Spin Cycle

There was no such thing as SPIN when I was a grad student in journalism at Northwestern University.

What?

No really – there wasn’t.

Oh, there were lies and bullshit and half-truths – sometimes by interview subjects, almost always from public relations flacks and, on the most difficult of stories, a consistent combination of all three. But our job as journalists, we were told, was to sift through ALL of the information and present the facts of a story, as we understood them, in the most coherent way possible so our readers could then draw their own conclusions.

OK, this method was frowned upon

– There were no alternative facts.

– There were no versions of Fox News and MSNBC with commentators telling us versions of the story we wanted to hear.

– There was no social media from which to consume fake news and no politicians or public figures in this country who would dare to deny even the most basic rudimentary truths that everyone knew were, well, TRUE.

That was what it was like in the late 1970s – a few years after Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of his knowledge, involvement and lies about Watergate and the dirty tricks he employed in order to win his election to the presidency.

seems quaint now

There was a demand for truth.

One wonders if that is even the case these days since there are so many more pleasant alternatives regardless of what side of the political or moral spectrum you are on.

For instance:

— It is much more pleasing to believe that global warming is inconclusive or even a hoax by elite scientists than to believe the Earth’s temperatures will make our planet uninhabitable by the end of the century.

— It’s also much more desirable to believe this doomsday scenario is nothing more than a liberal talking point than to acknowledge an exhaustive research report from our 13 government agencies that conclusively acknowledges our rising temperatures are, indeed, man made.

Nothing wrong here. Nothing at all.

But no need to stick merely to politics.

— Who in Hollywood wants to believe the 57 women and counting who have accused one of our most powerful industry figures over the last three decades – Harvey Weinstein – of various combinations of rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment?  Even if you loathe him, and many did long before this came to light, how do you acknowledge the community was so scared silent about his actions for so long when you were one of the many thousands who heard the rumors?

Are our careers all that much more important to us?

sigh

Yes, that was rhetorical.

— But if you don’t want to answer that then do answer how everyone could’ve heard about, and in many cases witnessed, Kevin Spacey’s thing for young boys for all those decades and done nothing? (Note: See Bill Cosby. Or so many others).

And while we’re shedding a light on my fellow liberals – Hollywood and otherwise – let’s talk about some spin on something far less serious.

Excerpts of Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile’s new book have just come to light and in one of the most publicized sections she writes about how she considered replacing Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, less than two months before the election, after Mrs. Clinton fainted going into a limousine following her attendance at the NYC 9-11 memorial ceremonies.

  1. The mere advancement of this statement implies Ms. Brazile would have had the power to make this happen – which she did not.

Really not the time for this Donna.

  1. Imagine all of the things you considered under stress, including MURDER, and then consider how much of a chance they had of becoming a reality.
  2. Then consider the lessons I mentioned from journalism school and decide whether you are really telling the truth about all of the above (Note: Especially the part about you replacing her with Joe Biden for president and…Corey Booker as his vice-president???) or whether you are merely spinning a story for your own salacious benefit i.e. in order to sell more of YOUR OWN BOOKS

Not ready to buy my t-shirt quite yet

Research and analytical skills are important but so is context, instinct and experience.

As adults, we’ve all been human for more than several decades so it is in all of our collective powers to surmise THE REAL TRUTH when something doesn’t sound or feel right.

We might not have the journalistic patience or skill to prove our cases for all of the above but we can use reason to decide for ourselves exactly when we’re being spun.

To whit —

If many of the top people in the very American company you co-owned were proven to have met secretly with numerous Russians yet professed no memory of those meetings after first publicly denying them, would you believe them?

Are we all in a Men in Black sequel? #20yearoldMovieReference

#NyetRuskies?

Or would you think you were being spun in an adult version of that nauseating amusement park ride you were barely able to endure as a child?

A talented writer friend of mine named Mikko Alanne, who also happens to be a former student at the college I teach at, created the eight-part National Geographic miniseries The Long Road Home. It debuts on Nov. 7 and is based on ABC reporter Martha Raddatz’s best-selling book that takes you INSIDE the U.S. involvement in the post-Iraq War in 2004.

a must watch

The show is riveting, dramatic and sometimes difficult to watch because it shows us the real HUMAN cost of war and death and bloodshed and ideals – on all sides – and allows the audience to come to its own conclusions by re-enacting just the FACTS as much as possible. Without spinning.

Yes, stories are condensed and judgments were made. It’s certainly not a documentary and definitely not a literal re-enactment of EVERYTHING that happened. This is not the purpose of television or even film drama, whose objective is merely to get to the SPIRIT of what is true as it entertains and hopefully, in some way, informs.

