Are You There God? It’s Me, Chair

If I were a religious person, or at this point believed in God at all, I might consider this weekend’s —

  1. flooding destruction of the Texas coast (Note: And now further inland),
  2. pardoning of a convicted racial profiling former sheriff by a bitter, angry and at best unqualified US president and
  3. banning of transgender people from the military randomly despite any real support for it from our military leaders or objective evidence that it is needed —

The beginning of a MASSIVE DIVINE PUNISHMENT for the United States.

Heck, maybe I’ll join a church, rejoin a synagogue, or start my own religion just so I can come up with some irrefutable reasons.   

The Patron Saint of the Chair

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if I’m not a somewhat spiritual person. I often think there has got to be something more than what we can all see in any moment (especially this moment) and some mysterious order to a universe that has personally given me pizza, Bette Midler, and the ability to block it all out by playing electronic Scrabble with myself.

… and Jon Hamm and puppies

On the other hand…I have five fingers (as the desperate vaudevillian said as he tried to make a joke when, alas, he had clearly run out of them for a demanding audience).

If you’re anything like me – and perhaps if you are reading this you are in danger of being so – you can’t for the life of you or anyone else rationally understand why Sheriff Joe could get convicted in court some weeks ago and this weekend be rewarded for his crimes of putting brown-skinned people (many of whom were guilty of nothing at all except being non-white) in holding pens where the temperatures were upward of 140 degrees and the stench of their own feces and menstrual blood wafted in the air all around them day after day, week after week and, perhaps, longer.

Where do I even start? #horrified

Here is the ACLU’s list of some of Sheriff Joe’s crimes against humanity.

So how can it be that some minority kid who smoked a little pot or sassed back a law officer sits incarcerated for years?

Who would have thought former George W. Bush speechwriter and leading conservative thinker at the Atlantic, David Frum, could explain it to me.

I’ll wear nice pants

The link is here and you should read it. But Frum’s primary point is that Trump has chosen to do the Sheriff Joe pardon and the military transgender ban precisely this weekend because it is under the cover of the floods, hurricane, and who knows, by the time you read this (pestilence?), in Texas as a way to divert your attention from the heinousness of his actions. He argues it is a sort of a reverse showmanship –- rather than trying to get your attention he is seeking to hide it via the bigger event.

Of course, Trump being Trump, that’s not totally it. It’s also a big F-K YOU to anyone who dares to reel him in, challenge him, disagree with him, unseat or even partially bask in his glory. I’ve felt this for quite a while. But in his writing this weekend Frum quotes the tweet of the editor of a conservative website and states the case far more eloquently than I do.

Still, who would have also ever thought 10 years ago – when I proclaimed to anyone who would or wouldn’t listen that Dubya would be THE WORST PREISDENT IN HISTORY by a mile in my lifetime and two lifetimes after mine – that the very man who put so many of those empty, callow words in his mouth could be so in sync with what I was thinking?

The next logical conclusion might be well, if that’s possible perhaps things are not as bad as the avalanche of massive divine punishment you are cleverly predicting by not predicting, and thus absolving yourself of all responsibility for putting it out there?

Where I’m at right now

Of course, I have no way of knowing, not being a person of God or any particular faith. Though I am culturally Jewish and reacted mightily to the chants of “Jews Will Not Replace Us” by those protestors just two weeks ago in Charlottesville, VA.   That place where a woman was killed by one of them. The them being part of the group Herr Trump (aka The American Fuhrer) defended as “many good people” several days later.

Too much to call him Herr Trump (aka The American Fuhrer)? Or too soon? Well, let’s let God be the judge on that one.   I’m willing to give Him/Her/It the Power on this one just so I don’t have to decide.

Insert your pop culture god of choice

What will be decided in the ensuing months and year (or two) is just how much help our Electoral College Potus received from the Russians in order to get elected in the first place and how many laws he and his minions broke in the process, if any. There will also be verdicts on the man’s (Fuhrer’s?) businesses, taxes, financial dealings and perhaps even sexual habits. Given all of the accusations in that infamous dossier, one can be hopeful.

You know the one…. (image care of the brilliant Full Frontal with our girl Samantha Bee)

That’s because you can’t hide the truth from God or a special prosecutor like Bob Mueller.   Unless, of course, you are crazy enough go nuclear and….

