Category Archives: Culture

E Pluribus Me

 

On two occasions this past week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked Benjamin Franklin to validate the necessity of an impeachment inquiry to determine whether Donald Trump has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” worthy of removal from office.  The specific incident to which she referred was his response to a question upon adoption of the the United States Constitution, “Have you created a monarchy or a republic?”  Franklin’s reply?  “A republic if you can keep it.”

Call me a skeptic, but more than once in the recent annuls of political discourse, the words of the nation’s founding fathers have been twisted or, in some cases, manufactured to fit the needs of those who want history, real or imagined, to justify their actions.  So, I Googled Franklin’s words and the first hit was a commentary on the political process by Dr. Matthew Spalding on the website of that bastion of liberal propaganda (drum roll) The Heritage Foundation.

His July 2002 essay (conveniently for my purposes) titled “A Republic If You Can Keep It” begins with an almost verbatim transcript of Pelosi’s retelling of Franklin’s warning.  (Forget treason, I am surprised Trump has not demanded Pelosi resign as Speaker for committing plagiarism.)  Dr. Spalding goes one step farther.

But what the American Founders did not do-could not do-was guarantee the success of their creation. Franklin and the other Founders knew that their experiment depended on future generations, which meant the education of future citizens. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization,” Thomas Jefferson once warned, “it expects what never was-and never will be.”

Yet something else is happening in America.  On today’s edition of Morning Joe, John Meacham, Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, suggested that knowledge loses its power if seen through an already biased prism.  He quoted the late political commentator and fellow Pulitzer laureate Walter Lippmann.

For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.

Related imageSeparated by centuries, Franklin and Lippmann have come together in a time warp to define the challenge we face in the months ahead.  “Poor Richard” reminds us the future of American democracy is not housed in some monolithic entity.  Its power comes from the distributed energy of millions of individuals, much like Skype which connects the capacity of an assemblage of devices under the control of Skype users.  In other words, the motto E Pluribus Unum refers not only to the diverse makeup of our population, but the civic obligation of every American (the pluribus) to uphold the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (the unum)

That would be tough enough if our understanding of current events was filtered through a cultural consensus, a prism with only one wavelength.  But, as we are too well aware, tribal factions, which as Lippmann points out define the way we see the world, explain how there can be two polar opposite interpretations of a partial transcript of a conversation between Trump and Ukraine President Zelensky.

I believe the question before us is not only, “Did Trump violate the explicit oath of office he took on January 20, 2017?”  Have we also, as citizens, violated the implicit oath to which we are bound by the phrase E Pluribus Unum?  When any occupant of the White House declares he or she “has an absolute right” to do anything (as Trump tweeted last night), have we betrayed the founding fathers because we have put ourselves (ME) above the singular principle of individual sovereignty on which America is based (UNUM)?  Have we become traitors when we put the promise of tax cuts and conservative judges above honoring the Constitution?  Do we dishonor Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton when we place our allegiance in an individual, any individual, over the words and principles which have sustained our country for 232 years?

I can only imagine the following exchange between Benjamin Franklin and CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

CUOMO:  Mr. Franklin, based on what Donald Trump tweeted last night, do we still have a republic or is the United States becoming a monarchy?

FRANKLIN:  Chris, I’ll give you the same response Beto O’Rourke gave reporters when asked if Trump’s rhetoric was a factor in the wake of last August’s El Paso shooting.  Why are you asking me when you already know the answer?  Connect the dots.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

The Case for Youth

 

Image result for greta thunbergNever before has the issue of age become such a significant factor within American politics.  At one end of the spectrum is what can only be described as a “children’s crusade” of energized young people on issues ranging from gun violence to climate change.  In an ironic twist on the song “Children Will Listen” from the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods,” adolescents such as the Parkland high school students or 16-year-old Greta Thunberg have inspired older generations to rethink the consequences of their inaction on matters of national and global import.  The best evidence of their effectiveness is not opposing arguments based on substance, but the willingness of critics to go after them personally.

At the other extreme is the advanced seniority of many of the contenders heading into the 2020 presidential election.  Consider the age of the following major candidates on November 8, 2020.

