Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Conversationalism + 2008: On The Street Where You Live

Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

This is the paragraph, in 2004, that turned me into an ardent Barack Obama supporter. It was a promise that there was an idea of America separate from party politics. And a rejection of the cutting and dicing of America. It contrasted sharply with another political candidate of the time:

Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America - middle-class America - whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America - narrow-interest America - whose every wish is Washington's command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a president.

This is an older meme, but it gained equal traction when John Edwards deployed in 2004. Like the Obama view of America, it unites people regardless of ideology--but unlike Obama, it still creates a huge division in America. The "narrow-interest" America versus the "middle-class" America. It harkens back to How The Other Half Lives. But it's still a politics of division. A politics of the enemy. The rich, entitled (bourgeois?) versus the everyday, ethical man.

In 2008, it reared its head again not just in the visage of John Edwards (still under the Two Americas name), but under Mike Huckabee:

I'm not a Wall Street Republican, I'm a Main Street Republican.

Perhaps a testament to the lasting influence of Huckabee is that now, during this economic crisis, you literally cannot open your mouth to talk about the bailout plan without saying the phrase "It has to work for Main Street, not just for Wall Street."

Even Barack Obama has been using this phrase, which makes me sad. What happened to "These United States of America?" Certainly, it hasn't been visible in Nancy Pelosi's "leadership," which most recently consisted of blaming House Republicans for this mess. That doesn't mean that House Republicans don't share the blame--the point is that we're not even talking about the issues, the solutions, or reality.

Instead, we're trumping up this economic division. Is everyone in the financial industry evil? Maybe the CEOs and the Investment Branches. But I have several close friends who work as bank tellers. You know who suffers if Washington Mutual or Wachovia branches close? They do. I agree that there have to be strings attached, etc. etc., but if we start employing the language of a culture war, we start setting our priorities incorrectly: our priority is not to punish the financial industry, or to find blame. Our priority is to straighten out the markets.

We can start creating accountability, rewriting the legislations, straightening things out after we've guaranteed that our inaction hasn't caused a 700 point in the DOW Jones. Just to reiterate: the stock market is not just for rich speculators: people have their savings there. Banks are not just for rich speculators: people have their savings in there.

Notice: when Americans are asked how they feel about the bailout, they react strongly against it. When they are asked how they feel about a rescue package that has exactly the same terms as the bailout but isn't called a bailout, they react strongly in favor.

And what this really boils down to is: why are we using any of the language of politics right now? Why are we debating "Wall Street" and "Main Street"? In fact, why are our Congresspeople publicly debating the Bailout package? They should be in meetings, privately debating the bailout package. This is the moment for Congress to quickly and quietly get to its work.

I don't mean that it should be secret--Congresspeople should keep the American public informed as to how the package is going, and once an agreement has been reached, it should be presented to the public. All I'm saying is that trying to play the political game at the same time as the statesman game is going to hold us back.

All I can do is remind you: we have no red states, or blue states: only these United States. There isn't a Rich Person's Economy and a Poor Person's Economy: there's the World Economy. When you find it more important to debate whether the free market solves everything, or to vilify the very House Republicans whose support you need to pass this bill, not only are you watching the US market decline, but the Eastern market, the European markets. Everyone hurts.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Conversationalism + Identity

The thesis of this blog, as it were, is that culture is a conversation, and every mode of public expression helps shape that culture. One of the ways in which public expression shapes culture is through public understanding. When a journalist writes an important news story, or an internet meme travels through the public consciousness, or a theater piece reaches the height of its success, it's partly because it causes a new understanding of the current shared state of the members of its culture (or causes a new awareness of understanding).

So, a cultural dialogue is a mode of cultural self-expression, but also a cultural dialogue is a mode of cultural self-examination. America is constantly probing the question, "What is America?" and "Who are Americans?" When you hear this refrain of "Small town values," for instance, what you're hearing is one interpretation of what America "really" is; and such an interpretation is deliberately constructed so as to remove those who disagree with it from America. In other words, by defining America as conservative America, "liberal" America becomes un-American, and thus America has no responsibility to "liberal" America. That, I think, is the power of the common refrain in the Obama campaign: "That's not who we are as a people. That's not who we are as Americans."

By extension, I think, part of joining the cultural dialogue is also examining your own internal dialogue, and coming to understand yourself better. The wisest people in public life, for instance, have often had the most healthy internal understanding. Think of Abraham Lincoln's brooding self-examination, or George Washington's humility in the face of success. Their self-awareness is what made them more aware of how to serve their country.

Our blind-spots in ourselves are our blind-spots looking at culture, and those things we see constantly in ourselves are what we see in culture. This, perhaps, explains the fascination that biographical interpretations of art/history have for us. After all, if we understand what Kafka thought of fathers, we should be able to understand what Kafka wrote about fathers.

This also is where we get into the trouble spots in culture. Because too often, we use culture and cultural identity as a protection from self-examination. That not only shows an unhealthy attitude toward the self, but an unhealthy attitude towards culture.

Conversationlism + Pragmatic Theater + 2008: Sarah Palin And Tina Fey

I don't think I have to make a very long post here. Tina Fey's satire of Sarah Palin is a revitalizing moment for Saturday Night Live. I hope they can keep the satire up this sharp and fresh. It might strike you that Tina Fey's satire of Sarah Palin is fairly straightforward and basic. I just want to highlight the reason it's working so well.

Required Viewing

What can you notice about this side-by-side comparison? Tina Fey has discovered something about satire. Sometimes, all you have to do is present the truth in a frame of satire, and the laughs will come in themselves. It takes me back to an old South Park episode which mocked Scientology. All they had to do was tell the tale at the basis of Scientology, with a disclaimer at the bottom: This is what scientologists actually believe.

I sometimes see or hear the same thing out of Jon Stewart: "I'm not making this up!" All the satirist has to do sometimes is present the absurdity of the moment, shrug, and say, "That's reality."

To see members of the press--serious members of the press--still arguing on behalf of Sarah Palin as a serious candidate is ludicrous. And all you have to do is introduce perspective. Sometimes that's all that comedy has to be: perspective.

One Example 1

Example 2

Those two examples, I think, exemplify Jon Stewart's role as the satirist providing perspective.

Conversationalism + Identity + 2008: Sarah Palin + Katie Couric

Required Viewing

I felt a deep pathos for Sarah Palin during that interview. Many of her positions are abhorrent to me, and I am shocked that anyone would have believed that she would be good on the ticket. But she struck an emotional chord within me, a chord of fear, while watching specifically these sorts of moments in her interview, and having thought about it, I'm starting to realize what it is.

Sarah Palin is trying to learn a foreign language.

When I was growing up, I was taught Hebrew, because I was Israeli-born and American raised. My family all spoke Hebrew, and indeed from my parents' generation upward Hebrew was the dominant (if not the only) mode of communication there was. When I was young, the frustration of learning a language drove me wild--I hated it, and I consequently dropped Hebrew lessons.

Part of me regrets that to this day, but my abortive attempts to learn language since then have made me feel that I was correct in my choice. A year of Spanish I in middle school, four years of French in High School (culminating in a 2 on the AP French exam), and, just this year, studying introductory Czech--and each time, I have not done well.

But there is something more fundamentally frustrating or disturbing than not doing well in language classes, which I only realized today. It's a frustration I feel when I try to speak to a Czech person in Czech, and they respond in English (recognizing instantly my inability to communicate). It's equally the frustration I feel when I have to dumb down my language to get across to someone who thinks they know English, but don't.

Before action, comes the word, and part of my self-awareness is my self-awareness about how I communicate. Part of the urge that creates a writer, after all, is the love of words--and furthermore, an identification with words and communication. Before I am anything else, I am a creator--and the first step in the act of creation is writing and planning; placing ideas in definite grammatical structures. George Carlin talks about how you start with an airy, indefinite thought, and then you attach a word to it, and BAM-- you're stuck with that word for that thought.

But what happens when it becomes impossible to communicate? I can imagine myself happier unable to walk than unable to speak. I have a definite fear of loss of speech, which is in fact tied into my fear of death. I identify myself with my thoughts, my ideas, and my opinions; death extinguishes them. So the solution to death is to spread my thoughts, my ideas, my opinions. Shakespeare's body may have died, but his thoughts/ideas/opinions live on because they have gained traction. I not only fear dying, but I fear dying and taking everything I think and feel with me.

That's why I write: if no one will listen to my ideas and thoughts and opinions, I must write them down, so that if the time comes that someone is interested in them, they will be waiting for them. I have a fantasy in my head that, after I die, people will come through my computer, looking for my ideas and thoughts and opinions. And they'll discover that I laid it all out--my computer is laid out with a highly organized filing system, so that people will know what I thought, what I was here for.

Imagine if I lost all of that. Imagine if I lost the opportunity to make myself known. Imagine if I dealt with someone who is trapped in seeing me as "The Other" because I cannot make myself clear to them. Imagine that. It is the same tragedy as a paralyzed athlete: he who identifies himself with physical action will mourn the loss of that action, and he who identifies himself with communication (not just thought; communication) will mourn that in a deep way.

I have trouble watching Sarah Palin in these interviews. It was alright for me when she was just speaking, saying foolish things like "Thanks but no thanks" or "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull...". She knows how to speak like a politician. But watching her try to speak like a statesman, is like watching my comrades in Czech 1 trying to form a sentence about their family when they've forgotten all the vocabulary involved.

You can see her clutch to phrases she knows. Take, for instance:

"So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americas."

Let me diagram this sentence for you:

[Positive initiative 1] + [positive initiative 2] + [positive initiative 3] + [positive initiative 4] + [positive initiative 5]

Furthermore, if you notice, Positive Initiative 2, 4, and 5 are all the same initiative: raising taxes. They're just different phrases for the same thing.

She memorized the vocab, and she's struggling to deploy it. It deeply unsettles me, emotionally, because I can't imagine the horror of being tested on language I don't know. The inability to communicate, in its sharpest form.

If Sarah Palin's nomination only accomplishes one thing, let it be that it gave me a little more insight into the darker side of myself.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Conversationalism + 2008: How Bin Laden Will Lose The 2008 Election

I was once reading a text that was trying, through belabored logic, to prove that September 11th was a Performance Art piece. Of course, it all depends on what you consider "art" to be. It's hard to define September 11th in a way that is separate from art, but it strains the term "art" to the point of being almost meaningless.

Such an argument belies the dual role of terrorism. From one aspect, the act of terror is artistic (not in the positive sense) in many ways: it is carefully planned, it is loaded with intentional symbolism, and is created more for the benefit of its audience than its actual tactical value. Bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center because it was a symbol that he wanted to attack. Part of the goal (part) was the pain, fear, and sorrow he instilled in every American, which he thought would come closer to achieving his aims. In a way, terrorism is actually closer to propaganda than art (try finding that line).

But there is, of course, a second role of terrorism which is not in any way attached to art: it is an act of destruction. This is actually important for me in distinguishing art from terrorism: art is, on the whole, an act of creation.

I'm saying all this as a way of looking at terrorism as a very flawed mode of communication. It's rather like the point in an argument when the words fall away and someone decides to throw a punch. But in terms of the overall world culture, the point of terrorism is to influence the culture.

How might Bin Laden want to influence our culture? He has many achievable, specific goals as part of his campaign, and between his tapes and his actions he wants them put on the table. But the fundamental success of 9/11 is the key to his first and foremost objective: he wants to be a part of our national dialogue.

If Bin Laden saw his role today in our culture as the be-all and end-all of evil (the way Adolf Hitler was and is), I think he would be happy. We have elevated him to a position wherein his concerns are of concern to us all.

Last weekend, al Qaeda allegedly got back in the game, in terms of bombings. And their allies, the Taliban, are slowly mounting the war in Afghanistan, and gaining ground. The former is terrorism; the latter is guerilla warfare.

What are we talking about this week? Well, the first debate spent a lengthy amount of time talking about Afghanistan and Pakistani sovereignty, but the name "bin Laden" and "al Qaeda" was not a centerpoint of the debate. We were talking tactically; we were not speaking out of fear. And still, the number one issue on America's mind is the economy. Bin Laden is not the biggest threat to Americans: foreclosure is. Bankruptcy is.

What does this mean for Bin Laden? It means that his group returns to being marginalized on the world stage. It means that the United States is free to take action without hushed talk about "emboldening the enemy." It means that our public discourse will be free of the misleading connections of every evil in the world to one super enemy.

This, of course, is why I was horrified the other night when I heard Tony Blair, on The Daily Show, say that all of the terrorists of the world were basically the same forces. More specifically, he said that Hezbollah, Hamas, the Sunni Militias, and the Taliban were all part of the same "forces" at work. To the degree that each of these are Islamic fundamentalist groups, perhaps. But that is where the similarity ends. As Jon Stewart rightly pointed out, each of these groups has predominantly nationalistic goals.

Contrast Hezbollah, for instance, with Al Qaeda in Iraq, or Al Qaeda in Europe. Both of those franchises were started by Islamic fundamentalists who looked to Bin Laden for leadership, and pledged their small fragment of Islamic fundamentalism to Bin Laden's aid. These groups are not growing outside of Afghanistan. Although Islamic Fundamentalism, as an ideology, continues to gain traction, they are not all linked and directed by Bin Laden, as Bin Laden might have dreamed.

There are more empirical links, in terms of weapons and funding. And those include Iran and Syria prominently. But those links also include China and Russia--not for ideological reasons, but for tactical reasons. After all, China may be supporting terrorism abroad, but is against the Islamic guerillas among the Uighurs, they are far less supportive.

Bin Laden will lose this election if he fails to turn the world conversation toward himself. And I have every faith that he will lose this election. I was worried, in the wake of the bombings, that he would come to dominate our national dialogue again, and ruin the chances of addressing the real problems we need to address in this nation. Thankfully, he may have taken lives and destroyed property, but he is losing the war.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Conversationalism + 2008: How Our Conversation's Going

Culture is a conversation, and in a democracy, one of the most important culture-defining conversations is an election. Overall culture is often given many defining characteristics by its leaders: often, much of the culture defines itself in response to that. In a democracy, the choice of leaders is, in effect, a choice of cultural values and guiding philosophies to engrain in our culture. As our candidates compete, not only are we voting for policies, we are voting for the philosophies which underly policies. Hence, in previous elections, you get candidates winning on platforms built on the Bible or Reaganomics, even they don't necessarily apply in the situations they're being applied to. Why? Because the voters are responding to principles they agree with, regardless of the actual issues.

So, how is our conversation going in this election cycle?

I think it's going really well. It's still having some problems, but it's alive. Two points:

  • The Debate: This nearly was a debacle. If McCain had stuck to his intention not to attend, it would have crippled one of the key moments of conversation in this election. After all, the chance to actually put two candidates in conversation with each other is not seen anywhere else in the campaign--and putting the candidates in conversation forces the core supporters and the undecideds to really see both candidates side-by-side, responsive. Having no debate would have been a truly souring event, and it would have set an incredible precedent: that candidates have no responsibility to the national dialogue in the lead-up to the election.

    As for the debate that actually happened: both candidates were (mostly) respectful (McCain's body language was rude, but it wasn't overtly rude). Both candidates (mostly) addressed the issues (as much as politicians have ever been seen to previously). And both candidates were (mostly) sticking to the facts.

    There is a way to go, for both sides. But the fundamentals of this debate were strong.

    The format of the debate was better than many before. Unlike the laughably constructed CNN or Fox Debates (and the horrendous ABC-Gibson/Stephanopolis Debates), Jim Lehrer tried to get the candidates to speak clearly and directly to each other. I actually agree with the candidates that speaking directly to each other is not necessarily the best way to frame it, but it does need to be responsive--Question Time in the House of Commons is a fantastic example of that balance. Diffuse the tension without losing responsiveness.

  • John McCain/Sarah Palin's Relationship to the Press: This has been one of the more disappointing aspects of the campaign. The refusal of Sarah Palin to face the press, and the refusal of both candidates to answer straightforward questions, has been disgraceful. The same goes for certain blatant lies that have been repeated by both sides. Up until the Bush Presidency, there was a tradition that politicians would sometimes lie, but once caught, they would retract those lies. The idea that a politician can simply continue to insist that his lie is true is flabbergasting. I hope that this idea is put to rest when he loses.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Suspend This -- The Stakes

I can't believe I spent last night on a post about theater when this bullshit is going on.

