PC University

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There’s been quite a lot of swill in the air lately about political correctness. Mostly on how our society has devolved to the point where you can’t say anything anymore and how the nation’s college campuses have greatly contributed to this trend with affirmative action-based helicopter parenting under a doctrinaire, left wing manifesto of bland, overly sensitive inoffensiveness.

Bull crap.   Or horseshit if one prefers the non-p.c. version of bull crap.   And this is particularly the case when it has to do with college campuses and, more broadly, the millennial generation.

Interestingly enough, a lot of this criticism has been coming from any number of aging baby boomers that are no doubt pissed off at a slightly more benevolent world (well, in some sectors) that they no longer understand and thus feel excluded from.  Or perhaps now that many have college-age children, or need them in their audience to stay relevant, they simply mourn the days when they (or others) could utter a racial epithet, gay joke or sexist remark without having their reputations twittered to death all over the world. Though they could simply resent the fact that their kids don’t have to endure the hard knocks that they believe made them into the strong, successful adults they are today. It could be just that.

Is this how boomers see millennials?

Is this how boomers see millennials?

I feel like I can say this because I am a baby boomer. I am also a college professor who gets along quite well with my students – even when we vehemently disagree – which we often do in everything from movies to politics to Beyoncé (Note: Don’t hate me, she’s talented but I just don’t get what the big deal is).

Still, I find a great kinship with them because in some small ways – even if only generally – they seem to be living their lives by the sort of mythical moral code that was set forth in the 1960s in Broadway shows like Hair and albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. That would be a world where it was not cool to disrespect people of other races, sexual preferences and religions “just because” you want to make a point and are too lazy or annoyed to do otherwise. For these views, some of my students have granted me honorary millennial status. Though I’m sure in the minds of many of my fellow boomers I am simply the cause of their limited thinking – exhibit A for why our educational system is a disaster and, in turn, our American Empire will continue to decline. How can you lead when you’re so willing to go the extra mile for peace of any kind? And how can you wind up being #1 when you make a conscience choice to use equal amounts of intellectualism, heart and reality to make the most important decisions in life?

How? The same way Barack Obama was elected president of the U.S. twice. And why he would probably win a third time. The. World. Has. Changed. Have a seat or deal with the alternative. The latter is the option almost everyone I know 55 or over is desperately trying to keep at bay these days – irrelevancy, death or, perish the thought, The Republican Apprentice. (Note: Yeah, you know who I mean. Don’t make me say it).

He who should not be named

He who should not be named

Here are two articles that surfaced this week in The Atlantic that brought this on, were forwarded all over the web and much discussed on TV and the media platform of your choice.

The Coddling of the American Mind – In the name of emotional well being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.

&

That’s Not Funny – Today’s college students can’t seem to take a joke

As refutation to these I would offer up a third piece in Vanity Fair this month entitled,

Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse 

It will reassure anyone who believes recent college grads have a too-politically correct view of the world or that sensitivity TRUMPS boorishness.

The four writers of these pieces – three of whom are boomers, the other of whom is merely 41 years old – were on various news and entertainment outlets promoting their work, including HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.

The fifty-something Caitlin Flanagan (That’s Not Funny) essentially covered the National Association for Campus Activities annual convention in Minnesota where 350 colleges came to book numerous acts, including comedians, for appearances at their schools that year. Essentially, she seemed in shock that two white students from a college in Iowa didn’t want to hire one of the convention’s most popular performers – Kevin Yee, a gay comic with a Broadway background who closed with a song about a gay man and his “sassy black friend.” Yes, he got hired by other schools but – Imagine, they thought the kids at their small Midwestern school wouldn’t get what he did??? How PC of them!!!

Look at your life, look at your choices

The writer and Mr. Maher essentially backed up that and numerous other groundbreaking revelations with quotes from comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, both of whom recently noted they won’t play college campuses anymore because the environment is too-PC.

Question: What Jerry Seinfeld joke could possibly step over the line of political correctness?

Answer: Well, it was actually a line where he says people are scrolling through cell phones these days like they’re a gay French king. Right. Okay. Judge for yourself.

