Gay mormons: two opportunities for conversation

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner.  He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach.  Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it.  Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner.  He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist.  I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly.  Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.

He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car.  His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn.  He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly.  But he did pay pretty well, as I recall.  It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.

And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay.  And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend.  He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.

So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence.  Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner.  A harmless old German guy.  Not a threat to anyone or anything.

I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture.  I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons.  That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose.  And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people.  If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.

Dialogue’s a good thing.  Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing.  So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.

The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  Please check out their website.  They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal.  From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent.  Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.

At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart.  I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful.  In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play.  So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’?  Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful.  When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.

Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews.  Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself.  (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor).  Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.

Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall.  Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing.  So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.

I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben.  I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting.  Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing.  I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.

Fox News vs. MSNBC

Okay, so you’re at a family function, and you find yourself alone in a corner with your Tea Party-supporting Uncle Bob. And Aunt Lydia’s home-made root beer has had that one week extra to really ferment.  And you’re a progressive/liberal/commie, and Uncle Bob is at his most obstreperous.  (I’m aware that a lot of you who read this aren’t actually progressive/liberal/commies, but go with me here.)  And so you suggest that his opinions aren’t actually factually based, because he watches Fox (or Faux) News.  And he says, ‘oh, and the news you get from MSNBC isn’t biased?’

And there’s the equivalency.  Fox News vs. MSNBC.  Maybe Fox News does lean right, but the entire mainstream (or ‘lamestream’) media is biased too.  On Fox, we conservatives are getting the straight scoop, the real skinny, the actual news divorced from leftist ideology.  Fox is a corrective, sure, but that doesn’t mean Fox isn’t ‘fair and balanced.’  Fox also clearly distinguishes between ‘straight news’ and ‘opinion,’ and has some first-rate journalists doing the straight news bits.  But MSNBC is basically nothing but opinion, with hosted opinion-based shows back to back to back.  Except for weekends, where MSNBC does reality shows set in prisons.

I don’t watch Fox News much, but I do watch it some.  Let me start off by saying this: in general, Fox News commentators are better at their jobs than many MSNBC hosts are.  I don’t mean truer, or more factually based, or more reasonable.  But. . .  let me explain.

When I was in grad school, I had a job in radio. My station, WFIU, was a PBS station, and so we carried Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and other PBS programming, as well as, of course, such public radio fave-raves as Car Talk and Garrison Keillor.  I also had a show of my own; a classical music call-in game show called Ether Game.  I hosted it every Tuesday night, mostly written by staff (I had staff!), but occasionally by me.  And on Saturday mornings, I had a sports talk show, co-hosted by a friend and fellow sports nut.

That sports talk show was the single most difficult thing I have ever done.  We were just establishing ourselves, and didn’t have a lot of callers at first.  A lot of sports talk radio is dreadful; shouty and angry and judgy.  I wanted something different, a sports talk show focused on evidence and expertise.  I interviewed an Olympic swimmer about her practice routine, for example.  A gymnast about Title IX.  A wide receiver coach about how to train wide receivers.  That kind of thing.  I love sports, know sports, can talk about sports with, I think, some knowledge and insight.  But my gosh it was difficult.

Try it.  Try talking non-stop for ten minutes.  On any subject on earth, on something you perhaps know a lot about.  You have to talk with some fluency, and you can’t repeat yourself, and you have to say something engaging and interesting to listeners.  I knew and liked the subject matter, I knew a lot about it, I’m a reasonably articulate guy, I think, and I researched; OMG did I research.  It’s still incredibly difficult.  To be good at talk radio requires a very specific skill set that very few people on earth have.

I loathe Rush Limbaugh’s politics, for example, but I admire his talent immensely.  He’s incredibly good at what he does.  Howard Stern is amazing on radio, not that I share his obsessions and foibles, but he’s extremely good at what he does.  Dave Ramsey’s exceptionally gifted.  Garrison Keillor is a frickin’ genius.

Well, talk radio tends to be dominated by conservatives.  I’m not sure why, but it does seem to be true. And most Fox News hosts came from radio, and brought that skill set with them.  I think Sean Hannity is one of the most annoying people on earth, but he’s a talented radio guy, and he’s brought his own articulate presence to Fox.  Bill O’Reilly’s a radio guy.  Glen Beck was, and is.  If you watch Megyn Kelly’s show, you can see how much she struggles with the format. She can be a sharp interviewer, and she’s good at TV, but she can’t just riff, the way O’Reilly and Hannity can.  She doesn’t have that radio background.

Far and away the best show on MSNBC is Rachel Maddow’s show; not surprising, given her background in (liberal) talk radio.  If you watch Rachel regularly, you’ll notice a habit she has.  She repeats herself a lot.  She’ll say something like, ‘the strongest allegations about Chris Christie, the biggest arguments against him, the people making the toughest case against him. . . .’  That’s a radio trick; people are in their cars, driving, and not necessarily paying close attention, so you repeat yourself a bit, with slight varieties between each repetition, to make sure you’ve captured their full attention. It enables her to make a more nuanced argument, and to base it in history of some kind.  That’s her strength.  And if you watch her on election nights, you realize how good she is at off-the-cuff improvisation.

So Fox News is, in many respects, just better at TV broadcasting than MSNBC is.  On Fox News, the messaging is tight, clear, punchy.  On MSNBC, it feels more self-indulgent.  Lawrence O’Donnell isn’t a very good TV show host–nowhere near as good as Rachel–because he goes off on idiosyncratic tangents. (And sometimes has to apologize later). Now, when there’s a big major story breaking, MSNBC is excellent, because they simply become an extension of the work being done by the professionals at NBC News.  Fox doesn’t have as many real journalists at their disposal; they’re not great at breaking news.  MSNBC is improving; Steve Kornacki’s terrific, as is Jose Diaz-Balart, as is Melissa Harris-Perry.  But Al Sharpton’s show is painful to watch, as is Chris Matthews’.  And I really dislike Morning Joe, though it’s a popular show. Beats me why.

But–and this is the point I really want to make–there’s no way MSNBC is anywhere near as important to liberals as Fox is to conservatives.  Not even close.  The ratings bear this out; Fox clobbers MSNBC in TV ratings all the time. And that totally doesn’t matter.  Because liberals don’t tend to get their news from TV.  And conservatives do, mostly from Fox.

This is basic demographics.  The median age for Fox News viewers is 65.  Fox News viewers skew heavily old, white and male.  Rachel Maddow actually wins her time slot regularly among the 25-54 age demographic.  Older people are used to getting their news from television.  They’re also used to TV news personalities being authoritative–Cronkite, Rather, David Brinkley.  And Fox News speaks to their fears and concerns.  The national debt is a potent issue for those viewers, because they’re worried about their grandchildren.

(This also explains Megyn Kelly getting her own show.  She’s not much of a journalist, though she is a pretty good interviewer, and has a feisty, confident on-air personality.  But she is an attractive young blonde woman.  Demographics; older white men like pretty blonde women.)

But younger, more liberal voters tend not to watch network television at all, and mostly, when they do watch TV, it’s via the internet.  And satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert speak to their style and approach.  Fox News seems square, earnest in comparison (and the Fox News website is generally considered lame).  Liberals are much more likely to get news from a variety of sources, most of them internet sources: Daily Kos, Salon.com, vox.com, 538.com, Huffpo, Politico.com, etc.  Paul Krugman’s blog is a daily must-read. I agree that conservatives have their pet websites too: Breitbart, National Journal, Heritage, Cato. But I know conservatives who really do watch Fox for hours every day.  I don’t know a soul who could bear to watch that much MSNBC.

