy New York real estate developer, and that he grew up with the knowledge that he was privileged beyond her wildest dreams. Having seen the Macauley Culkin movie Richie Rich with me, she had a good idea what kind of life Donald Trump grew into. Such a privileged life usually leads the privileged person to two different conclusions: that he is either "blessed" - somehow singled out by some unknown power for such a privileged life because he is somehow deserving of it, or that he is lucky - the recipient of a completely random good fortune that could have just as easily been bestowed on someone else just as - or more - deserving than he.

Trump, I told my step-daughter, grew up convinced that he is some kind of Chosen One. A story emerged recently from a writer who once worked in an expensive New York hotel. When Donald Trump got into an elevator with him one day and let slip a resounding fart, Trump was reported to have said that his fart probably increased the value of the hotel. What makes the story convincing - to me - is the certainty that Trump probably wasn't joking, that he actually believes that a noxious gas escaping his rectum adds value wherever he bestows it.

Donald Trump is incapable of seeing himself as virtually everyone else (except for his slavering supporters) sees him: a relatively undistinguished man who was lucky to be born rich, who has spent his life pursuing self-gratification, squandering several fortunes, marrying and disposing of attractive women (who bear him occasional children), and philandering without fear of any consequences - even if it comes in the form of a substantial divorce settlement. 

He will probably die, not long from now (he's 70), without ever becoming acquainted with the truth about himself. Perhaps his children can come to terms with his terrible legacy: when, in one of those rare moments when they can be honest with themselves and with one another, are capable of judging him as a father and a man, without reference to his phenomenal wealth, to all his properties, won and lost, and all his business exploits, which often seemed oblivious of who was being exploited, they can judge him for what he was - and wasn't.

One of the problems with Dickens was his inability to see a solution to the obscene gulf separating the rich and the poor. The only way out for Dickens was a "change of heart" - the rich man whose humanity is as crippled as Tiny Tim's tubercular leg suddenly realizing the horrible error of his lifelong pursuit of money at the expense of every human relationship. Because Ebeneezer Scrooge is such a caricature, an irredeemable miser to the nth degree, his transformation into a decent, loving, compassionate human being is equally unbelievable. Try to imagine Donald Trump as Scrooge. He would make the old skin-flint Scrooge chillingly convincing, right down to his inability to sneeze (to allow himself to be natural). But Trump as Father Christmas? No one would believe it. He will die in his luxurious bed unreformed.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Sad Year

Though the Fall season is only a few weeks old, for me the year has already fallen. The new year is 86 days away, but there is little that can happen in what's left of 2016 to make up for my losses.

I have often said that the worst thing about popular music is that it is so inescapable. No matter the time of your life, on whatever occasion, some otherwise forgettable pop song is sure to be there to intrude on your memory-making. And for the rest of your life, like it or not, it will always stink up your cherished remembrances. Every time that stupid song is played, it will evoke for you images and emotions with which it has no right to associate.

So, there I was late last December, listening to a local Manila radio show called Doctor Love here on my Philippine island, when the DJ played a song from 1977 that I had never heard before. It was Barry Manilow's "It's Just Another New Year's Eve," which, unbeknownst to me, became a perennial favorite for awhile. Manilow is (in)famous for some obnoxious jingles he wrote for TV commercials and for a handful of hit songs he performed in the '70s, like "Mandy" and "I Write the Songs." Like I said, the worst thing about them was that, for an unconscionable amount of time, there was no escape from them.

When I heard the song last December, during Twixtmas, that week of limbo between Christmas and New Year's Day, I thought about my sister, seven years older than me, living alone in Anchorage, Alaska. I sent her the song in time for the Big Night, hoping it would strike as deep a chord in her as it had in me.

It's a quite unconventional song for the holiday, reflective and somber rather than optimistic and cheerful, rather like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a somber acceptance of hard times during the holidays. Who can ever forget Judy Garland singing it in Meet Me in St. Louis to a distraught little sister.

Much like the song traditionally sung on New Year's Eve, "Auld Lang Syne," Manilow's song takes a look back before looking forward to the coming year:

Don't look so sad
It's not that bad, you know
It's just another night, that's all it is.
It's not the first, it's not the worst, you know.
We've come through all the rest,
We'll get through this.