Bernie Sanders/79 years, 1 month, 26 days
Joe Biden/77 years, 11 months, 14 days
Donald Trump/74 years, 4 month, 20 days
Elizabeth Warren/71 years, 4 months, 12 days

No need to detail the concern raised by their younger competitors about their mental and physical agility. Or not being in touch with the culture and advanced technologies which steer the present and future.

In light of current events, I want to posit one more compelling reason we might want the country’s chief executive to be of less advanced age.  Consider the following.  At no time during these past presidential terms did we have the slightest concerns whether the offspring of the commander-in-chief were benefiting financially off of their father’s position.

  • During John F. Kennedy’s term in office, out biggest worry was whether John-John would get lost under the Resolute Desk or Caroline would fall off her pony Macaroni.
  • In the case of the children of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford our attention was riveted not on business interests, but love interests.  Their activities were more likely chronicled in the Style Section of the Washington Post than on the front page.
  • Amy Carter, nine-years-old when she took up residency in the White House, became a topic of controversy only once, when a radio talk show host commented on her physical appearance.
  • Coverage of Chelsea Clinton had nothing to do with her own behavior, but the situation in which she found herself when her father’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became public.
  • Presidential offspring scandals hit a new low when George W. Bush’s underage, twin daughters Barbara and Jenna had a little too much to drink at Chuy’s while attending the University of Texas-Austin.  (NOTE:  Having lived in Austin and eaten many meals at Chuy’s, the bigger scandal would have been if underage UT students did NOT have too much too drink.)
  • Which brings us to Malia and Sasha Obama, perhaps best known for eye-rolling at their father’s “daddy jokes.”

In contrast, history will remember the more chronologically mature children of past presidents for their financial or political activities, not the first family photographs or the trials and tribulations of growing up in the national limelight.

Of course, this is not to say anyone with the foresight to think they will be running for president at a more advanced period in their lives cannot go down a path that puts them in the same category as W. or Obama.  Skip the first wife.  In your late forties, 47 to be exact, choose a trophy wife (or two).  And for heaven’s sake, remember that photo ops with the kids carry more political favor than those with dictators.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That

 

Related imageLike life, the presentation of entertainment awards is not always fair.  I still bristle every time I think about the 1970 Academy Awards.  Despite the fact Midnight Cowboy took home the Oscar for best picture, best director (John Schlesinger) and best adapted screenplay (Waldo Salt), Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Ratso Rizzo was deprived of the best male performance award when John Wayne won for playing himself in True Grit.  Hoffman’s cinematic achievement was of particular note when viewed side-by-side with his big screen debut two years earlier as Ben Braddock in The Graduate.  

There are two reasons this outcome may not have been the injustice it appeared to be.  First, both Hoffman and Jon Voight (playing Joe Buck) were nominated for best actor and may have divided the vote among Midnight Cowboy’s devotees.  Second, this was Wayne’s third nomination (previously as Davy Crockett in The Alamo and as Marine Sargent John Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima).  After 43 years on the silver screen and 170 roles in movies and television, perhaps Wayne was more deserving of a lifetime achievement Oscar, but this was the way his peers chose to honor him.  (CINEMA FOOTNOTE:  Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film to win an Oscar for best picture, although it would barely garner an R rating 50 years later under today’s standards.)

As I watched the Emmy’s last night, I wondered if there was a totally different reason members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences decided who would take home the prized statuette, particularly in the acting categories.  Before I make the case, let me say I did not see all of the performances, and of the ones I did see, none of the nominees were unworthy of consideration.  I just wondered if something else was going on.

Were Academy members trying to use this venue, the one time each year they have an international television audience to celebrate, not just the their art, but their values?  Despite its occasional flaws, the entertainment industry has become the voice of diversity and social justice in the era of Donald Trump.  Did voters look at the list of nominees and anticipate who might give the more compelling acceptance speech?  Consider the following four examples.

Jharrel Jerome for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie/Jerome portrayed Korey Wise in “When They See Us,” the story of the Central Park Five .  Only by winning the Emmy could Jerome introduce the actual subjects of the story as the “Exonerated Five.”  One more reminder Trump has still not apologized for calling for their execution.  I am not sure Jerome’s performance topped those of Jared Harris in “Chernobyl” or Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal,” but I am confident they do not hold a grudge against the Academy for giving Jerome the stage.

