History Repeats and… It’s a Sin

HBO Max’s It’s A Sin is a new five-part limited series about a group of gay men and their friends in Great Britain who lived and sometimes died during the HIV/AIDS crisis from 1981-1991.  It is a critical hit and a must see.

Nevertheless, as a gay man who lived through it in the US, but didn’t die, it was the last thing I wanted to see or be reminded of during these pandemic days.

And yet…it was the first thing I began watching the very moment it dropped here in the States this week.

Why?

Wait! Hear me out!

Well, many reasons.  But the best that I could come up with is this begrudgingly timeless quote from an author long ago.

The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.  

William Faulkner, 1940

Writer extraordinaire William Faulkner first gave us those words in a short story he published in Harper’s in 1940.

They have since been quoted many times, most recently by both Barack Obama and Peggy Noonan in an attempt to address the issue of racism in the late aughts, and will no doubt be referred to many more times over.

Perhaps you prefer it in one of these standard internet formats

As a writer for none other than the Hindustan Times explained to us just three years ago, Faulkner’s words remain particularly prophetic because the past inevitably seeps into our present, informs it, even has a bearing on our future. The past cannot be wished away; neither can it be denied. 

I would add this is the case no matter how expert we are at pretending and no matter how determined we are to move forward.  The past, and its lessons, will ALWAYS resurface, whether you want to recognize them or not, and at times and in places you least expect it.

To not acknowledge it, learn from it, and at times live with it as you go on, is to be doomed – as too many countless others have warned – to repeat it.

How cliché.  And yet, how undeniably true.

Take it from someone who is alive and well and just qualified to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

And I didn’t even have to dress up!

Denial is a big part of It’s A Sin, but so is celebration and joyousness.  Watching it reminded me that despite all my protestations to the contrary, those times were not solely tragic and funereal, colored forever in doom, gloom and sores of every type imaginable.

In fact and to its credit, none of the characters in this series are any ONE thing, and that goes not only for the young friends in their twenties at the prime of their lives but those middle-aged, older and even younger.

They are all a result of how they’ve allowed their experiences to shape them, the ways in which they choose to forge ahead or remain stagnant, and the harshness with which they treat not only others, but themselves. 

How they existed and what they did back then is particularly resonant because of the harrowing drama of those times. 

There was smiling! There was joy!

But as we all now sit in our homes (Note: Or wander freely), masked or maskless, hopeful, scared or bitter deep into our very cores for the future, it’s hard not to see our times as still yet another variance of their times.

Every decade has its costs and its joys and, if we’re lucky enough, we get to live through each to the next and adjust accordingly.

And I’m still here! #trying

No one is saying denial doesn’t work in limited doses.  I, for one, would have never sat down and written an original screenplay many decades ago that got bought and made had I accepted the true odds of that ever happening to a novice like me writing about the subject matter I chose to write about at that time. 

Indeed, sometimes the only way forward is to defiantly block the facts in order to springboard you into defying the odds.

We humans all do this to some success and to some extent.  However, experience also tells you (note: okay, ME) that this can’t be your ONLY strategy.  Inventing your own reality means you also may be blind to the crumbling of the world around you with the thought your alternative world and your alternative facts will protect you.

Exactly this #nevergetsold

Sadly, it’s not so.  Not in the AIDS era of the 1980s, not in the latest pandemic era of the 2020s.  Not even in the Deep South 1940 of Faulkner’s times.

The key is to be observant enough to acknowledge the cracks and take action before the crumbling starts.  Patch it, consult an expert about re-cementing or entirely knock down the walls you think you smartly built before it’s too late. 

All this construction has me longing for HGTV

Yeah, right, who wants to do that?  But in doing so you might even let in those ideas or persons you banished to the outside and find out for sure if you were right or wrong about them all along.  Imagine if you realized you were ignorant, selfish, misguided or had even misjudged while you still had time to do something about it?

This was the story of those five Londoners and their families in It’s A Sin just as it is the story of our survival in the midst of the worldwide pandemic we are now continuing to barely live through.

Any type of pandemic, much like any armed insurrection, is not any one person’s fault.  Even if the worst, most xenophobic tropes were true and it was proven that a Chinese lab mistakenly unleashed CoVid-19 to the world and purposefully covered it up, that still couldn’t be blamed for the degree of medical severity we are now experiencing.

Yes, shall we??

The politicization of masks, choosing economics and widely opening back up too soon over quarantining, turning our backs on our most vulnerable (note: essential workers, the poor, the non-Whites) and willingly letting them die early on and perhaps inadvertently become super spreaders through no fault of their own; a decided lack of interest in recent years of top international leaders to operate as a true global community and closely work together to ensure our mutual survival – arguably ALL explain the basic shutdown of the world as we once knew it.

Meaning, a virus, is a virus, is a virus.  And people, are people, and continue to be, people. 

All the homophobia, limited thinking and personal wall building and/or destroying won’t change the facts or the outcome once the stark realities of life has its way with you.  Or us.

History is, at its best, a colorful kaleidoscope.  But it isn’t always reliably pretty. 

What it is is reliably prescient.

“History Repeating” – Shirley Bassey

Check out the Chair’s newest project, Pod From a Chair , now available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify!

The Chair’s Commencement Address

As I looked into the mostly terrified eyes of my college seniors in our last Zoom chats this week, the following occurred to me.  I’d like to share it with them, and you, in hopes that, well….

Okay, I’d just like to share it.