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Full confession: I didn’t think it was funny because it was perpetuating a straight guy stereotype and had no context within the rest of the joke. Yet when an edgy comic like Lisa Lampanelli rides the gay guys in her audience by calling them “faggots” and insults the sexual appetites of her GBF (Note: Uh, gay best friend?) I’m on the floor because in that same moment she lets us know where heart really is.

More troubling is the idea in Coddling, which bemoans the fact that certain words and phrases that either are or can be perceived as sexist, racist, or homophobic are listed as microagressions and discouraged in college classrooms. That is unless they are put into context. The authors vehemently write this way of thinking contributes to students being in a constant stage of outrage, even towards well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion. They further argue shielding students from this is bad for the workplace and…bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship.

Huh?

Here’s the thing. No one is saying you can’t use most words or phrases in a campus-based discussion – only that in an open learning environment what you say is positioned in a context. What makes colleges special is that they are a safe space where you can discuss tricky issues in a way that is too often NOT done in the real world. Does this mean college is NOT the real world, and sensitive matters demand guidelines upfront, especially for 18-22 year olds? If we’re at all to cover new ground and empower them as they get older to create new and perhaps even more innovative ways to move society forward in any sort of productive manner — Yes.

Gear up

Gear up

Of course, there’s another reason for this – words change. When I was in elementary school African-Americans weren’t even called Black people, they were Negroes. Actually, THE Negroes. That’s also the term Martin Luther King used in his I Had A Dream Speech. Not to mention queer was an insult to gays – who at best were referred to clinically as The homosexual. Yet queer has been adopted by many under 30 in the LGBT movement as their current word of choice. Not by me, of course, because, well, I AM a BOOMER.
My autobiography

My autobiography

Oh – and lest any of us forget – the time period I’m referring to was also a time where crude sexist men could diminish a woman’s thoughts or questions by saying or even implying she was having her period. What’s that – you still can? Oh.

The final refutation to all of this should, of course, rightfully come from the millennials themselves. This is what you will get when you read about the group of Wall Street, marketing and other types of college grads as they wax poetic about scrolling through pages and pages of nubile, sexy or otherwise available young prospects on the dating app Tinder even as they are sitting in a bar with other real live prospective sexual conquests right there before them. One guy in the story bragged he slept with 5 women in 8 days – Tinderellas, he called them – noting with those numbers you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year! Another guy said he scored 30-40 per year via Hinge, another app, by selling himself as a boyfriend kind of guy even though he wasn’t and had no intention of changing. (Note: In fairness, Mr. 100 did chastise him by saying, ‘dude, not cool.’).

Don't go looking for the Goslings

Don’t go looking for the Goslings

This is not so much the end of the world but a mere continuation of the one they inherited. When I was a younger gay man I couldn’t understand the idea that when you picked up someone at a bar you called them a trick – as if you were a prostitute turning over customers. To me, it devalued the sexual act and myself as an individual. Of course, that was my feeling and hardly anyone else’s. I remember being called a nun, part of the skirt and sweater set and by one boyfriend, hopelessly middle class.

Yes, I’ve written about him before and he called me that a lot. I suppose there are worse things. In fact, I know there are. But you can’t say them to someone on any number of college campuses. Thank God. God, that is, as you know Him. Or Her. Or even if you don’t.

Be Gone Girl

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Gone Girl, the hit classy movie du jour this month – was silly, overwrought, overdone and, in the end, laughable. That is – for me. Actually, let’s not sugarcoat it. Even in the film noir world it seeks to evoke and despite being under the hand of David Fincher, one of the best American directors working today, it presents two people so utterly “written” – and therefore so totally preposterous – that it’s difficult to take anything they do for an almost endless two and a half hours seriously. This includes their relationship, their marriage, their lies, their truths and certainly their acting. Oh, and also, not any murders they may or may not have been involved in. That’s right, you will find no spoilers here – that is with the exception of the movie itself.