Michelle Williams for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie/Few viewers of her starring role as Gwen Verdon in “Fosse/Verdon” were probably aware of her demands during the series’ production, but I have no doubt Academy voters did.  As with Jerome, did they ask, “Is this a chance to share an important lesson we have learned with a broader audience?” If so, Williams delivered.

So thank you so much to FX and Fox 21 Studios for supporting me completely and paying me equally. Because they understood that when you put value into a person, it empowers that person to get in touch with their own inherent value. And then where do they put that value? They put it into their work. So the next time a woman – and especially a woman of color, because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white male counterpart – tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her, believe her. Because one day she might stand in front of you and say thank you for allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment and not in spite of it.

Billy Porter for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series/Porter became the first openly gay black man to win an Emmy for his role as Pray Tell in “Pose.”  Did Academy members hope Porter would make the connection that the presence of authentic characters, not stereotypes or caricatures, of all genders, colors and sexual preference/identity can be teachers and role models.  If not, his acceptance speech made the point anyway.

We as artists are the people that get to change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of the people who live on this planet. Please don’t ever stop doing that. Please don’t ever stop telling the truth.

Peter Dinklage for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama/If you questioned whether Dinklage would win an Emmy for the fourth time as Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” you were mistaken.  Despite his four foot four inch frame, he stands tall among his peers as a representative of the entertainment community.  Once again last night, he did not disappoint.

 I have no idea what I’m about to say, but here we go. I count myself so fortunate to be a member of a community that is all about tolerance and diversity, because no other place could I be standing on a stage like this.

And no one, except Fox censors were shocked when he referred to the GOT cast and crew as “10 years of the most incredible, talented, funniest motherfucking (bleeped out) people–hey, it’s over, I don’t care–I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with.”  That too was a message, about loyalty to and faith in one’s co-workers, not self-interest.

So, sometimes it is not a question of whether the BEST man or woman wins.  A better question is whether the RIGHT one does?  Last night the moment eclipsed the performances, and even if there were artistic injustices, I’m okay with it.  Sometimes life is unfair.  But on occasions like this, we should echo Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

The Death of Political Incorrectness

This week a retiring trustee at Miami University informed me, at their July meeting, the board of trustees adopted a version of the University of Chicago principles of academic free speech.  The email included a list of some of the other colleges and universities which had recently adopted similar guidelines which on the surface make a lot of sense.  In a nutshell, the gist of the statement is affirmation of openness to opposing views as long as all parties respect the rights of the other side.  Proponents argue it is a balanced approach, making room for both unpopular views and the right to hold protests against the advocates of those perspectives. My question?  Why now?

The debate is not new.  In a 1989 case Doe v. University of Michigan, the presiding judge Avern Cohn explained why the issue of free speech on campuses is so complex.

It is an unfortunate fact of our constitutional system that the ideals of freedom and equality are often in conflict. The difficult and sometimes painful task of our political and legal institutions is to mediate the appropriate balance between these two competing values.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the position of most academic institutions was to prohibit speech perceived to harass or intimidate ethnic minorities.  But, to paraphrase country singer Roger Miller, “Campuses swing like a pendulum do.”  Students protesting unpopular speakers are now thought of as “snowflakes,” afraid to face opposing viewpoints.  Advocates from the alt-right are charged with promoting hate.  The University of Chicago principles were a counter-measure to what some viewed as obsessive political correctness.  For a topic which has been smoldering for decades, my question remains, “Why now?”

Political incorrectness used to be fun.  Ethnic jokes were not hate speech, especially when the targets of such humor were in the audience and would laugh at the cleverness and creativity behind the content.  Don Rickles and Richard Pryor made a damn good living making fun of an array of ethnic populations, including their own.  And no one thought twice Rickles really hated Jews with the possible exception of our then eight-year-old daughter who first saw “Mr. Nice Guy” during her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration at Kutcher’s Resort in the Catskills in 1991.  For those unfamiliar with Kutcher’s, just think “Dirty Dancing.”

Image result for eddie murphy's white characterOr that Pryor’s successors Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock hate black people.  Even when the target was outside their own race, gender or religion-based politically incorrect humor, although potentially offensive, could be enlightening.  For example, in a 1984 Saturday Night Life skit “White Like Me,” Murphy goes undercover in white face to expose white privilege.  The New York Daily News observed the exaggeration was exactly what one would expect from SNL, yet it somehow had a ring of truth.