Dear Class 0f 2020:

It’s easy and even natural for graduating college students to be upset and scared at the state of the world.   There are very, very real things going on.  Too real, if I’m being honest.

On the other hand each American decade, no matter how bright and shiny it might now appear to be in comparison to the present one, had its severe problems.  At least the ones I’ve lived through.  These near insurmountable challenges also came at heavy costs that, at the time, seemed every bit as cataclysmic as the world seems now.

No, no, stay with me here! I promise!

Imagine:

The threat of a nuclear war, the bloody telegenic images of the Vietnam War and the terror of the draft that helped fuel a wild in the streets cultural revolution of the sixties and early seventies.

Pres. Kennedy was shot live on TV, college students were shot by police live at Kent State University in Ohio and the shot up bodies of soldiers on both sides of that pesky conflict in Southeast Asia were displayed everywhere you turned, for all the world to see.  And in those days you got to watch it live on network television with your parents, arguing around the dinner table as you were choking on a meal you barely liked anyway.

This was considered “food”

AIDS ravaged the eighties and a good part of the nineties.  For the longest time, no one was 100% sure of how many different ways you could get it, who had it and whether there would ever be such a thing as sex that couldn’t potentially kill you (Note: And not in a metaphorical way) in anyone’s lifetime.

As if it that wasn’t bad enough, this was set against a backdrop of a new American mantra – greed is good – and a mostly callous disregard on the part of a very vocal majority towards anyone less fortunate than themselves, be it the homeless or the dying.

All that hopeful stuff you now read now about Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America – um, not so much.  Think of that as the MAGA bromide of the era, sans any kind of irony.  At all.  And without the clownish red hat.

The hope of a new century was, well, very hopeful for a minute or two, what with the new digital age and all of its possibilities in the pre Facebook/Cambridge Analytica era.  But then just like that the very early 2000 aughts became a post-911 world and every American walked around shell-shocked and terrified that the party was over.  Certainly the world as we knew or thought we knew it, had ended.

You’re not wrong Anne

When would the next bomb hit, how long would it be before WWIII would start and would WE start it, and wait, on top of all of this the ECONOMY IS CRASHING, too?  We’re DOOMED.

Until we weren’t.

But then here we are in the 2000 teens, awash in Trumpism and COVID- 19.   Up to our eyes and ears with their infections, clinging to the hope that a durable enough mask of any sort will keep them away or, at the very least, neuter their effects on our persons.

Even though masks, be they literal, psychological or symbolic, have historically only gone so far in keeping any type of bad ju-ju at bay.  Like each decade that came before, it takes a lot of diligence, determination and ingenuity from a vocal enough part of the American plurality (that’s you), and then majority (that’s also you), to right our ship from the metaphorical iceberg (Note: Since the real ones barely exist anymore) and ensure our mutual survival.

Your generation would have saved Jack

I’m unclear how this will happen at this particular moment in time, just as I have been in the past. (Note: Remember the CD hadn’t even been close to invented yet when I graduated college).

But if our history is any indication I have great belief that we will manage to do this and somehow once again squeak by with the unlikeliest of American victories, albeit at a far greater cost than was necessary had we acted earlier.

This does seem to be our pattern.  It’s long been credited to Winston Churchill, then discredited he ever uttered the words, but as the famous saying goes:

YOU CAN ALWAYS COUNT ON AMERICANS TO DO THE RIGHT THING – AFTER THEY’VE EXHAUSTED ALL OTHER POSSIBILITIES.

That about sums it up!

As we endure a global pandemic and recognize that it and it alone has become the most formidable weapon we’ve had to vanquish Trumpism in the last three years, it’s difficult to celebrate.  Talk about picking your poisons.

And yet, I recall it’s sort of like how I felt about AIDS all during the fight for gay marriage.  I’d throw both my gay marriage license and the historic Supreme Court ruling itself into a raging furnace in a nanosecond if it could undo that plague and bring back all the people – gay, straight and everyone in between – that we lost.

But I can’t pretend that if it weren’t for the horror and the spotlight it put on the gay community that we would have gotten the right to marry so quickly after.  In showing the world just how human and like them we were than they thought, and by forcing the world to SEE our brothers and sisters dying right in front of them, those of us who survived saw the times once again rise from the ashes of despair and morph into something slightly better. Not on all the issues and not entirely, but evolve they did.  Until the next calamity came along.  As it is wont to do.

Art can also be a powerful force for change… especially very popular art.

That’s the universal truth of both history and evolution when you play the long game.  It always comes at a cost.

For People Of Color that’s fighting American racism daily, worrying that any moment you could be shot in cold blood while jogging through a white neighborhood despite the abolition of slavery, the rise of the civil rights movement and the presidency of Barack Obama.

For women it’s the daily fight of sexism and the fact that no female has ever served as an American president or vice-president despite outnumbering men population-wise for centuries, suffrage, Roe Vs. Wade, and….well, the list is endless and yet, um…paltry.

2024 is waiting…

Still, if the truth is a bitter pill to swallow it sure beats sleep walking in a mirage you bought into as truth that was always going to disappear or stab you in the back.

Better to be awake and aware.  You at least have the chance to use your rage, fear, smarts and creativity to fight the bad ju-ju.  And much more so than the rest of us, YOU now have time AND American history on YOUR side.

If the past is prologue, you won’t come out fully unscathed but you will be more than okay.  Plus, you won’t have to live through disco or the eighties.

We will get through this!

That’s more than I can say for the rest of us who helped create this mess for you.

Queen – “The Show Must Go On”