So Uncle Bob is right when he says that MSNBC is, in a sense, the liberal equivalent to Fox News.  (Though, I would point out that the second most popular show on MSNBC is hosted by a conservative, Joe Scarborough, something for which Fox has nothing comparable).  But it isn’t true that MSNBC and Fox are really equal.  Fox News is an immensely important part of the conservative movement, and of the Tea Party movement.  MSNBC is . . . just another news source.

Of course, mainstream media are also important, though their influence is diminishing.  CNN can be embarrassingly bad, especially at international news.  And of course, the myth of ‘liberal media bias’ needs to be dispelled once and for all. We all of us, right and left, suffer from confirmation bias, and though I do believe truth exists, it can be frustratingly difficult to discern.  Reading broadly and widely helps.  Watching one network all the time is a waste of time.  We can use news to confirm our prejudices, or we can try to learn something from the media we consume.  We can’t watch or read everything.  But we have, at our fingertips, the greatest source for information the world has ever seen.  Maybe we could use that resource in a way that increases wisdom and understanding.

 

Pushback against war

Every Sunday, I tape This Week With George Stephanopoulos, one of the Sunday talk shows, in which Big Name journalists interview Big Name guests, followed by a panel discussion by ‘political experts’, carefully balanced between liberals and conservatives, except for when its not, in which case it’s always overbalanced right-ward.  It’s an awful show, really, and I usually can’t bring myself to actually watch it until Tuesday or Wednesday.  But it’s valuable, in that it gives you some insight into mainstream Beltway attitudes.

Anyway, this past Sunday’s show dealt mostly with Iraq, with quick-strike successes of ISIS, a Sunni insurgency.  Isis‘ stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or Iraq and Syria; depends on how your news outlet translates the name.  They’re scary, brutal, well-armed and on the move.  They keep taking cities in the Sunni north-west part of Iraq, and the well-trained (we were told), well-armed Iraqi army has mostly dealt with the threat Isis poses using the strategy “feet, don’t fail me now.”  (Little-known fact: ‘feets don’t fail me now’ was the catchphrase popularized by African-American actor Mantan Moreland.  Character actor, 1930s-40s, played a nervous, cowardly black stereotype, also worked standup.  Hey, it was a living.)

Anyway, Isis.  Scary, brutal, taking city after city, meeting minimal Iraqi army resistance.  And so ABC News was on the story, pointing out that Americans are, like, joining Isis by the dozens, so what if they came back to the States and decide to stay terrorists.  So President Obama needs to ‘do something.’  Everyone agreed on that.  The President needs to ‘act.’

So ABC’s panel, in addition to Stephanopoulos, consisted of Donna Brazile, Matthew Dowd, Bill Kristol and Katrina vanden Heuvel.  I’ve always liked Donna Brazile, a good-natured and sensible woman who seems mostly amused by the political vagaries of Washington politics.  Dowd is a former Bush staffer-turned-journalist (just as Stephanopoulos is a Clinton staffer-turned-journalist), but a bright, thoughtful political commentator. He’s a good match for Brazile–you sense that if you put them in a room together and asked them to solve, say, immigration politics, they’d put their heads together and come up with something bi-partisan and sensible. Bill Kristol, from the Weekly Standard, is a neo-conservative icon, and one of the most prominent and effective cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation, and a liberal.  I mostly can’t stand her.  She can be self-righteous and dismissive and annoying, the kind of liberal that makes conservatives hate liberals.  Some call her the ‘Ann Coulter of the left.’  She’s not that bad–she’s not off-her-meds nuts–but she’s bad enough.  I groaned when I saw that she was on the show.

But I gotta hand it to Katrina.  Bill Kristol’s all ‘President Obama needs to act’ (clearly code for ‘we need to send troops back there’).  And she called him out. And it was a beautiful thing to watch. And then Matthew Dowd weighed in (Dowd’s at the six minute mark), and if anything, he was more passionate on the subject than she was.

I have a son who served in Iraq, two tours of duty in Iraq.  We all know . . . everybody . . . most everybody knows that this has been a colossal waste of money and men and women, the blood of the men and women of our country.  Over five thousand of our people have been killed from our armed services, and its going to end up costing us probably three trillion dollars.  . . . we don’t fix a first mistake by continuing to make a second mistake, and if you ask anyone who’s an enlisted person in this, they will tell you that the only way this is going to get solved is that you have to commit troops there for a hundred years.  And that is not going to happen.

It just astonishes me how little accountability there has been over Iraq.  The standard line goes something like this: well, everyone thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.  Everyone agreed on that point, that Saddam was a dangerous threat.  So Bush needed to act.’  But this mainstream talking point is arrant nonsense.

The fact is, the United Nations had a weapons’ inspection team in Iraq, led by Hans Blix, throughout 2002 and 2003, before the invasion.  And Blix was desperate to get his message out, and his message was ‘we have found no WMD anywhere, and there’s no evidence of any actual threat.  Give us another two months.  You don’t need to invade.  I have good people on the ground, and in two months, they’ll have a definitive report.  And it’s almost certain to show no WMD.’  But no one in the mainstream media would give him a platform.  They were too busy saying ‘The President needs to act.’

And of course, Blix was right. Saddam was not a threat to the US or to US interests. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” which came out of Bush’s White House Iraq Group, made for a nice marketing slogan, but it was never anything but nonsense.  Read Disarming Iraq, Blix’ book. He was right, entirely right, well in advance of the invasion. I knew perfectly well Saddam had no WMD, and that even a good man like Colin Powell was telling us things that weren’t true about Saddam’s nuclear capabilities.

The fact is, the American mainstream news media had all basically turned cheerleader for war by 2002.  They always will.  A show like This Week proves it.  The ‘journalists’ on that show love international ‘threats.’  They always, always will want the President to ‘do something.’  They’re obsessed with terrorism.  Here we are in 2014, and some of the biggest sporting events of the past six months have included the Olympics, the World Cup, the Boston Marathon, Wimbledon.  ABC News has done major stories on each of these events, each of them almost entirely focused on the possibility of a terrorist attack, and what precautions are we taking, and what is the likelihood of an attack, and what more should we be doing.  This Week has devoted entire episodes on the terror threat of each major sporting event as it happens.

Meanwhile, Syria is in crisis, and so is Egypt, and Lebanon’s getting dragged in, and let’s not forget what Russia’s doing in Ukraine, and of course there’s always Iran.  And these are all ‘dangerous situations,’ and the President absolutely needs to ‘do something’ about each of them.  And the something he’s supposed to do always, in every instance, involves some kind of military intervention.

So Katrina vanden Heuvel, who I mostly don’t like, finally, finally called someone out.  And Matthew Dowd, who has a son serving, backed her up. And the other commentators stood around looking embarrassed.

And of course, this is the pressure that President Obama is constantly under.  “Act!” I think it’s very much to his credit that we don’t have troops in Ukraine, Syria and Egypt right now, with more flying back to Iraq.  If ABC News had its way, we probably would.  If Bill Kristol had his way, for sure we would.

But of course, mainstream media has a liberal bias.  Everyone knows that.

The World Cup

I am a massive sports fan.  I love baseball, basketball, football and American football, in that order.  I avidly follow various professional sports teams.  My happiness, on any given day during the summer, in part depends on whether the San Francisco Giants won their ballgame.  So I get sports, I follow sports, I’m into sports.  Every four years, I go nuts watching the Olympics (though like most American sports fans, I completely ignore most Olympic sports the rest of the time).