When I went to bed last night, I'd heard about this "Suspending the campaign" mguffin, and I was confused about it. This morning I woke up, and Andrew Sullivan (writer of the most popular single-person political blog--see sidebar link) had posted me to this gem:

Alright. I've got a full tank of spleen to vent, so, here it comes.

  • We've been told that this is a historic campaign, but the magnitude of the historical event has not before been clear to me. Each side wants to influence history in a bunch of ways. The Democratic Party has stood behind a black candidate for President and a new initiative on National Healthcare (which could bring the United States up to Europe's place in history). They also could have gone with a woman and healthcare, or (and this was admittedly a long shot, a Hispanic president.

    What "historic" choices have the Republicans made? They've chosen the oldest candidate in history, backed him with the most inexperienced vice presidential candidate in history, and given that vice presidential candidate less press access than any vice presidential candidate in history (Ahmadinejad has given more press conferences than Palin since the Republican Convention), and now this historic move: suspending a campaign.
  • Of course, suspending this campaign is Grade-A horseshit. If you tell the world that you're suspending the campaign, you don't get to go on the news. You can't have you cake and eat it too! You can't say "campaigning is too much work" and then trot out onto Katie Couric's show.
  • Shame on Katie Couric for allowing him on the show. If I was Katie, every question would be: What are you doing here? Why aren't you in Washington? How is this not campaigning? Isn't this publicity right now?
  • Horseshit. As David Letterman points out (David Letterman is taking shots at your campaign! David Letterman! Do you know how hard it is to make that guy really take sides? Historic!), you could have just put Sarah Palin forward. Wait, why can't you? You're refusing to let her hold press conferences? In actuality, this "suspended campaign" is really just an excuse to shield Sarah Palin more. Oh, of course Palin can't talk to the press--McCain is in Washington.
  • McCain is suspending his campaign in an economic crisis: McCain did not suspend his birthday DURING HURRICAINE KATRINA. He sat there eating Cake with President Bush while a city sank and millions of peoples lives were forever changed for the worse.
  • McCain is suspending his campaign less than a week after a pair of bombings against an Embassy and American allies. He's on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Wasn't that important enough to suspend the campaign?

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but nows as good a time as any.

The stakes in 2008.

When we go to vote in 2008, some people will tell us the war is a big issue. It is. Some people will say that the economy is a big issue. It is. Some people will say social issues are the big issue. They are.

But when you go out to vote, you'll be making a choice on an issue bigger than all of them: The United States Government. Because the "change" that has been talked about in this election is not about policy. It's about governance.

Our Government is at a historic low. Not just because of Republicans: Democrats under Nancy Pelosi have proven just as incapable of addressing our Nation's problems without partisanship in mind. But when Barack Obama accepted that party's nomination, it became his party. It became his platform.

In 2008, we're voting for more than Obama versus McCain. We're voting on the very concept of good governance.

Look at this horrific campaign that McCain has been running. He chose for a running mate a woman accused of tampering with independent investigations, a woman who tried to ban books, a woman whose political ambitions have destroyed the political career of everyone in her way. Yesterday I probably wouldn't have gone with a reference to Senator Joseph McCarthy, but yes: Senator Joseph McCarthy was not above any of those things. Richard Nixon was not above those things either.

John McCain has decided that the truth is not absolute, and that it can conform to party politics the way that he has. He has decided that "lobbyists are people too" (as Hilary Clinton put it--and lost). He has decided that transparency is not a virtue; perhaps in his mind, the Bush Administration's failing is that it wasn't opaque enough, and that we got to see all of the things it was doing.

McCain's economic advisor had a bed made for him by Merrill Lynch. McCain still seems to be unaware of this. I cannot trust McCain's contribution to the current bail-out debate. How could anyone, in the light of those allegations? Merrill Lynch, a substantially interested party, is having access to McCain pre-paid.

When you vote in this election, you need to think about what makes the best government.

After all, an honest man who disagrees with you is far better than a dishonest man who, today, says that he agrees with you. Isn't he?

John McCain, thank you for suspending your campaign. Please take it, and go to one of your seven (or so) homes.

EDIT: A few days have passed, McCain has abandoned this ridiculous idea, and my anger has subsided. I must say in context that I feel incredibly betrayed by the current McCain campaign--I remember vividly in 2004 saying that I was looking forward to McCain running in 2008, and that if Democrats put forward someone from the Pelosi end of the party, I would probably back McCain. Indeed, when Hilary Clinton started to go off the rails at the very beginning, I turned to McCain, but I was already watching his campaign devolve.

After suspending his campaign, McCain took a full day to arrive in Washington; before he arrived, a deal had already been reached; after he arrived, he brought the House Republicans to the table with their deal-breaking objections. He set the deal back three more days, and during the rest of the negotiations, reportedly said little. In the meantime, Obama (with less histrionics) was there as well. My anger was still justified, and I regret the tone even if I don't apologize for it, and still stand by it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pragmatic Theater: Responsivity V [Using Fallacies]

In the last post, I talked about the fallacy of pretending to introduce interactivity, while still attempting to exert final artistic control--which has the effect of creating the illusion of interactivity, while in actuality shutting the audience out. This is a very cheeky sort of manipulation, and will usually be resented.

However, in some cases, this may not be a bad move, and I would be remiss to point out that in one of my favorite plays of all time, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), the device is very intelligently mis-used. And the fact of the matter is, I love Thom Pain because it deliberately flaunts the above rule.

The form of Thom Pain is that of a soliloquoy: a hyperconscious character (aware of his own flaws and limitations, but helpless in the face of them--see Notes From The Underground for a superb example) addressing a captive audience. Very quickly, the character of Thom Pain establishes a clear dialogue relationship with the audience, but it is clear that he is not giving actual space for the audience to respond. He moves forward cavalierly, addressing the audience and interpreting their silences however he wants to imply a response. He torments the audience, playing mindgames with them, trying to catch them off guard, and toys with the idea of dragging someone onstage (which he finally does--an audience plant).

But this combination of equal parts inviting the audience to speak and enforcing their silence is part of an undercurrent of sadism that the character is inflicting on the audience. In fact, in discussing his plan to drag someone onstage, he says, "I am- because of my own pains- going to make someone else suffer, without proportion." It is clear from the contextual menace that this is going to be the fate of the hapless person brought onstage (who in actuality will simply be left there). In a way, that sentence sums up one aspect of Thom Pain's relationship with the audience. (One counterpoint would be this sentence: "I know this wasn’t much, but let it be enough.").

Thom Pain swings erratically between forcibly rejecting the audience, and trying to bring them in as close as possible. Because the play is structured as being a Thom-Pain-eyed view on the situation, it is crucial to the structure of the play that no one say anything. There is no better summation for how Thom Pain sees himself in the world than a sea of faces, unmoving, listening with neither approval or disapproval, ready for him to project whatever fantasies, judgments, or emotions he wants to project on them.

So, why in the hell am I going about writing all these rules, if I'm just going to turn around and disprove them? The reason that aesthetic writers (Brecht being the most notable example) tend to be so extremist is because then they don't have to deal with all of the nuance and contradiction that tend to muddy message. Brecht had a message to convey: "An alienated Epic theater is the new way," and it would have been horribly confusing as a guide for him to have said, "Well actually Aristotilean drama is still the heart and soul of theater, but incorporating Epic Theater elements such as alienation will give it an added effect which I feel the nation needs at this time."

So I wrote a generalized rule, which basically said, if you want to make theater interactive, it's all or nothing. Another way of putting it is, if you want to make theater interactive, be ready to deal with the consequences. And basically, it said that the illusion of involvement is worse than no involvement at all.

But like all rules, they are made to be broken. But like all rules, they can only be broken effectively once understood.

Perhaps it is worth restating what the Pragmatic Theater means to me. A Pragmatic Theater is not a theater of absolutes, of a unified aesthetic with no contradictions. Quite the opposite: a Pragmatic theater is a home of all the nuance and contradictions that real life and real art encompasses. The Pragmatic Theater is not an absolute guide: it is merely a way of thinking of theater.

And how is it a way of thinking of theater? It's a way of evaluating theater based on its effects. This would be, it seems to me, the most instinctive and natural way of going about theater, but many people in the art world seem to have a good many ideologies or belief-systems that keeps them buttonholed from taking new approaches.

So when I articulate an idea ("theater needs to be more interactive; interactivity needs to be central and not half-baked"), what I am really saying is that, in my personal judgment, the context and the moment call for a certain approach in general; also, I am stating my own observations about the working or not working of certain methods.