Okay, let’s not even joke about the possibilities of that. The one thing we know about Trumpian diversions is that they ARE always done under the cloak of protecting himself, his supporters and every member of his extended family. Truly, there is not an underground shelter big enough. Not even North Korea could build that.

God willing.

Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Bad Moon Rising”

 

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Sheets of Privilege

I’ve watched Tina Fey downing a sheet cake while she excoriated Trump and the white supremacists at Charlottesville EIGHT times so far – and counting. It’s the only thing that’s made me laugh in quite a while.

You’ve probably seen her now viral appearance on Thursday night’s summer edition of Saturday Night Live Weekend Update – the one where she called the neo-Nazi man boys “chinless turds,” referred to Ann Coulter as “yard sale Barbie,” and countered Trump and his supporters with “who do you think drove that car into the crowd – Hillary’s emails???”– as whipped cream and all kinds of other carbs came pouring inside and outside of her mouth.

If you haven’t – here. And you’re welcome.

Sheetcaking, as she called it, is one answer to the post-racial right wing racism (and all kinds of other isms) that is now sweeping our country thanks to the campaign, election and reign of our first bull-in-the-china shop Electoral College POTUS – Donald J. Trump – or Donny John – as Ms. Fey more aptly derides him and his cheaply made real estate.

Still, however appealing it feels to gorge oneself on sweets and carbs in response to the upside down view of the world that Donny John and his white supremacist followers espouse – it is by no means the ONLY response.   It is the comedic response of 2017 so far and, as in any great satire, should not be taken as an absolute. It is wish fulfillment and is borne out of anger, frustration and a penchant for mouthy snideness that many of us “ethnic types” prefer.

It is the contemporary version of the fictional Isaac Davis’ cocktail party retort in 1979’s Manhattan after he incredulously mentions that he’s heard Nazis may actually be marching in New Jersey.

We should go down there and get some guys together, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.

Even when one guy counters that there is a devastating satirical op-ed piece in the (NY) Times on the subject, Isaac counters:

Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Let’s be honest. There is no ONE way to battle the lunacy that is now overtaking our nation. On Saturday morning, I woke up to find that two dozen Nazi white guys marched in downtown Boston but 40,000 people showed up in solidarity to counter the hate-filled rants of a crowd that had mostly dispersed by the time they had arrived.

#BostonStrong

That doesn’t account for the tens and thousands more who were home sheetcaking, talking to their neighbors, exchanging kind words with people of other religions, skin colors or sexual persuasions, or perhaps frequenting ethnic businesses and organizations that didn’t share the world view of the Charlottesville chinless turds.

The Electoral College POTUS response to Boston was classic. The first tweet:

A follow-up one several hours later, presumably after a talking to and some human contact:

Still, it begs the question of which protestors he was applauding – the two dozen or the 40,000. Certainly, it couldn’t be ALL of them.

I couldn’t pretend to know what is in Electoral College POTUS’ heart, mostly because I am sure he doesn’t even have o….well, skip it. Let’s not get sidetracked here.

Just have a good scream…. OK I’m good now #dailyrituals

The point is, you can’t believe anything he says in any given moment. Because at any given moment later – meaning five or ten seconds, minutes or hours – he might say exactly the opposite. Sometimes it’s even in the same run-on sentence.

This requires all of us to be especially aware, thoughtful and conscious about our actions as we navigate what the solutions are to our many problems. As a college professor I’ve learned over the years to avoid the word problem and refer to them as challenges. Yet in these tough times and in this particular instance I’d say problems is the more apt term.

21st century compassion

That being said, let’s not pretend that with all of our PROBLEMS we, who were fortunate enough to be born into this country, are not a heck of a lot better off than those born into third-world poverty elsewhere in the world. Even luckier are those of us born here into a higher economic class, or loving families, or, or, or, or…..

You see where I’m going with this.

There is so much chatter right now about PRIVILEGE – who is and who isn’t and how none of us are going to take it anymore. About safe spaces. About real American values and the lack thereof and who has them and who definitely doesn’t.

Yet it always seemed that the one thing we could agree on is that Nazis were bad.

Pretty much sums it up

And yet – Charlottesville showed not even all of us could agree on that. I hear reports from people I know that outside of the coastal cities and big urban areas that people are hoisting Confederate flags, brandishing their weapons to anyone ethnic — or Jewish or gay like me –- just in case they’re thinking that we’re friends or share any kind of values at all. Of course, that could just be what they normally do on a Saturday.   How would I even really know???