So the World Cup is, for a guy like me, basically a pure party.  Pure fun.  Every since it started I’ve been, well, basically this.

I actually came a little late to soccer.  Growing up, it was not on my radar.  But when Salt Lake City got a major league soccer team, Real Salt Lake, I followed them.  They were the local team, after all.  And my son became a massive soccer fan, intense and knowledgeable–through him, I learned a lot about the strategies and intricacies of the sport.  I’m still very much a neophyte.  But what I lack in comprehension, I more than make up for in enthusiasm.  Go USA!

And is there anything more awesome than those Kiefer Sutherland/Jack Bauer pre-game promos?  Or this one, for the Ghana game? (Except Kiefer Sutherland was actually born in Great Britain, and is rooting for England to advance!).  The US team is gritty, tough, courageous.  A bit undertalented, but blessed with a world class goal keeper, and a bunch of players who play in the MSL, the American domestic soccer league, instead of working as mercenaries in the Bundesliga or Premier league.  Plus, we have four players who were the offspring of US servicemen and German girls.  Brings a tear to my eye, to think of our soldiers patriotically sleeping with frauleins, all for the glory of our future national soccer side!

So, yeah, I’m a fan.  Go USA!  And I’ve watched all three US games so far, and at least some part of every other game in the tournament.  Well done, Costa Rica!  Valiant effort, there, Iran!  Splendid football all around, Netherlands!  Sorry about that, England and Italy!  Boy has it been fun.

And then there was this column, from Ann Coulter.  Who hates soccer, and thinks the rest of us should too.  In fact, who seems to think it helpful or necessary to inject soccer into our American cultural wars.  Apparently, real Americans don’t like soccer.  “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”  Liking soccer (or pretending to like it) is akin to the metric system; intellectually bankrupt rubbish being foisted on us Americans by Europeans.  And so on.

I think it’s possible that this column is an attempt at humor.  I don’t have any evidence to support that theory, since it’s not remotely funny.  Humor comes from truth–that’s why stand-up is the site for observational humor.  Ann Coulter tends to respond to critics of her work by saying ‘where’s your sense of humor?’  So I think she fancies herself a comedic writer. It’s possible that I don’t understand conservative humor (though I do rather like P. J. O’Rourke). But if a comedian says ‘did you ever notice why all frozen peas are the same size,’ we only laugh if we have noticed that, and think it’s true. Since Coulter ‘observations’ aren’t true, they’re also, ipso facto, not funny.

Very quickly, though, since she has ‘reasons’ for hating soccer, let’s deal with them:

“It’s boring.”  No it isn’t.

“Really, it’s seriously boring.”  Any sport can be boring for people who don’t understand it, who don’t know the rules or strategies or tactics or players.  You need to invest some time and attention.  If you do, it’s amazing.  I don’t think I breathed the whole USA/Portugal match.

“Every single game ends either 0-0 or 1-0.” You have no idea how intense a nil-nil tie can be.  So much drama, so much riding on every attack, every save, every possession.  And in this World Cup, scoring is way up.  But yes, one of the features of soccer is that goals are very hard to come by.  That’s why it’s so exciting when someone finally scores.

“You can’t use your hands in soccer.”  Hey, good for you!  You learned one of the rules.  And you say, ‘the glory of being human is that we have opposable thumbs”.  And also really strong leg muscles, so we can kick the ball really hard.  ‘Kicking’ is a feature, not a glitch.

“Little kids play it, and when the game is over, get a juice box.”  Actually, yes, it’s a terrific sport for children. Boys and girls can play it well, and it’s fabulous exercise for them.  Good soccer players are fit.  And yes, little kids like juice boxes.

“It’s not a sport for individual achievement.”  Anyone who could say that has never seen Lionel Messi play.  But it is true, soccer’s more about teamwork than individualism. But, you know, I just watched the NBA final, Miami vs. San Antonio, and the Spurs won because they were the superior team.  And it was beautiful, watching the ball movement and defensive shifts and screens and block-outs.  I love basketball, and the glorious passing of San Antonio, the pass leading to the pass leading to the easy shot, it was as pretty as that sport can get.  And baseball is an ‘individualist’ sport, pitcher v. batter, but is there anything lovelier than an outfield relay, or a double play?  And football, my gosh, it’s entirely built on 11 guys per side supporting each other, playing as a team. Ann Coulter doesn’t hate soccer, so much as she hates what’s best about all sports.

Mostly, though, she doesn’t like it because people all over the world love it.  It’s a sport for furriners.  So, fine, it’s a bad sport for xenophobes.

But here’s what’s wonderful.  We see these countries, Nigeria and Iran and Ghana, poor, messed up countries, and we don’t know much about them except really terrible things. And then we think, “there’s got to be something better in Iran than the mullahs, something better in Nigeria than Boko Haram.”  And then you realize that, yes, there is something better, some grace, some beauty, and we’re seeing some of it, passion and dedication and sportsmanship and humanity, right there, on that pitch, playing football.  Integrity and honor and competitive fever.  Teamwork and patriotism and sacrifice.

I love the World Cup.  Go USA.  And go Germany, or Argentina, or Brazil, or Uruguay.  Whoever wins, I’ll be watching.  And I’ll be cheering.

 

Excommunication, Republican-style

Excommunication has been much in the news lately, and especially in Mormon circles.  It’s always a little surprising for me when issues relating to Mormonism receive national attention.  The John and Kate story has recently been a big story in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Good Morning America.  I mean, when Mitt Romney was running for President, his religious beliefs were, quite properly, part of the American political conversation.  I get that.  But the letters received by John Dehlin and Kate Kelly?  Why is that a national story?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because Mormons are weird.

When I say that we’re weird, I don’t mean because we seem to like green jello, or because we wear strange underwear.  It’s not because we oppose gay marriage, or don’t drink coffee.  It’s because we believe in other books of scripture than the Bible, because there are men we refer to as ‘prophets,’ because we claim the power of revelation, because we have these big pretty buildings we call ‘temples,’ because we send out thousands of young missionaries (kids, who wear suits and go around preaching).  We’re weird, I think, in part because we believe in a set of quite specific doctrines, many of them way outside the Christian mainstream.  And because we excommunicate.

That has to seem oddly medieval to people outside our faith, doesn’t it?  I’ve been researching a play set in the 11th century, about a clash between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope; excommunication was central to that conflict, because that particular Emperor wanted to ordain bishops, and that Pope considered ordination an exclusively papal responsibility.  Because the Pope excommunicated the Emperor. And then they nearly fought a war over it.  Thousands of young men nearly died, because of that disagreement over ecclesiastical prerogatives.  And Catholics historically excommunicated lots of people who taught heterodox doctrines.

Boy, not any more.  I know lots of Catholics who disagree with the Church on really fundamental questions, like abortion, birth control, celibacy.  Nobody gets excommunicated for it.

I also read a book recently about the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated as a Jew at the age of 23 (and who was later honored by the Catholic Church when they put his books on the Index of Forbidden Books).  John Dehlin recently talked about Jewish people, friends of his, who may not even believe that God exists, but are still regarded as respectable and faithful Jews by their rabbis.

