Two kinds of crazy

Anita Sarkeesian is a well known and well respected feminist scholar and critic.  Here’s her Wikipedia page. She specializes in studying how women are portrayed in various kinds of popular media, and especially in video games. She’s perhaps best known for a video series on Youtube, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Check it out. It’s great stuff, matter-of-fact, sensible, well researched.

She was invited to speak at Utah State University on Wednesday this past week. On Monday, though, a death threat was sent via email to university officials. The threat was specific and terrifying. I’m not going to quote it here, but it called Sarkeesian “everything wrong with the feminist woman,” and threatened not only her, but anyone who attended her lecture. Its author claimed to have pipe bombs, pistols and semi-automatic weapons. The email also referred to Marc Lepine, a gunman who murdered fourteen women in Canada in 1989.

I can’t begin to describe how incredibly troubling all this is. Sarkeesian’s videos are sensible, intelligent, informed, sort of fun, not terribly ideological. They do make the entirely reasonable point that women are objectified in video games. This is so obviously true, I can’t imagine it being a point of contention. Apparently there are men who feel terribly threatened–emasculated even–by feminism. Apparently lots of those men are also gamers. Who knew?

But as I researched this stuff, the misogyny embedded in so many video game texts, the ferocity of the rhetoric in so much of the so-called ‘men’s movement,’ I became completely disheartened. I wanted to post this yesterday, and couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I don’t want to research gamergate. I don’t even know what MRM stands for, aside from Men’s Right’s Movement. I read the MRM Wikipedia page, and found the MRM arguments incomprehensible.  I don’t want to follow the Red Pill subreddit. (I’m not even going to link to it. It’s on reddit, it’s not hard to find. I refuse to drive traffic there). I spent twenty minutes on Red Pill yesterday, and felt like I needed a shower.  I am a man, proud of being a man, proud to be male, fulfilled in my marriage and edified by the friendships and professional relationships with women I have always enjoyed. I’m a feminist, and proud of it. I don’t get this anti-women nonsense.

And death threats? Seriously, death threats?

And then came a (to be fair) entirely inadvertent interaction with a second group of crazy people.

And this gets tricky, because I have family members who are gun owners and gun defenders and I don’t want to call people I love ‘crazy.’

But here’s what went down. Sarkeesian was still willing to give her lecture on Wednesday. She just wanted to be safe while doing it. Perfectly reasonable. She wanted back packs checked at the door; Utah State made plans to do that. She also wanted personal firearms banned, except, of course, for cops providing security.  And Utah State couldn’t do it. State law allows concealed weapon permit owners to carry their firearms anywhere, to school, on a college campus. To search backpacks and confiscate (or ban) firearms is a violation of Utah law. And apparently a number of Utah State students do have concealed weapon permits, and could therefore have attended Sarkeesian’s lecture armed. Read about it here.

Argument A: This is a prominent speaker, speaking at the university’s invitation. The threat made against her was very specific and detailed. Surely the university had an obligation to take reasonable precautions to protect her safety. And the presence of concealed weapons by students licensed to carry certainly made her feel less safe, and probably actually made her less safe. If, heaven forbid, the guy who issued the threat had in fact shown up and started shooting, a bunch of untrained people waving their guns around and firing wildly would escalate the situation exponentially. The training received by concealed weapons’ holders is risibly ineffectual. Utah is the only state in the country with guns laws that idiotic. As Sarkeesian put it: “It’s sort of mindboggling to me that they couldn’t take efforts to make sure there were no guns in an auditorium that was threatened with guns and a mass shooting.  I don’t understand how they could be so cut and dried about it.”  She’s right. I don’t get it either. And I would certainly have cancelled my appearance, just as she did.

Argument B: Nobody at the university took the threat lightly. Everybody agreed that her safety needed to be protected, as well as the safety of other lecture attendees. But the University had no choice but to follow state law.  And concealed weapon permit holders are not the problem. Indeed, they’re potentially part of the solution to the overall problem of on-campus violence. It’s completely unfair to stigmatize law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights. Nobody wants to be called a ‘nut’, and adding the word ‘gun’ to the front of it makes things worse. Concealed weapon permit holders have a track record of responsible gun ownership and use. “Right to bear arms”, y’all.  It’s entirely possible that women, attending the lecture, may well consider themselves feminists, and may find gun ownership completely compatible with their feminism.It’s possible that if the guy had shown up, and started firing, an armed woman may have been the one to put him down. Another kick-ass, armed feminist. They do exist, and if we’re feminists, we should embrace them too. Feminism needn’t be wimpy. Guns protect women too.

I’m an Argument A guy. I do understand Argument B. They both exist, and they both have many followers. Let’s acknowledge that, at least.

Sarkeesian cancelled her lecture because she was afraid of getting caught in a cross-fire. I would be too. I think that’s an entirely reasonable fear. She was, it seems, more afraid of the cross-fire than of the guy who threatened her. I totally get that. I don’t get the gun thing. I have never understood it. I don’t want to own one, and I never have. We didn’t let our kids play in their friends’ homes if they owned guns. I think that was a reasonable stance for us to take. And I feel completely safe unarmed.

But I’m also directing a play right now, and we have lots of guns on-stage. We have a props table with maybe twenty guns on it. The cast spends most of the show waving their guns around, and at one point, they use the guns to shoot a whole bunch of zombies. Now, the guns we’re using don’t actually work. Our ‘shooting’ is a sound effect. The guns are mostly plastic. They’re completely harmless. But oh my gosh are they cool. And our actors enjoy using them.

I haven’t talked to the cast about their personal gun politics. None of my business. But I do get this about guns: they’re cool. On TV, in movies, guns are awesome.

Now, this makes me think that concealed weapon permit holders are living out movie-driven fantasies. I’m still resolutely anti-gun. But I went to rehearsal last night, and saw that our props people had created this massive machine gun, and it was the coolest prop ever, and my reaction, when I saw the thing, was a heartfelt ‘awesome!’  And then I asked the actress who uses it to stop pointing it at my head. (Not that it actually worked. It’s a toy, basically). And our show is about zombies, a popular video-game trope.  So where does fantasy end, where does reality begin, where does sexism or violence in video games lead to sexist or violent behavior in the real world, where do internet, chat room fantasies play themselves out in real life?

I don’t know. I like Anita Sarkeesian, enjoy her video series, and wish I could have heard her lecture. She seems like my kind of people. And I’m unapologetically feminist, and don’t get MRM at all.  And I desperately hope they catch the guy, Sarkeesian’s threatener, before he acts out his fantasies. And . . . I think that machine gun is wicked awesome.  So it’s all maybe at least a little bit complicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weirdest acting gig in showbiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What’s news?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how was it not journalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.