Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fooling with Democracy

Here is the April installment of my monthly piece for the Deming Headlight.  It appeared in the paper on April 10.


Perhaps we should change Election Day to April 1.

In a stunning follow-up to its 2010 ruling in the case of Citizens United vs.  Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court struck down more limits on private funding of election campaigns this month.  The rulings were announced on April 2, one day after April Fool’s Day and certainly no prank.

The case of McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission was about aggregate limits on campaign funding – the total amount an individual may spend during an election cycle.   In the current cycle, by law you can spend $123,200 on candidates, national party committees, and certain political committees;  with a limit of $2,600 to specific federal candidates, and a total limit of $48,600 on direct contributions to candidates.  

These limits date back to the Watergate scandal that engulfed the presidency of Richard Nixon.  To fight corruption, these aggregate limits were enacted in 1974 and survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1976.  The limits were later indexed to inflation in 2002. 

In our era, the Supreme Court is rolling back limits on private funding of campaigns.  Citizens United rolled back bans on corporations and organizations from using company funds for direct advocacy, and McCutcheon rolled back aggregate individual limits.  It won’t stop there.  Justice Clarence Thomas complained that “limiting the amount of money a person may give to a candidate does impose a direct restraint on his political communication.”  There is explicit support on that bench for doing away with any limits on campaign spending. 

The rationale is that spending money is equivalent to speech, and therefore it is “free speech” for a billionaire to bankroll campaigns and dominate the available media.  What this means for the rest of us is a politics further dominated by wealthy individuals and corporations. 

Amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth, we do well to remember that this is a political struggle that has been going on since the founding of the United States.  It is a struggle between the conflicting ideals of political democracy (rule by people) and plutocracy (rule by wealth).  The struggle is not hidden and was once written about in plain language without embarrassment.

James Madison, in an essay recorded as Number 10 in the Federalist Papers, acknowledges class conflict in the year 1787, writing, “The most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”  Madison, however, was no communist.  His purpose was to argue that government must preserve these inequalities, to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” as he put it in a debate that year.   For him and many of the other founders of the United States, political democracy was something dangerous, noted for its “leveling tendencies” and its vulnerability to “unruly” passions. 

John Jay, another of our founders and our first Chief Justice, was even more explicit:  “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”  Chief Justice John Roberts may well concur. This idea is very much in practice in our politics today, as the way is cleared for lobbyists, political action committees, corporations, and wealthy individual donors at the same time that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act has been struck down and new restrictions on voting are enacted. 

The purpose of political democracy is precisely that “leveling tendency,” for people to share power and fight for their social and economic interests.  The struggle for political democracy in America is ongoing, and one side is highly organized, well funded, and effective.  Plutocracy is winning.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Regarding the White Gaze

A week ago, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge paid a visit to New Zealand and were greeted by Maori dignitaries, and a contingent of dancers in traditional garb and tattoos.

CNN reporter Jeanne Moos filed a story about the occasion that went dreadfully awry and quickly went viral, widely shared and villified across the internet.   It seems like a natural topic for a soft, humorous "human interest" sort of story, right?  Here is the future British monarch and his family, in western-style formal clothes including a dark suit and tie for the Prince, and they literally rub noses with their hosts as part of a customary greeting.  Two cultures saying hello.  That could be nice and fun.  

Unfortunately, Ms. Moos decided to push the joke.  The tipping point seems to be the bare-buttocked male dancers.  Moos indulged in juvenile puns, calling the event a "royal bummer," and making peculiar comments like, "Is this any way to welcome a future king and queen?"  

Oh, but it got worse.  Ms. Moos then dug up archival footage of First Lady Laura Bush being greeted in Afghanistan by New Zealand soldiers doing traditional dance -- which is a rather high honor -- while Ms. Moos compares the dancing to a Chippendales routine and the mating ritual of an emu.  

And so on in that vain.  Watch it if you wish: 

Pretty soon, there were petitions circulating on-line demanding an apology.  Jeanne Moos acknowledged the criticisms and stated, "I do humour and satire, and I am truly sorry if the tone of my story offended anyone."  It feels a bit like a standard procedure.  Outcry, followed by an indirect, not-really-apologetic apology.

I think something may have gotten lost in the demands that Moos apologize and the standard non-apology.  Saying sorry is nice, I suppose, but it's not about offending, taking offense, or apologizing.  My two sons have latched on to the phrase "I'm sorry" as a magical phrase for getting out of trouble, making a bad situation go away.  The point is -- as I often tell my own children, but it certainly applies to us adults as well -- has anything been learned?  Is there anything in this situation that helps us grow an inch wiser?

Words matter here.  This piece didn't "offend" me.  I wasn't insulted personally.  I am not Maori; in fact, I am a white Euro-American male.  My response to this piece, broadcast by one of my country's major news organizations, was embarrassment.

The moment I heard my older son, at age four, mutter something about "brown people" I dug out the National Geographics and began negotiating play dates with children who don't look like him.  We are trying to introduce both boys to people and cultures foreign to ours so that they feel comfortable and curious about people who are different, about foreign customs, and so forth.

Surely these differences between cultures can be reflected on with humor.  In fact, a sense of humor really helps.  The intent to find humor in the difference between two cultures is not in itself a problem.  What makes me cringe when I watch the Moos piece is something underneath the content.  The entire commentary is based on the assumption that Anglo is normal and what other cultures do is weird.  The object of humor is the non-white, and this is how a dignified Maori dancer in traditional garb and markings becomes the target of botty jokes.  This is embarrassing.  If Moos did not catch this, a producer should have.  They failed.
I don't think a personal apology is adequate or necessary.  What could be helpful and repair some journalistic faith would be to acknowledge this unexamined "white=normal, non-white=ridiculous" dichotomy and consider doing stories about that.  That's how CNN could make this, if you will pardon the clichè, a "teachable moment."  That would probably go much further in repairing journalistic trust and provide a positive example for how we can all look at our unexamined attitudes and widen our perspective.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Princess pre-production

My next film project, set to shoot later this month, is entitled Princess.   It is a short film in which I play a single father whose daughter grows up to enter military service.  This photo is from our rehearsal, where I met my "daughter" for the first time.  Looking on is the film's director, Ross Marks.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

KTEP interview with Randy and Algernon

Please give a listen as Monica Gomez interviews Randy Granger and Algernon D'Ammassa on KTEP's "State of the Arts" program, regarding our performances of An Iliad next week in El Paso.

In this seven-minute conversation, Randy talks about the musical inspirations for his work on the piece, and I talk about my interest in this play, my origins at Trinity Rep, and the Theatre Dojo project.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Latest interview with Randy and Algernon

El Paso's Latin-American-American blog has just put up its interview with Randy Granger and me, regarding our upcoming performances of An Iliad in El Paso next week. 

For the full interview, please click here

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn's voice will be sorely missed

"If one meets a powerful person - Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler - one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system."

-Tony Benn (1925 - 2014)

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Who are the good people?

Some digressions are wonderful.

In the course I teach at the Creative Media Institute, we were discussing David Lindsay-Abaire's wonderful play, Good People.  This is one of my picks for important plays of the decade.  While it is set in Boston, the true setting is the United States during the Great Recession, the tale of a South Boston woman who loses her job and visits an old friend from her neighborhood in search of help.  Thus the play squarely examines the conflict of social and economic class against the backdrop of a competitive economy.

Two fallacies the story portrays very clearly are (1) the tendency to view poverty and unemployment as necessarily the consequence of moral weakness, and (2) the tendency for those who have "made it" to believe in a mythical equality of opportunity, and to forget about help or advantages that some have.  Refreshingly, the playwright does not strain the point by contriving any characters of unblemished virtue.  Indeed, the ambiguity of the characters' ethics and virtue is part of the point.

I'm not sure how the digression began, but a student in the class spoke up about his experience working in automobile sales and financing.  With some encouragement from me, he revealed some vivid details of how salesmen and managers view customers, assessing their buying power and credit-worthiness, the negotiating tactics, and after horrifying the students with all of that he started to talk about the competitive pressure on these staffers, motivated not only by greed (the rewards are great for the successful ones) but how disposable they are.  In other words, the cynical handling of customers is driven by the pressure to survive.  (Just as, in the play, Margie sometimes may lie or manipulate in order to survive however she can.)

I could not have contrived a better illustration of capitalism's human problem.  In an economic system that sets people's health and welfare against one another, short of a revolution against that system people do what they do to survive.  Who are the sympathetic people, the "good people" in an economy that does not provide sufficient employment and rations essential needs and political power based on financial power?  What do we think about an economic system that obligates people to behave the way auto salesmen behave -- and worse? 

It's the perfect title for the play.  "Good people" is a phrase that emerges in many discussions about political economy and social policy.  The good people, as opposed to those deemed non-virtuous.  When I lost my full-time job in 2011, due to circumstances out of my power, I would sometimes hear people remark that people should have to pee in a cup to receive an unemployment check.  Although I have not yet had to collect an unemployment check, I see no shame in utilizing a benefit that working people pay for while they are employed, and so I would tell them that I was unemployed and ask them if they felt I was suspicious and should take a drug test.  Usually, I would hear something like this:  "Oh, I don't mean you."  Am I among the good people, then?  What makes me so?  As opposed to whom?

Who are the good people in a system where opportunity is rationed by money and social class, and where the strong feed on the weak by design?

The salesmen and the customers are an example of how the competitive economy pits working people against one another.  Are not managers subject to similar survival pressure?  And while CEOs seem to enjoy a great deal of power and freedom, what is their experience as they sit on top of these corporations responsible for delivering the goods to their investors?  What happens to them, as human beings?

Does anyone really feel they have a reasonable degree of freedom or control of their lives within this system?  Maybe successful entrepreneurs do, or some of them.  Maybe retirees who have plenty of money.  But no one is beyond the reach of the system's problems.  In one recent, amusing example, Exxon's  CEO, who has defended fracking in accordance with his company's interests, has personally joined a lawsuit seeking to keep fracking away from his own ranch, and he might lose.  

In a system that does this to us -- a system that cannot even protect the victors of perpetual class conflict -- what does a phrase like "good people" really mean?