Mostly, excommunication doesn’t happen much anymore.  But this week, it occurred to me that it sort of does happen politically.  It’s probably because the big political news of the week was the primary defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia.  But isn’t there a sense in which Cantor could be said to have been excommunicated?  Because of doubts within his ‘church’ over the authenticity and orthodoxy of his beliefs?

Okay, in case you were vacationing on Mars last week, Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader, the third highest ranking Republican in Washington, after the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader.  He represents the Virginia Seventh (the “fightin’ Seventh,” as Stephen Colbert would put it).  He lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party-supported economics professor named Dave Brat.  Cantor outspent Brat by a massive amount.  Polls showed him winning by a wide margin.  But he lost, and lost badly.  It was a huge upset.

Brat was essentially a one-issue candidate, hammering Cantor for supporting immigration reform, which Brat characterized as ‘amnesty.’  So this election was seen nationally as kind of a referendum on immigration reform, and a confirmation of a national narrative that sees the Tea Party as hopelessly nativist and borderline racist.  In fact, as the invaluable Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, in-depth polling of the Virginia Seventh District shows that Virginia voters didn’t care much about immigration.  It wasn’t an important issue to them.  Brat kept hammering it, and he did win, but Maddow argued that Brat would have won just as easily if he’d picked another issue to hammer Cantor over.  The fact was, Cantor’s unfavorable ratings were very very high.  He wasn’t popular in his district.  He seemed much more focused on his Washington career (and his probable advancement to House Speaker), than on the issues that mattered to his district.  And on conservative, Tea Party issues, he seemed . . . insincere.

In post-election interviews, Cantor kept saying something that seemed weird to me.  He said that he would continue ‘fighting for the conservative cause.’  If he had been a Democrat, I think he wouldn’t have said ‘I will keep fighting for the liberal cause.’  He would probably say something like ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the American people,’ or ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the people of Virginia,’ or ‘fighting for what I believe in.’  Liberalism isn’t an ideology.  And conservatism is one.

Look, it’s a truism that all politicians pay lip service to issues, but the only issue they really care about is their own election/re-election.  In fact, I do think some folks get into politics because they care about certain issues.  I love the TV show Veep, and Selina Meyer, the politician played so wonderfully by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is entirely career focused–she doesn’t care about anything, or believe in anything, and her cynicism (and the utter cynicism of all the characters) is key to the comedy.  It’s satire.  Satire’s always exaggerates for comedic effect–that’s how it works.  And there may well be politicians that cynical, but mostly they’re not, I think. They may compromise, but they still believe.

But Tea Party voters today really do seem to get angry when politicians don’t believe in the issues they believe in as fervently as they believe in them.  Eric Cantor would sometimes explain his support for immigration reform in political terms–’we’re up against some hard demographic truths, we need to reach out to Hispanic voters, who will never vote for us if they perceive us as, you know, racist, so we need this, we need immigration reform.’  There’s some terrific footage of Cantor trying a variant of that argument in a town meeting, and getting roundly booed.  He didn’t believe in what Tea Party Republicans believe.  He was an opportunist, a political calculator.  He wasn’t ideologically pure.  And so he got fired.  Excommunicated.

The Democratic equivalent has to be Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008.  She had voted for the war in Iraq.  To many liberals, the war in Iraq was anathema.  Barack Obama had not supported the war.  That made him seem more authentically Democratic, more genuinely liberal.  And so he won the nomination, and eventually the Presidency.  So yeah, liberals can do it too.  But the war in Iraq really was important.  It really was defining.

And for the Tea Party, the list of ‘really important, ideologically defining’ issues is very long.  You have to, absolutely have to oppose Obamacare.  You have to be against immigration reform.  You have to oppose the minimum wage increase.  Gay marriage and abortion are, as always, crucial.  Any tax increases, at all, ever, for anyone, ever, is political suicide.  Cutting spending is embraced with an evangelical fervor.

Dave Brat is an ideological extremist, and will, if elected this fall, make Congress crazier.  He’s an ‘economics professor,’ but exists on the Ayn Randian lunatic fringe of his discipline.  But I also get why he won.  He seemed genuinely to care about the issues his constituents cared about.  He comes across as sincere.  And Eric Cantor does not seem similarly authentic.

So they excommunicated him, for ideological impurity.  What a weird world we live in these days.  In a week where the Mormon part of it got weird too.

Michael Sam, and Jackie Robinson

Like an unfathomably large number of my fellow American sports fans, I spent quite a bit of time last week watching the NFL slave auction amateur player draft.  The best young football players in the country, having previously been weighed and measured, raced against each other, challenged to weightlifting contests, given the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, interviewed extensively and investigated by teams of private detectives, were selected by the 32 teams in the NFL, teams representing cities where, if selected, the young men will be required to live and work without any say over either circumstance, compensated only by all of them becoming millionaires. The worst teams got to pick first, in an effort at competitive balance.  Despite this, the two teams generally thought to have drafted most effectively were the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, both perennial winners.  And this exercise in compensatory socialism represents the highest triumph of capitalism imaginable; the NFL’s business model is universally admired in the world of professional sports. There isn’t any part of the NFL draft that’s not insane.

I watched, for example, watched for hours.  And I don’t even like football that much.  And for the most part, the telecast is unimaginably dull.

Which is not to say it’s lacking in drama, or in human interest.  The biggest speculation over the early stages of the draft was over who would draft Johnny Manziel.  ‘Johnny Football’ as he came to be known, and marketed.  He was the best college player in the country over the past two years, but also possibly too small and slight to succeed in the pros. Plus, he’s a fun kid, charismatic and charming, but also perhaps too avid a partier for everyone to be completely comfortable picking him.  As team after team passed on him, the camera increasingly followed his every grimace and grin.  Finally he was picked, by Cleveland.  And immediately, all the commentators agreed it was a perfect fit for him, Cleveland, a developing team in need of some excitement, with a fanatical fan base, and also excellent receivers for him to throw to, and also simultaneously a terrible fit for him, because Cleveland’s line isn’t very good and he’s going get killed back there.

And a similar dynamic played itself out on Saturday, the third (!) day of the draft, in the seventh round, as team after team passed on Michael Sam.  And then, finally, seven picks from the end of the entire draft, the St. Louis Rams took the plunge.  And America was treated to the genuine emotion of a fine young man achieving a dream, and responding by kissing his romantic partner.  Who, in Sam’s case, happened to be another young man.

Sam is a barrier breaker, the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL.  He won’t be the first gay player.  In 2003, Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers in the first round, and played for six years.  Harris came out after his career was over, and now says he regrets not doing so while playing.  There have undoubtedly been many others.  Sam absolutely deserves kudos for coming out openly.  But times have changed; I don’t think there’s any doubt that locker room culture is more welcoming to gay players today than even eleven years ago.  Or, also, that it’s not entirely welcoming.

Like most of the players drafted, Sam finds himself in a perfect situation for him, and also a terrible one.  Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, is a very strong personality, who has already made it clear that in his locker room, Sam will be treated as just another player.  The Rams’ team is young, and St. Louis is close to the University of Missouri, where Sam played his college ball.  There’s already a fan base in the area ready to root for him.  That’s all true.  And Michael Sam was a tremendous college player.  But lots of great college players can’t hack it in the NFL.  Sam did poorly at the combine; was demonstrably slower and less agile than other guys competing as defensive linemen.  And the Rams, the team he’s joining, already is loaded at defensive end, Sam’s position.  Robert Quinn and Chris Long, the Ram’s starters, are outstanding players–Quinn’s probably the best end in the league.  Their backups, William Sims and Eugene Hays last year, were also excellent, and would start for any other team.  Sam is probably too slow to make an impact on special teams.  If the Rams carry five defensive ends on their roster, Sam might make the team as the fifth guy there. If they decide to carry four, he’s likely to be the odd man out. That’s not homophobia; just the harsh reality of life in the NFL.  His best chance of playing in the NFL would be if one of those players were injured.  And, of course, that’s also, brutally, possible.