I’d settle for that instead of what we’re being fed now by too many real-life sources. The half-truths, the lies and the ongoing general line of bullshit is making not only us but all of our heads worldwide spin so fast and so quickly that it really is as if we are all on one giant collective Tilt-A-Whirl ride with no way to get off.

Try not to hurl

But as any adult knows there is always a way to get off.

Blood Sweat & Tears – “Spinning Wheel”

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The Pro-Ignorance Movement

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 12.19.58 PM

There is the pro-choice movement – meaning an organized effort in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.

These days there is also the pro-ignorance movement – meaning a willful determination to stay uninformed on any subject one chooses while simultaneously speaking out about it.

Mr. Carson

Meet Mr. Know-it-all

Dr. Ben Carson, a world-renowned neurosurgeon– which means he operates on the one organ of the body responsible for thought – gave this explanation on CNN Wednesday morning when asked by Chris Cuomo about homosexuality:

CC: Do you think being gay is a choice?

Dr. C: Absolutely

CC: Why do you say that?

Dr. C: Because a lot of people who go into prison…go into prison straight and when they come out they’re gay. So did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.

Ummmm.. what?!

Ummmm.. what?!

It’s unclear whether Dr. Carson is referring to prison rape turning the average inmate gay or whether it’s the temptation of solely being around so many people of the same sex so consistently over so long a period of time that causes the great change. If the latter, it certainly does cast a giant rainbow flag over the world of professional sports, not to mention the military. If the former then as an MD is he prescribing extended confinement and sexual relations with members of the opposite sex in order to turn a gay person straight? Or does it not work the other way around? One’s mind reels at any of the possibilities.

Before one writes off Dr. Carson as a right wing crazy, it is important to note he graduated with a psychology degree from Yale prior to attending medical school. He then became a pediatric neurosurgeon who in 1987 led a 70-member team that successfully separated conjoined Siamese twins; was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. George W. Bush in 2008; and wrote six best selling books, the last of which, One Nation, was on the 2014 NY Times bestseller list for 20 consecutive weeks where it outsold Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices. It is also relevant to report that last month he formed a well-financed exploratory committee to run for US president and was one of the most popular speakers at the recent CPAC Convention, the first great test for all emerging 2016 Republican Party presidential hopefuls.

I'm not even sure how to react to this

I’m not even sure how to react to this

The fact that Mr. Carson issued a long apology for his CNN interview that very night, admitting he can’t claim to know how every individual came to their sexual orientation, meant little because he never admitted the most crucial point under discussion – that his original statement was incorrect. There was no denial that going to prison or the right involuntary gay encounter behind bars could soon make said individual long for a voluntary one. There was only the pronouncement that he (Dr. Carson) was a supporter of gay rights (Note: Though only up to a point) and that he couldn’t possibly know what made EVERYONE gay.

For one to counter that rape is considered by almost every medical expert across the board as a crime not about sex but one of violence and control or to cite the overwhelming consensus from the AMA on down that sexual orientation is not a condition that can be changed is truly beside the point. What is more to the point is that Dr. Carson, who is certainly a learned man with at least an above average IQ, seems to have somehow been absent when the general subject of human sexuality was covered not only in medical school but out in the Zeitgeist over the last, oh, say 30 years.

So it's not this simple?

So it’s not this simple?

The truth is that as s a public speaker, writer and man about town with all of his five senses intact – not to mention his admitted lifelong almost superhuman hand-eye coordination – it is more than likely that Dr. Carson has heard a lot of the above scientific facts and anecdotal evidence about human sexuality during that time and has willfully chosen to ignore them. Either that or he has followed some sort of doctrine of alternate magical thinking that he has instead willfully chosen to believe in.

James Randi is an 86-year-old retired illusionist, writer and professional debunker of magicians and charlatans who try to pass themselves off as clairvoyants and faith healers. I remember him as The Amazing Randi – a guy who was often featured on one of my favorite weekend TV programs of the 1960s, the kid’s show Wonderama – where he performed tricks I could believe in and escaped from the most seemingly inescapable boxes, ropes and otherwise confined spaces I’d ever seen.

Preach!

Preach!

Little did I know that in the 1980s Randi would do some of his most important work in the field of magic. As the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and recipient of a Macarthur Foundation genius grant he became a full time debunker (Note: He prefers the more polite term, investigator) and set his sights on televangelists such as Peter Popoff – a man who was making $4 million per year in a nationally syndicated show where the sick, the elderly and many young people who were either handicapped or suffering from terminal cancer diagnoses would attend tent-like revival meetings (albeit in an air-conditioned soundstage) where they came to him desperately hoping for a cure. As Mr. Popoff preached about the healing powers of The Lord and pranced from one side of the stage to the other he’d forcefully hit audience members on the forehead and pull away their crutches and walkers, banishing The Devil from their bodies and presumably restoring them to health.

