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27 Spotlight Right: January 2013

Monday, January 28, 2013

Theater of the Inside Joke

Jimmy Pravasilis and David Marcus in "the Fence" at Sticky

On Saturday night, my theater company’s show Sticky came back for the first time since  June with a new set of short plays.  I wrote and appeared in the first play, “The Fence” about Jimmy, who deals in stolen goods and thinks his Arab neighbors in Bay Ridge are plotting a terror attack, and Dave, who has stolen 500 $14 Metro cards and $3,000 in cash by slipping fake 20s into MTA machines.  The play got the laughs I hoped for and expected (no mean feat for a play opening the night), but I noticed that the more specific the reference to New York the better the laughs were.  At the close of the scene, when Dave pays for the drinks with a handful of change, justifying this by saying “they’re dollar coins!”, the audience got it immediately, almost all of them certainly having had the experience of 5-6 Sacagaweas jangling around their pockets.  I wondered if this joke would have gone over in Iowa, or Kentucky, or even Los Angeles.  It put me in mind of a quote from James Joyce who said “In the particular is contained the universal”.  It got me thinking about the advantages and challenges for playwrights in obeying this maxim.

Ethnic theater takes great advantage of localized reference in story telling.  Years ago at a performance of the short play series “7/11” by the South Asian/South Pacific theater company Desipina, I remember a very funny play in which there was a joke about a brand of rice.  The 60-70 percent of the audience who were South Asian, laughed heartily at what must have been a very amusing reference, the rest of us kind of looked at each other, shoulders shrugged.  But even for those of us who did not get that particular joke, an authenticity was established by the mysterious reference.  Hip Hop is replete with this phenomenon, as rappers, identified with their cities or regions, drop street and place names that most listeners do not recognize.  For those who do pick it up, it provides a special relationship to the work, for those who do not, it establishes credibility.  In visual art, knowledge of the subject matter also plays a major role in appreciation of the work.  In Vermeer’s work the objects or props that populate his backgrounds have symbolic significance to people of his day, but not so much for most of us.  In Philadelphia, the mural of former mayor Frank Rizzo gazing down on the Italian Market would look to any tourist like a placid depiction of what must have been an important man.  To locals familiar with his iconic and often divisive history, its a whole different picture.

Mural of Frank Rizzo in South Philadelphia

The challenge for theater in taking advantage of an audience’s local mental triggers lies in the fact that the production trajectory of a “successful” play takes it all over the country, if not the world.  The nature of a work of art, except perhaps for the work of the most insular artists, will always depend upon the intended audience.  In theater the target audience is usually “everybody, everywhere”, or at least “everybody, everywhere who is interested in maybe seeing a play”.  Some theater goes to great extremes to totally divorce its subject from any local, or even personal reference.  Blue Man Group for example, or mask work, even a technique like Viewpoints, all  universalize the action on stage.  It turns Joyce on his head by seeking the particular in the universal, rather than the other way around.  

It is a little strange that theater, which outside of Broadway and tours is so dependent on a local audience, resists provincialism even while television shows like Portlandia and Its Always Sunny, embrace it and attract national followings.  It is often the case that by targeting your work to a select few people who can fully understand it, you attract a much broader group who want to.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

The 2nd Amendment was NOT Ratified to Preserve Slavery

I’m sure it was with much shock and horror and a little bit of “I knew it”, that many liberals greeted Thom Hartmann’s article in Truth Out claiming that “the 2nd Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery”.  Surely by “proving” that the reason Americans were granted the right to bear arms was to ensure the continuation of our nation’s original sin through the ability to put down slave insurrections, we can, and perhaps must, ignore or repeal that right, lest we continue in the tradition of bondage.  It is a tactic all too familiar in the reframing of the American story, from Howard Zinn, to Oliver Stone.  In legal terms its called “fruit of the poison tree”.  By showing that the source of an action or policy was malicious, we must condemn the action and policy in whole.  In this case however, Mr. Hartmann goes a step further, by inventing an absurd causal connection between the right to bear arms and slavery.  It is absolutely false that “the 2nd Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery”.  In fact, its not even the argument that Mr. Hartmann goes on to make beneath his shocking headline.

The concept of a constitutional right to bear arms was not new in 1789.  An early antecedent was the English Bill of Rights of 1689 which granted “That the subjects which are protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law”.  Later the State of Pennsylvania, in 1776, would grant in their Constitution “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination, to, and governed by, the civil power”  Following this, in 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution would say “The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence”.   Given the existence of these forerunners to the 2nd Amendment, in areas with little or no fear of slave insurrection it is untenable for Mr. Hartmann to argue that the raison d’être of the right to bear arms in the US Constitution had anything to do with slavery.  In fact the same 1780 Massachusetts constitution that enshrined a right to bear arms, also freed every slave in the state.

But as I said, notwithstanding his headline, Mr. Hartman is not actually arguing that the right to bear arms had a causal relationship with slavery, presumably because he knows it is ridiculous.   His claim is that in 1788 while ratifying the Constitution, several prominent politicians from Virginia, the largest slave holding state, feared that if only the Federal government could raise an army, that power might eventually threaten slavery.  While it is true that Virginia, in ratifying the constitution sent demands for a Bill of Rights which included a protection for the right to bear arms, they were not the only state to do so.  North Carolina, another slave state also sent similar demands, but so did New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.  Do we really believe Rhode Island demanded a right to bear arms to protect against slave insurrection?  

Ultimately, the author focuses on one word, “State” as opposed to “Country” to attempt to prove that we would have no 2nd Amendment, or that it would be a vastly different right, had that word not been changed for the nefarious purpose of preserving slavery. In his version of history those prominent Southern politicians forced James Madison to change his first draft of the amendment from:  "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person." to the current "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Again though, Hartmann fails to mention that both New York and Rhode Island also used the word “state”, not “country” in their demands.  He also offers no evidence or source material for the assertion that the change in language from the original draft, intended to be included in the body of the constitution and the second draft, intended to be in a separate “Bill of Rights” was the result of pro slavery coercion.  That change was not made by Madison alone, but by the entire Select Committee on the Bill of Rights in 1789.  If any evidence exists that that committee had slavery in mind when passing the change, Hartmann does not share it.  

There is great danger attendant to this kind of lazy history.  It doesn’t stand up to even the least rigorous challenge, and frankly, was never intended to elucidate any truth about history.  Rather, Mr. Hartmann’s polemic is another attempt to stain the American experiment and promote a progressive, illiberal agenda of limited individual rights.    

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sons Of Anarchy, Downton Abbey and the Politics of Storytelling

While working with the Republican Theater Festival last year, one of the questions that came up quite a bit was, what constitutes a conservative play?  Or a liberal play for that matter.  In examining the politics of storytelling it is useful to look at what stories appeal to conservatives and what stories appeal to liberals.  While this is difficult to achieve in theater, television, with its endless supply of researched demographic information can provide a window into the narrative preferences of political groups.  As I looked into it, two shows stood out, with their almost counterintuitive appeal to blues and reds.  According to the Washington Post, the top scripted show for Republicans is FXs Sons of Anarchy, a Hamlet based drama about an outlaw biker gang.  On the other side of the aisle PBS’ Downton Abby has maintained a strong appeal among liberal viewers as pointed out by Irin Carmon, in Salon and the rating numbers in traditionally liberal areas such as Seattle, New York and Austin.  

How can it be that that conservatives want to spend their free time watching a lawless biker gang flaunt the values of traditional society, while liberals settle in to enjoy a love letter to the Edwardian social system of noblesse oblige?  Both shows succeed by making heroes out of characters who their respective viewers would otherwise almost certainly see as villains.  But both shows also provide small, closed societies that are labs for the most basic ideas of both left and right.

In Charming, CA the fictional small town setting for SoA, we find a test case for small government.  The police are essentially controlled by the local biker gang, and even local politics revolves around their preferences.  In return, for a generation SAMCRO as the gang is known, has kept drugs out of the town and increasingly fought to keep out big yuppie development projects that would change the face of the town.  Although their criminal enterprises are sometimes lucrative, the setting for SoA is decidedly middle class.  Though sometimes intellectual, the characters are not well educated, they look, in large part (gun running aside) like the model for the modern Republican, a working class white guy who wants the government to stay away from his guns and is engaged in a battle with working class brown and black guys for a slice of the economic pie.  Interestingly, the racial divisions which separate the rival Motorcycle Clubs, are not imbued with any particular “cultural” significance.  The black “Niners” and the Mexican “Mayans” are not given any moral passes or magical insights, they are simply the other gang, no better, no worse.  As Jonah Goldberg pointed out in the National Review, the basic theme ends up being tribalism.  And in the end, that tribalism is remarkably violent and destructive.  

It is hard to imagine a setting more remote from Charming than Downton Abbey.  The sprawling fin de siecle Yorkshire estate is the picture of British order. The household, which operates as local government (after all, its Lord Grantham, not Mr. Grantham) is a top down affair, where the Sons of Anarchy hold up and down votes in their clubhouse, the moneyed men of Downton Abbey listen politely and sincerely to the advice of others, but eventually make the decision they think is best, often while sipping brandy and looking stern.  It is a world that fits well with what Joel Kotkin calls the “gentry progressives” among whom Downton Abbey is so popular.  Kotkin writes: 

“The now triumphant urban gentry have their townhouses and high-rise lofts, but the service workers who do their dirty work have to log their way by bus or car from the vast American banlieues, either in peripheral parts of the city (think of Brooklyn’s impoverished fringes) or the poorer close-in suburbs...The gentry progressives don’t see much hope for the recovery of blue collar manufacturing or construction jobs, and they are adamant in making sure that the potential gusher of energy jobs in the resurgent fossil fuel never materializes, at least in such places as New York and California. The best they can offer the hoi polloi is the prospect of becoming haircutters and dog walkers in cognitively favored places like Silicon Valley. Presumably, given the cost of living there, they will have to get there from the Central Valley or sleep on the streets.

Indeed, this is exactly what begins to threaten the baser characters of Downton Abbey as the modern world closes in on the postcard image of the country estate.  Predictably, in season three, as capitalism portends economic doom, and the loss of the estate, the nobles and their servants look for salvation in a huge influx of cash from a recently deceased rich guy (read estate tax).  If tribalism is the theme of SoA, then order is the theme of Downton Abbey, and maintaining that order, as opposed to adapting to new realities, is the primary concern of its major characters.
What is telling about the politics of the devotees of these two shows is that in both cases, the societal structures that draw in the viewer, and which they recognize in a strange way as their own, are doomed to failure.  SAMCRO is clearly on a path to destruction, and not just because we know its based on Hamlet, likewise, in 2013, we all know what happened to the great Edwardian country estates, they are currently filled with fanny packed tourists taking digital snapshots.  And herein lies the lesson.  As storytellers it is not enough to reflect the ideals of our audience, we must challenge them.  After an hour of watching either show, its viewers awake from the fantasies of Harley’s and chandeliers to realize they do not want to get shot at by Mexicans or get dressed in the morning by a live in a maid.  If we want our stories to help people understand their lives and world, we must challenge their moral and social constructs, not soothe them.