On a more personal level, political incorrectness was a bond that solidified our close circle of diverse friends when we twice lived in the Washington, DC area.  For my second deployment to DC in 1990, I reported to my new job while my family stayed in Austin until the end of the school year.  A close friend (actually the best man at our marriage ceremony) offered to let me stay at his house in Annapolis rent-free for two months.  In return, I would do chores which included mowing the lawn.  To this date, my friend reminds me having a Jewish gardener was the epitome of success for an Italian-American Catholic.  And the thought still makes me laugh. No harm, no foul.

One more time, why now?  I have a theory.  Post-passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, there was a collective sense of white guilt associated with 250 years of slavery and 100 more years of Jim Crow.  Anything that reminded the victims of economic and social injustice was off-bounds.  Then, as more and more victims of both de jure and de facto prejudice rose to visible positions in government, business, entertainment and society in general, most Americans thought maybe, just maybe, the United States had turned the corner.  Gags about ethnic stereotypes and bigots were now more acceptable.  They were commentaries on the past, not an argument to return to a darker era in our nation’s annals.  They were just jokes.

Yet, the pendulum, as all pendulums tend to do, swung back to its other extreme.  I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it seems to have coincided approximately with the election President Barack Obama.  Or maybe it was when a professor at my university posted a picture of Obama as “The Joker” on his office door in plain site of African-American students or a celebrity real estate developer told his audience the president was born in Kenya or alt-right social media traded pictures of the first lady as a primate.  Most Americans may have turned the corner but too many were stuck in a traffic jam of past fear, paranoia and hate.

College Speech CanceledWhich brings us to 2014 and drafting of the Chicago principles, one more swing of the pendulum’s arm.  I find it hard to disagree with either the intent or the language.  And unlike Charlottesville, there are actually cases of overreach on both the left and the right.  A conservative website FIRE.COM keeps a database of speakers who had invitations to speak on college campuses rescinded.  From 1998 to the present, they have identified 429 instances where a guest has been dis-invited or attempts were made to block their presentations.  Recent examples include actor Amy Irving being barred from giving a speech on abortion and contraception at Loyola University and an incident at Beloit College at which a lecture by Blackwater founder Erik Prince was cancelled when students piled chairs on the platform from which he was scheduled to speak.

Why do I think these are overreach?  Because a university’s primary mission is not to protect students or the communities in which they are located from hearing diverse and sometimes offensive points of view.  Its prime directive is to train students how, if they disagree, to find their own answers or present an opposing case based on fact, analysis and scientific method.  Such an approach holds water regardless of where the pendulum falls on the arc of time.  Educators, more than anyone else, should embrace the words engraved on the Upham Hall arch at Miami University.  “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”  Free of group think, free of the next temporal trend du jour and free of thinking America will be a totally different place if only comedians and others stop making politically incorrect jokes.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

When Symbols Become Cymbals

The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.

~Nate Silver/FiveThirtyEight.COM

Two totally unconnected news stories this week affirm how much we have been distracted by the noise when we should be focusing on the signal.  The first started as a joke and ended up making national news.  The second involved actions by a local school teacher.  However, as Carl Jung reminded us, synchronicity runs deep.  There is always a connection or narrative if you just look for it.

Story #1:  Rename a Segment of 5th Avenue After Barack Obama

It began when Los Angeles resident Elizabeth Rowin, noting how cities often rename streets to honor individuals for their achievements, e.g. Cesar Chavez Avenue in her home town, created the following petition on MoveOn.org.

We request the New York City Mayor and City Council do the same by renaming a block of Fifth Avenue after the former president whose many accomplishments include: saving our nation from the Great Recession; serving two completely scandal-free terms in office; and taking out Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind September 11th, which killed over 3,000 New Yorkers.

And the block referenced in the petition just happens to be between 56th and 57th Streets which includes Trump Tower, a move that a Scottish tweeter Donald McKenzie described as, “Poetic Justice or what…?”  In line with U.S. Postal Service guidelines the building’s mailing address would become “725 President Barack H. Obama Avenue.”  One can only imagine the Twitter-storm which would blow through mid-town Manhattan if the change was approved.