Not the most memorable lyrics, but the words are ring true for many more people than we'd like to admit. The holidays are depressing precisely because we are told at every moment for weeks how happy we're supposed to be. And on New Year's Eve we're all supposed to make resolutions to change our lives - admitting, at least, that something isn't right about our lives and needs to change.

Then the chorus arrives.

It's just another New Year's Eve
Another night like all the rest
It's just another New Year's Eve
Let's make it the best.
It's just another New Year's Eve
It's just another Auld Lang Syne
But when we're through
This new year you'll see
We'll be just fine.

Somewhat faint words of encouragement, but they were deeply felt, if not very deeply thought. Within a few months into this year, however, the wheels started to come off. So far, this year has been calamitous for myself and the people I love. I had no idea when the year began, and when I shared Manilow's thoughtful but harmless song with my sister, that by now, with less than three months to go, I would be stopping here to assess the damage. Two dear people I knew, the brother and oldest daughter of my companion, have died - the latter violently murdered. And my sister was herself in the hospital - for a time in ICU - for thirty days. My great distance from home, from everything I know and that makes sense to me, makes the holidays especially hard.

Sadly, I think that the words of Manilow's song will be more apposite for the coming New Year's Eve. I saw Barry Manilow recently on a home shopping network, selling advance copies of his latest CD. I hadn't seen him in awhile and I was a little surprised by his cosmetic surgeon's additions to his face. But I also did a little reading about him and I was surprised by his being chosen by the widow of legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer to set one of his last unpublished songs to music. Mercer, who died in 1976, had been an admirer of Manilow and Manilow's setting of the song, "When October Goes," matches the prevailing tone of the season, as well as the Fall of this sad year:

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smoky roofs
I watch the planes go by

The children running home beneath
A twilight sky
Oh for the fun of them
When I was one of them

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away to hide
The helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go.

Of three recordings of the song that I've heard, Manilow's, Diane Schuur's, and Nancy Wilson's, it is Wilson's that is by far the best. She captures the sad wistfulness of the words, something of what I feel at the moment.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Gender Bender

At the 2016 Emmy Awards last month, Jeffrey Tambor won in the Best Actor in a comedy series category. I haven't watched Tambor's show for several reasons, most prominent of which is the fact that, produced by Amazon, I'm not able to watch it on my remote Philippine island. I am mentioning Tambor only because of what he said in his acceptance speech.

“I’m not going to say this beautifully: to you people out there … please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story,” he declared while accepting the Emmy for best comedy actor.
"I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female,” added Tambor, who won an Emmy in the same category for the same role last year."(1)

When I first heard Tambor's remarks, and whenever the issue it addresses is raised, I remember the 1995 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, directed by the talented woman director Beeban Kidron. It was afflicted by a terrible script, but it had three amazing performances: Patrick Swayzee, John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes as three drag queens on their way from New York to Los Angeles to take part in a contest hosted by Julie Newmar. The three actors, all straight - or cisgender - men (even somewhat exaggeratedly so), responded to the challenges of their unusual roles with astonishing conviction. In fact, they were rather better at playing drag queens than they were at playing straight roles. Of course, a drag queen is not a transgender person, and I'm not altogether sure if they're included under the LGBTQ umbrella. But they have been a mainstay of popular entertainment for centuries. I think it must have grown out of the tradition of men playing women's roles in the theater. Drag queens, as Eddie Izzard has pointed out, aren't necessarily gay. So the casting of straight men as drag queens isn't as much of a stretch as it might seem.

But when straight actors play gay or lesbian characters on stage or screen, a whole different dynamic comes into play. When I reviewed the Gus Van Sant film Milk (2009) several years ago I examined the fact that all the lead gay characters are played by straight men. The decision to cast them in the roles, and the expectation of audience acceptance of such casting choices, probably had more to do with esthetics than politics. Clearly, Sean Penn, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Harvey Milk, was cast in the role because he's a well-known actor capable of giving a good performance.

Is it possible that an audience feels more confortable exploring the drag or gay or transgender worlds with a straight actor guiding them? When Sean Penn kissed James Franco in Milk, was the kiss somehow more palatable because everyone knew that neither actor - presumably - was getting anything out of it? I mentioned in my review that gay magazines and ezines often conduct polls among their readers to determine the top ten sexiest men, and that straight men, regardless of their hetero orientation, are included among their choices. I suggested that there might be some fantasy element to the appearance of straight men in gay roles - especially since Van Sant is gay.