One comparison I’ve heard is to Jackie Robinson.  And there’s some validity there. Michael Sam is a pioneer, as was Jackie.  Some people compared Sam to Kenny Washington, the first black player signed to an NFL contract.  (And Washington also was signed by the Rams, same franchise).  But there are a number of significant differences.

Not many fans know this, but the NFL beat major league baseball to integration by a year.  Jackie’s debut was in 1947; Kenny Washington’s was in 1946.  But Washington was only the first black player to sign; three others joined him in the NFL in ’46.  Washington was joined by Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley, playing professional football together.  (FWIW, Willis and Motley were superstars; Washington was a good player, and Strode’s career was short, just that one season.  Strode made his mark in movies; he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Spartacus).

But Jackie Robinson faced it all alone. And baseball was a much bigger deal back then than football was.  And the baseball season is longer, and the player uniforms don’t hide the man behind padding.  Jackie was always a target, and racist idiots had 154 games to unleash their bile on him.  I rather liked the movie 42, which came out last year, but my main criticism of it was that it never came close to capturing the sheer hatred Jackie Robinson faced every day of the ’47 season.  I don’t mean to diminish the struggles of Washington, Willis, Motley and Strode, but I don’t think they faced anywhere close to the sheer hatred that Jackie Robinson did.  But of course we should honor them all.  Their courage remains an inspiration.

The other thing about Jackie Robinson, though, was that he couldn’t just be a ballplayer.  He had to be a star.  He had to dispel the widely circulated myth that baseball really didn’t discriminate; that black players just weren’t good enough to play at the major league level. In the meritocracy of professional sports, black guys hadn’t been signed or scouted for a reason–there really were substantive racial differences that made them unlikely to succeed. And so on. That specific pile of racist BS was the main one that Jackie Robinson had to flush away, and the only way he could flush it was to excel, to be, not just an exciting and capable player, but a superstar.  And he did it.  He’s not in the Hall of Fame as a symbol or as a pioneer.  He’s in the Hall, absolutely legitimately, as a ballplayer.

Not only was Robinson an incandescent talent, he had also to exhibit near-saintly deportment.  Faced with endless taunts and provocations, he had to . . . turn away, to not respond, to not strike back.  For a proud and intelligent and ferociously competitive young man, that had to be incredibly, even incomprehensibly difficult. But Robinson was carrying the freight for his entire race.  He pulled that off too.

I don’t think Michael Sam will have to face anything like that today.  Sam just has to be a football player. The struggle, to be a good player but also a gay pioneer, probably ruined Kwame Harris’ career.  Harris was a first round draft pick, expected to be a star.  He was, as a player, a disappointment, and he now says that the subtle homophobia of the locker room was a reason he could never quite find his way professionally.  That might happen to Sam too, but I think times have changed enough that it might be easier for him than it was for Harris.

Right now, Sam’s just fighting to make the team, like any other rookie. (Also, in interview after interview, impressing people with his intelligence, passion and poise).  He has to demonstrate, in the locker room, that he’s just another player. He doesn’t have to be superhuman. He doesn’t have to be Jackie Robinson.  Everyone at Missouri says that last year, he was a team leader, a locker room enforcer, a good guy.  His sexual orientation matters, because it’s not going to matter.  Anyway you look at it, that’s progress.

 

Thoughts on watching the Olympics

The Sochi Olympics are over, and we watched them all, every night.  Which is to say, we hardly watched the Olympics at all.  What we watched instead was NBC’s nightly highlights show.  That is to day, we watched a slick, professional, well produced television program every night, hosted by Bob Costas and (thanks to his pinkeye) a few other hosts.  We watched those sports NBC deemed particularly interesting to US audiences, which is to say, sports that Americans are particularly good at, or sports where the outcomes supported a particularly uplifting/tragic narrative.

And I loved it.  That’s all I wanted to watch anyway. I wanted neat story-lines, I wanted well crafted television.  I wanted exciting finishes, or particularly lovely visuals.  In short, I wanted to skip all the boring bits.

I say it’s all I could have watched, but that isn’t true.  I was gone every night, up in Salt Lake directing a play, but my wife and I had weekends, we found enough time to watch the stuff we wanted to watch.  And I could have watched the daytime coverage (much of it in real time) on MSNBC and CNBC and the internet.  I didn’t; not at all.  Not even the hockey, a sport I basically only follow once every four years.  Or curling, a sport I adore, but have no idea how it’s even scored.  I was happy enough with Bad Eye Bob, and his nightly highlights show.

It’s true that there were way too many commercials, and that they intruded on the action, but we just fast-forwarded those moments. And they had all those up-close-and-personal athlete profile bits, in which we saw or heard how all the adversity the competitors had overcome.  Skipped all those too.  I’m an American, gosh-darn it.  I have a short attention span.  I generally was able to watch a nightly three hour broadcast in a little over an hour, by skipping all the boring parts and going straight to the coolest parts.

And what were the coolest parts?  Well, my wife and I both love the ice skating. I love the fact that it straddles the line between an athletic competition and an art form.  I like that; I’m a theatre guy, and what I like most is the artistry of it.  I’m also not any sort of expert in it.  So what I tend to overvalue is the artistic elements of the programs–the stories the programs tell, the attitude they express.  So, case in point, we were riveted by the ladies’ skating.  The Russian skater, Adelina Sotnikova, and the South Korean, Yuna Kim, were both exquisite, and I thought both deserved gold, and was happy enough when Sotnikova won it, with Kim taking silver. But bronze? The Italian skater, Carolina Kostner, who won bronze, struck me as peculiarly unartistic, especially her short program, skated to “Ave Maria,” with a heavenly chorus and a pious look to the heavens at the end.  I found Kostner an unattractive performer, but could see that she was a marvelous athlete, and that her program was very difficult.  Gracie Gold, the American girl who finished fourth, had a nasty fall in her free skate, as did Yulina Lipnitskaya, who finished fifth.  But I adored the feisty, sassy American Ashley Wagner, and the impish Japanese girl, Akiko Suzuki.  I also tend to want to disqualify skaters who fall, or who, in my wife’s phrase, ‘exercise the element known as the spinning butt slide.’  So I had Wagner with the bronze, on my personal, completely inexpert and ill-informed score card.  And now I fully intend to go back to ignoring ice skating as a sport until 2018.

As I will other sports that I kind of fell in love with this Olympics.  Like slopestyle, both in skiing and snowboarding.  It’s a nutty sport, combining jumps, spins, twists, plus a sort of obstacle course.  Like many sports at the Olympics, it looked like a sport for crazy people, but the kids who did it sure looked like they were having fun. All the snowboarding events looked fun, and I was delighted with the raffishly dressed, apple cheeked insouciance of the kids who performed.  They all seemed as delighted by their competitors’ good runs as with their own, and when they biffed (and all snowboard sports included biffs aplenty), they’d shrug it off: “ah, well.”

