Category Archives: Television

Bill Cosby, serial rapist

We think we know celebrities. We don’t. What we know is a carefully crafted persona, an image, meticulously buffed and refurbished. And sometimes those personae are edgy and tough and sometimes they’re pleasant and kind and family-friendly. And then we hear something about a celebrity that seems at odds with what we’ve imagined we know about them. And it takes awhile to process.

On Saturday, a 2005 deposition given by actor and comedian Bill Cosby surfaced. Forty-eight women had, in recent years, come forward and accused Cosby of various degrees of sexual misconduct, including many who said that he had drugged and raped them. Those accusations had been greeted with varying degrees of incredulity. This was, after all, Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers in America, winner of a 2002 Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And, of course, our perceptions of Cosby were largely shaped by The Cosby Show, which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1992. Bill Cosby was, for most of us, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the genial, kind-hearted and wise patriarch of that sit-com family.

It wasn’t just that Bill Cosby played a beloved TV Dad. He was black, and he was a pioneer. From 1965-1968, he played Alexander Scott on the comedy-spy TV series, I Spy. He was therefore the first black actor to play a leading role in an American TV drama. The premise of the show was that of two putative tennis bums who actually are working for the CIA. It was a buddy-cop-comedy, with Robert Culp as tennis star Kelly Robinson, who partners with Scott/Cosby. It was the kind of show that commented on race without ever commenting on race; Scott was just a character on a show, smarter and more sophisticated than Robinson, but not as intuitive. It was a fun show, witty and clever. During the time of that show, and for years thereafter, Cosby’s comedy albums were massive best-sellers; I remember memorizing entire bits. “It’s The Lord, Noah.” “Right.” “I want you to build an ark.” “Right. What’s an ark?” Listen to those old routines today, and they’re just remarkable; exquisite comic timing, beautifully shaped comedic narratives.

Also this: he wasn’t ‘a Hollywood type.’ Or so we thought; he was a good guy. Happily married, a college graduate, a happy family man, with four daughters. And–more sympathy– a son who was the victim of a terrible tragedy; murdered, senselessly while changing his car tire. Later on, Cosby became the spokesperson for black self-empowerment. He came out against rap music, against hip hop culture. A pull-your-pants-up, go-to-school, get-a-job cultural warrior. (But even this was expressed genially). That was also the point of The Cosby Show; the Huxtable home was beautiful; they were well-off people. He represented black aspiration, black achievement. African American gentrification. The Huxtables were an American ideal.

So this was the point: nobody wanted Bill Cosby, of all people, to be revealed as anything less than what he seemed to be, a good and decent man, an extraordinary talent, and a spokesperson for middle-class values. A sexual predator? No way!

Except there were always those accusations, all those women, saying they had been assaulted by him. Initially, when we thought about Cosby, those allegations were an annoying buzz we tried to swat away. It couldn’t be true. Bill Cosby, of all people. Get real.

But yes. On the deposition, Bill Cosby, under oath, admits to drugging young women with the intention of having sexual relations with them. He admits to paying women off with money from his personal account, so that his wife wouldn’t learn of it. These activities all took place years ago, and so his crimes are past the statute of limitations. He will, in all likelihood, never be criminally prosecuted. But he is, by his own admission, someone who used drugs on women, so that he could engage in what he called ‘romantic, sexual things, whatever you call them.’ As it happens, our society has a word for ‘romantic, sexual things’ that are non-consensual. That word is ‘rape.’ Bill Cosby is a serial rapist.

After defendant testified that he obtained seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, the following testimony was elicited:

Q. You gave them to other people?

A. Yes.

Q. When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?

A. Yes.

So how do we process this? Lots of commentators have expressed amazement over the cognitive dissonance of combining the persona of ‘genial paterfamilias Bill Cosby’ and ‘serial rapist.’ But I think there’s a valuable lesson here, if we can disassociate the word ‘rapist’ from our usual understanding of it, a depraved and vicious lunatic leaping out from behind a tree and holding a knife to a woman’s throat. That kind of stranger-rape can happen, of course, but it’s also misleading. The ‘Cosby persona’ who was also a rapist was Cliff Huxtable. Daddy Huxtable is the rapist here.

Read the transcripts. Time and time again, Cosby would talk to young women, kindly and sympathetically, asking about their education, their families, their hopes and dreams. One young woman told him, tearfully, about coping with the death of her father. That’s the basic premise of most episodes of The Cosby Show.  One of the Huxtable kids would be struggling with a personal problem of some kind. Daddy Huxtable would listen, with great kindness and sympathy. And then he’d propose a solution, and off they’d go, problem solved. That’s what Cosby did with the various women who have accused him of attacking them. He would go into full Huxtable mode. He would listen, and he would sympathize. And then he would slip them a roofie and have non-consensual sex with them. And when they approached him later, he would cut them a check. From his personal account, so his wife wouldn’t know about it.

We need to learn from this; in fact, we need to internalize it. This is how rapists behave. Not all rapists, of course, but often enough. Most rape victims were attacked by someone they knew and trusted. Kindly old Dr. Huxtable was the rapist here. That was the persona Bill Cosby adopted when he wanted to have a ‘romantic, sexual thing’ with a young woman he met somewhere. It was a role he was good at playing.

Often enough, the place where he met them was the Playboy mansion. That’s another notion we need to get our heads around: Cosby was a welcome and frequent guest of Hugh Hefner. The women who have accused Cosby of rape included former Playmates Victoria Valentino, Sarita Butterfield, Charlotte Laws and Michelle Hurd. Another woman, Judy Huth, has said she was also attacked at the Playboy mansion. Hugh Hefner and Bill Cosby; Hef and Cos? Yes, indeed. Old friends, and quite literally, apparently, partners in crime. It now appears likely that Hef learned about the affective properties of Quaaludes, and that he instructed old pal Cosby in their use. Kindly old Hugh Hefner.

So there’s something else that we need to process. Playmates are women who have posed nude in Playboy magazine. That is to say that they are attractive young women whose images have appeared, neatly airbrushed and photoshopped (one presumes), naked, in the pages of a particularly famous men’s magazine. They are also guests at the mansion, welcome anytime, to enjoy the world’s longest running party, hosted by a really old guy in his pajamas.

And here’s the point; the fact that these women consented to have their photos in that magazine does not suggest sexual availability, and should not imply consent to subsequent sexual activity. It is absolutely possible to rape a Bunny. Consent is consent, and a woman who has been drugged is not capable of consent.

Somehow, Hugh Hefner has managed to sell the image of the Playboy mansion as somehow, I don’t know, innocent. A fun place for young women hoping to advance modeling/acting/show biz careers. Sort of a partying job fair. I’m not going to link to it, but check out Weezer’s Beverly Hills video. It does an effective job of selling this notion: ‘ain’t nothin’ goin’ on here but good clean fun.’ We now know that that is not the case. The Playboy mansion is a hunting ground for sexual predators. Elderly sexual predators, apparently. Like Hef, and Cos.

