PC University

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 1.07.57 PM

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.

tumblr_nporseHjLl1ru5h8co1_500

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.

Advertisements

A Little Bit of Magic

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 2.04.55 PMTruly great screen actors are amazing and quite rare. Even Meryl Streep, one of our best living examples, has said numerous times she chooses not to analyze the process too much for fear of the magic disappearing.

So what are the rest of us to do when routinely questioned about that magic in reference to almost every film or TV show that passes before our eyes these days? Well, fall back on the famous quote given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 when he was asked to define obscenity.

I know it when I see it.

I sat for two hours watching the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in a John le Carre spy thriller called A Most Wanted Man this week knowing in my heart of hearts that the movie must really star some middle-aged German guy who physically bore some resemblance to Mr. Hoffman but most certainly had no real relation on any other viable plane of existence to him. Wrong. Unfortunately I was with a friend who managed to convince me, with the help of IMDB, dreaded logic and the contractually agreed upon billing on the movie poster (which can never really lie to that extreme) that somehow this guy in that film was actually and indeed the late Mr. Hoffman in his final leading role.

The Magic Man

The Magic Man

My first, almost immediate thought – and I’m extremely embarrassed to reveal this but then what else is a blog for – was that I have an easier time believing Mr. Hoffman is dead of a drug overdose than accepting the fact that no film ever again will in any way, shape or form have him as its star. (Note: Hunger Games: Mockingjay? You’re not seriously going to go there, are you?). How selfish can I be in the name of being in the presence of something so rare and, well, great? I guess very.

Great art is certainly not even a fraction as important to the average person as a great life but it’s also been said that a life lived entirely without being exposed to a little great art in there somewhere – whether by observation or one’s own actions in pursuit of such – can’t truly be all that great at all. Who exactly said that? Well, um, I did just now.

Maybe it was Jebediah?

Maybe it was Jebediah?

The above statement already begins to deflate a bit of the fairy type dust Ms. Streep eludes to but I for one periodically need reminding that there’s artistic brilliance to strive for and view in the world – and that there are also those among us who capable of delivering it. No, most of us will not reach the aforementioned peak but that is not the point. The idea is in some way to continue to both aspire and inspire as an artist rather than to try and fit in to some non-existent current standards of the day. Even in the likely event we don’t reach the pinnacle we will most very certainly come across someone or something in our travels that did. And be all the richer for it not so much in dollars and cents but in the ability to see the world in a new or slightly altered way that has the chance of initiating a profound and just possibly life-altering change in us for the better. And, in turn – who knows –the world

How do I absolutely believe in this stuff?   Because I know it to be absolutely true for myself.

The first time I read an Edward Albee play, The Zoo Story, I knew I had picked up something created by the kind of writer I wanted to be – or at least read. He managed to write about situations I hadn’t lived but somehow tapped into profound feelings I had certainly experienced – even at 18 years old. I felt the same way when I saw a small theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Or watched Bette Midler perform onstage live at the Palace theatre in the 1970s for the very first time as a very wee (well, teenage) lad. Or got to go standing room and witness the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line. And all of them, each and every one, contribute to what you’re reading now, which you will do with as you will. I might not be a great artist (yet) but I just might possibly influence one. Or some great artist might be influenced by some lesser artist than myself who passed on information about some even greater artist or piece of art that they had read about here or experienced elsewhere.

"I'd like to thank Notes From A Chair..."

“I’d like to thank Notes From A Chair…”

But let’s get back to actors. Their performances are the most popular to categorize as great probably due to the fact they are the easiest for us to review, at least on a superficial basis. After all, the actor must individually physicalize a role and LITTERALLY transform into another person long before one millimeter of film/digital whatever is shot. Never mind that there are countless technical people, including the guy or gal (aka writer) who first created the damned person you’re seeing onscreen to begin with. Every reasonably intelligent screenwriter knows that despite whatever has been conceived, once an actor is cast he or she will forever BE the character in the audience’s minds and that person you wrote/intended will now and forever (Note: Do NOT think Cats) only be seen as on offshoot of them. This doesn’t seem fair, you say? Well, few things in life are.

Ralph who?

I used to be called Ralph Fiennes

In any event, this is why truly great screen acting is so valued. It appears in that moment and is the literal manifestation of that person. Mr. Hoffman does this with little makeup, ordinary clothing, and sans little gunfire or exploding dramatic flourishes in A Most Wanted Man. He is merely a man – taking small actions like speaking, looking and staring. As he discreetly interacts with others of all ages and nationalities he himself comes across only as a middle-aged, slightly out of shape German guy who has been working undercover too hard and too long with too few examples of success.   In fact, the accent and mannerisms are so convincing that after a while we can’t help but feel like we’re watching an unknown German character actor given a chance at his first meaty role in what becomes a decidedly un-American styled film the longer it continues. Yet in the end what is ultimately most astounding is that an American actor from a small town in upstate New York could so thoroughly convince us he bears so little affinity or understanding of anything to do with the Western Hemisphere.  At least onscreen.

How did you do it?

How did you do it?

If you’re looking for an answer as to how or an analysis of the magic, you won’t find it. But I do know that watching a performance like that in a 2014 release once again reminded me of what is possible in the film industry ever so often – a person reaching the pinnacle of their work, even within the parameters of today’s commercial market. At this stage in my career and life I somehow find that not only profoundly important and encouraging but also thrilling and informative.

It’s not the same but akin to how I felt as a gay man when this summer I stood in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and saw Michelangelo’s statue of the David live for the first time. I was not only astounded by the talent, workmanship and beauty but also reminded that even in the 15 century there were men who saw other men as quite hot – that’s how NOT NEW being gay truly is in the world. Take that National Organization for Marriage.

I'm sexy and I know it.

I’m sexy and I know it.

You can’t talk about great, or your version of it, without sounding a bit like a pretentious windbag. This is especially so when innocent children are exploding in the Middle East and people are starving to death or dying from known and unknown viruses all over the world. But one has to wonder what we are all fighting for if not the right to live our peaceful everyday lives – which by very definition have at their peak moments the potential to experience, at the very least, a few little bits of the aforementioned Streepian-type magic. Isn’t that the point of this entire thing?

What is magical to you might not be magical to me. But in that highest and much lauded tip-top layer of work, the vast majority of us do agree. Oh, you can be a naysayer and opine Ms. Streep has too much technique or Mr. Hoffman is now overrated due to his untimely death. But on the same token you can also stand on your head in Macy’s window and complain when you’re being arrested or stubbornly defy medical science and keep claiming the earth is not getting hotter as our annual temperatures consistently rise with each passing year. In other words, that still does not make any of it so.

Oh Meryl... I want to believe

Oh Meryl… I want to believe

Nevertheless, in the arts we all deserve to believe in whatever magic we choose to believe in wherever we see it. That is why I, for one, will not express my concern here that the trailer that broke this week for Disney’s big Christmas release – the long-awaited film version of the Broadway musical, Into the Woods – looks to me like a not very special episode of ABC’s Once Upon A Time – Meryl Streep or not. Or voice my sense that NBC’s just announced upcoming live production of Peter Pan this Thanksgiving starring Girls’ Allison Williams will be a festival in bland-ola save for Christopher Walken’s canny tap dancing turn as Captain Hook.   I know both can simply just be – well – uh – very entertaining. To lots of people…all over the world…meaning worldwide…to see and to enjoy.

Great fun as all that is, it’s not the same as what Mr. Hoffman is doing onscreen in A Most Wanted Man. Not by a long shot. And that’s important to remember and to experience – for both artists and audiences alike. A more, or even less pretentious writer might go so far as to call it his legacy – to us.