Jeffrey Tambor was suggesting, somewhat self-servingly, that only transgender actors should be cast in transgender roles - so that they might have more opportunities for employment. But Tambor was cast in the role he plays in Transparent only because he was an excellent actor and recognizable to TV audiences. What does it matter, ultimately, what gender he is if he is a good enough actor to convince an audience that he's trans?

On January 29, 1997, African-American playwright August Wilson and theater critic Robert Brustein engaged in a highly-anticipated debate with the title, "On Cultural Power: The August Wilson-Robert Brustein Discussion." (I heard the debate on NPR.) It was inspired by Wilson's published remarks, among others, against the employment of actors in roles whose race differed from theirs. In other words, only Asian actors should be cast in Asian roles, African-American actors in African-American roles, etc. He stated that color-blind casting was, to him, an "aberrant idea" and that a black actor should not perform in, for example, a Chekhov play. "It is wrong for black actors to appear on stage as anything other than black characters," Wilson argued.(2)

Robert Brustein, a proponent of color-blind casting, insisted that political correctness was "freedom from speech," and presented what I consider to be the only acceptable argument for the casting of any actor in any role: it wasn't a matter of acquiring the right actor for the right role, but the best actor for the role, regardless of race, orientation, or gender. Since definitions of gender are being questioned lately, audience acceptance of such gender-blind casting, in contradiction to Jeffrey Tambor's view, would appear to be where we are headed.

(1) "Transparent's Jeffrey Tambor calls for more trans actors in Emmy Speech," The Guardian, 19 September 2016.
(2) I wonder if Wilson has perhaps softened his views on race-specific casting in recent years since the productions of some of his plays in China featuring all-Chinese casts.

Friday, September 30, 2016

What Follows

Subsequent to the first Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (which Clinton clearly won, but I doubt that it helped to make up anyone's mind), I thought that it might be illuminating to visit the topic of Elites and Elitists. Here is the Merriam Webster English dictionary definition of the word "elite":

"Noun. Simple definition: the people who have the most wealth and status in a society: the most successful or powerful group of people. Full definition: 1a. the choice part; b. the best of a class; c. the socially superior part of society; d. a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence; e. a member of such an elite."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump likes to use the word elite in the speeches he gives at his rallies. He uses it as a buzz word or - especially as it pertains to his audience - a dog whistle. By its simple definition, however, he definitely belongs in the elite. How this clownish billionaire became a populist hero of the American middle class is another of history's mysteries. Michael Reagan, son of the late president, has speculated that Trump has been listening to alot of conservative talk radio, knows what's on the minds of its listeners and has cleverly shoveled it back at them.

But what Trump is referring to in his speeches is probably the elite in part 1d of the full definition - the "political" elite or the "Washington" elite, which he is campaigning to unseat and supplant. These are the people who failed the American middle class, who work only in the interests of the wealthiest Americans, who sold American industry, and with it the blue collar worker, down the river to Mexico. These are the people who have turned their backs on ordinary white Americans, who are systematically handing America over to immigrants, to Hispanics and Muslims. These are the people who are undermining the Constitution, specifically its First and Second Amendments, that guarantee their freedom to worship whomever and however they please and to bear arms.

But what Trump represents, the movement of which he is the figurehead, is an aspect of a much older cultural trend - a trend away from centers of power or influence and away from paradigms and standards defined and long upheld by a cultural elite. Canons are being deconstructed, old masters (most of them dead white men) are being replaced by new ones (women and people of color). In some respects, this trend is a welcome adjustment to a culture that has moved away from Europe and into the world it once colonized. However much culture used to be based on tradition, to the extent that a greater part of tradition has been exclusive to European ones, such a tradition is necessarily exclusive. T.S. Eliot insisted that tradition does not worship the past, but that it is alive only while it is growing. Eliot, however, was a cultural elitist in the sense that he believed that a society devoid of classes would be the death of culture.

Merriam-Webster offers a quite different definition of the word "elitism":

"Elitism. Noun. 1. leadership or rule by an elite; 2. the selectivity of the elite especially snobbery; 3. consciousness of being or belonging to an elite. Elitist. Noun or adjective. being or characteristic of a person who has an offensive air of superiority and tends to ignore or disdain anyone regarded as inferior."