As preposterous as this may sound, Mr. Popoff convincingly evoked Bible passages with the smoothness of a saint or, well, at least a would-be politician. He also made a fortune doing it and had audiences traveling from all over the world to his studio so he could save them from clutches of death.

Put down your purse!

Put down your purse!

It took The Amazing Randi’s sharp magician’s mind to quickly prove these people were not being saved by God but were instead being taken in by a phony. Attending one taping, he was able to pick up a high radio frequency and overheard Popoff being fed private information about each of his subjects that turned out to be transmitted via a small earpiece he wore that his wife was speaking to him through from backstage. The setup was that people had to fill out audience cards prior to the show with pertinent information about their maladies and the best TV ready ones were carefully chosen to be candidates for his – or as he would put it, The Lord’s – magical cure.

This might not be the same thing as Mr. Carson’s magical assumption of how a person might be turned gay but it is certainly follows just about the same type of creative, non-scientific logic. Oh, and side note: it turns out that James Randi himself is gay and recently married his partner of almost 30 years. Having grown up at a time when coming out was impossible in a career like his, he says he was inspired to finally give up that final illusion after seeing the 2008 film Milk, the biopic on slain San Francisco supervisor and early LGBT advocate Harvey Milk. (Note: This and a lot more is revealed in a new documentary about his life — An Honest Liar – now playing at a theatre near you).

The Amazing Randi today

The Amazing Randi today

As for Dr. Carson, he is a lifelong devout Christian and though I am not privy to his most deeply personal beliefs, he has frequently spoken and written about his close relationship with God, proclaiming to Sean Hannity on Feb. 8 that he will run for president If the Lord grabbed me by the collar and made me do it.

He has also spoken out in the last decade in favor of what he terms traditional marriage – until recently equating those who engage in homosexuality to individuals who practice bestiality or advocate the sexual unions of adults and children. At the very least this appears to be it’s own kind of magic thinking. At the worst, it’s insulting, vicious and dangerously guilty of inciting those far less educated and intelligent than him to more potent hate speech, not to mention hate crimes.

1336656310263_1776461

Still, it’s a free country so the man can say what he wants. But what he cannot do is twist his words into a kind of poisonous pretzel logic and go unchallenged. In a speech on Friday, Vice-president Joe Biden began to address Dr. Carson’s views on the subject but at one point became frozen in his tracks:

Every ridiculous assertion — from Dr. Carson on…

Biden stops mid-sentence, laughs to himself, shakes his head incredulously, presumably at those assertions. 

I mean Jesus, God.

Silence as the veep thinks some more, then tries to stifle a guffaw. And continues.

I mean — oh, God. It’s kind of hard to fathom, isn’t it?

It is reassuring to have rational thought on this issue in the current White House when Oklahoma state lawmakers have just proposed the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2015 which would allow anyone, including religious and secular businesses, to discriminate against LGBT people as long as not doing so would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

where do I even begin?

where do I even begin?

To say nothing of the oral arguments next month scheduled before the US Supreme Court on whether states lawmakers can ban same-sex marriage in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee despite the shifting legal rulings and national tides to the contrary.

Dr. Carson has famously said in the past that in advocating same-sex marriage, its supporters are trying to tell him that two plus two equals five when everyone knows the correct answer is four. Well, he does have the correct answer to the mathematical problem but as comedian Russell Brand countered back to him in a YouTube vlog last July, you can’t compare a social and civil idea like sexuality to an objective system of signs like arithmetic.

Which begs the question of whether Dr. Carson has truly studied the issue or is just vamping in the public arena until God tells him what to do. I, for one, prefer to think of his situation this way – it’s a choice to remain ignorant in the age of Google – and a bad one. As a physician, Dr. Carson has made a lot of bold, life-saving decisions. But as a rational thinker on the world stage and as a potential policy maker, signing up to the pro-ignorance movement is the poorest choice of them all. And certainly not a good one for the next potential decider-in-chief. Or for, well, any of the rest of us.

Second String

“Give me a second. “

When I hear this I’m immediately thinking..

Okay, you need more time.  Whatever…

Great, now I’m getting pissed.  And don’t let the fact that I’m in a hurry and still waiting trouble you because obviously what you’re doing is far more important than what I want or need at this moment.  Which has already passed because you’re so damned selfish and slow.