Although I don't sit around citing everything and footnoting the crap out of everything (believe me, the impulse has been there), I do try and keep all of my ideas grounded in specific examples: plays I have seen or participated in, political moments I have watched, things I have read.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pragmatic Theater: Responsivity IV [Fallacies]

The point I've been building to is this: these fears and anxieties that the artist feels regarding responsivity in art need to be addressed, or they influence the work negatively.

Two examples of this:

1) I saw a production of a show which promised to use "technology" to bring an interactive twist to Puddinhead Wilson an excellent short-story by Mark Twain. At certain junctures, the audience was asked to text message a choice to a certain number, and that choice would determine the outcome.

Why did that fail? Well, the night I attended, very early in the play, we were given a choice: should the main character kill themselves, do nothing, or take a bold action (swapping her baby child with her master's child to save her baby's life from slavery). Clearly, this "choice" is already stacked: anyone who has a basic understanding of theater knows why neither of the first two choices make for good theater.

Almost every audience chose for the child to be swapped. My night, we chose to do nothing. To our great surprise, the cast came to the front of the stage, and sat there, staring at us. For several long, long minutes this continued. I was thrilled. Fantastic. I didn't know where it was going but the fact that the play was going to be completely disregarded because of our choice thrilled me in a way that only the most grievous errors on stage usually do.

We started getting text messages that said, "Why is it important to tell the story?" Clearly, the people behind the production wanted to defend the production: implicitly, they are assuming the story is important. But that early in the play, my only reaction was: why is it important to tell the story?

If I hadn't been surrounded by people who knew me, and by the uneasy atmosphere that tipped me off that my opinion wasn't welcome, I would have asked the questions of the actors themselves. Why is it important to tell that story? I didn't know yet.

Then the actors addressed us. "We've had enough of that," they said. "Now which do you want to do: kill herself, or swap the babies?" That stung. The actors (and by extension, the production) was telling us that we had chosen wrong, which is not something you're supposed to hear when you have a choice. There's a scene in The Simpsons Movie where the head of the EPA presents the President with three plans of how to deal with a natural disaster: the President chooses A, the EPA man says "No, try again," the President chooses C, the EPA man says, "No, try again," the President chooses B, and the EPA man congratulates the President on his good judgment.

We took a vote, and we voted to have the character kill herself. We had not been convinced that it was "important to tell the story."

The actors, frustrated as well, disregarded our vote and swapped the babies. They'd lost the audience. From the point of the choice to that point in the production, they were in conversation with us. But it had been a bad conversation: a conversation with a friend who doesn't listen, who knows what's best for you, who talks when you're not interested and steam-rollers over your opinions. Like that friend who refuses to hear that you're not coming out with him tonight, or like a family member in deep denial of a lifestyle choice you've just confessed.

The real tragedy is that this episode, and similarly pointless episodes of "interactivity" in this production (as well as an equally mindless modernization), obscured a beautifully written story and some very powerful performances. It was as though the director did not know that she was working with a talented writer and talented cast, and just said, "I guess I have to pull all the weight on this production."

If the production was not going to commit to being Remixed (like a choose your own adventure play!) then it should have remained Read-Only. To have the latter pretend to be the former was insulting to the audience's intelligence and dignity, which makes for very bad conversation.

2) Required reading for this post.

So, as you can see in the comments section of this "Overstimulation Roundup," a very interesting experiment was being performed. A play was being told in the comments section of a blog. And just as the unanswerable question of the last production was "Why is it important to tell this story," the unanswerable question of this production is "Why did you want to tell this story in this format?"

You can see the frustration from certain comments by bystanders. But the most astute comment comes from mike, who attempts to participate and then notes such: (here)

mike is right; it's taped. It's not theater, it's video. It's a book. There is no room for response.

Imagine, if you will, the same dramatic situation. Imagine a bunch of people going online, creating characters and a whole world, and inviting the audience (the blogging community) to question the witnesses. To examine the facts themselves. And see the gap between that sort of responsivity, and this kind of hollow show.

Pragmatic Theater: Responsivity III [A Lack Of Spontenaiety]

So, technology is one of the many avenues that people have looked down for a solution to the problem of theater's unresponsiveness. There is a genuine desire for audience-members to be more involved in the show. Fuerzabruta, for instance, partly banks its success on the novelty of having audience-members to wander through the performance as an environment, rather than as a static event which they are trapped to watch.

Unfortunately, there is a trap that is easy to fall into, especially with a world of theater-people who are trained to the realities of the Read-Only Theater. Namely, artists today have an inflated view of the artist's primacy in the work.

Theaterpeople like to be prepared, just like everyone else. That's why we have a script: my theory is that scripts were invented because some theaterfolk were afraid they'd be caught at a loss for words. The script supplies all of those words beforehand. So do pre-blocked directions. I, as an actor, must admit that both the script and blocking don't sit very well in my memory. If a director does not ride me very hard, I will closely approximate both. I don't defend that--it is my job to provide the director with whatever he thinks the show needs--but I would like to point out that originally the script and blocking were to be an aid, and now they have become a requirement.

Nowadays, entire shows are planned from beginning to end. Gestures, facial expressions, emotions, dance routines, songs, lines, movements across the stage, lights; everything is perfectly planned to a 't'. And yet we still tell people that the best part of theater is the spontaneous, every-night-it's-different feel? Phantom of the Opera may have gotten better or worse by small degrees over the course of its run, and maybe occasionally an "event" would happen that would derail it, but if you saw it once a year every year, you'd see roughly the exact same show each night.

And in truth, there's a lot of comfort to the theaterperson in this. After all, if this pre-planned show is good, then it is good. And I don't disagree that sometimes the best way to tackle a show is to pre-plan it. Pre-planned shows can achieve a level of specificity and intricacy that is simply out of reach of improvised, spontaneous productions. Let nothing I say detract from that.

But where has our spontaneous side gone, other than to Improv and the Internet? It cannot solely be blamed on a desire for preparation.

The other is, I'm sad to say, an elitist trend in art that says that only artists can create it, which is rubbish. I believe that true artists are better trained and better qualified to create art (there are some who are not, but I will forgive them). But that only means that they, the elites, should be leaders. They should bring those of us who don't see ourselves as completely artistic with them. It should not be a process of propaganda: it should be a process of education. (That's a whole 'nother kettle of fish, I'll touch that in a later post).

The artist, in self-defense, shuts out all of the people who would disrupt his pre-plan: the audience. After all, the audience has not been party to the process, and doesn't know the plan. So obviously they should sit in the dark and watch the plan as it unravels. What else would they do?

How can we break the artist of this ego-centric approach that only they belong in art?

Pragmatic Theater: Responsivity II - Read Only Culture

I wanted interactivity and responsivity in theater. In a way, it's based on the differences Lawrence Lessig laid out between "Read-Only" culture, in which there is a producer and a consumer, and "Remix" culture, where everyone responds and reacts. The internet, of course, facilitates "Remix" culture greatly, but it existed first: in participatory theater (before the concept of actors/audience originated), in poetry competitions (such as those that Muslim students have competed in for centuries), etc. But after inventions like the Printing Press, the Radio Broadcast, and the Television were created, our most popular forms of getting culture and information became mass media--not aimed at the few people in your local community, but at a global population. And in order for that to be possible, the technology limited mass-media to a read-only culture.

But the Theater has, for quite some time, been a predominantly read-only culture. This is probably because of the rise of literary theater, for which Shakespeare is probably to thank. After all, Shakespeare is more well-known for his published plays than for his actual productions--his actual productions are inaccessible to me, but his text is still reachable to me. In fact, in the English Tradition, the 18th-19th Centuries (from accounts I've read by George Bernard Shaw) was mostly dominated by productions of Shakespeare or translations of popular French farces; and since the idea of producing 'novel' or 'original' works becomes devalued, and thus the established text becomes the core of the show.

Meanwhile: These productions go from being performed in venues like inn-yards to "theaters," which are built with a read-only ethic in mind. Audiences become silent, still, in the dark; more and more they are separated from the stage. Late 19th-Century realism imposes the "fourth wall" and ends the long tradition of soliloquoys and asides in "serious" productions.