Well, certainly choosing to pretend this isn’t happening is not the solution to all this. Nor is Tina urging us to stay home and away from the white supremacist rallies and choose sheetcaking instead. But neither is Isaac Davis’ idea that we all get together to attend the Nazi rallies armed with bricks and baseball bats.   Two of these are extreme answers to extreme behavior that none of us truly knows the solution to. The other one is just plain dumb. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

Take your time Elmo

As a teacher whose role it often is to reach compromise I would propose that we need to incorporate not only the extremes but EVERYTHING in between. Unlike the multiple choice SAT there is no one correct answer here – except to rule out the dumb choice immediately.

Therefore, if you want to protest at a right wing, Nazi rally – do it. Yes, this is how they thrive and recruit people – by showing all the people like me and you who are against THEM – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be continually confronted for their hate (and vigorously).

But if as Tina suggests, you want to stay home and instead frequent an ethnic business – e.g. a bakery – then that is also valuable. So is donating money, being kind to a right-leaning friend or neighbor, manning a phone bank for a cause or holding your nose and trying to talk about all of this with a relative who you’ve always loathed – or a colleague who seems to have values opposite of yours.   We have to do them all and we need to do it quickly. And don’t think the thought of this thrills me either. Though I vow to do it if you will.

We can figure out better strategies

This week I heard a former Neo-Nazi named Arno Michaelis, who runs something called the Forgiveness Project and wrote a book about his days of white supremacy in his teens and twenties, say that one of the few things that managed to change him was the kindness he was shown by a lesbian supervisor at work and a black co-worker.

Now I’m not saying kindness and money is THE WAY to fight Nazis. But please can we refrain from the now empty post liberal phrase this is privilege speaking when one dares to suggest anything else except the method you’re arguing for? We need it ALL – especially the comedy of Tina Fey.

The only act of privilege is sitting it out entirely.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Peace, Love and Understanding

A Tribe Called…

A 2010 gray Dodge Challenger registered to and driven by a 20 year-old Ohio white man at a white supremacist/Neo Nazi rally on Saturday barreled into a crowd and mowed down more than 20 people, killing at least one.

Those white supremacists and Neo-Nazis demonstrated the night before in front of a black church in Charlottesville, Virginia – yelling out the phrases “blood and soil.” This was a Nazi chant – about purity of blood and an ownership of land in the country one was born into.

Torch bearing white supremacists. This is 2017.

The problem is America is a nation of immigrants and no one other than Native Americans were born here. This country is not by birth or ownership inherently white. It is, as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe stated on Saturday afternoon, an ever-evolving “mosaic.”

A few hours after the violence on Saturday, Electoral College POTUS Trump said it was time to heal and that for a long time there has been “hatred, bigotry and violence — on many sides.”

Say whaaaaaat? #twilightzone #TrumpAmerica

Well, actually, not in this case.

These demonstrators, with helmets, sticks, bats and loaded rifles, weren’t doing civil disobedience. They were doing intimidation. And at least one or more did domestic terrorism by getting into a car and using it as a lethal weapon.

All of this because the local city council voted to take down a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee – the Civil War military man who led the Confederacy fight to, among other things, preserve slavery.   Yup, more than 150 years after the defeat of the South and General Lee, a group of American representatives decided that it was finally time to take away the very public honorarium to a man warring in order to preserve the rights of wealthy white landowners to own and beat (and if they wanted to, kill) brown African humans at will.

Bet they are real proud of themselves #toolittle #toolate

What is this world coming to?

Let’s stop pretending that Trump’s qualifiers like on many sides aren’t in the same family as his racist dog whistles of bad hombres and people who come here who don’t speak English and that all of them aren’t a strategy to anything more than this:

A re-whitening of America through government mandated exclusion based on race.

Let’s also refrain from the make believe that his proposed mandate to ban transgender people from the military is anything more than homophobic hate support to mollify those who believe LGBT people don’t have the same rights to their country that they do.

And while we’re at it, let’s additionally not naively believe that because Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted to Judaism – or a few Black people in his cabinet – that he won’t specifically malign and attack Blacks, Jews or any other race or religion as a whole if a particular member of that group publicly speaks out against him or disobeys a particular type of behavior (nee proposed edict) he wants normalized.

The garden is blooming

To qualify or allow for racism and hate is to lie down with it. To whit – the night before the guy in Charlottesville used the car to plow into the crowd – several hundred other white supremacists and neo-Nazis also assembled on a nearby University of Virginia quadrangle, shouting:

You will not replace us, Jew will not replace us.