One of the antonyms of elitist is "democratic," which certainly makes it plain that a cultural elitist is not inclusive or egalitarian.

The demography of the people who are most likely to support Donald Trump is quite telling. He or she is more likely to be white, middle class, over the age of 35 and not having a college degree. The last part is the most sticky. The better-educated a person is, it appears, the less likely he is to follow Trump. The people who support Trump claim to feel left out, passed over by the Great Recovery. As outsiders, they would like nothing more than to see the system that excluded them demolished. And more than one observer has likened Donald Trump to a "wrecking ball."

As a critic, I have acquired a rather different understanding of - and attitude toward - the word "elitist." To me, an elitist is someone who holds everything to the highest standard. If the purpose of art is to illuminate the souls of human beings, the best art is the kind that is most effective in its illuminations. But critics - the good ones anyway - aren't well-liked by the public because it doesn't seem to them that critics admit to liking very many books, plays or films. Recently, the fans of the film Suicide Squad, which is the latest run of the comic book movie mill, tried to access the movie review website called Rotten Tomatoes innumerable times in an attempt to shut it down. The fans were upset that a majority of film critics reviewed Suicide Squad negatively. Unfortunately, such films as Suicide Squad are proof against the influence - and the very existence - of criticism. Fans make the common mistake of confusing what they like and what is good. This is why I've often accused so many critics of being little more than fans themselves.

As T.S. Eliot went on to point out: "We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were 50 years ago [this was written in 1948]; and that the evidence of this decline is visible in every department of human activity."(1)

The appearance of Donald Trump as a candidate for president is certainly indicative of the decline about which Eliot was writing. I've written before about Barack Obama's unfavorable image with many Americans, who think he is too "professorial." In other words, they don't seem to want a president who is - or seems to be - smarter than they are. American presidents have sometimes had to simplify, or coarsen, their oratory so that the stupidest spectator or listener won't be reminded of their stupidity. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, always told his advisors and speech-writers to limit themselves to one or two syllable words. Johnson, who was evidently more intelligent than his southern fried image made him out to be, took pains to assure his public that he was as dumb as they were.

Trump has taken Johnson's practice to a new depth. It's probable that he isn't nearly as stupid as his outrageous slogans, that the target of his rabble-rousing is an actual rabble of ill-educated middle class whites, fearful that their country is slipping out of their grasp. What they don't seem to grasp is that it slipped away ages ago.

I remember being harangued in 1992 by a silent type Navy first-class draughtsman (his rate - or MOS) about how elections should be about character, not personality. That's why Bill Clinton, of zero character but heaps of personality, could have defeated George H. W. Bush. History would have a different story to tell if character were the considering factor in elections. Jimmy Carter, for example, would've been re-elected in 1980. Bill Clinton would never have been elected, which would've spared us the unavailing spectacle of Hillary's will to power. Trump would still have television.

(1) T.S. Eliot, Notes Toward a Definition of Culture.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Driving Through the Past

Since literature lives in an eternal and ever-expanding present, it is logical that a writer should take up residence there, among his fellow occupiers of the present. A literary intelligence reacting to his own age has always been one of the great pleasures of art.

But exploring past lives inspires great works of literature as well, whether it is Tolstoy's breathing life into an heroic era of the Russian past just prior to his birth or Flaubert reaching all the way back to the fall of Carthage, holding a mirror up to history can be just as timely and telling as any contemporary account impacting directly on our lives.

These musings have been prompted by an intentionally offhanded dismissal by a prominent American critic of what I believe is a great American film. Reviewing Bruce Beresford's (or Eddie Murphy's) new film Mr. Church in The New Yorker, Richard Brody, who calls the film "repugnant" for quite unconvincing reasons, attacks Beresford in the following terms:

'... it was directed by Bruce Beresford, whose only excuse is that he was (ir)responsible for making "Driving Miss Daisy," in 1989, and his ideas about race are stuck in 1948.'

As often occurs with one of Brody's pieces, I'm not at all sure where he's coming from. He speaks from a view of film - of American film especially - that is foriegn to mine. He finds film masters and masterpieces in the unlikeliest places. Nothing could possibly illustrate this better than what Brody writes a few paragraphs later about Jerry Lewis (surely the most repugnant American comic of the 20th Century's second half):

'Lewis may have been despised and reviled by sniffy intellectuals [what a giveaway!] in the United States, but, well, he always had Paris. As the director and star of his own films, he was recognized as the genius he is by the people who understood more about the art of movies than anyone in the world, France's cinephilic critics and filmmakers.'

The (French) joke, I'm afraid, is on Richard Brody - and on all Americans. The America-hating French see Jerry Lewis as the quintessential American buffoon, who can't even walk straight and is always bumbling and crashing into things.

But Brody's singling out Bruce Beresford, who is Australian, and Driving Miss Daisy for ridicule caught me off-guard. As a longtime fan and follower of the now 76-year-old filmmaker, I followed the online link to Brody's piece in anticipation of discovering what Beresford has been up to lately, surprised that he's been up to anything. Reading as Brody lowered his ax, in a piece dedicated to the largely unsung talents of Eddie Murphy, made me wonder if he resented Beresford precisely for having the audacity of showing Americans how to make great films like Tender Mercies and, yes, Driving Miss Daisy.

Daisy was adapted by Alfred Uhry from his own award-winning play (he won an Oscar for it, but Big Deal). Despite the attraction of its stars (even though Morgan Freeman wasn't quite there yet), the film almost didn't get made. It was the last minute casting of Dan Ackroyd as Miss Daisy's son Boolie that finally got the project rolling. But, interestingly, it was the first Best Picture Oscar winner since 1932's Grand Hotel that didn't give a nomination to its director. As anyone who knows anything about filmmaking can tell you, it was Bruce Beresford who made Miss Daisy as beautiful as it is. His directorial choices, often unnoticeable touches, are all over the film and propel it into art.

It was met with almost unanimous praise, except for a specific quarter: some African-American viewers objected strongly and stridently to Morgan Freeman's performance as Hoke, Miss Daisy's driver. They bristled at the existence, onscreen or off, of such a fawning, subservient "Uncle Tom," bowing and scraping before his white employers, not showing the slightest resistance to the injustices of the white world around him, but lying down and taking it like, well, like an obedient slave.

When I first heard these objections, I was surprised at the denial of Hoke's detractors, who could neither believe that any such man existed nor accept his fictional existence. In his piece on Mr. Church, Brody ridicules the racism behind the character whom Spike Lee called the "Magic Negro," who conforms to white fantasies about the comportment of black men, even down to what must be their vitiated, blighted inner lives.

I haven't read what Morgan Freeman had to say, if anything, about these objections to his performance, but it seems to me that his accomplishment as an actor, both in the stage role and on film - always in the service of Alfred Uhry's play - owed as much to archaeology as aesthetics. The model for the character of Hoke didn't exist by the 1980s, but Freeman, who had perhaps met his type, resurrected him for the play. It may not be in keeping with our reformed, post-Civil Rights view of African-Americans, but it is still historically valid. It challenges our conventional wisdom that it was only the white man that had to evolve and that the black man never changed as the world changed around him. Hoke's acceptance, however grudgingly, of the circumstances of his bondage, of his relationship with the imperious Miss Daisy, outraged some viewers. They wanted to see a fully realized black man, fully emancipated even before the emancipation was a social reality. They refused to accept the past on its own, albeit terrible, terms.

Saying that Driving Miss Daisy is racist is like saying Open City is fascist. Evidently, the only way one can make a film concerning race relations in the America of the 1940s and '50s (and avoid the charge of racism) is to look at everything monochromatically, to make all white people cold and cruel (and stupid) and all black people warm and feeling (and ever so wise). In other words, a work of propaganda.

For the purposes of his film, Bruce Beresford's "ideas about race" ran the gamut of his characters' lives. The relationship of Hoke and Miss Daisy didn't folow the trajectory of history but that of human compassion and love. So that, by the time we see them together in Miss Daisy's nursing home, she a half-demented old white woman and he a retired old black man sharing a piece of pumpkin pie and each other's company, after the upheavals that had overtaken the South in the intervening twenty-odd years, their closeness and sympathy is recognizable and, for me anyway, immensely moving - even as we glimpse an image of Miss Daisy's old Hudson driving into the distance.