Of course, perceptions are often wrong.  And even more often than that people get angry about the things over which they are confused, or that they misunderstand based on faulty information. Or even more likely an item or incident they use as an anger substitute for that thing over which they are really angry about (life? the banks? world/your own poverty?  the Kardashian family fame and fortune?). Those things that are too scary to really unleash anger on so  you (we? they?) misplace it to other, lesser-perceived misstatements.

Which brings us back to waiting and my original statement.

“Give me a second.”

No, I (or the ubiquitous they) was NOT trying to poach more time.  (And if only you had asked either of us directly we would have told you). What I was really saying –if you would have engaged me in conversation and really listened to and thought about my response before jumping to your talking/thinking point – was this:

Instead of your first or #1 selection, I’ll take what is considered your second –or #2 – any time.

Yeah I mean you, Ms. Maroney.

See, sometimes the best choice for what ails us in the moment, or in our times, or even on a specific creative project, is the person who is the SECOND-in-command, our SECOND (or maybe even third) choice — the RUNNER UP (or even worse) to  present day fame, fortune and eternal frolic.  Sometimes it takes that very person – the under the radar supporting player or archetypal contemporary day “Bridesmaid” (think Kristen Wiig) – to bring us through the muddy waters and to entertain us and make us laugh or cry, and, most importantly, to put everything back into plain talking perspective and for once and for all and, hopefully, forever, make everything clear.  Forget the bells and the whistles and the fairy dust of the first stringers.  As a famous auto company once advertised about #2’s – often what their status guarantees is they “TRY HARDER.”

And trying harder is what makes you #1 (or used to, at least)…in the first place.  It’s the necessary step along with way before you (we? they?) get complacent in star status.

The most famous #2 of the past week is a  likely yet unlikely choice: a just-about 70-year-old man with piano key teeth, not very good hair plugs, and all the subtlety of Kevin James trying to emulate Adrian Brody’s Oscar-winning star turn in “The Pianist.”  This person, perhaps THE most famous #2 in the world, is a guy we Americans like to call – wait for it –

VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN.

Ole Blue Eyes

That’s right, the eye rolling, horse laughing, over gesticulating senior citizen on the national debate stage.  The guy some people thought was rude and other people thought was real.  The guy who, everyone agrees, was pretty much a poster child person for plain-talking populism of the quintessentially honest American kind that even the most uninformed among us could pretty much  – whether they agree with him or not – understand.

The perils of the #1 perch often don’t allow for that.  Or perhaps it’s what happens when one reaches #1 status that makes falling from the perch and, in turn, making one wrong move, seem even more perilous for the person that has indeed achieved it.  Or – to give a more musical example – maybe it’s the pressure of simply living up to the qualities that Debbie Harry longed to seduce in her famous #1 song.

Whatever IT is, Pres. Barack Obama, our #1, didn’t have IT when he debated several weeks prior, yet  he certainly did have it four years ago opposite his Republican opponent on the debate stage when he running for, but not yet, #1.  Mitt Romney hasn’t had it for the entire time he’s been #1 on the Republican presidential ticket but for some reason momentarily got it (in some people’s opinion, not necessarily mine), when he was #2 on the stage at the presidential debate with our current #1 American (Pres. Obama).

This is not to say #1’s are not truly the best overall and often don’t deserve to be top dog.  It only means that Mel Brooks’ adage of “it’s good to be king” is indeed all too true.  The cyclical version of fame, fortune and mere age ensures that there will always be a #2 worth watching – a person or moment that is second string now but will one day, through verve or sheer attrition and endurance (and sometimes through a faulty strategy of slightly guarded carefulness on the part of #1 that is thought necessary to maintain power) will temporarily and then perhaps even permanently cause the replacement of the top star.  That is the way of the world.  That is the historical and often necessary cycle of existence.

Buckle up…

So it stands to reason that during the reign of #1s, there are always times when the Big Kahuna will falter and one or more of us subjects would do best to listen, learn and be inspired by the musings of a #2 – or even #6, #7 or #8.  Second stringers don’t have as much to lose but often have a lot more to prove, which in turns gives them the motivation and energy to make the case or to pick up the baton (sports or creative) and win the race when the first stringers either graciously step outside or ask for a much needed helping hand they count on their #2s to provide.  What’s great about this is that it not only often works but more times than not, win or lose, makes the result more interesting and brings about the much needed evolvement and, eventual changes, of the future.