I’m just sadistic enough to prefer sports where the athletes fall, or even crash into each other, over sports where they’re essentially racing against a clock.  I loved snowboard and skiing cross, for example, in which groups of four or five skiers or snowboarders race down a hill with lots of jumps, and as they struggle for position, often knock each other off the course.  I much prefer short track speed skating over long track.  Long track’s a bore–they just skate really fast, and without checking out the scoreboard, you have no idea who is fastest.  Short track, though, had sharp elbows, fabulous passes, skaters leading into turns inches from other skaters.  It’s wonderfully exciting and fun.  Best of all, the short track relays, in which you ‘pass the baton’ (so to speak), by giving the next skater on your team a shove on the butt.

As a Norwegian/American, I should probably say something about Ole Einer Bjoerndalen, the greatest winter Olympian ever.  And I understand how difficult his sport must be–cross country skiing, combined with target shooting.  But to me, it’s a sport more respected than enjoyed.  I’ll grant that what Bjoerndalen does is incredibly difficult, and if we ever fight a guerrilla war in a Nordic country, I totally want that dude on my side.  At the same time, I don’t understand it well enough to really get into it.  I found myself fast-forwarding to the target shooting bits.  Sorry, fellow Norwegians; I’m a shallow American after all.

Before the Olympics, the stories were all about inadequate or incomplete facilities.  Those ended up not mattering.  It was a wonderful two weeks, watching marvelous athletes from all over the world ski and skate. It’s really humanity at its best, human beings celebrating the extraordinary capabilities of their fellow human beings. One American figure skater is 15 years old, and is now the seventh best in the world at her event. Can you imagine that, being 15 and seventh best in the whole world at something?  Amazing and lovely.  As NBC kept reminding us.

Beatles on Ed Sullivan: 50th anniversary broadcast

February, 1964.  I was seven.  My cousins were visiting us in Indiana, I recall, though I have no idea why. Sunday night, the Ed Sullivan show (which my family watched occasionally; not always, but often), had announced that their guests would be a band from Liverpool, England; the Beatles.  John, Paul, George, Ringo.  My parents weren’t sure we should watch it.  I was seven; my brother was five.  Were the Beatles ‘wholesome entertainment?’  But–I may be misremembering this, but I don’t think so–my older cousin Cathy talked them into it.

I remember a few things from that night.  Most remarkable was the behavior of my cousin, who, when the Beatles came on, let out a shriek.  And I remember really liking the music. It was fun; it was exciting.  Mostly what we listened to at home was opera or orchestral music, plus show tunes, and my parents were big fans of all that Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole sort of pop.  The Beatles were something new, and I remember liking it, while also wondering what on earth was wrong with my cousin.

A few years later, I was in school, I was eleven, and we heard about this amazing new album by the Beatles, a weird thing, incomprehensible and strange, and sort of . . . against the rules.  I didn’t ask, but I assumed my parents wouldn’t care for it.  Which meant it was enticing beyond belief.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was called.  And my friend’s older brother had bought it.  And my friend, Jimmy Higgins, bugged him and bugged him, and finally his brother told us we could listen to it, but only once, with him in the room, and we had to sit on the floor, and we couldn’t say anything, not a thing.  And we went in to his room, and he lay on the bed and put on the album, and we listened, quiet as church mice.  And the first song came on, crowd noises, tuning violins (‘like opera!’ I thought), then that guitar jangle, chugga chugga bass and drums, and those words, “It was twenty years’ ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s taught the band to play, and we’re going in and out of style, but we’re guaranteed to raise a smile. . . ” and I thought, what?  What on earth?  Who?  I thought this was the Beatles?  Who’s this Sergeant Peppers?  Who’s Billy Shears?  What is going on?”

But it was so . . . propulsive.  So energizing. The mystery of it so compelling. And I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, because if I did Jimmy’s brother might turn the record off and we’d never get to hear it. And my whole understanding of music, of what it was and what it could do and how it could make you feel, changed forever.

50 years.  Fifty, since John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan.  Those black and white images, the set with arrows pointing to the band.  John, furthest left, stage left that is, on the right side of the screen.  John unsmiling, his legs in a wide stance, hardly moving, all masculine challenge and bravado.  George in the middle, because he had to sing backup, with John for Paul’s solos and with Paul for John’s, and they only had two mics.  Playing all the toughest guitar bits, his right leg shooting out occasionally, just a small half-kick.  Paul stage right, TV left, smiling as he sang, bobbing his head a bit, playing that left handed bass, smallish, shaped like a violin, lefty so his guitar shot off in what felt like the wrong direction.  And Ringo, above and behind them, the big nose, drumming like a metronome.  Icononic images, four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool, longish hair, with long straight bangs.  A Beatles’ ‘do.

So CBS created a TV special, an ‘event’ to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, and it aired a few days ago.  David Letterman’s show is now broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, and Paul and Ringo did some recorded conversations with Letterman as he walked them through the old building.  Those were interspersed with short biographical sketches, following, mostly, the familiar template.  It’s John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason.  John began the group, and was always its leader, and he brought in Paul.  Paul, in turn, brought in his guitarist friend, George.  And George grew close to Ringo in Hamburg, when the Beatles shared a stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the bands would mix after shows.

And we heard the familiar stories; the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney, and of Richy Starkey’s tough childhood, the sickly child who nearly died of peritonitis when he was six, and of tuberculosis when he was thirteen.  No mention of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, no mention of Brian Epstein and only a passing nod to George Martin.  And Ringo’s now 73, and he looks terrific, and performed with energy and charisma.  And Paul’s 71, and looks (and sounds) pretty great himself, though he cracked on the big high note on “Hey, Jude.” And Yoko Ono was there, with Sean, as was Olivia Harrison, and Dhani Harrison performed too.  Julian Lennon gave his regrets.

The bulk of the CBS show, however, involved various artists covering great Beatles’ songs, sometimes well, and sometimes less well.  And the evening generally revealed a crisis in contemporary rock and roll, as did the Grammys broadcast a month ago.  I don’t want to pretend that rock and roll hasn’t always been commodified and over-produced and over-hyped and in danger of losing its soul.  There is still great rock music being written and performed, and brilliant young bands still make a splash: the Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Buckcherry. And you could probably name twenty others, and so could I given time.  But it does sometime feel like Dave Grohl is out there, fighting a rear guard action against pop, keeping rock relevant pretty much all by himself.

Case in point: the special began with performances of “Ticket to Ride” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  By Maroon Five.  Beatles covers, by Maroon Five.  Blarg.

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was terrific.  Best of all, and the highlight of the night for me, was Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne covering “Hey Bulldog”.  I’ve been trying to link to it for you, but I can’t; CBS keeps deleting links, and you’ll have to buy it on I-tunes or something.  But the fact that Grohl would even cover “Hey Bulldog” is significant. It was never a hit, but it’s a gem of a song, from Yellow Submarine, a great song for Beatles’ cognoscenti.

I am able to link to Alicia Keys and John Legend’s cover of “Let it be“, which I thought was very good. And I quite liked Ed Sheeran’s sensitive and powerful “In my Life.”  I did not appreciate watching Imagine Dragons acoustify and emasculate “Revolution,” and was mostly just saddened when Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reconstituted the Eurythmics for one night, just so they could botch “Fool on a Hill.”  And even though Paul can’t hit the high note on “Hey Jude” anymore, he’s gotten good at treating audiences to a ‘na na na na na na na’ sing-along.