Bill Cosby’s career is over. His reputation is destroyed. Civil suits could wipe out his fortune–I certainly hope so. It’s not likely that he will ever go to jail, more’s the pity, but his actions may result in a bill, currently before Congress, to extend the statute of limitations for rapists. The best we can do now, is learn from his case. Two lessons: rapists can look like and act like Dr. Huxtable, and also, posing for a men’s magazine does not imply consent to sexual intercourse. That will have to be enough.

The West Wing, and politics today

Surfing the internet this morning, I happened upon this article in the Huffington Post. It’s a provocative piece, by Robert Kuttner, arguing that liberals need to become much more radical in their proposals going forward. He identifies several major economic issues that have become part of the political conversation in the Democratic party–the cost of college and student debt, income inequality, low wage jobs, and the loss of career paths; the emergence of part-time ‘gig jobs.’ Kuttner then examines the various proposals that people have been suggesting. He takes a careful look at Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on the economy, which he quite likes, and thinks represents a step forward in our understanding of the economic difficulties faced by American workers. And then he says this:

The budget deadlock and the sequester mechanism, in which both major parties have conspired, makes it impossible to invest the kind of money needed both to modernize outmoded public infrastructure (with a shortfall now estimated at $3.4 trillion) or to finance a green transition.

To remedy the problem of income inequality would require radical reform both of the rules of finance and of our tax code, as well as drastic changes in labor market regulation.

Politicians would have to reform the debt-for-diploma system, not only going forward, as leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed, but also to give a great deal of debt relief to those saddled with existing loans.

Unions would need to regain the effective right to organize and bargain collectively.

This is all as radical as, well… Dwight Eisenhower.

And none of the changes Kuttner proposals even begin to address the biggest issue of them all; the potential spectre of global climate change, and the economic changes that would be necessary effectively to cope with it.

Here’s the thing: I agree with Kuttner right down the line. I think he’s right on every particular. Unfortunately, he’s also right in suggesting that how difficult passing any of this would be. As he says, “the reforms needed to restore (Eisenhower era levels of shared prosperity) are somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders.” And Sanders is already being dismissed by the Beltway, by the mainstream media commentators, by Democratic strategists and pollsters, as a wild-eyed radical. Frankly, he’s seen as kind of a crazy person. And he’s actually probably quite a bit too conservative.

Lately, my wife and I have been watching re-runs of The West Wing. It was dismissed in its time as a fantasy show for liberals. Stuck with George W. Bush in the actual White House, we got to spend an hour once a week imagining a better President. Jedediah Bartlett was a Nobel Prize winning economist, unapologetically liberal, though, of course, flawed as all humans are flawed; in his case, by MS, and also by a bit of a temper, and a kind of pompous windbaggery that drove his staffers nuts. I liked the show; I’m not blind to its flaws.

But this time through, binge-watching all those great episodes with my wife, I’ve been struck by the actual issues that the show dealt with. After all, the heart of the show were all these impassioned conversations about public policy by smart, policy and political wonks, Josh and Toby and Donna and CJ, as they walked around the halls of the West Wing. The show’s been off the air for ten years; I would expect that it would deal with a lot of issues that aren’t actually issues anymore. What’s fascinating is how many of the issues the show deals with are still with us today.

They spend a lot of time, for example, talking about the Iran problem; Bartlett’s always trying to curb Iran’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. One whole episode was about an effort by Leo, acting as Bartlett’s emissary, to normalize relations with Cuba. Climate change gets mentioned, but only a couple of times, in passing. Republicans are forever talking about tax cuts, which Bartlett has to consistently bat back. Economics in the show are sort of weird; Bartlett is never a particularly popular President, but we’re told that the economy is humming along, with five and a half (or seven, or nine, depending) million new high paying private sector jobs. Plus a balanced budget, plus low inflation? And an approval rating in the 40s? It’s like they had to have him be good at economics (he’s a Nobel laureate), but unpopular (conflict!), and sort of hoped we wouldn’t notice; Presidents with humming economies are really really popular.

Gay marriage gets mentioned a lot, but always as a kind of pie-in-the-sky thing that only the most wildly liberal politicians ever even mention. Barlett’s (quietly) in favor, but can’t say so publicly. Too preposterous a pipe-dream to ever become reality. But raising the minimum wage is not actually a big deal; Barlett negotiates a minimum wage hike with Arnie Vinick (the Republican Presidential candidate, played superbly by Alan Alda) and it passes without fuss.

Now, I’m not saying that The West Wing was a particularly prescient show, and oh, if we’d only listened! or anything like that. I think that Aaron Sorkin and (later) John Wells reflected the big political issues of their day, and the mainstream thinking on those issues. They tried to position Bartlett in perhaps surprising and provocative ways in relation to those issues, but those were the issues. And I look at Obama’s second term, ten years after Bartlett ‘left office,’ and it’s interesting. We have an Iran deal. We have normalized relations with Cuba. We don’t have a balanced budget, but the world-wide financial crisis of 2007-8 came after the show left the air. (It would have been interesting to see what Bartlett would have done about it. I assume he was a Keynesian (he was a macroeconomist; they’re all Keynesians); probably he would have rejected austerity). But John Wells was show-running for seasons 5-7, the last three seasons, and Wells was clearly less interested in economics than Sorkin was. The whole last season was about the campaign to replace Bartlett, Matt Santos v. Arnie Vinick, and it would have been nice if Santos had ever attacked Vinick’s tax cuts on substance, not because Vinick’s a Republican and we’re rooting for the Democrat to win, but because Vinick’s tax cuts are bad economics.

Whatever. Here’s my larger point: there are issues that were raised on The West Wing that have since been resolved, mostly, of course, because that show was ten years ago and the world moves forward. Liberals favor change; conservatives oppose it; that’s the difference between the two philosophies. Both are necessary. But right now, voters are angry, because they can see how our country’s current economic successes aren’t benefitting ordinary Americans. Economic inequality should be the key issue in this campaign, and it’s starting to happen on the left. (The Right’s all obsessed with nonsense issues, like border security and cutting rich guys’ taxes).

But. But. If we don’t talk about issues, even far-out, will-never-happen-in-my-lifetime issues (like marriage equality), then people won’t think about them, and they’ll never come to pass. The only way to affect change is to start talking about affecting change. That’s why Bernie Sanders is so valuable in this race. He’s not going to win, and there are issues where I think he’s dead wrong. But he’s talking about economic issues that need to be talked about. He’s willing to position himself as a radical, even though actually he’s not radical enough.

Jed Bartlett, of course, never existed. But that TV show was part of the political conversation. If what’s replaced it is another TV show (Veep, say, or House of Cards), well, those are both terrific shows, but not much interested in policy. But there remain fora where conversations about policy can happen. And we need to speak up.