No, I DID NOT READ THE BOOK! And stop asking me!!! I know you loved it and you think I would too, especially if I had picked the book up before the movie. (Note: Which yeah, I know, would have had the added benefit of me ALSO having liked the movie a lot more– at least you think that’s the case). (Note #2 – But it isn’t!). And finally, yes, of course I know this is a matter of opinion and I’m clearly in the minority. Do not feel the need to refer me to Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has received a 91% positive rating by audiences and an 89% thumbs up from movie critics across the country. A best picture Oscar didn’t get me to change my mind about the annoyingly retro sensibility of Forest Gump, the dulling Driving Miss Daisy or, dare I say it, the blood curdling, off tune caterwauling of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. In fact, I still have to plug up my ears every time I hear one of my favorite show tunes, All That Jazz, anywhere to this day for fear it will somehow be her voice wafting into the room to haunt me once again as she begins to mangle each and every one of those lovely notes. (Note: Right, yes, I realize she won the Oscar for that one, too. Blah, blah, blah).

Dear Catherine...

Dear Catherine…

You might say, in these situations, I have chosen not to adapt and get with the program. Or perhaps – I was unable to. We all do this in some ways and in various situations thought not necessarily out of stubbornness. Sometimes it’s about mere conviction – a state of mind that is truly anything but “mere.” Though occasionally it is also about::

  1. stubbornness,
  2. an inability to change (not to be confused with stubbornness), or
  3. a process of reasoning that presupposes one knows best in pretty much most situations and that the rest of the world is full of your excrement of choice.

It’s unclear why certain situations cause a particular individual to be inadaptable and therefor unable or adamantly against modifying an option and/or action in a given situation. For example, I was truly surprised by the reaction of my students to Gone Girl (why do I keep confusing it with Affleck’s directorial debut – Gone Baby Gone – an infinitely better and, to my mind, terrific film in a similar though not totally analogous genre?) – that’s how sure I was in my analysis. But as it turns out, they loved it. Well, most of them. They found it to be engrossing, superbly acted and right on in its portrayal of a marriage gone bad. Painful as the latter is, I suppose it does give me yet another reason to keep my 27 year old perfectly happy non-married relationship intact despite all the outside pressure to make it legal now that we can. So at least there is that.

Still, what particularly intrigued me about their clearly misguided reaction to the film weren’t their actual opinions but their willingness to agree with me on all the points I raised about it and yet — not change their minds! Was I losing my touch? Or generationally, are they just not as stubborn and/or intractable as we were on every issue in the universe?

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Well, I prefer to think it’s generational since I certainly would never pressure, out-argue or outwardly shame anyone into agreeing with me on any one point. At least, not consciously – well, okay, gleefully. Instead, they seem to me a more adaptable group and/or generation, which in the end might be a more admirable quality for the times they have been born into.

We baby boomers – though I’m on the tail end of it – expected so much and were not satisfied with NOT getting it. So we chose to innovate or push the envelope in other ways to get what we wanted. Or stamp our feet and whine when that didn’t work.

toon369I don’t think this generation wants any less but it feels like they’ve come to expect less. It’s not that they won’t work hard it’s that they haven’t decided they’re entitled and have to have something. They have adapted themselves to expect less – be it from movies, the economy or the government – because less has been given. I’m not sure if they have the right idea but it might not necessarily be the wrong one if they keep working just has voraciously for what they desire. In the end, it might just only be yet another way to look at the world – a canny strategy given the state of things that we have left for them.

This principle is illustrated tenfold in Adaptation – a 2002 film dreamed up by one of the few truly original voices left in the screenwriting trade – Charlie Kaufman. This is a movie I’ve had students watch and read in classes almost since it came out in order to study Mr. Kaufman’s spare writing style and daringness on the page and it’s been almost universally adored by aspiring writers I’ve taught over the last decade. Sadly, this was not the case last week. There was something about the sheer oddness of the work that left this group cold. Not that that they didn’t admire the unmitigated gall of what he did. He got some points for that. They just didn’t believe it made sense under the rules of movies they had grown up watching.

My reaction... or my students'?

My reaction… or my students’?