So the theater became a (largely) read-only venue. Is that the only way it can be? Is that the healthiest way for the theater to interact with the public? And what would a theater-building look like that took Remix Culture instead of Read-Only Culture at its core?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hard Sexism Vs. Soft Sexism

Racism and sexism are emotional issues. Everyone interprets them differently, even within the groups which are affected. I recall a time in one of my classes when, attempting to create a work about gender issues, I chose to use the song "My Humps" by Black Eyed Peas. Asked why I used "My Humps", I responded (rather off-handedly) because it seemed like the most anti-feminist song I could find. Of course, I'm sure that the young lady who sings that song does not agree, but I had assumed that she, like many young women, had been trained to give men what they want, to enable objectification.

My brief analysis (I didn't go very far into it because I'd hit a nerve with a number of women, and it's not my intention to do so) was debated for a long time by many of the women in the class (the men had the sense, overall, to keep their mouths shut). Half of the women in the class believed that the song was about female empowerment; a woman getting men to serve her, to attend to her needs (material and sexual) as she pleases, putting her in a position of power. The other half were of the opinion that the blatant objectification that the young woman subjects herself to denies her any sort of respect or equal standing with men; they may think she's special, but only as an object.

I agree with the the latter argument, because of Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, (which I agree with), which would show that she's giving up self-actualization/esteem/love+belonging in the long run for physiological in the short run.

At any rate, what this discussion proved to me is that there is no one definition as to what is sexist and what isn't sexist, and that things that are seen as empowerment from one angle can actually be demeaning from another angle.

I discussed hard and soft racism in the last post, and you can basically substitute hard and soft sexism (or hard and soft homophobia) here. Hard sexism is an ideology that women are inferior; soft sexism is an attitude or action which demonstrates negative attitudes or associations with regard to women.

Since I covered this exhaustively in the last post, I'm just going to say something more briefly about hard/soft sexism: I believe Sarah Palin's nomination is soft sexism.

The reason is this: there are many, many qualified women in this country. Even among Republicans. Kate Fiorina, the CEO of HP. Condoleeza Rice (since apparently Bush's policy isn't discredited, as I had previously thought). Senator Olympia Snow. A controversial pick might be Democratic governor Cathleen Selebius, who I had considered a possible candidate for Obama's political ticket.

But even if Sarah Palin was the best woman that could have been chosen, she would have had to be vetted. The fact that McCain waltzed in, decided to pick a woman he'd spoken to once as his VP, and assumed that this would endear him to the women of the country is insulting. And that's what I mean by soft racism. I don't think McCain thinks women are inherently bad. But he clearly doesn't take them seriously enough.

Hard Racism vs. Soft Racism

Our language has simplified over the last generation. Simplified language often leads to simplified thought: thought is, after all, encoded in the logic of language.

So when two phenomenon share the same word, confusion may arise when multiple people misinterpret the same word to mean different things.

This applies to various "isms;" racism, sexisim, ageism, and homophobia (it doesn't end in ism but it's the same sort of sentiment). We use the term racism carefully in this country. But we also throw it around a lot. We have a lot of anxiety about what's termed "racist" and what is not termed "racist." People who use it too much devalue the word; people who use it too little let racists get away with defamation. I'm going to focus on racism right now because Barack Obama invited this nation to have a dialog about race (which has not been followed up on), but this can be applied to sexism as well--that installment is coming soon.

So let me begin by splitting the term 'racism' into two categories: "hard" racism and "soft" racism. Hard racism is a very plain sort of racism, and thus we don't hear it spoken aloud anymore. Ever since the Civil Rights Movement, our culture has decided, as a majority, that it is unacceptable to be a hard racist aloud anymore. This isn't to say that there aren't hard racists; but whenever a statement that is hard racism is heard aloud, that person is pretty much chased out of any public position they might hold.

"Hard" racism is an extreme form of racism. "Hard" racism is holding the belief that one or more races are inferior to one or more races. Adolf Hitler was a hard racist. Racial eugenicists are hard racists. Jim Crow Laws are hard racist laws. They codify the notion that one race of people is objectively (in their eyes) worse than another race of people. People who speak hard racism aloud are tagged, unequivocally, as bigots.

Today, we don't see nearly as much of that. But what we do see is a lot more of "soft" racism. "Soft" racism is hard to define. "Soft" racism is non-absolute; it does not hold that one race is absolutely worse than another. But it has a lot of negative connections with a race. One type of soft racism is ignorance. Another sort of soft racism is resentment.

Barack Obama, in his speech about race, talked about "white resentment," caused by pro-minority actions such as Affirmative Action. It is unsurprising that if one group gets preferential treatment, there will be resentment by the other. And these resentful emotions will spill over into negative attitudes. A hostility; an avoidance.

Now, these people who feel resentment toward African Americans may say that they do not think African Americans are worse, as race. Most probably genuinely believe that. But they do still feel a racial tension which cannot be dismissed as being completely non-racist. And this racial tension, or negative attitude toward African Americans may manifest itself in negative action. And that negative action will be racist, no matter how you dice it.

If both "soft" and "hard" racism are still racisms, why is it important to distinguish? Because soft racism can usually be bridged by better communication, more cooperation, and more information. For instance: affirmative action is only necessary in a community which acknowledges that all of its poor will not get opportunities to education. If a leader brings the white community and the black and latino and asian and etc. communities to work together to improve the opportunities of college education to everyone, then the resentment will decrease.

Hard racism has to be fought. I remain highly doubtful that the Jim Crow laws and segregation could have been ended simply by having Martin Luther King Jr. and Strom Thurmond sitting at a table discussion solutions. Strom Thurmond's belief that the black man was inferior was an ideology; it was entrenched in how he approached the world. And we have no need to give that any time or respect.

The reason is because "hard" racism is an ideology of racism and "soft" racism are facets or actions of racism; the latter being bad, but not as all-encompassing as the first.

Another reason "soft" racism needs to be addressed is that it often causes subconscious soft racism. People who are nervous when black men approach them in the street are exhibiting racism in a way, but it would be ridiculous to put that in the same class as joining the Klu Klux Klan. The imagery and the stereotypes and the cultures which give rise to these soft racisms need to be addressed. They cannot be ignored.

For instance, in the Amadu Dialo case, the officers involved had an ingrained soft-racism; their assumptions were that a black man of a certain age might be violent. And because of it, their reflexes (in under seven seconds; a core part of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink) led them to shoot a man over 40 times before they could accurately and dispassionately appraise the situation. Do I think they were hard racist--that they think the black man is inferior? No, I don't believe that. But I do believe that they were soft racists; taught to expect trouble from men of a certain description. And although I have only met a few hard racists, I have barely met anyone who doesn't exhibit the occasional sign of "soft-racism" (Exhibit A: "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q).

It is important to confront these soft-racisms and make everyone aware when they are going on. Because the conscious mind can overcome subconscious soft-racism, and the conscious mind can address the causes of soft-racism. Unquestioned, they might simply fester, and lead to those cases of hard racism that we want to avoid.

And one last notice: hard racism nowadays masquerades as soft racism; sometimes it is barely detectable. This makes it hard to point to. For instance, I personally detect a hint of hard racism about the McCain campaign's allegation of Obama as "presumptuous" (David Gergen, a Southerner, called it a code-word that everyone in the South would recognize as standing in for uppity). But of course I wouldn't be able to prove it, any more than I can prove that Obama's "out of touch" ad is ageist, the way the McCain campaign alleges it is. When Trent Lott famously said that if they'd elected Strom Thurmond, we wouldn't be in "this mess," did he actually mean that we should have a segregationalist country? It seems pretty clear to me and to most people, but because of this conflation of hard and soft racism, it loses its impact.

Be on the lookout, America.

Fear of Unity: Why I'm Disheartened About The Republican Party

Before I begin: I consider myself an independent, but because of my personal beliefs and my more pragmatic approach to politics, I wind up aligned (most of the time) with the Democratic Party.

That being said, I find myself a lot more invested in the Republican party than most Democrats (or fellow-travelers). There's two reasons for this, and they are interlinked.

I am what most people would call a Democrat, but I don't fall lock-step into the party platform. And therefore, although I want there to be Democrats in Congress, I do still want there to be Republicans (or oppositional Democrats, or Independents) which represent issues on which I disagree with the Democrats. For instance: the Democrats have made a lot of issues of change part of their platform, but fiscal responsibility is still not their strongest suit (they're doing better, in my mind, than the Republican Party in general, but it's not the top of their agenda). Between the sum of two or more parties, all of my desires will be represented in the dicussions of Congress.