Dave

Late Night, with David Letterman debuted on Feb. 1, 1982. His first guest, famously, was Bill Murray. I never watched it. It was on too late for me, and besides, I was in graduate school, working two jobs; I didn’t have time for television. In 1992, after considerable controversy over whether Letterman or Jay Leno would replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, Leno got the gig. CBS then created the Late Show with David Letterman to compete for the late night audience. My wife and I had just moved to Utah, and we decided to give the show a try. Dave became our frequent late night companion. He could be a cranky, weird, unpredictable late night friend. He was also consistently and brilliantly entertaining. You have to be likeable to succeed on television. You had to be someone people wouldn’t mind inviting into their home night after night. Dave was a prickly houseguest. But from the outset, I loved his show.

One of the first things Dave did on the Late Show was called ‘meet the neighbors.’ He went around with a camera crew and visited the small businesses surrounding the Ed Sullivan Theater. Eventually, some of those local businessmen became minor celebrities, frequent guests on the show. And one day, I had an epiphany about Dave. His job revolved around celebrities. He was there to promote their newest projects, to interview them and make them seem charming and fun and cool, to laugh with them and joke around with them.  That was his job; the care and feeding of famous entertainers. That was what Carson was brilliant at doing, what Leno was also becoming very good at. And Dave thought the whole thing was a crock.

And that became the central dynamic of Dave Letterman’s show, the key to his entire appeal. Night after night, Dave Letterman deconstructed celebrity. Instead of worshipping at the shrine of celebrity–Leno’s raisson d’etre–Dave undercut it, revealed its essential emptiness, showed the inherent instability of how it structured its sign system. Celebrity just means ‘someone who is celebrated’–it’s entirely circular. So Dave set out to prove that ‘celebrity’ meant nothing. He could turn anyone into a celebrity.

So Rupert Jee, owner of the Hello Deli, on West 53rd street, became a celebrity. (Jee appeared on Late Night over 200 times). So did the two Bangladeshi businessmen, Sirajul Islam and Mujibur Rahman, who ran a gift shop nearby. Never mind that Sirajul and Mujibur weren’t particularly charismatic or amusing. Nor was Jee, who mostly just came across as nervous. That was the point; neither were most ‘celebrities.’ That’s why Letterman got so much mileage out of the Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks that became show specialities. Or the frequent appearances of spectacularly unfunny characters like Larry “Bud” Melman. Again, there was Dave turning essentially anyone to a celebrity. That’s why he’d do weird things like drop bowling balls off the roof of the theater, or water balloons, or whatever. Aren’t you amused? You think ‘celebrities’ are talented? Watch this guy launch ping pong balls from his mouth, and then catch them. Watch this guy carry a bicycle around balanced on his chin. Watch this dog walk around with a paper bag on its head.  Think George Clooney can do that?

Sometimes, it took an ugly turn, as can happen with deconstruction–a tool that can certainly turn on you. He made ‘Vickie’, a young intern, a celebrity. (She was actually an intern named Stephanie Birkitt). He’d call her up, and eventually put her on camera; she had more than 250 appearances on the show. (That story took an ugly turn in 2009, when Birkitt’s boyfriend threatened to blackmail Letterman for his alleged sexual affair with Birkitt).  So, there was a dark and sordid underside to the Letterman project. But in a weird sort of way, didn’t the blackmail and the revelations of his affairs confirm the validity of the show’s position? Dave got away with it, didn’t he? And why wouldn’t he? He’s a celebrity, after all. And don’t celebrities always get away with everything?

The deconstruction of celebrity helps explain the consistent popularity of certain guests–Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Tina Fey, Jim Carrey. Talented people, that is, who were basically in on the joke. And that’s why the most disastrous guest of all time was the one celebrity who most thoroughly embraced that role and life–Madonna. Or, more recently, why he seemed to delight in ripping Bill O’Reilly to shreds. Self-righteousness never did play on Letterman. 

And that’s also why Letterman’s occasional moments of authenticity were so tremendous. His first show after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was one of the greatest cultural moments I can remember. He was the one guy who got it absolutely right. Under pose and artifice can be, you know, actual truth.

Last night, Dave’s last show aired; he’s decided to retire, and will be replaced with Stephen Colbert. Ever since Dave’s departure was announced, I’ve felt petulant, out of sorts. I rarely watched his show the last few years; I’ve become a Jon Stewart man. But it’s not right, darn it, for Dave to not be on anymore. I’ve felt this more and more lately, an uncharacteristic conservatism, a feeling that things are changing far too fast, and that I want it to stop. Late night is not supposed to be dominated by people named Jimmy. I’m getting old, and let me tell you, aging is not for sissies.

I do know this: Letterman was great because what he did was righteous and needed to happen. He took a show that was about nurturing the cultivating the cult of celebrity, and used it to reveal, like Dorothy with Oz, the fakery and delusion at the heart of that cult. He did some good in this world. He’d also be the first remind us, he was basically just a talk show host, not the Dalai Lama. He was a deeply flawed human being, capable of terrible abuses of his own power, but a man with a core of decency underneath. He was a friend I kind of stopped seeing, but that I now find I will miss. Don’t be a stranger, old pal, and stop by again sometime.

Another attack on standardized testing, and a history

I know, I know, I’ve written enough about standardized testing. It’s May, Spring, time for the thoughts of young people to turn to love and who they’re going to take to prom. And also time for every kid in America to take a whole bunch of government mandated multiple guess tests. Which means time for yet another rant from me.

Jon Oliver did a funny bit on testing last night, pointing out the ridiculous lengths to which the education establishment is going to sell testing, including videos based on popular songs. I’ll link to his show later. Meanwhile, larger and larger numbers of parents are opting their kids out of testing. Good for them! Opt out! Or, kids, there’s no law that says you have to test honestly. Flunk ’em on purpose! Anything to invalidate already invalid results.

Educational mandated testing is to me the rarest of government policies. It’s a bi-partisan failure–President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is as poorly conceived and foolish as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It’s also a policy that does nothing but fail. It has no positives; there’s nothing, absolutely nothing positive that can be said about it. It generates wholly bogus data, which is then used to implement entirely punitive and ineffective responses. It doesn’t work, and never has. And never will. You want to improve education in America? Step one: get rid of all standardized tests administered to children. Federal, state or local; get rid of all of them. Step two: fire anyone who works in education who favors test-based reform. Start there, and then let’s talk about what might work. Doubling teacher salaries would be a nice start.

So, no, I’m not a fan of testing. But the reason I hate testing, the reason I have such a bone-deep, utter detestation of it, is far more personal. You see, I was a SCAP kid. I was a six-year SCAPPIE.

1969. The summer of love. The year of the moon landing. The Beatles put out Abbey Road, and John and Yoko were married, Led Zeppelin put our their first album, Charlie Manson was arrested, and Rupert Murdoch bought his first London newspaper. And I started 7th grade. I entered Binford Jr. High School, in Bloomington Indiana. And the first thing we did, was take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, required for all new students that year, and most especially for those enrolled in SCAP.

The official name of the program was Secondary Continuous Advancement Program. SCAP. The idea was that learning should be fluid and continuous, cross-disciplinary and tailored to the advancement of each individual student. I remember, in Geometry, for example, we learned formulas and equations, but we were also told to create works of art; we were supposed to create really pretty geometric forms, and graded on our aesthetic achievements in that regard. I remember making this really awesome looking flattened oval thing. I thought it was great. It failed, because, said the teacher, it wasn’t complicated enough. His aesthetic was baroque; mine, neo-classical. For that, I got an F?

The key was testing. Lots and lots of testing. And we weren’t graded according to how well we mastered the material; we were graded according to how well we did as compared to how well we were supposed to do, based on the tests we’d taken.

When I was in college, I took a basketball class. I had played basketball for hours every day of my life, growing up. I figured ‘easy A’. On the first day of class, we had a shooting test; we had to take 30 shots from different spots on the floor. I got red hot, and hit 28. Then I learned that we’d have to take the same test at the end of the semester, and that our grade depended on how well we improved. Which is how I flunked basketball my freshman year of college.

So it was with SCAP. I was a voracious reader as a kid. Read most of Dickens in fifth grade. And I’ve always been good at taking standardized tests, a completely useless skill, not widely shared, except my kids have it too. They all test really well. Anyway, I remember taking a spelling test. There were 40 words on the test; I spelled 38 of them correctly. And I got a D.

A D. On a spelling test. And I happened to look over at the test sheet for the kid in the desk next to mine. He’d gotten 29 words right on the exact same spelling test. And he’d gotten an A. A for him, D for me, on the same test. Even though I’d only missed 2 words, and he’d missed 11.

And I stared at his paper. And I thought, ‘it’s true. I’m not making it up; it’s really true. They really are out to get me. The teachers at this school, they genuinely don’t like me, they actually do have it in for me. I’m not being paranoid. Here’s proof. It’s real, and it’s personal. And there’s nothing I can do about it.’

I was a weird kid anyway. I was tall and skinny and awkward. I had a nerdy vocabulary, and I tripped and fell down a lot. I got beat up all the time; I was just used to it. But I’d always gotten along pretty well with teachers. But that spelling test, that was a turning point. Suddenly I knew, with absolutely incontrovertible evidence, that teachers hated me too. That everyone, literally everyone, was out to get me. 2 wrong: D, for me. 11 wrong: A, for him. You can’t make it clearer.

Of course, now I know that it was just SCAP. That’s how SCAP worked. I’d gotten a D on that spelling quiz, because my test scores indicated that I should have been better at spelling than the other kid. I was a reader; I shouldn’t have missed those 2 words. My teachers didn’t hate me; they were trying to challenge me. But no one explained any of that to me, and if they had tried, I wouldn’t have listened. What I did was just quit. I just didn’t bother with school work, at all, ever, in any class, from that day on. I withdrew. Instead, I wrote stories. I day dreamed. I snuck books in and read on my own. And at lunch, I’d play 4-square, unless Jeff Tate and Eddie Deckard caught me; then I just got beat up again. Did I ever turn them in? Of course not. Tell a teacher? Why should I tell a teacher anything, ever? They hated me too. And I could prove it.

Google SCAP nowadays, and you get the Security Content Automation Protocol. Or a French car manufacturer. But the basic idea of SCAP lives on. Test kids, use the data to create curricula. Challenge kids, again based on data derived from testing. Okay, I don’t think anyone nowadays teaches geometry using aesthetic criteria. But I look at modern education reform, and I think: it’s SCAP. It’s all just more SCAP. And we’re making modern kids SCAPgoats. (Okay, sorry).

And it makes me sick. It’s damaging. It’s bad teaching. It doesn’t work, and will never work. Teaching is an art form, not a science. It’s humanism writ large. Modern education reform wants ‘good teaching,’ but with all actual human interactions removed. But teaching is, above all else, love. Get rid of every test ever created, and figure out how to love. And maybe then we’ll get somewhere.

Here’s John Oliver. (Language warnings.)

 

Baltimore

Like, I suspect, many of you, I’ve been riveted by the horrifyingly familiar scenes from Baltimore that have been dominating news coverage of late. For one thing, the rioting and protests have been taking place in Baltimore, a town we all think we know from the HBO TV show The Wire. It makes sense; The Wire depicted Baltimore as a failing city, ripped apart by racial conflict, with a brutal (and ineffective) police force and unresponsive bureaucracy and hopelessly underfunded education system. And David Simon, the show’s creator, has emerged as a voice of reason urging non-violent protest as potentially transformative. I watched Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, George Stephanopolous on ABC, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and Larry Willmore’s show, all this morning, and every one of them referenced The Wire. So we feel like we know what’s going on. We think we know Baltimore.  I love–we all love–The Wire. But it’s fiction. Jimmy McNulty isn’t a cop in the real city; Carcetti’s not the Mayor. I don’t find the familiarity of Wire references in any sense comforting.

What I’m left with are questions. Way more questions than answers, but questions to which I think we all, as Americans, are entitled to answers. Here are a few that have occurred to me. You undoubtedly have more of your own, and better ones than mine.

1) Why wasn’t the homicide of Freddie Gray treated as any other homicide? Why is this not a murder investigation? I understand the difficulty of getting cops to investigate cops, or getting prosecutors to prosecute the people they work with every day. But an unarmed man, without ever being accused of any crime, was chased down and placed in police custody. And his spinal cord was severed. That’s a homicide, and it might well have been a murder. Six cops have been suspended. That’s a start, but it appears that we might need some kind of Justice Department involvement. How about this: place all shootings of civilians by police under the jurisdiction of the FBI? Federally prosecute all such cases. Because this has to stop.

2) Why are police shootings in Europe so rare as to be non-existent, while every week, it seems, some police somewhere in America are involved in a homicide? Is there a difference in the way police are trained over there? Because the common denominator in all these deaths seems to me to be situations in which the police insist on asserting their authority over a civilian. Eric Garner wouldn’t cooperate. Walter Scott ran away from a cop on a routine traffic stop. (I don’t count 12-year old Tamir Rice, killed in Detroit. That one was just flat out murder). I understand that police officers need to exert control over a situation. But are they effectively trained in how to de-escalate? I know that the police have incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs. I know cops. They’re good people. I honor their work. But there have been way way too many violent and lethal incidents. Calm people down. Acknowledge their humanity. Running from a police officer should not ever, ever be a death penalty offense.

3) Rioting is bad. Looting is bad. But let’s face facts: black people riot because an explosive incident brings long-standing oppression to the surface. (As Larry Willmore put it, ‘that’s the history of America: oppression leads to rioting, over and over again. Starting with the Boston Tea Party’). White people riot because their favorite sports’ team won a championship. And while I love calls for non-violence, like David Simon’s, I find Ta-Nahisi Coates’ perspective even more compassing. The homicide of Freddie Gray must be seen in a larger context of systemic police violence in Baltimore.

4) When Jon Stewart said, on his show yesterday, (I’m paraphrasing) ‘if we can spend a trillion dollars building schools in Afghanistan, why can’t we rebuild our inner cities and their schools and institutions’ the crowd cheered. And George Stephanopolous said ‘whenever politicians say what you just said, crowds always cheer. But then it never happens.’ So okay. We’re in an election. I’ll vote for anyone who says it: ‘let’s rebuild our schools and our cities and our infrastructure. Take half of our annual defense budget and use it at home.’ If that means that I’m voting for Bernie Sanders, so be it.

5) It’s not enough, anymore, to watch TV and feel bad about what we see. We need to fix this. We need action.

 

 

American Idol

My wife and I have been intermittent fans of American Idol for years now. I wouldn’t say we’re any kind of die-hards, but we do still watch, even now, when the show is clearly on its last legs. Back in the day, Idol was on two nights a week, often two hours a night. Remember the results show, where they stretched a simple, straightforward announcement–Contestant A has been eliminated!–to a full hour’s show full of tension and strife. That’s all gone. None of the original lineup of judges is around anymore, though actually, that’s kind of an improvement–Harry Connick is terrific, insightful and smart and helpful. He’s good enough, I’m willing to put up with Keith Urban and JLo. They have a new producer/mentor guy, the oleaginous Scott Borchetta, whose various ‘this week you have to really bring it!’ exhortations we generally just fast-forward past. Still, this week, something interesting happened, something kind of genuine and non-scripted and odd.

Okay, so the way they do it now, the contestants all sing, and we vote for them, and the next week, they all sit in these lighted chairs, and the highest vote-getter’s chair lights turn green, and that’s how they know they’ve advanced. So they then get up and sing, and we vote on their performance for next week. But the last two unlighted chairs are for the ‘bottom two,’ and at the end of the show, those two sing, and everyone in America votes on Twitter. And one poor schmuck is eliminated right there. Handed his/her choice of weapon and sent to a fiery pit to do battle with an Orc, to the death. (I may have made that last bit up).

Actually, no, they just get to go home and not be on American Idol anymore. Which is not to say they don’t get some subsequent success in the music biz. One of the fascinating things about Idol is that the exposure from being on the show is often more important than actually winning it. Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, several of them have all done really well after not winning the contest, while Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks haven’t been as successful. Not all of them get Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson-type careers.

Anyway, so, on Idol last week, they were down to the top seven. Clark Beckham and Tyanna Jones were the top two. They’re both really good singers, and I suspect one of the two of them will win. Then came Jax–she just goes by one name–she’s been uneven throughout. Nick Fradiani (Adam Levine wannabe) went next. That left three contestants; Joey Cook, Sayvon Owen, and Quentin Alexander.

Sayvon has been near the bottom the entire show. He’s crawled out of more coffins than Bela Lugosi. He keeps almost getting eliminated, and keeps barely surviving. Good looking kid with a big smile and a gorgeous voice, but not much of a performer. Seems like the nicest kid.

Joey, though, Joey’s interesting. She is a weirdo. I mean that in a good way; she has a weird voice, a weird look; she’s quirky and does really imaginative arrangements of the songs she’s assigned. Like she did Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love as a bluegrass song, and it worked.http://www.americanidol.com/american-idol/performances?pid=105301&vid=105246 She’s absolutely the most original contestant they’ve had, since Adam Lambert (who is still the greatest Idol ever).

Quentin Alexander is fascinating. He looks like he came straight to Idol from an off-Broadway revival of Hair. A whole 60’s Black Panther vibe, but with more piercings. He’s a tremendous performer, and seems like a serious and thoughtful and intense young man.

So: stage is set. Quentin, Joey and Sayvon, on the three unlighted chairs. Quentin’s chair lights up; we’re going to a Twitter vote between Joey and Sayvon to stay on the show. Quentin sings. Then he says, loudly, ‘this is wack.’ And Harry Connick called him out. Here’s what they said:

Quentin: This sucks. We have two of the best vocalists, my best friend is sitting over there. This whole thing is wack, but I’m going to shut up right now.

Harry: Quentin, if it’s that wack, then you can always go home because Idol is paying a lot of money to give you this experience and for you to say that to this hand that is feeding you right now, I think is highly disrespectful.

To his credit, Quentin came back on-stage, walked up to Harry, and explained. He didn’t mean that the whole competition was wack. He was reacting emotionally to two good friends having to duke it out to stay alive in the competition. Later, though, he doubled-down, saying that he felt Connick’s comments were ‘disrespectful.’

Quentin Alexander is 21 years old. He’s a highly emotional performer, and seems to be a very emotional young man. Over the course of the Idol experience, he apparently has grown very close to Joey Cook; not romantically (in fact, she just announced her engagement), but as friends. So maybe this is just a young man blowing off steam.

But isn’t he, at least in part, somewhat right? I mean, I know that Idol is a singing competition, with a very nice first prize; a recording contract. And it’s no more brutal a process than any audition would be, for any performing art. Still, it is a little bit wack. Interesting young artists competing to become, what? A music industry voice-for-hire?

Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame, has been outspoken on this subject, saying recently, “imagine Bob Dylan standing there in front of those judges singing Blowin’ in the Wind, and them going ‘it’s a little nasally and flat. Sorry.” Grohl (who I think sometimes is on a campaign to save rock and roll in America, expanded on this:

When I think about kids watching TV shows like American Idol or The Voice, and they think, oh, okay, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f-ing hours at a convention center with 800 other people, and you sing your heart out to someone and they tell you it’s not good enough? Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old drum set and just get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in, and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll start playing, and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and maybe all the sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s–ty instruments, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again!

Or, like Joey Cook, color her hair and wear weird outfits and sing with a wobbly odd sounding voice, and doing something remarkable every week, often not very good, but never once uninteresting. I hope she does well. And I hope we see Quentin again. American Idol is kind of wack, and I’m glad he pointed it out, though I probably will keep watching, for a little while at least.

 

 

The NCAA tournament

The annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament started yesterday, an orgy of missed shots, wild dunks, last second finishes, agony and joy. Sixteen games were played yesterday, all of them nationally televised, five of them decided by one point. I watched at least some of all of them; basically I wore out my remote. As always, it was very exciting.

And not. Because if you’re a lifetime basketball fan–and I am–you can’t help but notice how bad college basketball has become. Every possession, more or less, ends with a guy blasting past a defender, flinging a wild shot in the general direction of the rim, followed by five guys flailing to grab a rebound. College baskeball has become an over-coached, over-defended, badly officiated (make that ‘horrendously officiated’) travesty. At its best, basketball can become an argument, a statement in a continuing debate over how the game is supposed to be played, over strategies and tactics and fundamentals. At its worst, basketball is thuggish, slow, and ugly. And dangerous; it amazes me that more kids aren’t hurt.

And Kentucky’s going to win. Kentucky, with six freshmen and three sophomores in their regular playing rotation. And you might think, wow, what a dynasty! All those young players; how good are they going to be next season! Ha. Next season, they’ll all be in the NBA. They’re ‘college students’ in the same sense that the kids on Glee are in ‘high school.’

Grantland.com’s Brian Phillips had an interesting article today discussing the problems inherent in the current game. As Phillips points out, there are a number of relatively simple rule changes that could be implemented that would speed the game up, open it up, and make it more entertaining. But it’s almost impossible for the NCAA to make those changes, because doing so would require that they admit that they are creating and selling a product, ‘college basketball broadcasts,’ that needs to be tweaked to make it more fun to watch. The fiction is that these are ‘student-athletes,’ college kids engaged in an extra-curricular activity, televised as a public service, so that their families and interested alums can enjoy seeing them play. In fact, though, the NCAA generates billions of dollars from college basketball. And does so through a business model in which they don’t pay the people who generate it.

Every time I drive from Provo to Salt Lake and back, I pass several billboards for BYU sports. Right now, it’s basketball season, and so those billboards feature Tyler Haws, the star of the team. Haws, of course, isn’t being paid for the use of his likeness on those billboards. Nor are his teammates compensated for all the posters and tee shirts and hats and bobbleheads and water bottles featuring the BYU basketball team. I know the argument: they’re being compensated in that they receive a college education. That’s a valuable commodity. True enough, and especially for someone like Tyler Haws, who is a good student. Still, it seems disproportionate; millions of revenue generated, with almost nothing going to the players.

Remember last year’s tournament? Exciting stuff, right? Shabazz Napier and UConn? Remember what Napier said afterwards? How some days were just ‘hungry days,’ because his scholarship didn’t provide sufficiently for meals, and he wasn’t allowed to get a job or in any other way make enough money to buy a Big Mac?

Okay, Shabazz Napier’s in the NBA now; for him, it was worth it. Most players have that dream; the dream of a professional career. For 98 percent of them, it’s a pipe dream. So what happens then?

John Oliver’s show, last week, straightforwardly recommended that college basketball players be paid. I’ve heard that from other sources. And it’s probably going to happen. Ed O’Bannon won his lawsuit against EA Sports, after suing them for using his image without his permission. That verdict is being appealed, but when the appeals are exhausted, we’re going to see some compensation for college athletes.

Meanwhile, let me give the ‘fix the NCAA’ problem a shot. I taught for twenty years in the BYU Theatre department. We had a lot of kids in our program who wanted careers on Broadway or Hollywood; most of them didn’t make it. But they did get a good college education, and I have former students who are attorneys, successful business people, some are in medical school; they didn’t so much abandon their dreams as re-route them. The kids who acted in our college theatre productions weren’t paid. But a lot of our students were paid; to work in the scene shop, to hang lights, to sell tickets, to work in marketing. And our actors were actively encouraged to work professionally. I remember one actress who got the lead in a Disney movie. When her work on that film was done, she came back to school, acted in college productions, finished her degree. Now she’s a successful professional actress. As faculty, what did we think of her work on that Disney movie? We thought it was awesome. We had a party and watched it. We rooted for her then, and we root for her today.

So I’m going to make some recommendations to the NCAA, none of which I expect that organization to listen to for a second. Because, let’s face it, the NCAA is appalling, an organization of rule-bound ninnies, liars and hypocrites. Overpaid frauds. It’s an group of college administrators, after all, hardly nature’s aristocrats; these are people who think ‘university assessment’ is a good idea. They won’t change until they have to.

Still.here’s my fix for the NCAA. Number one: permanently abandon, once and for all, the notion of the ‘amateur athlete.’ The Olympics doesn’t bother with it anymore, and neither should the NCAA. All those ridiculous rules in which a player is suspended and a program punished because his coach bought him a sandwich accomplish nothing except expose the NCAA to ridicule.

An athletic scholarship should be non-revocable. All athletic scholarships, in all sports offered on campus. Pay for those extra scholarships by cutting the salaries of coaches and athletic directors. Every athlete receiving one should be guaranteed a college education. If a coach recruits a player, and gives him a scholarship, then that kid gets, free of charge, five years worth of a college education, period. Right now, coaches routinely recruit more players than they have scholarships for, and if one of them turns out to be less good at basketball than the coach initially thought, he’s out of luck. That needs to end. Let colleges offer as many athletic scholarships as they want to, no limits, but with the understanding that they can’t take that scholarship away, at all, ever, for any non-academic reason. If the kid gets injured, he keeps the scholarship. If a kid doesn’t make the team, he keeps the scholarship.

Also, let them be college students. Put serious limits on how much time kids spend in practice. ‘Voluntary workouts’ count against practice time. Every second a kid spends out of class, in a weight room or in meetings or working out with coaches counts against practice time. Limit practice time to twenty hours a week, and enforce it.

If a kid is able to earn money off the court, that’s fine. Let him appear in a Disney movie. Or play on a D-league summer team. Or appear in a local commercial. Or sell his autograph. Or flip burgers. Whatever. None of that is any of your business. (Will this lead to abuses? Will boosters offer the starting quarterback no-show jobs at their businesses? Sure, probably. I just don’t think that kid of petty corruption is policeable).

I would probably put a cap on coaches salaries. I’d also like to see coaches treated like tenure-track faculty. If they make tenure, you can’t fire them. And give them some classroom responsibilities. Make ’em teach a class or two.

None of this is likely to happen, of course. But I’d love to see it. These kids are being mistreated, and it’s wrong. And while we’re at it, make the game a little more fun. For starters, let the kids play. Limit coaches time-outs to two per half. Let college kids be college kids. I promise, they’ll amaze you.

 

 

The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’

There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.

And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.

The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).

Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place.  Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?

Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.

More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’

What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film!  Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.

Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.

Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.

They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.

Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.

But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song.  It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.

And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.

Super Bowl XLIX: A Night of Poor Decisions

At my Super Bowl party last night, the room erupted four times. I mean, erupted, anguished/delighted/horrified shouts of ‘nooooooo!’ We’re generally a sedate bunch, my family and my best friend Wayne; we’re not emotionally volatile, generally speaking. Four times, we went nuts. And only one of those outbursts had anything to do with football.

Here’s how we watch the Super Bowl: we mute the TV during the actual football parts, then turn up the sound for the commercials and the half-time show. Only two of us, me and Wayne, actually like football all that much. My son, Tucker, likes sports, but American football is his least favorite (big soccer fan, though). Other family members are there for the conversation (hence the muting), the commercials, and the theatrical spectacle at half-time.

So when I say ‘we watched The Super Bowl,’ I don’t mean ‘a football game,’ but an entire televisual experience. And when you count the commercials, the evening was almost spectacularly ill-conceived. The themes of the night were dead-or-endangered children, terrible parenting, bad family dynamics, and false religion. Misguided patriotism and patriarchy.  It was a night of bad decisions. The half-time show, quite literally, jumped the shark. And the evening culminated in the worst play call in the history of professional football.

For starters, there was this:

Seriously? Are you kidding me? It’s the Superbowl, for freak’s sake. We’re watching it, on TV, with our families. We don’t want, or need, to see a commercial about a cute kid getting crushed by a TV set. (Unless he drowned in a bathtub. The commercial raises that possibility too).

I get that they’re promoting, not insuring your kid (you know, so you can afford to bury him, because that’s going to be your priority), but their child-safety website. But do they really think that the parents of America are indifferent to the well-being of their kids? And that what we need is a website to give us more things to be paranoid about?

A Superbowl commercial about, say, the dangers of your kid getting a concussion if he plays youth football, that might have seemed sort of borderline appropriate. But Nationwide needs to take whoever in Marketing thought this commercial was a good idea, and kindly, gently, show him the door. You’re Nationwide. You sell insurance. This commercial makes us hate you and your product. You spent 4.5 million dollars to make us hate you.

But that wasn’t all. No indeed. Not by a long-shot:

Okay, it’s a Nissan commercial, and it’s about a race car driver, and he’s trying to be a good Dad, but he’s gone a lot, and what he does for a living essentially terrifies his wife, but his kid wants to follow in Daddy’s footsteps, so at the end, he and Dad get into the family Nissan together. Happy ending.Yay, Nissan. And race car driving.

Except the song in the commercial is Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ Which is a song, specifically and explicitly, about being a terrible father. I mean, it’s not subtle. It’s an emotionally manipulative song about a Dad neglecting his kid. I’m a Dad, and every time I hear that song I feel horrible about what a bad Dad I am. And I’m not, I think, a bad Dad at all. Which is why I loathe that song. So that’s the message of the song: ‘Buy a Nissan, suck as a parent.’ Again, it’s a song THAT MAKES US HATE YOU. Which strikes me as perhaps not great advertising. (And it’s ninety seconds long. At a cost of 4.5 million per 30 second spot. Multiply 4.5 by 3, and you’ve got . . . uh, carry the 7, uh, a very large amount of money! To make us hate you! Why?)

Later in the evening, there was a ‘tortoise and hare’ commercial for Lexus cars, in which the tortoise wins by driving a Lexus. The previous commercials had been so horrific, I was honestly surprised when the Lexus didn’t squish the bunny. So those are just swell commercials. But it’s not enough for a commercial to make us hate the product being advertised. It’s quite another thing to make a commercial that makes us hate ourselves:

We’re watching this commercial, remember, during the Super Bowl. We’re having a Super Bowl party. I look over at our family room coffee table; I see nachos, dip, three kinds of cookies, M&Ms, a yummie peanut butter brownie trifle. We’re Americans; we know perfectly well we’re fat, and that we’re fat because we eat garbage. Like, for example, we do at Super Bowl parties. Which we’re at. And where we just now saw an ad for Carl’s Jr. So, all you chubbos, you morbidly obese disgusting pigs. Eat yourself into a stupor, then collapse face first on your sofa. We’re Weightwatchers. We care.

But don’t worry. The Super Bowl didn’t just have secular answers to life’s problems. No, there are spiritual solutions available as well. For one thing, the Scientologists ran a commercial, ’cause, see, their faith is both ‘spiritual’ but also ‘scientific.’ I’m persuaded: sign me up.

But there’s also McDonald’s, abandoning the pursuit of filthy lucre, and paying for your oh-so-healthy food (see previous rant) with Troo Luv:

But, no. That’s just love. And while McDonald’s is convinced, like the Beatles, that love is all we need, something still is lacking. What we really need is a genuine spiritual panacea, a way to end cyber-bullying and hyper-partisanship and bring the whole planet together, once and for all. What’s needed, in short, is for someone to dump a Coke into a computer server.

Of course, the Super Bowl, America’s one universally recognized religious holiday, promotes all sorts of religious values. Like cars. Buy the right car: find eternal bliss. We had cars recommended by old people, cars driven by para-athletes, cars driven by Lindsay Lohan, cars infused with viagra, and for true ‘Murricans, trucks, which, apparently, women find the drivers of particularly sexy.

Beer also bestows us with magical powers. It enables horses to defend their doggie friends from wolves, for example. It turns guys into Pac Man. This must be because of its Beechwood aging. Candy, on the other hand, is bad for you. Skittles can give you freakishly muscular arms, while Snickers can turn mild-mannered Brady family members into Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi.

Ah, the mixed messages. They weren’t all bad. I liked the odd-ball ones; the commercial from Always about empowering young girls, the Loctite Glue commercial, the commercial that came out, strongly and without equivocation, against that national scourge, toenail fungus. Mostly, though, it was a bad year for SB commercials. Terrific football game, awful commercials.

And then Katy Perry came in, singing “Roar” and riding a puppet lion (first appearance of a Lion in a Super Bowl! Sorry, Detroit. . . .). And she was at her effervescent, cartoon-y best. I did think it was odd to have Lenny Kravitz join her for, of all songs, “I kissed a girl” (a song that’s so much less transgressive when sung by a dude). And when you’re Katy Perry, with that thin voice and general dance clumpiness, it’s risky to share the stage with a performer as on-fire as Missy Elliott. But Katy is generous that way, and frankly, I think she’s a doll. I didn’t even mind that she had girls in bathing suits dancing with sharks. I thought her whole set was pop fizziness incarnate; great fun. I could go on and on about the aesthetics of excessiveness; mostly, though, I just enjoyed.

Then back to the football game, and more bad decision-making. Twenty seconds left, second down at the one-foot line, Seattle has Marshawn Lynch, the best short-yardage running back in all of football on their team, with one time-out left in case he didn’t make it. (In fact, on the play before, Lynch darn near did score, and would have except for a brilliant play by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, which the announcers completely missed). Instead, Seahawks offensive coordinator went with a slant pass to their fifth best receiver. Which an unheralded rookie free agent named Malcolm Butler intercepted, to seal the unlikely Patriots win. A night of bad decisions, ending with an inexcusably terrible play call.

Next year, the Super Bowl will be designated 50. Just that: 50, not L–no more Roman numerals, ever, apparently. I’ve seen, I think, 46 of them. Last night, my family teased me for my overuse of the word ‘orgy.’ The commercials were ‘an orgy of idiocy,’ that kind of thing. But ‘orgy’ works, and not just because of the Romanized numbering. The whole thing’s overblown, overdone, self-indulgent. Katy Perry is too scrubbed-clean to inspire words like ‘orgy,’ but no one can say her half-time show erred on the side of tasteful restraint. The hyper-patriotism, the jets overhead, the fireworks, the obligatory pre-game songs (“America the Beautiful” PLUS the “Star-Spangled Banner” (well-sung, this year, by Adele Dazeem), PLUS the big Carrie Underwood diva number). PLUS a big deal ceremonial for the coin toss. And when it was over, we got Kurt Warner carrying in the Lombarbi trophy like a religious icon, reverently, solemnly; touched, adoringly, by teary-eyed Patriots, with portentous music, like high Mass at Notre Dame. (Better make that St. Peter’s). And then the trophy was handed to Roger Goodell, to present to Robert Kraft. Like, nothing’s official until it’s blessed by rich old white guys. (Who spent this last week sniping at each other, and now had to be freezingly polite: comedy enough).

There’s just nothing funnier on earth than the Super Bowl. Bad taste, bad commerce, bad religion, all rolled into one. Nothing, nothing is funnier.

 

 

The State of the Union

Before last night’s State of the Union address, Vox.com’s Ezra Klein published this piece: “What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest.” If you don’t want to bother with the link above, let me summarize: our politics is sufficiently broken that nothing of consequence can be accomplished, even by intelligent, patriotic men and women of good will. Politics is not like a family and it’s not like a business, both of which have built-in incentives for people to get along and institutions in place for important decisions to get made. Politics is like football. For one side to win, the other must lose. If a pass is thrown, the receiver and the defensive back can’t agree to compromise regarding it; either the ball will be caught (good for the receiver) or it won’t be caught (good for the defender). If John Boehner–who I genuinely do believe to be an intelligent, patriotic and capable man–were to endorse and try to pass every piece of legislation President Obama proposes, the only thing he would accomplish would be to lose his job.

So the State of the Union becomes an exercise in futility, something to which the only really sensible response is that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 81 year-old Supreme Court Justice, who seems to have used it as an excuse for a nap.  Pretty much every time President Obama said anything even remotely consequential, the Democrats in the chamber gave him a standing ovation. And Republicans looked dour. The two guys I feel sorriest for are Boehner and Joe Biden, both of whom have massive acting challenges. I mean, they’re right there, right behind the President, on camera the whole speech. Biden has to look, alternately, seriously contemplative and utterly delighted. And Boehner has to look pensive and a bit incredulous. (Mostly he just looked dyspeptic.)

Of course, for the most part, the President gets to talk about how well the country is doing right now (quite well, actually, for a change), and propose lots of first-rate policies that could make things even better, none of which will ever get enacted. And of course, all the language has been carefully tested: the new phrase du jour seems to be ‘middle-class economics.’ But then the President shifted into a different gear for the last quarter of his speech:

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America, but a United States of America. . .  Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.

I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.

I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best. I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and New London. I’ve mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; in Boston, West, Texas, and West Virginia. I’ve watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains; from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

Understand — a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.

That’s a longish chunk, and I’m sorry about that, but I think it deserves to be quoted at length. Because I go back to that Ezra Klein article on Vox, and I think he’s right in his cynicism, but I also think President Obama is right in his optimism. Because Klein is describing our nation right now. And the President is describing our nation as it can become.

One thing that I like about this President (and you all know that I have been very critical of him too), is that he has often taken a longer view than current political arguments would allow. Take, for example, Obamacare. The ACA is a flawed piece of legislation. It’s not as bad as some Republicans make it out to be, and it’s not as great as some Democrats seem to think it is in defending it. It’s flawed. But is that really important? Isn’t it more important to establish, as a principle, the idea that everyone in America, rich or poor, should have access to competent, affordable health care? I also watched Joni Ernst’s Republican response to Obama’s SOTU, and I noticed that when she talked about Obamacare, she talked about ‘repeal and replace.’ Now, in fact, I don’t think Republicans will be able to repeal it, and I don’t think they have a sensible program they could replace it with, but that doesn’t matter. ‘Repeal and replace’ is the language they’ve adopted. They have come to accept that expanding health care access is here to stay, that the American people won’t go along with efforts to take it away. Eventually, the ACA will be improved and expanded. It may take twenty years, but it’s inevitable. Long-term, Obama’s vision will prevail.

Right now, yes, our politics is hopelessly partisan and ineffective and inefficient and broken. But it’s not going to stay that way. President Obama talked about expanding access to higher education, proposing that the federal government pay community college tuition for Americans who meet certain criteria. That won’t happen in this term of Congress. But the idea is inevitable; eventually, we’ll figure out that asking young people to bankrupt themselves to attend college is bad public policy. The President talked about raising the minimum wage. Well, that’s happening state by state, and sooner or later, people are going to notice that states with higher minimum wages also have faster growing economies and hiring rates. The minimum wage is going up. The President talked about immigration reform. And right now, that’s a tremendously contentious issue, and it’s unlikely much will come of it legislatively. But long-term, a solution is inevitable. American nativism is a constant in our history, but history also tells us that it never wins.

When the President first talked about the ACA, the metaphor used by Republicans was that of a camel sticking his nose in the tent in a sandstorm. Obamacare was that camel’s nose, and if we’re not careful, that camel’s taking over the tent. (Conservatives love slippery slope (or camel-tent-takeover) imagery). And so I’m saying, well, yeah, that camel’s nose is in the tent, and also his mouth and ears. With, I suspect, more to come. But you can’t cross a desert without a camel.

Poor Joni Ernst’s response talk was Primary President sincere. She was battling bad optics, (what was behind her–flags, a shuttered window, bathroom tiles?) and she didn’t know what to do with her hands, but she did fine. But her talk seemed so . . . mundane. Puny. She talked about the Keystone XL pipeline, and the ‘thousands of new jobs’ it will create. Well, that’s a contentious partisan issue right now, so she weighed in, but it doesn’t matter; there are lots of pipelines between the US and Canada; it’s just that this one became politicized. The real issue is alternative fuel, the real fight is against greenhouse gasses, the real battle is over climate change. Accepting that is inevitable.

Liberals are right to want change; conservatives are right to resist it happening too rapidly. Liberals say ‘let’s try this!’ and conservatives respond, quite properly, ‘are we sure we know what we’re doing?’  Our ship of state needs both port and starboard crews, all hands on deck. Right now, America has a functioning economy that doesn’t serve all its citizens, and a completely non-functioning politics that doesn’t serve anyone at all.  President Obama, optimistic as always, thinks we can do better. I think so too.