As the inside story goes, the real Mr. Kaufman wanted to adapt a non-fiction book about flowers called The Orchid Thief, written by famed New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, into a major feature film following the out-of-nowhere success some years earlier of his original, post-modern, hilariously affecting meta-screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Stumped beyond reason and with a deadline looming, the real Mr. Kaufman had the desperate idea to write himself into the film as the main character struggling to adapt an inadaptable book and imagined its author, Ms. Orlean, as an unattainable, ice princess intellectual snob from the Big Apple who falls in love with the subject of her novel and becomes, well – lets just say you have to see the film in order to know that. In any event, the desperate fictional version of Mr. Kaufman, helped along by his doppelganger screenwriter brother Donald –a twin who only aspires to write big commercial movies – finally takes some action to discover the truth behind not only The Orchid Thief but the seemingly unattainable Ms. Orlean -and in the end discovers both the unsavory but thrilling truth about her life as well as his own.

The agony and the ecstasy of Adaptation

The agony and the ecstasy of Adaptation

The genius of the real Mr. Kaufman’s efforts here is that in his story adaptation (and thus the movie, Adaptation) became not compromise but innovation. It was only after hitting his head countless times against the proverbial writer wall that he found the most bizarre solution imaginable, taking a ridiculous stab at doing something outlandish that had just the slightest chance of emerging as – great. Forget about how one feels about the film itself – imagine yourself being paid a hefty amount of money by Columbia Pictures to adapt a book about flowers and handing in a screenplay where you are the main character and your subject takes a back seat to your neurosis in wrestling said subject? Not to mention co-authoring your WGA registered script with another person – your brother – who is also fictionalized in the film and, as it turns out, does not exist in real life. The best part of all this for me was when Mr. Kaufman’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and at the Oscar competition ceremony, the fake name of Donald Kaufman, along with the real Charlie Kaufman, was read by actress Marcia Gay Harden from the stage of the Kodak Theatre to millions of viewers worldwide. Now that’s adaptation on all levels – and in the best, most insurgent way.

This is not the case with Gone, Girl – a not particularly innovative film that by most accounts is a very faithful adaptation of a best-selling novel that purports to tell the tale of modern day marriage by employing the filmic conventions of suspense and neo-noir while ultimately cloaking it all in a sort of 2014 media world of 24/7 meta reality. For those looking for a take on the latter, I would suggest a film done almost 20 years prior – Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995) – which has its flaws but at the very least took a fresh and much more unusual approach to the subject. Or better yet, a brilliantly funny cable movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter in an unforgettable, Emmy Award-winning performance. Yes, it’s a matter of taste. I know that. But to not call it as you see it when the whole world seems to be proclaiming it an entirely different way, would be to betray everything I believe in. After all, if nothing else I am still a baby boomer. On the tail end, that is.

Yes... I agree... something IS missing

Yes… I agree… something IS missing

For the record, one’s view of any movie or work of art is certainly nothing more or less than a matter of opinion. Clearly, there is no real right or wrong. But when one aspires to merely adapt rather than innovate – or more dangerously sees them as the same thing – we run the risk of losing the rarity of something truly fantastic. Standing on my crumbling soapbox of flower power I proclaim to the world that Gone Girl is not even close to being the latter. And note – this is nothing personal to the filmmakers.   I’m sure one-on-one I would likely enjoy the company of the entire cast and crew, even if they would each prefer to take me to the woodshed – or simply tune me out. But I’m used to that. After all, I have been in a relationship for 27 years where the latter simply becomes an occasional fact of life – on both sides. And unlike what’s presented in Gone Girl it doesn’t mean marital destruction – it actually ensures relationship survival.

If you’re single or perhaps simply despise marriage metaphors, let me put it another way with a brief excerpt from one of the wisest films that I know – The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A heated exchange between transvestite/resident mad scientist, Dr. Frank –N –Furter and his surly, crazy-haired maid, Magenta, finally and inevitably concludes this way:

Magenta: I ask for nothing, Master.

Frank: And you shall receive it…..IN ABUNDANCE!!

Interestingly enough, those lines came from an adapted screenplay.