When your chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is a man who ran a vast media platform admittedly for the alt right – an invented polite word for white supremacists and Neo-Nazis – and your deputy assistant in the White House is Sebastian Gorka – a man who openly wears a medal from a Nazi-linked Hungarian group to your inauguration – there’s not much left to be said. This is because you’ve already said it by NOT SAYING anything about whom you’re associating yourself with and what you’re enabling.

This reference never gets old.

Tribalism is not pretty but to some extent we’re all guilty of it. Meaning – we are all a part of something even if we don’t want to be or forever, to the nth degree, choose to be. This starts with family and continues or discontinues up or down depending on your point of view.

This week I found myself binge-watching all three seasons of Amazon’s acclaimed series Transparent. Yeah, you’d think I’d have seen it already and been a big fan.

I mean, I’m a gay Jewish guy from a family with more than its share of scandals and the fictional Pfeffermans in Transparent are a scandal-ridden Jewish family with not only a transgender patriarch but two lesbian sisters (well, maybe bi but one leaning far towards lesbian).

the real “modern family”

Still – full confession – after watching the pilot when it first appeared three years ago – there was something about this family that I SO DID NOT want to be a part of. I mean, they were too selfish, too neurotic and way too privileged for my taste. I mean, I grew up middle to lower-middle class and knew exactly who these people were despite the gay and the Jewish parts of them. They were the very people that, all through my life, annoyed the hell out of me. And looked down on me. I mean, I couldn’t..can’t…bear people like them.

Well, suffice it to say I was WRONG.

Because to some extent, yeah — they are me – or parts of me – no matter how much I may have wanted to run away from it.

Pretty much.

There is something about their cultural Jewishness – even with them being from affluent Pacific Palisades and me from middlebrow Flushing, Queens – that was undeniable in the bagels and shmeers and overwrought over-intellectualizing.   My family may have been far less outrageous sexually (well, that I know of) but we made up for it with other outrages of taboo behavior that I will save for another time.

As for neurosis, privilege and sheer self-involvement, they slowly became only a mere artistic exaggeration of behavior I had always known, too often exhibited and too often chose to forget, the more I watched. This was my reality, no matter how much I didn’t ever want it to be. And I sort of loved them for it, and in spite of it.

Now I’m not saying Trump or anyone in his White House should take a hard look at Saturday’s alt right (ahem) Neo Nazi demonstration of death and embrace that part of them the way I’ve done with the Pfeffermans. First of all, that analogy wouldn’t be fair to the Pfeffermans, even though I’m sure at least one of them would think nothing of pushing the same metaphor, and even worse, on you about me if they were real and I was fictional.

ahem…. Ali

What I am proclaiming is that each and every one of us – from every possible family and ethnic group there is – every last one of us – do that work for each and every last one of them. Make the analogy, claim the metaphor and push daily the very truth we see before our eyes in the White House and its association with the alt right/white supremacist/Neo-Nazi groupthink.

Trump rose to power and is now the president of American racism and Neo-Nazi/white supremacist behavior. So it behooves us all – every last one of us – who do not want this to continue to be our familial reality – to speak out against IT. Every day. Maybe even more than once a day. Before we no longer have the chance to safely do so.

Cher – “Half Breed”

Motor City Mayhem

Detroit is a movie you won’t forget. Or at least I won’t. It is brilliantly infuriating, difficult to watch and necessary to experience. If we as a country – or really as a people – are to begin to figure out how to move forward with the remnants of 2017 life, it’s a starting point. Not the only one but a possible one.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are both white and yet have chosen to tell a historical story that can be read as part of the ongoing story of the White patriarchal repression of Blacks. This has already created a side controversy that one realizes, after seeing the film, provides endless intellectual fodder but is sort of beside the point.

More to the issue is that if the arts can play some small part in bridging the gap between where we were, where we are and where we hope to be, Detroit should become a potent and powerful conversation starter. It’s that unrelenting and uncompromising.

…. but this time, the hype is real

Watching the film at a Writers Guild screening of people of all sorts of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes, it was clear the entire audience was emotionally gutted and awake. This was a Hollywood film made by whites where no white savior came in to save the day or even the score for the poor, put upon downtrodden.   We will never know what any other filmmaker of any other color would do with the same material – for better or worse – but at the moment Detroit is what we have of one hideous incident in one particularly hideous moment in our past.