Poetic justice?  Yes!  Clever?  Absolutely.  Helpful in returning to a state of normalcy and sanity after the reign of terror led by Donald the Destroyer and Moscow/Massacre Mitch?  Not likely. So why did I just use nicknames or include a PhotoShopped movie poster which was triggered when I started drafting another potential blog post about values and institutions Trump has castrated in the last two and a half years?  Because it’s fun and a hard habit to break.  So let me get one more out of my system before getting serious.

Sesame Street lesson of the day based on the regular feature where Ernie sings, “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others.)”  During the song, Ernie holds up three images.  Melania.  A medical deferment.  And a map of Greenland.  As the song ends, several Muppets blurt out in unison, “We know.  We know.  Greenland can’t be bought!”

While I hope you enjoyed the comic interval, it does nothing to achieve the goal of a Trump-less White House.  And unfortunately, news media which are more interested in ratings than reporting news will spend more time on Tweets and Greenland becoming the 51st state (because Montana isn’t white enough?) than on the impact of Trump and EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler (aka former lobbyist for coal producer Murray Energy) gutting the Endangered Species Act.

Changing Trump Tower’s address may bring some momentary mental relief to the 250,000 plus petitioners who have added their names.  But it is just noise.  Imagine if, instead, that same quarter of a million people went out and each registered two or more new voters.  That would send a signal.

Story #2: Teacher Shames Students for Not Standing for Pledge of Allegiance

On the second day of class at First Coast High School in Duval County, Florida (metro Jacksonville), a biology teacher posted the following hand-written note on the white board in his classroom.

THINK: We had about a half million Americans die in our Civil War, which was largely to get rid of slavery. There are no longer separate water fountains and bathrooms in Jacksonville for “white” and “colored,” as Mr. Goodman remembers from the 1960’s. We had an amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowing women the right to vote. We have had a Black president, the superintendent of Duval Schools is a Black woman. Mr. Fluent, our principal, replaced a Black man, Mr. Simmons, who is now a D.C.P.S. administrator.

MY POINT? You are all extremely lucky to be living in the U.S.A. If you refuse to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance or our National Anthem, are you revealing maturity and wisdom? Actually, you are displaying the opposite. (As some pampered arrogant celebrities and athletes tend to do.)

The missive appeared because one or more students on the first day of class chose not to stand during the pledge of allegiance despite the fact Duval County’s Code of Student Conduct includes the following.

Pursuant to Florida Statutes, students have the right not to participate in reciting the pledge. Upon written request by his or her parent, a student must be excused from reciting the pledge, including standing and placing the right hand over his or her heart.

There is no question who is the “You” in the second paragraph.  Despite efforts by the “fine people on both sides” believers to defend the teacher, every reference why “You” should feel lucky refers to evidence that America has made some progress in atoning for the nation’s original sin slavery or previous suppression of women’s rights. Nothing about America’s economic miracle even though white households make up 96.1 of the top one percent.  And how unfortunate the teacher suggested the students were lucky instead of highlighting the individuals responsible for changing the cultural landscape. A good argument STEM education without exposure to the humanities produces technically trained workers who lack critical thinking skills.

But even the “lucky” reference was too subtle.  Just to make sure his students understood he added the parenthetical reference to “pampered arrogant celebrities and athletes.”  Where could he have possibly come up with that language? Image result for trump hugging flagThis is what happens when the measurement of one’s sense of patriotism is based on symbols and not actions.  Trump can thumb his nose at the Constitution and tell natural born citizens to go back to where they came from.  But as long as he literally hugs the flag and tweets about athlete protests despite the fact they are protected by the First Amendment, we are distracted by his cacophony of noise and ignore the signals.

In contrast, kudos to Stacey Abrams.  While the media spent their energy speculating whether she would throw her hat into the presidential fray, she chose to devote her energy ensuring every citizen’s right to vote is protected and preserved.  On Friday, Melanye (not a typo) Price penned an opinion piece in the New York Times which included the following.

I and all my friends wanted her to jump into the presidential race. Instead, she’s doing something more important. She’s creating an apparatus to fight voter suppression across the country, a prize that’s essential to a fair and functioning democracy.

This is what I would call true American patriotism.  As for the teacher at First Coast High School, I say to him.  “Why do I feel LUCKY?  Because there are still individuals like Stacey Abrams who rise above the noise and send a clear signal what makes the United States of America a truly great nation.”

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP