Obama Jokes

So I was watching last night’s Daily Show this morning, and Jon’s guest was Zach Galifianakis. They got to talking about President Obama’s appearance on Galifianakis’ parody web series Between Two Ferns. (That appearance was great, incredibly funny, BTW, in that peculiarly funny Obama way.)  Galifianakis talked about what the experience was like, coming to the White House and meeting with the President and eating in the White House lunch room. He said the food there was terrific, (and free), and they even had a dessert menu.  And on the menu was an item called Chocolate Freedom. And Galifianakis said to the waiter, ‘that has to be what you guys call the President, right?’ And Jon Stewart lost it.

It was a funny Obama joke. And it coincided with this idiotic debate I found myself in on the internets, you know, the way you do, arguing with total strangers over really stupid issues, and feeling like a total doofus for getting caught up in something that dumb. The issue, as it happens, was over a not-funny Obama joke. To wit:

President Obama, Phil Mickelson and Andre Agassi are in line at a bank, each of them trying to cash a check. And Agassi gets to the front, and he doesn’t have any ID. The bank teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Andre Agassi.’ And Agassi says, ‘how about this?’ And he takes a tennis racket, and hits a perfect forehand winner out the door of the bank. And the teller is impressed, and cashes the check. Mickelson gets up there and again the teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Phil Mickelson?’ And Mickelson says, ‘how about this?’ and he hits a perfect nine-iron out the door of the bank. And again the teller cashes his check. Obama gets to the teller, and is asked ‘how can I be sure you’re Barack Obama?’ And Obama responds, ‘I don’t have a clue.’  And the teller says, ‘will you have that in tens or twenties, Mr. President.’

This is a joke that Mitt Romney has been telling a lot lately, on the campaign trail for the mid-term elections. I think that’s significant. Anyway, a conservative blogger I know had put this joke on his blog, said he thought it was both funny and true, funny, in fact, precisely because it’s true. I said that I thought it was neither funny or true. It’s a joke about how hopelessly incompetent Obama is. That’s a favorite Fox News/talk radio/conservative blogger meme. Obama’s in over his head, not up to the job, clueless.  So it’s a joke that plays on that notion. I reject the meme, and therefore don’t think the joke is funny. And so we went back and forth, arguing over whether or not a joke was funny. Yes, it is. No, it isn’t. Yes, it is!  NO, IT ISN’T!!!!  Not my finest hour.

The reality is, though, there are lots of Obama jokes out there, and mostly they’re not funny at all. Some are dumb, some are mean-spirited, some just don’t make sense. Very few are genuinely clever, and most aren’t remotely true. And truth is what’s funny. Sort of.

The difficulty with Mitt Romney’s Obama joke (quoted at length above) is that it’s Mitt Romney giving it. It’s white male privilege yucking it up at the expense of an unprivileged person.  It’s a joke that relies on a shared presumption of Obama incompetence. And it can look like a rich white guy chortling at the presumption of a black guy thinking he can do a job better done by rich white guys. Obama came to office with the only qualification he needed to become President; he won an election. But you can look at his resume and see deficiencies; little executive experience, had never run a big organization, had only served in the Senate a few years. He would never get hired as a CEO. His credentials were unimpressive. And for a successful former executive like Romney, watching Obama win reelection had to be infuriating.

I would suggest that Barack Obama had impressive credentials of a different sort. A community organizer/law professor, combining street smarts with academics. He’s a different kind of cat. He’s cooler. In fact, he’s cooler in a McLuhanesque sense. Marshall McLuhan contrasted ‘hot media’ (like movies) with ‘cool’ media (like television). Cool media are about reflection and contemplation, require more of viewers, involve us in both intellectual ways. Hot media are simpler, and affect us more directly and emotionally.  I would suggest that Obama almost instinctively engages in cool ways with cool media. I would suggest that Fox News, and other conservative media, are by instinct hotter, more immediately emotionally engaging, but also, in a sense, at odds with their own medium. The incongruity of that interaction of the medium and message distort both. Fox takes everything way more seriously than cooler voices and heads do, and every crisis is the greatest ever, and with every decision, civilization as we know it is at stake. Obama tries not to get caught up in those sorts of games. The difference between Obama and his conservative detractors is in part stylistic. And he’s great at deflecting criticism, at flicking it off his shoulders.

That’s Obama. Hip-hop, but also Foucault. Reflective and deflective. Dispassionate and rational and funny in a self-parodying way. Ironic. In short, he’s cool. And so Romney’s joke falls flat, seems not so much unfunny as irrelevant. Uncool. (Reminds me of a tee shirt I saw recently.  “Keep Provo awkward.”)

John McCain is old. George W. Bush is stupid. Clinton was terminally horny, and Mitch McConnell sounds like a cartoon turtle when he speaks. And Barack Obama is full of himself, and bad at his job. Lazy comedians can always rely on those few tried-and-tested formulas for easy laughs.But those aren’t jokes that advance political discourse, of course. They’re not that different from jokes based on ethnic stereotypes–Polish jokes, Italian jokes, Irish jokes, Swedish jokes (if you’re Norwegian), or Norwegian jokes (if you’re a Swede.)

I wonder if Obama jokes would be funnier if we went a different route; if we went for anti-humor.  Anti-humor consists of jokes that don’t even try to be funny, which is what makes them funny.  My son gets a lot of comedic mileage out of Latvian jokes. Latvian jokes are deliberately, intentionally unfunny, told in a mock-Eastern-European accent, spoken in tones of unwavering despair. “Knock knock. Who there? Me. Am very cold. Also hungry.” Or this one: “Man has two potatoes. Sorry. Premise of joke ridiculous. Who have two potatoes?” These sorts of anti-jokes, these deliberate parodies of ethnic jokes generally, are funny because they are so absolutely, horribly not funny. For example, this: “What do you call a black guy in the cockpit of an airplane?  (Assuming an expression of outraged offense), “the pilot!  What are you, racist?!?!?”  An anti-joke that mocks self-righteous political correctness.  Or try this one: “How many potatoes does it take to kill an Irishman? Zero.”

That’s right, an Irish potato famine joke.  Too soon?

Or this: Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan walk into a bar. They each order a martini. Then they die, because without regulations, contaminated alcohol was served.

It’s a perfect anti-joke. It’s self-righteous and partisan, but it simultaneously mocks self-righteous partisanship. It’s sort of true, and therefore funny, but it’s also ironic, a parody. It’s therefore also cool.

So: Barack Obama won the nomination for President by promising to get us out of Iraq. And he succeeded in doing so, despite dire warnings from mainstream news media. But now he has to send troops back there, because ISIL beheads journalists.

Not funny. An anti-joke. And therefore an Obama joke that might work, a little.

 

 

 

Divas

My parents are in town this week, visiting, and my Dad and I had a long chat this morning, him reminiscing about his career in opera. My Dad was never an opera star, as stars go. He was like a good Triple A catcher; the best player on a high minor league team, with a long career and multiple call-ups to the majors. He sang at New York City Opera, at Chicago Lyric, at Boston Lyric, but he didn’t have a long European career, nor a career at the Met. He could have; I don’t have any doubt of that. He was a terrific bass-baritone, with a voice strong enough for Wagner, but lyrical enough for Mozart. And he was a fine actor.  So if the Scarpio got sick (in Tosca), New York City Opera could call my Dad, and he’d fly in and sing the role at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, he had regular gigs with Kentucky Opera, back when, under the direction of Moritz von Bomhard, it was one of the best regional opera houses in the country.

But Dad never wanted a European career, or a career at the Met. He taught voice at Indiana University (back when it was either number one or two in any listing of American music schools), and loved teaching. He loved his life in Indiana, playing catch with my brothers and me, sailing on Lake Monroe, camping and hiking and enjoying his family. I don’t want to say that he wasn’t ambitious, exactly, just that his ambitions revolved around family and teaching and the Church, not opera stardom. As a singer and performer, he would rather be good than famous. People who mattered to him knew the high level of excellence his work regularly achieved. And personally, he was kind of a blue-collar guy. He’d been a sheet metal worker, and was a dab hand with a set of carpenter’s tools. And he brought that work ethic and lack of ego to his opera career. He was never a diva.

But boy did he know some.

And that’s what made this morning so fun. Mom and Dad and I sat together in our family room, and he told stories of the great opera singers he knew, both at Indiana and in his career, and how preposterous their ego demands could become. I’ve worked professionally in theatre for over thirty years, and I’ve known some egotistical and demanding actors. And I’ve stood in the wings and snickered with fellow cast members at the antics of diva-esque stars. But theatre divas can’t even begin to compare with opera divas.

Case in point: Madame M—-, a singer Dad knew at IU who turned to teaching after a long career at the Met. She didn’t have a car, or any means of transportation, so she took cabs everywhere. She’d call the cab company and she’d say, in her heavy German accent, “Peek me opp.”  And, sure enough, the cab would show up. She’d take the cab to wherever she was going, and then she’d sweep regally out, saying to the cabbie, “zank you very much.”  The cab company would then send a bill to the Dean’s office at the Music school, where one poor secretary had the responsibility of paying this singer’s bills for her, carefully deducting them from her paycheck. She did the same thing at clothing stores. She’d select a few dresses and walk out with them, with an aristocratic smile for the clerks at the store, who would follow her around, keep of track of what she took, and send the Dean the bill.

Dad told a new Madame M—- story, one I hadn’t heard before. Apparently, a colleague followed her into a lady’s room, and heard, coming out of Madame M—–’s stall, a most spectacular, lengthy and melodious fart. Then, after a moment, Madame M—– said, almost reverently, this: “schön.”

Dad told of the tenor who was singing the demanding title role in Verdi’s Otello.  As was often the case back in the day, he didn’t show up until the week the opera was to open; he’d walk through a dress rehearsal, then perform the next night. He showed up–the set completely built, the opera entirely staged, and saw that the door for his first entrance was stage left. He called for the stage director, and said, ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’ The stage director pointed out that the set was completed, that there was no door stage right, and that he had been staged entering from the left. The tenor responded ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’  And that was it. Tickets had been sold to an audience expecting to see this particular star. There was nothing to do except to completely rebuild the set that night, to give him a stage right entrance.

Another story, a favorite of mine: a soprano, arriving in Los Angeles for a gig, called her agent in New York and woke him from a sound sleep to demand that he call the driver of the limo she was sitting in to tell him to turn down the air conditioning. Obviously, she couldn’t be expected to, you know, actually talk to the limo driver herself. There are people who do those jobs.

A few years ago, I remember, my wife and I went to an opera. And before it began, we heard this pre-show announcement: “Miss _______ (the leading soprano) is ill, and not in good voice tonight. She has nonetheless consented to perform.”  I try to imagine, I don’t know, an actor like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart or Michael Gambon doing that. “Mr. Gambon is ill tonight. Nonetheless, he has consented to perform.”  The best actors I know would honestly rather die than let you know they were under the weather some night. The show must go on, and every audience for which you perform deserves your very best. That’s the theatre ethic. Not this opera singer. What if she cracked on a high note? Better for us all to know how courageous she was even performing.

Dad did, of course, also sing with other big stars who weren’t remotely divas.  He was good friends with James King, for example, a splendid tenor and a fine actor and complete professional. One of my favorite roles of my Dad’s was his John the Baptist in the Richard Strauss opera Salome, with the wonderful Nancy Shade in the title role. Most opera stars are perfectly reasonable people, dedicated to their craft and easy to work with.

But sometimes, a combination of ego, insecurity and selfishness leads performers to misbehave. And this was the final point my Dad made, chatting about divas this morning. He said he saw this over and over; a diva opera star would perform, and during the curtain call, you’d hear thunderous applause for all the other performers, and then, for the diva, a big fall-off.  “You can’t fool audiences,” he said. “They can always tell a phony.  They see through them every time.”  I’ve seen that too. The diva’s mask may look, initially, comic. But it’s pure tragedy every time.

 

 

The weirdest acting gig in showbiz

Wendy has a boyfriend. You’ve probably noticed; she brought him to meet the family, and he panicked when she mentioned they were having Gouda cheese with chicken. Made him think he’d severely underdressed, so he grabbed some flowers out of a convenient flower pot, handed them to Wendy’s Mom. Awkward; they were having a new Wendy’s Gouda chicken sandwich thing. Very informal. But also normal; in Wendy-land, nobody eats anything but Wendy’s sandwiches.  Ever. This is, BTW, at least her second boyfriend that we know about; she used to date LDS actor Kirby Heyborne. I don’t know why they broke up; maybe because he was kinda cheap. But I don’t think she would have minded cheap. She only eats at Wendy’s, after all. (Though, in fact, she doesn’t. She’s never taken a bite from any Wendy’s sandwich in any commercial).

Still, Wendy has a life. She has friends she hangs out with. She has friends with boyfriend issues. She has office cubicle type job, and a nerdy co-worker who’s into her. And of course, that’s the point. She’s a nice, normal, girl-next-door kind of friendly person, who really really likes Wendy’s food.  That’s how they’re selling her, and thereby selling sandwiches.

Wendy is actually Morgan Smith Goodwin, an actress from Alabama, now based in New York. She’s apparently done a lot of stage work, but only two short films.  Mostly, she just plays Wendy, the red-haired girl in the Wendy’s commercials. And that, actually, has made her kind of famous. She also did a webseries called Just Us Girls, in which she’s one of a group of socially awkward computer nerd girls.

But Wendy, man, that’s a boss gig. I have no idea how much she’s paid, but it has to be pretty substantial. And it’s become her career. My guess is that her contract with Wendy’s prohibits her playing, you know, the perp’s ex-wife on CSI or something. She’s Wendy, for at least the foreseeable future. (And for the rest of her life, she can’t ever ever ever tell anyone that she actually prefers Burger King. Or that she’s vegan).

This thing, creating fictional characters for a series of commercials, is nothing new. Gordon Jump, a fine LDS actor, played the Maytag Repairman for years. Dick Wilson,played grocery store manager Mr. Whipple for twenty-one years, relentlessly scolding women not to squeeze the Charmin. Remember Joe Isuzu, from all those Isuzu ads? Played by David Leisure, who parlayed his gift for playing smarmy creeps into a long sit-com career.

But that’s part of what’s new today. Gordon Jump was better known as the station manager on WKRP in Cincinatti.  Dick Wilson was a regular on Bewitched, and David Leisure, of course, was on a number of popular shows. Today, though, the trend is to hire an unknown actress, and let her build a character. (They’re not all female characters, I suppose; AT&T’s doing a new series with a couple of computer network installers, one of them incurably romantic. But mostly, these commercial characters are women). The newest is Lily Adams, a hyper-competent AT&T saleswoman. She’s played by actress Milana Vayntrub, who is, turns out, from Uzbekistan. She’s a hoot; I love this short film she wrote, directed, and starred in, about an actress who has built an entire career out of playing dead people.

Of course, the superstar of all commercial actresses today has to be Stephanie Courtney, who has played Flo in over fifty of those Progressive Insurance ads.  Courtney’s from upstate New York, moved into the city and went to acting school, spent years pounding the pavement trying to get acting gigs, then moved over to standup. Here’s her act. Then she landed Flo. She’s been Flo for six years now. I think a lot of Flo’s appeal is that she’s so relentlessly upbeat about selling car insurance. Lately, though, Flo’s gone kind of post-modern, moving out of that relentlessly white futurist office and into settings inspired by film noir, romantic comedies, or biker movies. It gets weird, though. Surf the ‘net for Flo, and you’ll find all sorts of strange things, like a line of sexy Flo-style Halloween costumes. (“Is Flo hot?” is apparently quite a popular internet meme).

But the worst of it is that Flo is now the face of Progressive Insurance. And when Progressive refused to pay a claim, Flo’s avatar was used to defend the company. I have to think that would be awkward, to have a company use your image and likeness to defend itself against malfeasance they committed. Obviously, none of this is the fault of Stephanie Courtney, who is simply an actress playing a character. But note that Flo’s entire pitch is about the affordability of Progressive Insurance.  It’s obviously not her fault if the company turns out to be dodgy. But it must feel . . . unsettling.

I have an actress friend who has become the public spokesperson for a product line. In her case, the product is poo pourri. The commercials are remarkably funny, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Still, it is poo pourri.

My point is this. These actors are interesting people, talented people. I think it’s awesome that they’re making a living in this incredibly difficult profession. But there’s also a downside. I don’t think playing Lily or Wendy or Flo is likely to lead to much else, in part for contractual reasons. I suppose Morgan Smith Goodwin might parlay Wendy into a TV series or rom-com or, more likely, a quirky indie film. But she’s been Wendy for three years and it hasn’t happened yet. And Stephanie Courtney has to sit there and watch Flo, her character, (or at least an avatar of it) defend a sleazy insurance company. Flo’s not to blame for Progressive’s misdeeds (and their misdeeds were confirmed in court), anymore than Wendy can be blamed for me getting fatter every time I mow down a Baconator.  But those roles weren’t why they went into show biz.

And not every fan of Flo, Wendy or Lily is . . . benign. Researching this, I stumbled into some insanely creepy websites and chat rooms, with literally hundreds of posts, all from guys, that I felt like I had to take a shower after reading. Incredibly disgusting, in that human-cockroach sort of way only the Internet brings to the surface. For all of them, for Wendy (or Red, as she’s generally known), and Flo, and Lily. I don’t know what kind of security these actresses receive, but I hope it’s considerable. Weird, but lucrative sub-set of acting gigs, then, with considerable downside and a scary fan base. And this profession is tough enough that I hardly know a single actor who wouldn’t jump to be the next Flo. Hardly one.

 

 

What’s news?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched Anchorman II, astoundingly silly Will Ferrell turn as a newsman. Also this morning, as is my wont, I watched last night’s The Daily Show, getting my Jon Stewart fix, and followed it with my Stephen Colbert fix. Also watched some Rachel Maddow, and caught a little news, some on Fox and some on MSNBC. And then, finally got to Sunday’s John Oliver show.

John Oliver got his start on Jon Stewart, and filled in one summer when Jon was off making a movie. He was so good that HBO gave him his own show, Last Week Tonight.  It’s amazing. Of all the fake news shows out there, from Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update (“Francisco Franco is still dead!”) to Bill Maher to Stewart and Colbert, Oliver’s show is, IMHO, the best. Oliver does still laugh at his own jokes, which can be annoying. But because he’s only on once a week, he’s able to dig deepest, focus on just a few issues, really take some risks.

Anyway, on his show last Sunday, he did this story, about the Miss America Pageant (warning: the clip has some bad language). It’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the Miss America Pageant, or more anachronistic. As Oliver put it in his opening, “how the &$^$^(@ is this still happening?”  It’s the year 2014. How does an event, in which a fully clothed male stands in front of a line of half-naked women, so they can be judged, still be a part of American culture?

Okay, it was a funny bit. But then Oliver dug deeper. First, he showed the ridiculous questions the contestants get asked, and then showed one young woman, in 20 seconds, give a thoughtful, intelligent, nuanced response to a question about ISIS. His point is clear: yeah, it’s a beauty contest, but these are some exceptionally sharp young women. It’s heartbreaking, in fact, to think that these bright and talented women have to parade about in swim suits to earn a college scholarship.

But of course, Miss America is a scholarship pageant. That’s what’s at stake. These women are competing in an organization that prides itself on being the biggest provider of scholarships specifically for women in the world.  And they probably are. At least, Oliver and his staff researched the question, and couldn’t find anyone else providing more money.

And then they dug deeper. The pageant claims that it ‘makes available’ 45 million dollars annually. That’s a lot of money. Is it true? Oliver and his staff dug deeper. The Miss America pageant is a non-profit organization, required to file publicly accessible financial reports with the government. Oliver’s staff dug through those records, and found that the pageant actually gave out $482,000 in scholarship funds. So they pulled the tax forms from every state level competition in the country.

What they discovered was that the 45 million dollar claim is basically bogus, that Miss America reached that number by counting every scholarship any affiliated school might possibly offer.  If a young woman is eligible for scholarships at one of four Pennsylvania schools, for example, Miss America counts the total value of all four school scholarships, though obviously Miss Pennsylvania is only going to attend one of them.  That kind of thing. Miss America does not provide 45 million dollars in scholarship funds.

It was a very funny comedy routine. But it was also informative, well researched, and quite probably true. The Miss America pageant felt it necessary to respond. So did other scholarship programs for women. And nobody really disputed Oliver’s research. His story was funny, yes, but it was also truthful, accurate and disturbing.

So how was it not journalism?

And that’s the point. The line between fake journalism and real journalism, between the way comedians deconstruct the news and the often preposterous sideshow 24 hour news has become is, at the very least, very thin indeed.  If it exists at all. I know people who get all their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They don’t necessarily strike me as ill-informed.

I wish more people read newspapers. But newspapers are dying. I look nostalgically back to the days when news was delivered by the Cronkites and Huntleys and Brinkleys of the world. But that time is long past.  What we have is. . . well, what we have is this.

Anchorman 2 is an incredibly silly movie. The characters are buffoons and fools, selfish and self-centered. That’s why they’re so funny. (In fact, the one genuinely human moment of connection in the film is the relationship between Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig, who play a weatherman and a secretary, both of them dumb as bricks). But it’s also an incisive and intelligent satire on the news industry, on 24 hour news networks, who try to bring people “the news they want to hear, not the news they need to hear,” as Ron Burgundy puts it. This means overt calls to patriotism. Car chases. Soft-core titillation. Weather people buffeted about by hurricane winds (because how can you report a hurricane without putting some poor schmuck in the middle of one). A lot of the movie is pretty flabby, honestly, but in middle of it is some pretty sharp satire.

Jon Stewart has been accused by conservatives by having a liberal bias, which he freely admits is true. But his main target on the Daily Show is not in fact conservatism. It’s the same thing comedians have always made fun of: human stupidity and incompetence. Hubris and arrogance and people in power with their pants around their ankles. Fools behaving clownishly. Ron Burgundy is an idiot, of course, but his twenty-four news show is successful. There’s one sequence in the movie where Ron’s wife, a news anchor on a mainstream news show, is interviewing Yasser Arafat, a huge scoop for her (the show is set in the 80s). Ron, meanwhile, decides to follow a random car chase taking place in Milwaukee. His story gets much better ratings, of course. And it would. That’s why the scene is funny; that’s what would happen.

So if Jon Stewart is liberal, and Colbert plays a conservative idiot for laughs, and obviously John Oliver is liberal, and Bill Maher is so liberal he bleeds blue, why hasn’t there been a conservative fake news show?  There actually was one on Fox for a short while–it totally bombed. It bombed for an exceptionally good reason: because it wasn’t funny.

The real answer, of course, is that conservatives don’t just have a successful fake news show, they have an entire fake news network. CNN is funny because they’re lame; they’re funny in the same way that earnest people taking silly things seriously is always funny.  CNN is funny because CNN covers Justin Bieber the same way it covers ISIS.

Fox is funny in much the same way; that combination of earnestness and triviality is always going to be funny. But add ideology to the mix and the whole thing becomes hilarious. They’re not just earnest people taking trivial issues seriously, they’re also people who always, always have the Right Answer to any question, found in an unswerving allegiance to a specific set of ideas. The federal government: bad. Global warming: non-existent. Corporations: good. Barack Obama: Satan.

But look at they way they repackage classic comedic tropes. Take that Fox standby, the pompous, pontificating elderly authority figure. Polonius, in other words. The fathers in all of Moliere’s comedies. Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Bill O’Reilly epitomizes the type. Remember, during the Ferguson stand-off, Bill O giving those condescending scoldings to black people? Offensive, sure. But also really really funny, as hubris always is (that is, when its not tragic). And Sean Hannity; isn’t he also a comic type? Eddie Haskell, maybe? Alex Keaton? Obsequious young suck-up?

I mean, why are all the Fox News reporters and co-anchors pretty blondes? I don’t mean to suggest that attractive blonde women can’t read the news, or that they’re universally bad at their jobs. But come on. Isn’t it at least a little funny that a news organization can’t find anyone else to hire? The Stepford Wives jokes aside, is it an accident that Fox’s demographics skew so severely old, white and male? A generation of men who grew up girl-watching? And that, simultaneously, all the news presenters are attractive young women?

I know the response from conservatives. MSNBC has a liberal bias worse than Fox’s conservative bias. Plus, so do CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN. PBS. Fox is a necessary corrective. I’ve heard all the arguments. My point, though, is that Fox is itself basically a fake news organization. They have the trappings of real news–the sets, the graphics, the anchors sitting at a desk, the field reporters–while actually sort of ducking the responsibilities and obligations of actual news reporting. And John Oliver did a real news story–dug for facts, asked tough questions, researched and reported. So what’s news? What counts anymore?

 

When institutions fail

The National Football League is a cultural institution of tremendous impact and power, an immensely profitable financial entity, and a television colossus. It’s also in big trouble. Video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, one of the stars of the league, beating up his then-fiancee (now his wife) in an elevator was so sickening that the league’s long history of sweeping domestic violence allegations by its players under the carpet became untenable. The league’s tone-deaf, contradictory, utterly clue-less reaction to the whole fiasco exacerbated the problem.  Pretty soon, the league didn’t just have a Ray Rice problem; it had a Greg Hardy problem, a Ray McDonald problem, as other players were revealed to have beaten up their wives and girlfriends.  A league superstar, a former Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for beating his four-year old with a tree branch.  Football, a sport build on violence, a sport in which speed and aggression and violence are central to its appeal, is the one sport where the public has to know that the players themselves are able to turn it on and turn it off; play hard hitting football, but also able to function as adults in civilized society. The huge majority of players are able to do precisely that, with grace and maturity.  But there have to be consequences for players who aren’t able to.

The one sports publication that seems to have the best handle on this is Bill Simmons otherwise-laddish sports-and-pop-culture site Grantland.com.  While Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proved as behind-the-eight-ball as the NFL offices on the history (with SI‘s senior football writer, Peter King, who I generally like and admire, offering a humiliating apology for not covering this story as he ought to have done), Simmons himself devoted a very long give-and-take mailbag article to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, with Simmons calling repeatedly for Goodell to resign.  Grantland’s top football guy, Bill Barnwell raised the very real possibility that the NFL might cease to exist in the near future. Best of all, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote this chilling, powerful article showing the league’s historical problems with domestic violence, and how the preferred response has always been to ignore the problem, not respond to it at all.  Because they could.  Because football fans didn’t much care.

And that’s the larger point.  Some football players (a tiny minority, to be sure) have always acted violently off the football field as well as on it.  Wives, girlfriends, children, have been beaten up for years. But the league didn’t do anything about it, because nobody in the league offices thought they needed to.  Meanwhile, the world was changing. Public awareness of domestic violence has increased. And more and more women have become football fans.  The league has, in fact, had some success marketing the game to women.

So what you had was an institution run almost entirely by old, rich, white men, comfortably complacent about the game they administered and sold, not really perceiving the occasional bad headline (usually buried on page eight in the sports’ sectIon) as any kind of serious threat to the game, or to the league itself.  Then suddenly the Ray Rice video exploded on the scene, so visceral and brutal and horrifying. And that became a catalyzing incident causing the vague discomfort felt by many fans (probably most fans), over this full-contact sport we liked to watch to expand and explode.  And the league was taken completely by surprise, and the league’s ownership and management seemed to have no idea how to respond.  And so we saw a series of ad hoc decisions, in which players were suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again by someone else.  And everyday we heard a new narrative.  Bill Simmons captured it best:

And that’s my biggest issue with Goodell — it’s not just his tone deafness and his penchant for reacting instead of acting. He’s so freaking calculated. About everything. For eight years, he’s handled his business like some father of a high school kid who’s hosting a prom party, sees some unresponsive drunk kid sprawled across the bathroom floor, then thinks to himself, Crap, I might get sued, what do I do? instead of This kid might be hurt, we have to help him!

Calculated, sure. But also utterly clue-less.  It wasn’t until Anheuser Busch threatened to withdraw their sponsorship of the league that anyone did anything meaningful about Adrian Peterson.  As Jon Stewart put it, this meant that the moral center of the league was a beer manufacturer.  A company that makes a product that can be proved to lead to domestic violence.

But that’s what happens. An organization drifts along, happily (and profitably) complacent. And meanwhile, the world changes. And the organization’s leadership finds itself baffled and confused, capable of only the most ineffectual responses.

It’s like Smith-Corona, making these great typewriters for years, and then suddenly the world changed and nobody wanted a typewriter anymore.  Or Blockbuster video, with a great business model, stores in every town, movie rentals for any occasion.  And then the world changed, and nobody wanted to traipse down an aisle looking for movies to rent anymore.  May I gently suggest that the emergence of Ordain Women might be such a catalyzing incident for the LDS Church?

 

 

The ‘decadent party girl’ pop song

I’m an old guy. I like rock music; grew up with it. I don’t listen to the radio much and don’t follow the pop charts. When I become aware of a trend in popular music, it sort of dawns on me slowly: ‘oh, that song’s a bit like that song.’  And my insights, such as they are, are probably way way passé.  And above all, I want to avoid moralizing. When I was a kid, I detested the ‘rock music’s going to destroy society’ sermons, and I’m not about to start preaching them myself.  Besides, harrumphing old guys pontificating about the life styles of the young have been a staple of comedy ever since Polonius sent Laertes off to college. I am not that guy. Having made all those disclaimers, though, there is a genre that’s interesting right now, and I thought I’d offer some examples and analysis.

The genre I have in mind is the ‘decadent party girl’ pop song. It’s a song in which a girl sings about how fun it is to party all the time. And, again, this is nothing new. Madonna’s Material Girl and Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun are classics of the genre, which really dates back to Marilyn Monroe singing about how diamonds are a girl’s best friend. (Marilyn’s song, of course, is way creepier than the songs today; girls today are arguably celebrating their own empowerment, while Marilyn is essentially (tragically) promoting prostitution, or at the very least her own subjectification).

Anyway, the recent song that caught my attention is, as I write this, still in constant top forty rotation; Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. (The video is particularly interesting, borrowing its look from Clueless). And, again, the lyrics celebrate what Thorstein Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption’: “Cup of Ace, cup of Goose, cup of Cris, high heels, something worth half a ticket on my wrist.” It’s all carefully encoded, and also the kind of thing male rappers have celebrated for two decades. ‘This is where I am, this is what I’ve risen to, this is me, owning my own Veblenian economic empowerment.’ The kind of lifestyle depicted in Sophia Coppola’s movie Bling Ring.  Wow, it’s awesome to have tons of money, and awesomer to spend it on bling and drugs and cars and clothes. It’s all pose, of course, all surface and image. But those images are a potent enough combination of temptations, to which I have no doubt it would be sort of fun to occasionally succumb. But the song doesn’t dig deeper than that fairly obvious insight.

Example two: Ke$ha and We R Who We R. Ke$ha’s particularly interesting in this regard. She carefully cultivated her ‘dirty party girl’ image in song after song and in video after video.  But she’s also brilliant: scored over 1500 on her SATs, was accepted into Barnard College, but dropped out to pursue a pop career. I can’t help but think that her ‘dirty party girl’ image has been very carefully crafted, both by her management and by her.  She writes her own songs, negotiates her own contracts, and apparently invests her money intelligently.  She wouldn’t be the first singer to cynically cultivate an image and cash in by creating pop songs that fit the zeitgeist.

But what’s really interesting is to see the deconstruction of the ‘decadent partier’ song. That’s where the amazing British songstress Lily Allen fits in. She’s hardly new–nor is this genre–but after just three albums, she combines an eclectic pop sensibility with wickedly spot-on lyrics, as with this song, The Fear.  When she sings “I’ll take my clothes off, and I will be shameless, ’cause everyone knows, that’s how you get famous,” it’s clearly satire.  But when she sings “I don’t know what’s right, I don’t what’s real, anymore,” she’s reflecting on the emptiness of the very ambition the rest of the song so cheekily expresses.  “It doesn’t matter, ’cause I’m packing plastic, and that’s what makes my life so f-ing fantastic.” Word.

Lily Allen is sharp, smart and funny. Lorde’s Royals is sad, powerfully plaintive, tragic. It’s a poor girl’s reflection on celebrity worship, on the world of pop star worship that she can only view from the outside. And, as brilliant as Lorde’s own performance of her song is, somehow Postmodern Jukebox exceed it, in a version sung by a seven-foot tall white-suited clown.  Trust me, it’s great.

Of course, any trend needs a final brilliant parody to cement it in our consciousness, and nobody is better at this than Garfunkel and Oates.  Content alert; there’s some language here (there’s actually quite a lot of bad language here), but my gosh, it’s funny: This Party Just Took a Turn for the Douche.

As for the trend itself, it’s interesting to me, the way it both embraces and rejects celebrity culture. As usual, the smartest performers have figured that culture out, and find it both amusing and insubstantial. And the least sensitive and sensible song-writers  will have made (and spent) their money, and then faded away soon enough.

 

 

 

Obligatory bad theatre

I don’t know why it is that every major life event for individuals and institutions all require the performance of really bad theatre. Oh, I do sort of get it–rites of passage are culturally universal–but what isn’t clear is why the ceremonials have to be so ridiculous. Because they really are.

What prompted this was an university-wide email my wife received about today’s coronation inauguration ceremony for the new BYU President, Kevin Worthen. The memo directed everyone’s attention to the exquisite symbolism of the event, culminating in President Worthen’s being invested with the crown scepter medallion, which got hung around his neck like an Olympic medal. The actual draping of the bauble was done by his wife, a nice touch. Except, as my wife pointed out, the memo didn’t specify that it would be done by his wife, but by his (gender-neutral) ‘spouse.’ This, of course, opens up the possibility of a future female President of BYU, something that will never, ever, not in a million years ever happen.  Which we all know. So having the wife do the trinket-dispensing isn’t actually a nod to gender equality at all. The BYU President selection process is, well, seems to be, well, actually nobody knows anything about it at all, transparency being a virtue with which BYU has had little difficulty in abandoning. But whatever process they use, it’s never going to result in a woman President, and everyone knows it.

(I see no evidence, BTW, that BYU’s non-transparent, entirely secretive search process ends up with radically worse university presidents than the far more inclusive and open processes in place at other universities.  I can’t think of any more comically inept group of individuals in American life, except for the House of Representatives, than university presidents.  When I point out the the leadership of the hopeless, idiotic, sensationally hypocritical NCAA comes entirely from university Presidents, I think my point is proved.)

I’m sorry, I’m sure it was a solemn occasion.  I’m especially imagining the long walk off-stage by former President Cecil Samuelson, measured steps, to a drum roll, pausing briefly under a basketball standard, waving goodbye a la Nixon on the helicopter, then off into the darkness, followed by a moment of silence, and a single echoing gunshot.  And then from the rafters, drifting quietly down, the ashes of his now cremated season basketball tickets.  (I think probably they didn’t actually shoot him.)

No, I’m imagining a ceremony entirely risible, because most ceremonials are like that, fantastic exercises in laughter-suppression.  My all-time favorite is one my oldest son’s school did when he finished 1st grade.  All us parents were invited to the school, to attend ‘an important event.’  We showed up, and watched as our children were given identical certificates of ‘anticipated achievement.’  The kids were all lined up, and we parents were invited to contemplate the wonderful things these six-year olds were going to do.  And, you know, that’s a lovely thought. I’m sorry now I found it hilarious.  But come on: a certificate of ‘anticipated achievement?’ Seriously?

When I was in Boy Scouts, we had award-ceremony-things all the time. We’d get merit badges, and there’d be this whole event, and then we’d get an itty-bitty little tiny pin, which we were supposed to pin on our Mom’s blouses. This was not a bad idea, actually, since the earning of merit badges was always a two part process–the kid did the work, the Mom did the nagging.  The pinning part, though required a mastery of fine motor skills of which of I was entirely incapable; I think I stuck my poor Mom with the pin for every one of my 21 merit badges, then once again when I got my Eagle. Plus it had that horrifying ‘pinning the corsage on your prom date’ horrifying proximity to, uh, female chest areas vibe. Not cool.

When my kids were in grade school in Utah, we had this annual event called the Patriotic Program. OMG it was horrible. Every grade in the school had to take its turn and stand up on risers and bellow tunelessly these pop-country songs about America. “Oh I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!” they’d holler at us like zombies, under the gimlet eye of the school music teacher, who was 179 years old and absolutely looked like someone you did NOT want to mess with. I didn’t know there were that many pop-country songs about America, all sounding alike. And meanwhile, we were treated to a slide show, usual stuff, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and Yosemite and Lincoln Memorial and Bush on that aircraft carrier: Mission Accomplished. (I couldn’t help notice than after Bush left office, the slide show did not feature images of the next guy.  Wonder why that is?)  My wife and I resorted to all manner of deviousness rigging the ‘which parent has to go this year’ sweepstakes. I’m a theatre guy; I was lucky. I often had rehearsal that night.

Without question, though, the most tedious, endless, comical, absolutely obligatory rite-of-passage American ceremonial has to be a high school graduation. There’s the long wait while all the kids file into the college gym where they hold the thing. There are the endless awful speeches, full of false optimism and boosterism. Then we have to wait all over again while every single kid goes up there and gets his diploma. it never takes fewer than nine hours to get through, and the only part that interests you–your kid getting his/her diploma–takes eight seconds. I’ve been through it four times. That’s fifty seven hours (I’m bad at math, sue me) of my life I’m never getting back.

There are tons of things like that. For a long time, my wife and I made extra cash singing at funerals and weddings. Funerals were way more fun. For one thing, you sing better music at funerals.  The families don’t usually want tacky love songs at funerals; they want Bach.  For another, the person being honored wasn’t likely to complain about the song selection and performances. Brides (and Brides’ Mothers) were less reticent about pointing out the specific ways in which our performances had Ruined Her Special Day. But funerals were relaxing. Peaceful.

I’m already making plans for my own funeral, and I don’t doubt that it’ll end up being as tacky as most people’s funerals are. The fact is, human beings crave ceremonial. We want to recognize achievement by making a public fuss. The fact that the theatre we perform is often hilarious is just part of being human. We’re ridiculous creatures, we human beings, and never more so than when we’re being solemn.

Sunday Thoughts

Yesterday, I went to Church with my boot on, having broken my foot.  The choir was singing, and my wife is the choir director.  High councilmen spoke, and as is often the case, my mind wandered.  So a wander-y post; please forgive.  There’s always a chance it will lead somewhere interesting.

The subject the speakers had been asked to address was ‘reverence,’ and as usual, the speakers emphasized that reverence isn’t just a matter of keeping small children from disturbing the meeting.  In fact, for the most part, the parents of small children in our ward are particularly punctilious about taking obstreperous infants out to the lobby.  But our speaker (a man for whom I have a particular fondness, because he’s from Kentucky, and speaks with the soft burr of a Kentucky accent, so familiar to this Hoosier boy) began speaking of reverence in lots of other settings; the music we listen to, the popular culture we consume, the clothing choices of young men and (especially) young women on dates.  We show reverence for Heavenly Father by eschewing hip-hop, by avoiding ‘certain movies,’ by dressing modestly; that seemed central to his thesis.  Rebutting it in my mind, I thought: ah, Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season and a purpose under heaven.” And modesty standards are ephemeral/cultural/patriarchal/anachronistic, not transcendent/eternal/reverent.  And what of irreverence?  What of comedy?  “A time to weep, and a time to laugh.”

But my wife had been thoughtful ever since the passing of the sacrament.  From time to time, we pass notes in Church.  We try to do it reverently, or at least, secretively, and I love it, love communicating with her in these tiny notes scribbled in the margins of the program.  “Why,” she asked, “is the sacrament a two-part ordinance?  Why body AND blood, bread AND water?”  “Because that’s what Jesus instituted, at the Last Supper.”  “But why?” she asked.  “Why should we remember both the body and the blood?  Could it be because our bodies can survive lots of difficulties, but not the loss of blood?”  I wondered about this.  “Perhaps because Christ’s atonement was meant to overcome both pain (body) and death (blood)?”  Could that be it?

The Last Supper is described in all four gospels, but as with many incidents, is more elaborately told in John; it gets four chapters in John.  But John does not really mention the Supper itself; most of it is given to what must have been his last great sermon to the Twelve, a great dissertation on discipleship.  ‘Body and Blood’ aren’t mentioned, but the whole talk is full of dualisms: Jesus as ‘true vine’ and Father as ‘wine dresser’ for example, ‘servants’ who are also ‘friends.’

So perhaps our speculation isn’t scripturally based.  I still think my wife’s on to something profound. The sacrament celebrates Christ’s victory over pain and death, both.  We don’t just resurrect, we recover.  We overcome too.

And that’s something to cope with reverently.  We finished our note: the high councilman sat down, we headed up to sing.  But on our way up to the stand, my knee gave out a little.  I had to gimp my way up, then stand awkwardly while catching my breath enough to sing.  The song we sang was lovely, and the arrangement my wife had made for it emphasized the text in beautiful ways.  And I thought about pain, and the overcoming of pain, the part of the sacrament service (maybe) relating to bread, the body.  The beauty of music is enhanced by the difficulty of learning it.  The real dualism isn’t pain and death, but pain and joy, neither of which can be experienced without each other.

And another way to overcome pain, another way of coping with the endless struggles of human existence really is comedy, it really is irreverence.  That’s why people in power can’t really be very funny, unless they’re also self-deprecating.  A joke by a white supremacist about silly black people isn’t funny.  A joke by a black comedian about his own people can be.  Humor exists to afflict the comfortable, as well as to comfort the afflicted.  That’s also why the atonement was given us; that’s what Jesus meant by ‘inasmuch as you have done it unto one of least of these, my brethren.’ Did Jesus want us to laugh?

(And the single most reverent event I have attended was a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at Indiana University.  With rock music, and bad language, and a priest blaspheming.  And a child leading us towards atonement, and peace.  And there’s holiness in great comedy, there’s God in the details of theatrical performance, however secular.  I feel God’s presence, listening to Bach, to the Beatles, to Tupac, to Arcade Fire.  To every season there is a time.)

Also over the weekend, I re-read Anne Wroe’s spectacular Pilate: Biography of an Invented Man.  In the medieval passion plays and cycle plays, Pilate was always a leading character, and a comedic one.  A ranter and a drunk, he’d lay about him with a club, shouting curses to Mahmoud (Mohammed, and who cares about anachronism!).  Pilate was, as governor of occupying forces, the most powerful man in Palestine; Jesus as powerless as it was possible to be.  But, especially in John, the tables are turned on Pilate.  His conversation with Jesus is just strange enough to be plausible–Pilate asking what he must have thought were utterly straightforward questions (“where are you from?”) and Jesus giving answers as baffling as they were provocative. (Funny?  On purpose?  Comedic?) Because Jesus knew from the beginning that his body and blood had to be forfeit; he had to be killed, and in a specific way, and this Roman administrator had to order it.  But Pilate was just unsettled enough to see, with perhaps some genuine insight, how wrong his own role would have to be.  He nearly overcame his own limitations; three times, he declared that he could find no fault in this man.  But ultimately, his own weaknesses reasserted themselves.  And, finally, he affixed his seal to an order, and then ordered a basin, and washed his hands.

He did it because he was afraid.  He did it because he knew how Emperor Tiberius (pedophile and murderer and a Roman God, a vicious tyrant, and also believed to be divine) treated the bodies and blood of men under his command who did not handle the affairs of Rome perfectly.

So we all have the same choice Pilate had, the choice to behave courageously or cravenly, bow to authority or (at times, when prompted to) mock it.  And we’ll suffer either way, and die whatever we choose.  But we can honor that body and that blood, by the choices we make. But we have to make those choices.  And not let our culture, whatever it might be, dictate them for us.

Robin Williams: requiescat in pace

The great Robin Williams died yesterday, an apparent suicide. And the rest of the day, FB was a place of mourning.  “Captain, my captain.”  The Dead Poet’s Society was a movie my wife and I both loved, and that iconic line seemed a fitting epitaph.

What’s remarkable to me about Williams’ death was this: he was one celebrity you never read about being a jerk.  With most celebrities, you read about them and you say ‘well, sure, s/he was a good actor, but there was that time. . . ‘  Not Williams.  Instead we heard literally hundreds of stories about his patience and kindness with fans.  When we heard negative stories about him, they were almost entirely self-inflicted–he had a substance abuse problem; he suffered from depression. But he did not seem infected by self-importance; quite the contrary.  I think he loved performing, but I always sensed some insecurity there too; he also wanted us to love him.

We need to recognize that depression is a real illness.  My oldest daughter is a remarkably bright and funny and delightful young woman who I love with all my heart.  She also suffers from depression, has for years.  Her comment on Williams’ death: ‘there but for the grace of God. . . .’  Let’s reach out to those in our own lives who suffer from this debilitating and life-threatening disease.  My parents are a good example of this.  When they learned of my daughter’s illness, they both made a point of articulating to her their unconditional love and support and prayers.

Depression is poorly understood by many in our culture, and from time to time we hear people say ‘they should just snap out of it,’ or ‘cheer up, life is good!’ or similar inanities.  Or they judge.  One so-called Christian blogger, who shall forever remain nameless here, demonstrated his own lack of charity with a blog post that disgraced the entire internet.  (I’m sure some of you know who I’m talking about; if not, he’s not worth your attention).   But on the same day that I learned of Williams’ death, I also learned that a close friend has been diagnosed with cancer.  I consider both diseases, cancer and depression, equally dangerous.  Blessedly, both can be treated more effectively today than in the past. Neither should be taken lightly.

But, Robin Williams!  Oh my goodness, what a loss.  People forget that Williams was trained as a classical actor at Juilliard, that he turned to stand-up as an alternative to acting, to pay some bills.  His stand-up routine was hyper-kinetic, full of impressions and voices and accents and riffs of popular culture, a rush of mayhem, with only the loosest transitions between subjects and topics.  We talk about how comedy is timing, and Williams had exquisite comic timing, but at a rapid-fire pace.  Compare him to someone like Stephen Wright, or Jim Gaffigan, two comedians with, again, extraordinary timing, but who work at a much slower pace, sometimes getting huge laughs from pauses.  Comic timing simply means this: telling the joke so that the punchline registers without distraction.  Comic timing really means comic clarity.  And I think there was probably never a better talk show host than Robin Williams, probably ever.  He was just so astonishingly on.

Of course, he was also a fine dramatic actor; a three-time Oscar nominee.  The roles he’s best known for are the inspirational ones: Good Will Hunting, The Dead Poets’ Society, Patch Adams, Good Morning Vietnam, where he played unconventional-but-heroic men who transform stodgy institutions through the power of irreverence. But we shouldn’t forget that he and Steve Martin did Samuel Becket, Waiting for Godot, on Broadway.

Here are five movie roles where Robin Williams really stretched himself, five unconventional movies in which all his gifts were on display.

Williams’ first feature film was Robert Altman’s Popeye. It received brutal reviews when it came out in 1980, but I loved the stylization of both Williams’ performance and Altman’s approach to the material.  It was a live-action cartoon, brought to cheerful life by Williams, by Shelley Duval as Olive Oyl, and by Paul Dooley’s Wimpy.  Note Williams extraordinary physicality in the role; the walk, the quickness on his feet.

In 1982, he played the title character, in the film adaptation of John Irving’s acclaimed novel, The World According to Garp. George Roy Hill directed, and found a way to navigate the novel’s blend of magical realism and genuine melancholy.  The film is mostly remembered now for John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon, a trans-gender former football star, who becomes Garp’s closest friend, but Williams holds the film together, gives it heart and passion.

I was never a huge fan of What Dreams May Come, a film that a lot of my friends and former students loved.  It’s about a man who searches the afterlife for his dead wife, intent on saving her.  Compelling story, but I was troubled by the theological implications of the film, the notion that people who commit suicide are forever damned.  Especially ironic, of course, given Williams’ own death.  But this scene got to me when I first saw it, and it still has the power to move.

Then, in 2002, after a series of critical and box office bombs, Williams had an amazing year creatively, refashioning himself as an actor, with three films: Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, and One Hour Photo.  Those films gave him the opportunity to explore the darker contours of his talent.  In One Hour Photo, he plays the employee of a photo lab who becomes obsessed with a family who frequents his store.  The Williams who always seemed, perhaps, a bit anxious to please disappears; he gives a creepily unforgettable performance.  In Death to Smoochy, a dark comedy about a TV children’s show host who loses his job, Williams captures a Mafiosa vibe, while retaining a child-like vulnerability.  This scene, with Jon Stewart, is brilliantly funny, in context. Finally, in Insomnia, an early Christopher Nolan film adapted from a Norwegian original, Al Pacino and Hilary Swank play detectives tracking a serial killer, in a northern location where the sun never sets, driving the detectives insane.  Williams is terrifying as the killer.  So check ‘em out.  I think you’ll be astounded by his range.

I feel fortunate to have lived during the Robin Williams era in American entertainment.  I am so grateful for the years he gave us, and so sorrowful for his passing.  Goodnight, Mork.  And thanks for all the years.

Rand Paul and Israel

Rand Paul has been in the news a lot lately, in trouble for being, in the past, a little too candid.  This article does, I think, a pretty good job of covering the controversy.  In the past, Paul has suggested that he would cut American foreign aid to most countries, Israel included.  When asked, point blank, if he would cut aid to Israel, he said yes, but then hastened to qualify it.  Now he says that he wouldn’t cut aid to Israel, and that he never said that he would cut it.  It’s become a thing.  Jon Stewart did a bit about it. It’s been prominent on MSNBC.  Politifact gave Paul’s denial’s a pants on fire award.  And so the narrative is: Rand Paul, flip-flopper. Or, you know, a liar. And I like Jon Stewart and I like Rachel Maddow. But I think the focus is off here.

The Presidential election is two years away.  Already, Rand Paul is spending immense amounts of time in Iowa, because that’s what you do when you’re running for President.  And so he’s trying to define himself, and Democrats are also trying to define him, less flatteringly. This is all normal stuff, though I hate to waste brain space thinking about a Presidential race two long years away.

But this Israel stuff is immensely depressing, is it not?  There are three intersecting/overlapping things going on right now.  First, Rand Paul is a libertarian, with views on foreign policy that are quite different from the views of the Republican establishment and, actually, not terribly reflective of the Tea Party Right.  Second, his ideas about Israel and foreign policy and foreign aid deserve a respectful hearing, not least because they are so different from what most politicians believe or are willing to say.  These are really important issues, about which we should have a vigorous and thoughtful debate.  Third, though, the media isn’t likely to allow that debate to happen.  Because the mainstream media aren’t interested in policy. They’re interested in the horse race, and in crafting shallow melodramatic narratives about the candidates.  They’re more interested in the question “did Paul flip-flop on Israel?” than they are in the question “what should American foreign policy be in regards to Israel?”  They want to ask “what did Rand Paul say and when did he say it?”  Not “why are we giving all this money to Israel?  Should we give more, or less, or should we cut off all foreign aid altogether?”

They’re interested, right now, in timing.  Who will announce, and when, and how?  They’d rather function as drama critics than as policy analysts.  They love it when a candidate ‘goes negative,’ and they love the subsequent campaign strategizing.  They’d rather focus on ‘who’s going to win,’ than on ‘what would these people do, if elected President.’

In the 2012 race, as the Republicans slogged through those endless televised debates, Ron Paul was the one guy who was consistently off the res.  He got booed a lot, and he clearly didn’t care.  He was the one guy who didn’t think America should be projecting military power abroad.  He opposed the war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan.  He wanted to cut military spending.  Those were interesting positions, and I admired his political courage in taking those positions.  Now his son is running for President.  And Rand Paul seems to actually want to be President, unlike his father, who always struck me as someone who would rather be true to his own libertarian belief system.  Do you want to be President, or do you want to be right?  Rand wants to be President, I think.

So, Rand Paul in 2010 and 11 tended to tell people what he really believed about foreign policy, and to some extent, he now seems to be backing away from positions that are unlikely to be popular.  And I get that, but I think it’s also a shame.  In essence, I think, Paul doesn’t think the media will allow for a substantive, nuanced debate on important issues.  I think he thinks, with good reason, that they’re more interested in playing ‘gotcha.’

Conservatives believe, as an article of faith, that the mainstream news media has a strong liberal bias, and that that bias warps their coverage of the news.  I think that’s total nonsense.  I think the reality is that the important mainstream news media figures aren’t biased, they’re incompetent.  They’re terrible.  They’re hopelessly bad at their jobs. They do a rotten job of covering what really matters: policy.  Instead, they focus on trivia.

This is not to say that I agree with Rand Paul, or that I intend to vote for him.  I don’t tend to agree with libertarians on most issues, and I probably won’t vote for him, if he’s the nominee.  But I think ideas matter.  I think he’s being treated badly, in part because he’s communicated his ideas artlessly, and in part because he’s not playing the political game very astutely.  But I also think he should be given a forum to communicate, clearly and thoughtfully and with as much nuance as is required, what he thinks about American foreign policy.  I think he should be allowed the space to carefully describe what he thinks about Israel, and our aid to Israel, and the weapons we’ve given to Israel, and the military expertise we’ve shared with Israel.  I think that’s an important and interesting set of issues, and we should be having a national conversation about it.  Especially now, given what’s happening.

I don’t care if Rand Paul has flip-flopped. I don’t care what he said in 2011, and how he’s ‘clarified his position’ since.  I want to hear him out on this important subject.  I want to know what he thinks, why he thinks it, what specifically he proposes.  And I want to know what Hillary Clinton thinks on those same issues, and why she thinks it. I want to know all that about all the candidates, from both parties, running for President in this next election.

I don’t think it’s going to happen.  And I think that’s a shame, and that it serves our nation poorly.  Can’t we be smarter about this stuff?  Because the guns are going off, and people are dying, and I don’t know that we’ve ever really debated our role in any of it.