This, by the way, is not meant to be congratulatory in any sort of way. There are no congratulations to be had in any discussion of this debacle.

Fifty years ago a racist patrolman in Detroit led a small group of law enforcers to alternately beat, torture and murder a small group of innocent Black men hanging out at the local Algiers Motel.

Detroit burns in July 1967

It was an explosive, ugly time of race riots and social injustice in big cities all across the country, but most especially in in the Motor City where an almost all White police force (93%) were tasked with holding the line on the residents of a fast-growing Black city (30%).

The unfolding story of the movie Detroit uses the ever-growing popular method of plopping its audience directly into the dramatic center of its narrative and trusting that in the age of web surfing, iPhone clicking and incessantly intense game-playing it will be able to play catch up.

Recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk do this and go for the big overall visceral reaction at the expense of individual character development and emotional nuance. Others like Atomic Blonde provide a couple of Irving the Explainer scenes of incoherent exposition and then have us settle down so we can watch the real entertainment – some larger than life extended violence where an unlikely hero/heroine (and who better than Charlize Theron) beats the crap out of everyone in slight we’d like to pulverize if were we six feet tall and had the benefit of hair, makeup and extensive martial arts training by stunt coordinator experts.

Charlize looking a little different from her Mad Max days  #oliviapopejacket

Detroit, however, is not about sensationalized hollow victories or a dramatic retelling of heroism under the thematic banner that War is Hell. It only starts out as a generalized expression of the Big Idea and a pastiche of characters one never gets to really know yet follows along into over-the-top battles. Its power is that it does all of this and then, at some unsuspecting point once this is all established, gets real specific, real fast. And stays there and unfolds for the essential body of the work – a kind of American horror movie gone wrong in a period motel hallway. And then goes on from there to show something about how we lived then. And ask the question if, at the end of the day, it’s really all that different than the way we live now – or is now just a cleaned up version?

Suffice it to say that at the end your visceral nerve endings are not only more than met but you also didn’t need chunks of exposition or violently musical YouTube-like video sequences to do it for you. There are actually real people to watch doing unfortunately all too human things that prompt all too human reactions that go on and on and on. As we say in screenwriting class, in science and in psychotherapy – cause and effect, real cause and effect. For every action is there is a reaction – one that is logical and one, in the movie Detroit, anyway, that you can follow.

… and countless other movies used for the exact opposite purpose

When asked the often-dreaded question of how he approached the material in a talkback afterwards, screenwriter Mark Boal said that he essentially saw this as a movie about an artist whose life was derailed. That, and a good deal of research, and talent, is probably a large part of the reason that the script for Detroit works so well. Call me old-fashioned but if you don’t know or care about the people (in this real-life case an aspiring young Motown-type singer) what do you really have? As a writer you need to find a way in. You can’t effectively write an issue or a historical event.

Sure, you can film it and use all sorts of technique, CGI and camera tricks to forge effective mass entertainment. But at the end of the day, what do you really have? What are you telling us that we didn’t already know, or need to be reminded of?

Certainly, movies can succeed solely on mass entertainment value, escapism, cheap thrills and recycled messages. Many of these films are highly watchable and superbly executed. But we’ve reached a point in the business where we have gotten used to the former and forgotten films like Detroit. Go see it and consider this a reminder.

But you can still go see Jon Hamm and this terrible haircut in Baby Driver #iunderstand

That might be a good way to end but it would be an oversight not to single out the mammoth filmmaking skills of Kathryn Bigelow here.   A two-year DGA study at the end of 2015 noted women account for 6.4% of film directors and just 3% of major box office films.  But let’s be kind and say the numbers have gone up slightly in the last year and a half. Still, that’s pretty piss poor.

When you watch Detroit you don’t so much ask yourself, how did she do that shot but in what world was she able to integrate all those disparate scenes and themes so convincingly, recreate an often botched decade of American history (the sixties) on film so convincingly and get those performances out of those actors so effortlessly? Heck if I know.

That girl #shesgotit #sheknowsit

It makes you wonder how many hundreds of other potential Kathryn Bigelows there are out there. Filmmakers who are female, or perhaps non-white, non-heterosexual or non gender binary, who might never get the chance. And how many of those stories are yet to be told. Not only through the entertainment industry but in any other American industry.

That would be one way to truly Make America Great again.

The Dramatics – “All Because of You”