But the star of the night, for me, was Dave Grohl’s daughter.  She looks to be maybe six, or eight, and she was there with her Daddy, and she clearly knew every song, was singing along with every song.  And I thought of my youngest daughter, and how her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles, with a different album every birthday.  And Grohl said, “the Beatles were my Mom’s favorite band, they’re my favorite band, and now they’re my daughter’s favorite band.”  And the little Grohl girl stood up on her seat and made a heart sign with her fingers.  She hearts the Beatles.

And amidst all the old clips of their Ed Sullivan appearance, and the historical videos, we saw women, women now in their seventies and eighties, who were in the audience, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in 1962.  And they’re still alive, and still vibrant at the memory, and still sure that Paul will some day notice them, and propose marriage.  And they talked about it, how much these four musicians meant to them and how much they meant to us all.  And, yes, the CBS special was a star-studded affair, because no event in America today can truly be significant unless blessed by the benevolent hand of celebrity.  But Tom Hanks didn’t seem to be there for window dressing, not considering how enthusiastically he was singing along.  He remembers it too.

As do I.  Staring at my shrieking cousin, wondering what kind of special power these four guys had over girls.  And sitting on the floor of my friend’s brother’s room, listening to something rare and beautiful and weird and quite possibly forbidden.  At least it felt forbidden.  Because surely all those feelings, all at once, music of a surpassing strangeness overwhelming you with emotion, surely that couldn’t be  .  . . allowed?

 

 

The Christie narrative

I’ve been completely obsessed lately with the Chris Christie scandal. My daughter and I have taken to watching Rachel Maddow every night, as she’s emerged as the best source for all things New Jersey.  MSNBC has Steve Kornacki on staff, and he’s from New Jersey, used to work with David Wildstein, knows all the players, has great sources–he’s obviously a great resource. Chris Christie has attacked Maddow as biased.  She is an admitted liberal, and has gone hard after Christie, but I don’t think out of any particular animus.  She’s a journalist, first and foremost, and this is her scoop.  When mainstream reporters were mocking MSNBC because of this obsession with a bridge closing and resultant traffic jams, Rachel Maddow soldiered on.  Three weeks ago, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, (an über-reliable guide to the emerging mainstream media consensus), basically declared that the story was dead; that Christie’s ‘excellent’ performance in his two hour press conference had effectively put the story behind him.  Last Sunday, the This Week tune was very different.  And one of the main reasons is because of Rachel Maddow’s relentless reporting.

I know some people who can’t stand her, who think she’s gloating, that she’s inappropriately gleeful, that she went after a popular Republican politician, and is now doing a victory dance.  I don’t agree, not at all, any more than I thought Woodward and Bernstein were gleefully triumphant when they uncovered some of the main Watergate secrets, and brought down a President.  That’s what reporters do.  They look at powerful people, and hold them accountable when they screw up.  We don’t yet know exactly what Chris Christie did, don’t know what he knew or when he knew it, don’t have a smoking gun. In fact, we don’t even know motive; why Christie did what he maybe possibly may have done. But David Wildstein’s attorney now suggests that there is, in fact, evidence of early Christie involvement.  It’s getting very interesting.

There are in fact three separate scandals involving Chris Christie, so let’s sort them out, and, as is obligatory in political scandal stories, assign each a ‘gate.  First, there’s Bridgegate.  Lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge were closed, by the order of someone in the New York/New Jersey Port Authority, causing massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  Second, there’s Hobokengate.  The mayor of Hoboken claims that she was told that disaster relief money for her city, badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, would be contingent on her supporting a private development in her city that the governor favored.  Finally, there’s Videogate; the allegation that money for Sandy relief was diverted by the governor to make a video supporting his re-election campaign.  The state legislature is investigating all three of these scandals, and the US attorney also seems to be getting involved.

Of the three scandals, my favorite, by far, is Bridgegate.  It’s so bizarre.  The idea of a governor deliberately causing massive traffic jams as some kind of political retribution seems so dickish, so mean.  It may seem like small potatoes–people were inconvenienced for a few days, and EMTs were a little later than usual responding to emergency calls. The stakes don’t seem all that high.  But it was a deliberate misuse of the powers of governance.  That’s not supposed to happen.

Anyway, my daughter and I have become ‘experts’ on this particular cast of characters, with strong opinions on who should play them in the movie. (Jodie Foster as Rachel Maddow?)  Starting the week of September 9, 2013, Bridget Anne Kelly (Rooney Mara), Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff sent an email to David Wildstein (Jonah Hill), Governor Christie’s appointee on the Port Authority, saying ‘time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.’  Wildstein responded, ‘got it.’ Lanes onto the bridge were closed for four days, and massive traffic jams resulted.  In November, Bill Baroni (Josh Brolin), also a Christie Port Authority appointee, testified at some length to the New Jersey Assembly, with lots of photos and exhibits, explaining that the lane closures were needed for a traffic study. There was no traffic study; it never existed. The entire ‘traffic study’ presentation was a fabrication, a cover-up.  Baroni was prepped for his testimony by a Port Authority attorney named Phillip Kwan (Chow Yuen Fat), who had previously been nominated for the New Jersey State Supreme Court by Governor Christie, a nomination that the Assembly did not approve. Governor Christie (Wayne Knight) now says that when he first heard of the lane closures, he asked his chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd (Liam Hemsworth) and chief counsel, Charles McKenna (Oliver Platt), to investigate.  They claimed to have done so, and discovered nothing.

Okay, so we know there was a crime (the lane closures, involving Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein) and a cover-up (the ‘traffic study’ testimony before the legislature, involving Bill Baroni and Phillip Kwan).  That, at least, seems irrefutable.  Bridget Kelly right now is refusing to testify, as is David Wildstein. Wildstein’s attorney also says that evidence exists that implicates Chris Christie. He wants immunity for his client before he’ll release it.

And all sorts of weirdness has come out.  Someone in the Christie camp released an email to the press attacking Wildstein’s credibility, saying that ‘his high school social studies teacher’ called him ‘deceptive.’  Seriously.  There really is a permanent record, I guess.  Wildstein was supposedly this ‘deceptive’ nobody, but he had a job at the Port Authority, Director of Interstate Capital Projects that paid $150,000 a year, with no job description, in a job did not exist prior to him getting hired there.  Apparently, Governor Christie ordered the Port Authority to invent a job for Wildstein, so he’d have a guy there reporting only to him.

I’m a political scandal junkie, and when I hear Christie saying ‘I knew nothing about this,’ I think of other famous lines in American political history: “The American people need to know if their President is a crook.  I am not a crook.”  Or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  But sometimes, political figures are accused of things they didn’t actually do.  Sometimes they really are innocent.

Example: the Vince Foster ‘scandal.’  Bill Clinton’s Deputy White House Counsel, a long-time friend named Vince Foster, killed himself in 1993.  Immediately all sorts of conspiracy theories were posited, that Foster had been murdered by President Clinton because Foster ‘knew too much,’ or something.  It was all nonsense; Foster’s death was investigated by four separate law enforcement agencies. There never was a scandal there, and we ought to have known it.

How?  To me, it’s a matter of interrogating the narratives.  Let me demonstrate, by comparing the Vince Foster narrative to an actual scandal narrative; the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal.

Vince Foster, then.  Narrative One: a man with a history of clinical depression was found dead in a public park; a suicide note was found in his office. He killed himself.  No scandal. Narrative Two: somehow someone in the Clinton administration had Foster killed, then covered it up so cleverly it fooled four separate law enforcement agencies.  Which is more plausible?