The second reason, which is tied into the first, is that I don't ever want one party to rule. Even if it's the party I support. Even if it was a party led by Barack Obama, taking completely his words to be law. And believe me, I'm excited about Barack Obama. But I want Obama to feel the opposing force of dedicated, intelligent conservatives. Opponents who will correct the flaws in Obama's policy, and make it better for the criticism.

Which is why right now, I'm disheartened by the Republicans. When I went into Primary Season, I hoped against hope that John McCain would win. Instead, he lost. He may be the nominee, but the ideas and platform that I remember supporting John McCain for got lost. Very early in the primary, my support for him was destroyed.

I want two parties who agree on one single principle: the truth is important. I was fiscal conservatives who agree on the hard truth that we don't have an infinite credit card; I want socialist-leaning candidates who agree on the truth that taking care of the poor is necessary. I want people who can agree that nothing is absolute, and that both sides of the issue merit examination.

I was thrilled that Obama came out on this side, because I believe he believes in the truth, in consistency, in good governance, and in dialogue.
And the old John McCain believed in that. The new John McCain hides his VP from the press, lies and lies and lies, hews to whatever opinion is popular, and in general acts with a total disregard of the truth (Harry Frankfurt's definition of Bullshit).

By the end of the primary season, I was rooting for two ponies in the Primary Season. One was Mike Huckabee. Huckabee, to a certain degree, is not my favorite man in the world: I think that his social conservatism is a holdover from an age we should leave behind. I refuse to accept anything less than equal rights for all genders and sexualities. But on the other hand, Huckabee came across as a thinking social conservative. He has always been respectful of Obama (the only one at the Republican Convention with anything nice to say) and of his Republican enemies (at a time when Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were content to question patriotism and adherence to Reagan). I can imagine that if Mike Huckabee were to take the Presidency and the Democrats retain their hold on Congress, social issues might continue to be a mess but things like health-care reform and poverty issues would be able to be discussed in a bipartisan manner. I can't prove, of course, that Mike Huckabee might not get McCained, and I am extremely unhappy at the fact that he (unlike my other pony in the race) was willing to be at the Republican Convention and tout McCain at all.

But I don't believe in vilifying enemies unless they actually are villains, and certainly I think we'd have a healthier national discussion right now if Mike Huckabee was the VP candidate rather than this Sarah Palin character.

The other horse I had in the race is Dr. Ron Paul. Dr. Paul, like Mike Huckabee, attracted a significant base (in many areas, up to 15%, like Huckabee) of people who strongly agreed with him and believed in him personally. Paul, like Huckabee, is not prone to baseless character assassination. Paul, like Huckabee has a sense of humor (which you should never underrate in a politician--a lack of a sense of humor indicates a lack of a sense of perspective).

It is disgraceful of the Republican Party, by the way, that this group simply get ignored and dismissed. No representation in the Republican Convention, unless they want to be sycophantic and fall in step behind John McCain. I suppose it is his party, but what has the party done to appeal to Paul's movement? Considering all of the pandering which goes on toward the evangelicals (such as the Palin nomination).

And who is Dr. Paul's movement fueled by? Dr. Paul speaks to a group that I want more represented in politics: Libertarians. My brother is a Ron Paul libertarian, and we have discussed this at length. One of our debates centered around the Internal Revenue Service, which Dr. Paul wants to get rid of in lieu of a flat sales tax. Now, I disagree with the flat sales tax. On the other hand, Paul wants a simpler, more straightforward, less loophole-prone tax code. Even us big-government socialist Democrats can see the virtue in that, for many reasons (one of which being the fact that a complicated, time-consuming tax code winds up costing the poor and benefiting the rich). There's common ground. We can work together.

Another discussion: healthcare. Now, libertarians, in general, don't believe that everyone should be forced to have healthcare. I suppose I agree with that... if someone is determined that they don't want health insurance, that (I suppose) is their right. Now, if someone wants not to insure their child I'm more against that. One of the points my libertarian brother raised, however, is that the problem isn't that people don't have health-care, it's that healthcare is too expensive for people to have. Therefore, finding out how to lower the price of healthcare and increase its efficiency is the first step. If you lower the price of health insurance, then less people would need help paying for health insurance. And then we can discuss who the government should help in terms of health insurance.

Democrats may be too blinded by their drive for an English-style National Health Service to realize that it is just as important to lower the prices of medical care than to help pay for it. And that's something that I hadn't thought of. Libertarians had. Probably because they have a lot of economists on their side.

Now, I'm unhappy about this upcoming election because the Republican Party still seems rather lock-step behind the Neoconservative movement that I thought had proven itself bankrupt. The problem with neoconservatism isn't necessarily their platform (although certain parts of the platform are extremely unpleasant to me and to people of my political background), it's the ideology of the background. Neoconservatives are not out to govern better. They are out to pass their agenda. Compromise has not been in their history. We need compromise. We need thoughtful conservatives, not ideological conservatives.

I actually feel the same, in reverse, on a state level. My home state of California has a very bankrupt politics as well. If you don't know, a few years ago we had a Governor named Gray Davis. He promised a lot of money for a lot of things during the years when we had a huge surplus, and then the state got defrauded by the energy market he deregulated (read: Enron), the tech bubble boomed, and he rolled back parts of his platform. The state now has ballooning debt, and is governed by Governor Schwarzenegger, who replaced Davis.

The problem with California is two-fold. The major problem is the initiative system. The initiative system is a great system for passing laws, but because of a lack of distinction between laws and government programs, the voters get to directly propose and vote on government programs--in essence, the budget is decided by popular vote. And as you might expect, the California voters continue to vote to spend more money and take in less taxes.

This is a ridiculous situation. Nobody will tell the voters otherwise, because if they do, they'll lose their office immediately. But it is necessary to balance the budget. You cannot run a government with a broken fiscal system, any more than you can run it with a broken political system.

The second problem is the Democratic Party of the State of California.
When Gray Davis was being recalled, there was an strange method: on the same ballot was two separate votes:

vote 1: Recall Gray Davis?
vote 2: Who would you like to replace Gray Davis?

The latter vote being dependent on the first being passed. Now, from the perspective of the Democratic Party, they need to run a candidate in the latter. It obviously can't be Gray Davis. Now, common sense would dictate that you should support Gray Davis, and find someone else (plausibly distinct from Davis) to run for vote 2.

Instead, the Democrats ran Bustamante, the Lieutenant Governor, who ran on a platform of "I promise to continue Gray Davis' platform."

Well, that was stupid. Obviously, once the recall passed, a majority of Californians were against continuing Gray Davis' platform. And since the Democrats didn't give them any other option, they got to choose between Schwarzenegger and Ariana Huffington (Independent), or a Republican who was even more conservative than Schwarzenegger). Clearly, Schwarzenegger would win. But this gave poor Schwarzenegger the mistaken idea that he had a mandate to try and balance the budget. And ever since then, he's been at war with the bureaucracy of the state of California, and with the people who supported him.

And it has been several years since then. The only opponent who has come against Schwarzenegger was Phil Angelides (Davis' treasurer), who was just as equally unpopular. He turned out to be a crooked character too. So the question is: why can't we do better, Democrats? Schwarzenegger wants to balance the budget. This is something that needs to be done. Democrats will not win any battles by saying we should continue ridiculous debt spending. Instead, they need to confront Schwarzenegger and say, "Yeah, he wants these things, but we can deliver it. We can negotiate; Schwarzenegger can only threaten."

So until then, I support Governor Schwarzenegger's ridiculous guerilla tactics against the Teacher's Union and the state legislature. Schwarzenegger may not be the best politican we could have asked for, but he's the only one in the state taking things seriously. Where is the Democratic Party? Who else are going to tackle those problems?

We live in a two-party system in this country. That means we need both parties. And the better each party is, the better our country will be.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fatuous But Possibly Thoughtful Game

Alright, the game is pretty simple. Turn on your music on shuffle and see how long it takes for the music that comes up to disqualify you from being a Presidential candidate.

1. George Carlin - Foole. Luckily, this isn't "Seven Dirty Words," and Carlin keeps his language decisively un-blue. It's an analysis of the history of comedy in general and Carlin in particular. Some of Carlin's most acceptible work, I suppose. So I'm still in the running. Maybe even a boon: showing I have a genuine sense of humor (rather than, for instance, having Seinfeld come up) without offending. Also, it plays to Carlin's blue-collar urban background.

2. The Section - Karma Police. A beautiful contemporary work rendered in the style of an old string quartet. I'm proud this came up: if it came up in an interview I'm sure I'd use it to mention about how art is enriched by being responded to by other artists. After all, if Thom Yorke and Radiohead wanted to rigidly enforce copyright, this song would be driven into the ground. Thom Yorke/Radiohead is rich enough. They don't need to. We're all better for having heard this song. I'm also proud of it aesthetically: Radiohead is a progressive, forward-moving band, and counter-pointing that with a beautifully nostalgic sense of tone like The Section really shows both sides of the equation.

3. Quincy Jones and his Swinging Orchestra - Soul's Bossa Nova . Well, normally I would have thought that Austin Powers is a little beyond the mainstream, but I heard this being played by a Jazz Band in Prague's Old-town Square the other day. The tourists really seemed to love it. It might raise questions about my hippy-ism and tie me a little too closely to the 1960s.

4. Hans Zimmer - The Might Of Rome. It's a good thing that this came up right after Soul's Bossa Nova. After all, this is a nice, manly, imperialist-expansionist right-wing sort of soundtrack, the sort of thing you might preemptively invade a foreign country for a valuable resource for. I might have alienated both sides a little.

5. RJ-D2 - Airbag. Radiohead comes into my playlist once again! Also, after having started out with the word-heavy Carlin, instrumentals have dominated the playlist. I love language, so it's a little rough that I'm being represented to tunes without words. I refer to the whole copyright point here; and I guess this further instruments my point by showing how different interpretations of the same artist can be if they come from different artists.

6. Rodrigo Y Gabriela - Tamacun. Fantastic guitar. Still instrumental. Dunno why Amarok is insisting on instrumentals, but it's keeping me in the game, I guess. The Tom Tancredo/Lou Dobbs crowd will probably grumble about me having latin-influence in my shuffle, but hell--I bet Lou Dobbs has some Ricky Martin on his iPod. Eh? At the very least, he has Cher. And to people on the other side, at least I'm interested in different musical styles and influences. Musicians will be happy to hear that, at least.

7. Me First And The Gimme Gimmes - Nothing Compares 2 U. Oh boy. Well, it won't put me out of the race (any more than ABBA disqualified McCain), but the retro song won't endear me to the young, and the less-than-aesthetic rendition will not endear me to the older. Ironic hipsters and illegal downloaders, on the other hand, will smile when they see it come up. It fits in with the earlier copyright point, but not in a very compelling way.

8. Thievery Corporation - Shadows Of Ourselves. Ah, some words. What are the words? French. Again, the Tom Tancredo/Lou Dobbs crowd might frown a little. This is a chiller, more electronic vibe--a little connected to RJ-D2--and it's on the border of being instrumental. I'm still in the running. I don't think this helps or hinders.

9. Lord of the Rings- Hope Fails. Ah, instrumentalism again. Another film score, which might have me pegged as a "Hollywood Elite," although if someone thought I was picking this music deliberately, it might look like a jab at Obama. Seriously, though, it's just another sorrowful, reflective song. If it wasn't for the George Carlin right off the bat, I'd look like a sad, pensive kind of President. Maybe an Abraham Lincoln, if I'm lucky, or (more likely) a Joe Lieberman.

10. We Are Scientists - Can't Lose. Ho boy. This song comes dangerously close to addressing teen alcoholism. I could try and cast it in the light of being a song that warns against alcoholism (it takes a very dour view of alcoholism), and the lines "I'm breaking my own rules/I'm turning into someone else" might not make good political fare. Still, since I don't drink, I have some plausible deniability. Close call? Also: the dour disposition continues to hang over the air. Can we go back to instrumentals?

11. Magnetic Fields - 10,000 Fireflies. Well, I'll stand by this song any day. Granted, it makes me sound like a wimp ("I'm afraid of the dark without you close to me") but it is among a compendium of witty and beautiful love songs, so I think that criticism will be muted. Maybe indie-rock folks will like me more?

12. Earth Wind And Fire - Touch The World. Hippy idealism strikes back! Alright, so I've lost anyone who doesn't want a sappy president, but this is something with a beat and funk, and nobody can take umbrage to it. Notice: this is probably on Obama's shuffle, and he's doing okay. It addresses social issues! "God gives hope and Jesus is the way!" with the choir effect might do something to some of my left wing; on the other hand, I'm not religious, and yet I'm willing to listen to religious-toned music. Open-mindedness is the key.

13. The Rolling Stones - Get Off Of My Cloud. Well, I guess this is 60s cynicism, to follow up on EW+F. But both of these bands are pretty solidly in the canon of music. If "Cloud" means "America", I guess this might be an attempt to reach out to the Tancredo-Dobbs Bloc. But otherwise, I'm still in the running.

14. Art Brut - Formed A Band. Moving swiftly from classic rock to indie rock. I'm proud of this one, and would make sure I say so. The tone finally has returned to tongue-in-cheek humor, after having left George Carlin so long ago. Absolutely harmless, and might pick up some of the young folks! "Yes, this is my singing voice/It's not irony/It's not rock n' roll/I'm just talking/to the kids!" Also: "We're gonna be the band/that makes Israel and Palestine gets along", thus putting peace on my agenda. Not seriously enough, obviously, but yeah.

15. The Darkness - Thing Called Love. The music itself is well within the mainstream, although a little too mainstream -- thank God Art Brut came first. The album cover, and its parental warning, might be a little leery with people, but this was a radio hit.

16. Kylie Minogue - Can't Get You Outta My Head. Eh. Really pop. Utterly inoffensive. Just a "meh" all around.

17. The Gorillaz - Punk. Thank God! The Gorillaz were well-timed. I have a high appreciation for Albarn, and I'm sure he'd take me far. It's completely inoffensive, although social conservatives may not like the music.

18. The Gorillaz - 19-2000. Oh man. This is a chill, positive vibe, but it's sooooo close to being about drug use. I can hear the social conservatives on Fox News mocking me now. Bill Clinton and "why didn't you inhale." Luckily, I can unequivically say I don't imbibe (I have quite the reputation as a Puritan when it comes to ingestion). Thankfully, "It's the music that we choose" is pretty apt here...

19. Bloc Party vs. Death From Above 1979 - Luno. There's something vaguely wrong about this song, but I don't know exactly what to make of it, and I doubt anyone who wants me not to run for President would have anything better to add.

20. Martin Luther King Jr. - I Have Been To The Mountaintop. YES! MARTIN LUTHER KING! I don't have to say how this works. The only people this alienates are people who I don't want on my side. Thank God! "I wouldn't stop there..." Hopefully this would tie into my love of good language and oration; this would probably bring up the whole Obama-"elitist"-style/substance kerfuffle again.

21. Better Than Ezra - Juicy. I like the song, but I think it wouldn't really bear on anything.

22. They Might Be Giants - We're The Replacements. Again, not a very insightful song. I'm being pushed more towards rock and roll.

23. Stan Kenton - Concerto To End All Concertos. A big-band jazz orchestra piece, in the Public Domain (discussing again how that's good--no need for Stan Kenton to keep making money). Seriously, don't I have any controversial music? This is a little ridiculous.

24. Toad The Wet Sprocket - Begin. Melancholic bland rock.

25. Barenaked Ladies - Peterborough and the Kawarthas. Tancredo-Dobbs might be mildly irritated by the Canadian band, but it's got a kind of heartlandy-feel without actually being stereotypical country. Eclectic, nostalgic, nature imagery. Not bad.

26. Lord of the Rings - Return of the King. Aside from the previously-mentioned Lord of the Rings stuff, I don't see much change. I'm doing really well for President! By now the public would have gotten bored scrutinizing my music, and gone and done something else. I'm kind of considering turning on the "More Cowbell" application and adding some Christopher Walken over it.

27. The Killers - Somebody Told Me. God, this got overplayed. I mean, it's good, but I got heartily sick of it. It's nice that Amarok reminded me of it. Again, I doubt it'll really move people one way or the other. Jeez, I'm tame. Of course, it scared the crap out of me after Return Of The King. Unless this song is actually about sex change, which I've privately considered it might be. But since even I'm not sure of that, I'll leave myself on the table.