I see this every day with my students – who consistently surprise me with their work.  As a writing teacher, one learns to recognize obvious talent.  I mean, it doesn’t really take a genius to see that – only someone who is more than a casual observer.  But the moments teachers and audiences and, I’d venture to say, citizens of the state, live for are the surprising ones.  We get most excited by instances in which the second stringers, the ones not necessarily destined for greatness, rise up to surprise us in an area we thought they never could.  I see this every semester in creative work – people whose good ideas become realized into art that is more original than you ever thought it could be, not only surprisingly fresh but surprisingly great.  Watching an individual take a step out of the pack due solely to the application of their passion, desires and, above all, talent, is a moment that teachers, and audiences, and societies, do truly live for.

Mr. Biden’s robust debate performance, where he spewed the plain-talking, impolite frustration of most of the American public across the stage in Kentucky, (and for those not enthralled with our veep’s performance, perhaps the same could be said yikes! for Mr. Romney’s penultimate sugar high jabs in his first 2012 presidential matchup) is not limited to politics.  It often rears its head in all of the creative arts, in sports, in our friendships and even family lives.

Can film students, movie fans or anyone else in the public imagine the first string choice of Doris Day as the quintessential suburban seducer Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” instead of Anne Bancroft?  How about then “Magnum P.I.” TV megastar Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones instead of a now (but not then) film icon we call Harrison Ford?   The record shows that Mr. Ford and Ms. Bancroft were, to put it kindly, the #2 choices for their roles at the time but more than likely they were even further down on most people’s lists.

Really?

Chicago for years suffered with the ubiquitous title as America’s “second city” until some creative type in the Midwest wisely decided to own that derisive term (as all oppressed groups eventually do) and start a improvisational comedy troupe aptly titled “Second City.”  Ironically, this group became not only the best in the business but would then go on to be the primary supplier of performers and creative types behind perhaps the most enduring and iconic comedy troupes in the history of television – The Not Ready For Prime Time Players of “Saturday Night Live” – a show based out of what was and still is considered to be our #1 city – New York.

Live from.. Chicago?

It’s also easy to forget that Terrence McNally, the American playwright who has won four Tony Awards and countless nominations for work as diverse as “Love Valour Compassion,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” “Ragtime” and “The Full Monty” was once best known in the New York theatre community as merely a “famous #2” by dating playwriting royalty Edward Albee.  Or that Katy Sagal, America’s infamous Peg Bundy on “Married With Children” and the star of the cable hit “Sons of Anarchy” was early only renowned as one of three literal #2s when she served as a member of Bette Midler’s trio of backup singers, The Harlettes.

In sports I’m old enough to remember when 15 year old Michael Phelps swam in his first Olympics and won 0.0 medals, gold or otherwise, yet sharp enough to recall that after subsequent record-breaking Olympic gold in 2008, it took this year’s drop to #2 status in the first 2012 race of his fourth Olympics game for him to once again emerge as the #1 swimmer of gold more times than any one else in the entire competition.

This could be a drinking game and we could go on and on.  But perhaps the best example is another political figure of the times who recently won the Gallup poll for the tenth year in a row as – wait for it again – the most admired woman in the world – Hillary Clinton.

She knows it.

Talk about a #2 and then some.  First Lady (but really a #2?) of Arkansas.  First Lady (and not even a #2) of the United States and an object of derision for famously proclaiming she wasn’t interested in staying “in the kitchen and baking cookies.” Then even more publicly proclaimed an inexperienced interloper for trying (and then failing) to create a universal health care plan for all Americans under the direction of her husband, the then president.  Undaunted at being #2, Mrs. Clinton did her job, learned, stood in wait and took her lumps from a “vast right wing conspiracy” she inelegantly said was lying (some might say salivating) in wait for her husband.

But then something funny, or perhaps eventual happened.   Her husband was no longer president and she decided to use her fame, smarts and nationwide experience to run for Senator in New York.  She not only won the #1 spot but became one of the most admired members of one of our most well-known “boys clubs.”  She then used her fame to try and become our Uber #1 in her own valiant run for president, only to be shunted down to #2 status by a guy with a weird name who had way less experience than she did – Barack Obama.   However, she barely had time to leave gracefully before our new #1 called her in to be a different kind of #1 (or is it #2, #3 #4 or even lower) – our Secretary of State and the defacto#1 face of foreign policy to all countries around the world.

In the end, it seems – everyone is #1 somewhere but usually #2 (or below) almost everywhere.  Human achievement does have its limits and the fact is very few of us make it into the hall of presidents or on an international awards stage.  But that doesn’t mean that, in more moments than most people realize, we all have the capability, if given the chance, to be as good or even better than any particular number on the right number of days if we keep at it and are given, or take, the chance.

That’s what Joe Biden accomplished last week.  And that’s why it’s important to keep pushing your rock uphill, downhill or sideways – no matter what your status or scoring is at any random moment in time.

And I said I didn’t like sports metaphors…