Anthony Weiner.  Narrative One: a young married Congressman met a 21 year old woman, and tweeted lewd pictures of himself to her, using the pseudonym Carlos Danger.  And he kept doing it, sexting at least three other women.  Narrative Two: a faithfully married Congressman had his Twitter account hacked, and someone else sent those pictures, which weren’t even of him.  Which is more plausible?

I think, in both cases, we’d agree that, based on our experience with human nature, that Narrative One is more plausible.  I suppose it’s barely possible that the President of the United States could order the CIA or someone to have someone killed and make it look really really plausibly like a suicide. But seriously depressed people do, sadly, sometimes end their own lives.  As for Weiner, I guess a really vindictive and mean-spirited and massively computer savvy political enemy could hack his Twitter account. But, sadly, powerful married men do stray, and hit on women inappropriately. And it turns out, in both cases, the more plausible narrative turned out to be the true one.

So apply it to Christie. When Kelly emailed Wildstein ‘time for some traffic problems,’ he didn’t respond ‘what on earth are you talking about?’  There was clearly a plan in place they both knew about.  Wildstein was in the Port Authority specifically to do the Governor’s bidding–he didn’t seem to have any other job over there.  How likely is it that Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff would just decide on her own, without talking it over with her boss, Kevin O’Dowd, or the Big Boss, Christie, that she needed to hammer Fort Lee?  How likely is it that she would be able to persuade Bill Baroni to lie on her behalf?  How likely is it that Phillip Kwan and Bill Baroni could have come up with this phony ‘traffic study’ story and make it so persuasive that Governor Christie is still saying ‘who knows, maybe there really was a traffic study?’  Do high ranking members of a governor’s staff just decide to do stuff like this?  On their own?  Are they likely to be able to get away with it for four months?  These are all people making six figure salaries; would you risk your high paying job like this?  So you can punish Fort Lee for something? Or, more likely, was this something everyone was in on?  Including the Governor.

We don’t know the details yet. But it’s early days.  We will know a lot more, and we’re likely to know it fairly soon. Meanwhile, it’s the best show on television.  The plot may be predictable, but it’s sure fun to watch.

Justin Bieber

There’s an internet meme that I wanted to use for this, but I couldn’t find it. The title is something like: Justin Bieber’s music saved my life.  And it goes on to tell a story, first person singular, about someone in a coma after a terrible accident.  Day after day, this one nurse played Justin Bieber’s music.  It was the only thing this coma patient could hear.  And after weeks of it, nothing but Bieber’s music 24/7, the story goes: “I got up from my hospital bed and I turned off the CD player.  Justin Bieber saved my life!”

I do not like the music of Justin Bieber. I say this in ignorance; I’ve never listened to any of his songs all the way through, nor sat through any of his videos.  I’ve been lucky in that regard, always close enough to a door or a window or an escape pod to be able to leave when one of his songs came on.  But there’s nothing particularly unusual or unique about the Bieber phenomenon.  I didn’t like Shaun Cassidy’s music either, back in the day, nor Leif Garrett’s. I didn’t like One Direction, or The Jonas Brothers. I probably wouldn’t have liked Bobby Darin.  I didn’t care for Donnie Osmond back in the day, or David Cassidy. I didn’t like the Archies.  From the earliest beginnings of rock and roll, there have been cute boys with high voices who sing upbeat pop love songs or fun little dance grooves for audiences, mostly, of teenaged girls.  There will be more of them in the future. I’m personally immune to the charm of such singers, but I also understand their importance to commercial popular music.  They dominate top 40 airwaves, and always have.

Americans like hearing about people like Justin Bieber because there’s always something sort of inspiring about ‘rise to fame’ narratives.  But what Americans really like is hearing about the inevitable fall of these kinds of pop idols, because deep down inside we find them annoying, and schadenfreude (German for ‘enjoying the misfortune of others) is a powerful emotion. ‘Serves ‘em right,’ we think.  ‘I always knew he couldn’t really be that clean-cut.’ Heh heh heh.

Okay, so, last week, Andrea Mitchell, a very respected reporter for NBC News, was doing a story about the NSA, and the question of electronic surveillance of American citizens.  She was interviewing former Congresswoman Jane Harmon of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a recognized expert on electronic surveillance and the law.  A substantive conversation about a major national issue on MSNBC, exactly the kind of story for which MSNBC would like very much to be known.  But mid-story, this happened. The monetwork cut away from the interview to cover late-breaking news involving . . . Justin Bieber’s arrest for DUI.

Mitchell was widely ridiculed for this, perhaps unfairly–she wasn’t the one who made the call.  Jon Stewart had great fun with it. Mitchell defended herself, but oddly–she pointed out that her show on MSNBC does covers more substantive international news than any other cable news show, and that MSNBC really only covered Bieber for a few minutes. A tacit admission, perhaps, that covering Bieber at all may not actually qualify as, you know, news.

But there is one sense in which MSNBC’s decision could be defended; in fact, in which their decision may have been right.

When researching my play Clearing Bombs (currently in rehearsal, opens Feb. 20), I read two articles by F.A. Hayek, 1931′s “Prices and Production,” and “Profits, Interest and Investment”.  I found both of them stunning. In the play, I have Hayek say this:

If a solitary genius had invented prices, he would be lauded as one of the great men of any age.  But prices simply happen, driven by the everyday decisions of ordinary people, doing their shopping.  And as such, they tell us about value, about what we want and who we are and what we really think of things.  Not what we think we should value, not what we might tell a clergyman we value, not what we imagine ourselves to value.  What we actually, really, love.

If you think about it, prices really are remarkable. Unsentimental, unadorned by ideology or religious feeling or any other consideration, prices tell us what human beings genuinely do value.  They quantify value.  We may think that we should value broccoli or green beans or cabbage more than we value steak.  But we don’t.  We value steak more, and we can prove it; it costs us more.

Look at wages. You may think that it’s absurd that someone like, I don’t know, Scarlet Johansson, say, makes more money than an army medic.  You may think it’s preposterous that we value Lebron James more than we value a good high school chemistry teacher.  You may think that what Louis CK does for a living is ridiculously less important than what a good cop does.  But in fact, our society demonstrably values a movie actress, a basketball star and a comedian far more than everyday people.  We can prove it; we can quantify exactly how much more important Lebron is to us.  We have dollar figures as proof.

By that standard, Andrea Mitchell cutting away to a story about Justin Bieber makes sense.  Justin Bieber’s arrest is much more important than Jane Harmon’s views on the NSA. Bieber moves product. For MSNBC to survive as a cable news network, they have to sell advertizing.  Privileging Bieber makes economic sense.

David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA and CBS and one of the pioneers of television (and the guy who engineered the theft of TV technology from its rightful inventor, Philo Farnsworth), believed in the civilizing power of this powerful medium, TV.  He also believed in ‘Sarnoff’s law’: the value of any television program is measured by viewers. He believed that TV should broadcast programs to improve the human condition, but he also believed that the purpose of television is to sell advertizing; that shows existed to entice viewers to purchase products. He did not believe that those values were incompatible.  I think most of us would agree that, to some degree, they are.

Justin Bieber, and his life and career and success and popularity are, I think, of no particular significance. As an American, I think that the NSA spying controversy is massively important.  But let’s not pretend that the economic argument is without foundation or value.  TV news networks probably shouldn’t be spending much time with Bieber trivia.  But if they do, they risk losing viewers, and subsequently money.  Because we may say we don’t really care about Justin Bieber.  But we do care, we care a great deal.  We can prove how much we care.  We can put a price on it.