28. Harry James - Ain't Misbehaving. One of the most standard of jazz standards. I could use it to make a cheap point about infidelity and public officials (I'm saving my loving for my wife, Spitzer!). It's instrumental, which again minimizes the impact.

29. Microprose - Heroes of Might And Magic Track ??. Eh... a song from a video game might lose me the Hilary Clinton crowd, but it's instrumental, it's old, and it's calm. I can't see people taking umbrage at it.

30. The Clash - Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Just a classic. I'm opening myself to the attack of "flip-flopper" but, c'mon, lighten up. It's a classic, and it links me to an older generation that might not get Art Brut or The Gorillaz, without losing me the people who do get Art Brut or the Gorillaz? There's a faint Spanish call and response, but I doubt Dobbs-Tancredo would even notice.

31. Louis XIV - Pledge of Allegiance. Allllllllright, well, that was a nice long campaign and I made it through the Primary season, but this is a dealbreaker. This is an entirely sex-obsessed song, with some women moaning, some light s+m, and a discrete tryst (which might hint at indiscretions in my private life). Also, a blasphemous invocation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The word "Bitch." "She said oh come on boy aren't you tired of talking about sex/I said little girl what do you really expect?"

Well, that was interesting. I made it surprisingly far, considering how much seedy music I've got elsewhere on my computer. But Louis XIV would get me out of the race any day. I guess this exercise has proven how contrived the "playlists" of our politicians are: if they were genuine, they would make a lot less sense than the playlists we are presented in magazines like Blender.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Identity/Ethnicity in Europe

Another issue which being in the Czech Republic has given me some ideas about is about race/ethnicity, and what's going on historically right now in terms of race.

Firstly, I suppose, it's interesting to note the incredibly intolerant history of race and ethnicity in Europe. It is probably equally prevalent in every other continent, but previously I had sort of been of the notion that Europe was, at the least, given more to ideological/religious feuds, and due to the ethnically homogenous nature of Europe hadn't really distinguished racially between Europeans.

Well, it seems that the question of the "ethnically homogenous nature of Europe" is what I had missed. In the era passing forward from the Middle Ages, people lived in small villages, tribes, small city states and Duchys. Many spoke their own regional dialects and languages. But all had "Christianity," as it was united by the Church under the Roman Empire. The exception was the tribes of Jews that were throughout the land.

During this period, it seems to me (from an admittedly not very highly studied vantage point--my knowledge of history crystalizes much more clearly after 1900) that there weren't very many huge ethnic feuds. Now, partly this has to do with the fact that it is impossible at that point in history to actually destroy an entire ethnicity. The tools of mass murder were yet to come. But overall, people mostly kept to their small, local communities. The "other" was out of sight, and out of mind.

This changed after the Schism. Although this didn't create "ethnic" divisions, it did create another major identity division: Catholic or Protestant. And what, I suppose, is key is that the people who were divided were previously people who were in close proximity. And this is during the period where Europe is getting slowly smaller: the Kingdoms have mostly gotten large and intertwined through trade (during the trade revival of the 1600s), so suddenly these people were in close divisions. If you want to imagine what such a world looked like, imagine if all of Europe was Northern Ireland in the 1950s - 1980s.

I'm ignoring, of course, examples of "top down" persecution. It's one thing when King Ferdinand signs the order to persecute Jews, I'm focusing on mass movements of intolerance.

So at the end of the Schism, a peace is signed, which tells each King/Prince that where they rule, they decide the religion. And what that does is enforce homogeny in each community. There is a brief and catastrophic period of exoduses as Catholics flee to Catholic countries and Protestants flee to Protestant countries.

Nationalism, during this, has been on the rise. During the 1800s, it really peaks. The 1800s is the peak of nationalism. And this nationalism is not based on kings or kingdoms; the intellectuals of the time are trying to base it on something "historical" or "scientific." Hence you have the great frauds (neanderthals spoke German! ancient texts referring to the Czechs!), attempting to define the countries as more than just a temporary boundary created by history: countries are collections of a certain kind of people.

And they decide to use language as the identifier, and that identifier becomes race. Now, at the time of the 1800s, there were many Germans outside of Germany; some in Czechoslovakian regions, or in Austrio-Hungary, or in Prussia; and all of those people were mixed as well. As well as the French, or the Italians. Switzerland still represents that sort of mixture: after all, thanks to its long reign of peace, its ethnic makeup hasn't changed much since the 1400s, when the peace was first crystalized.

Eugenics enters the scene, and tells people that race is absolute. Meanwhile, there is a great rush of people to the big cities: cities which are much more ethnically complex than their home villages. They see The Other every day. And when they hear about Germany's actions, for good or for worse, they're constantly seeing Germans. Nationalist propaganda at the time (until pretty much World War II, sometimes even later) was based on vilifying the people who lived in those countries. It's not just that Kaiser Wilhelm is evil: the Krauts are evil. So how do you treat those nasty krauts who are in your workplace? What if one of those Krauts is your boss in the factory?

These people are, for many other reasons (see previous post) very unsatisfied. And a racial politics suits the up-and-coming Hitler. And during World War II, Germany, and various lands Germany held, became very very ethnically homogenous. Jews, gypsies, and other misplaced minorities were liquidated. Then, at the end of World War II, the counter swing: Germans were evicted from all the lands outside of Germany. Germany responded by evicting whatever non-Germans existed. Jews were still persecuted in areas of Poland. Poles were resettled thanks to the moving of the borders of Poland; Hungarians and Romanians settled within their own borders too.

The result of World War II is that all of the nationalist boundaries of the 1800s became ethnic boundaries. And since at the point of World War II, your community is your nation, that was enough to bring a sort of ethnic peace in Europe.

The exception is Yugoslavia, under Josef Tito, which did not go into that repopulating mode. But as soon as Tito's rule fell, Yugoslavia quickly tried to match the rest of Europe (not deliberately, I don't think) in creating nations based on language-ethnic homogeny. And of course, because of the very interspersed nature of these communities, it meant a lot of repopulation and depopulation.

None of this, to be clear is a good thing. All of the events which lead to the ethnic homogeny of Europe today (even the former Yugoslavia is homogenous to a degree which it never was to the past) were catastrophic, traumatic events for Europe.

But something reverse is happening now. But before I get into that, a word about colonies.

The biggest exceptions (there are a few) to the homogenization of the 20th Century is a side-effect of the collapse of the British and French Empires, where many of the peoples of the colonies came to their mother country to settle permanently. This is seen in "Londonstan," the part of England which is more culturally diverse than all the rest of the island combined. The suburbs of France have the same effect with many of its African colonials. And the racial tensions these have created are huge. The only ethnic hot-spots in Europe today are precisely those places that have races in contact.

Going back to the process of reversal that is going on now:

Previously, these conflicts have occurred every time the "horizon" of what your community was expands. The reason that World War II set off Europe's repopulation is that Germany, not content to sit in its own borders, intersected with all of the other nations. And where it went, it tried to ethnically homogenize. This created a lot of ethnic tension in Europe. Which, by the way, led to people distrusting Germany for half a century, not based on any one leadership, but based on the concept of Germany as a whole. "Germany" is dangerous if united.

Globalization is expanding the horizon of one's community again. The Schengen Free-Movement Zone makes it as easy for a Bulgarian to live in London as it is to live in Bulgaria. There is a huge movements of people to wherever it is that they can make the best living. This has, of course, created a lot of anxieties in areas where, previously, "the other" was elsewhere rather than here. Europeans have come to live with the idea of "the other, elsewhere" but as yet has not learned to deal with "the other, here." This is like the aftermath of the Schism's peace: other religions will be tolerated in other countries, but not in our own. Out of sight, out of mind.

This is a very complicated question, one which nobody has really solved anywhere. But it is the problem of Europe in the 21st Century. You'll notice that this question sort of bubbles near to the surface whenever the entrance of Turkey into the E.U. is discussed. After all, Bulgarians and Poles may be ethnically "other" from Brits and the French, but they're not considered religiously other; and especially today, there is a much more sour history between the West and Islam. This is an "other" which Europe is clearly not prepared to engage with ("here", at least: they're good friends with Turkey when Turkey is "there"). They will stall Turkey's membership into the E.U. until they're ready to have "the other, here."

And we need to figure out "the other, here" very soon.