Friday, March 30, 2007

The Fool Killer, or, Darwin’s Revenge

By Mitchell

It “looked like Nut City. … It was the kind of crowd that would have made the Fool Killer lower his club and shake his head and walk away, frustrated by the magnitude of the opportunity.”

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

“Refusal to face the Verities, though not without immediate satisfactions, carries penalties. There’s a Fool Killer, personifying the ancient principle; whom the gods would destroy, in this world; and he has a list; and that’s a good way to put yourself on it. Then, the question’s just one of time, of how soon he’ll get around to you.”

James Gould Cozzens, By Love Posessed

****

How many times has it happened to you? You’re cruising around on the Internet, minding your own business, clicking on a few links here and there, when wham! You’re hit with it right between the eyes, no way to avoid it, and before you’re quite aware of what’s happened you’ve been sucked into its vortex, with no way of escape, succumbing to its temptations and its subtle whispers, powerless to prevent it, lured into the proximate cause of sin.

I’m talking, of course, about . . . the blogosphere. The troubling thing is I’m specifically talking about the Catholic blogosphere.

At the beginning of Lent there was an article at The New Liturgical Movement (one of the best Catholic blogs out there, by the way; their level of discourse in the combox is particularly of high quality) entitled “Should Catholics Blog?” that I’d meant to comment on at the time. Obviously I disagree with the conclusion of the author of the article that NLM links to, but I think he raises some points that can’t be ignored. The threats to Catholic bloggers and commenters, according to R.J. Stove, are as follows:

  • Addiction, with all its dangers;
  • Pseudonymity, with all its dangers;
  • Encouraging smart-aleck soundbites rather than hard, detailed, historically scrupulous reasoning;
  • Related to (iii), a general degrading of language, and of the writer’s role as language’s custodian (not to say as breadwinner);
  • De facto anticlericalism.

I’m not going to deal with Stove’s article per se, except as a reference point for the discussion that follows. Because it seems undeniable that these five points (or corruptions, as Stove calls them) have imbedded themselves deeply in all parts of the blogosphere (particularly points three and four), including Catholic ones.

There are many good Catholic blogs out there. Stella Borealis is one, or else I wouldn’t be writing here. My cohorts at this site all manage top-quality blogs. And the ones we link to at Our Word are, by and large, of high quality. So this isn’t meant to sound like a rant from some prim scold. Lord knows, we have as much of an edge here as anyone. No, it’s more musings born of fatigue, of the weariness that results from frustration, from being boxed in on all sides. And there seems an unfairness about it somehow, that a few are ruining it for the many. It’s no secret that the blogosphere has been getting rougher and rougher, more uncivil, cruder, less restrained. And once something like this starts it’s hard to rein it in. Nastiness begets nastiness, and then where are you?

It’s getting to where you just don’t know where to turn anymore. Your senses are assaulted, your intellect violated; and, like the Fool Killer, you’re overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. Everywhere you look the bickering is going on, about the liturgy, about the Pope, about politics, about the war. Especially about the war.

Anyone who cruises through the blogosphere is confronted with the diverging viewpoints on the war. Some say it’s clearly an unjust war, while others believe it is a war necessary to preserve the United States. All well and good. Disagreement is nothing new, and it’s often quite productive. There’s nothing worse than a leader surrounded by yes-men (or –women), as we know (and quite possibly are witnessing in Washington right now).

What disturbs me particularly is not the disagreement about the war – after all, if something’s not set in stone I’m often willing to believe there might be two sides to the story, two ways of interpreting it. We used to call this an “Honest Difference of Opinion,” and one of these days you’re going to have to look that term up in Wikipedia, because it doesn’t seem to happen very much anymore today. Is it possible to have an honest difference of opinion on this kind of issue, even if it turns out that one party is truly, if sincerely, mistaken?

The debate about the war is particularly nasty because it cuts to the bone. Whatever your opinion of the war is, those who disagree with it are prepared to charge you not only with being wrong, but in many cases with possessing a completely incorrect understanding of Catholic thinking, being an intellectual dullard, having your priorities confused, or even being a traitor. Your soul, it goes without saying, is in mortal peril.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus says in the current issue of First Things that “Such rhetoric is employed by those who accuse opponents of the war of being unpatriotic and, much more commonly and stridently, or so it seems to me, by those who declare U.S. policy to be unjust, wrongheaded, or even criminal.” Because of his stand on the war (he’s a supporter), he is, of course, discredited in anything he says about it by those who disagree with him.

As I’ve made clear in the past, I have my own opinions about the war, and my “personal convictions”, as Dr. Lyman Hall says in 1776, are “personal.” But Fr. Neuhaus says those who oppose the war appear to be the more strident in their arguments, and it seems that way to me as well. People, especially those who oppose the war, seem totally unwilling to acknowledge that there just might be validity lurking somewhere in the depths of their adversary’s position. To them it is inconceivable that there could possibly be any interpretation of Church teaching other than the one they happen to be propounding. Now, perhaps Church teaching on this point is definitive, perhaps it isn’t. To me it doesn’t seem to be quite as clear cut as, say, the Resurrection. But these people just refuse to believe it’s a possibility. And they’ll tell you that in the frankest terms possible.

You know what? If these people were truly interested in laying out their opposition to the war with the hope of converting the hearts and minds of others (which, if they’re truly acting out of Christian principle, should be at least one of their goals), they’d be well-advised to do it in such a way as to avoid accusing those with whom they disagree of being puppets of the Republican Party, Americans first and Catholics second, or (my favorite of all) simply idiots. That kind of confrontational rhetoric doesn’t usually cut it with most people. (Unless, of course, you’re more interested in listening to the sound of your own voice than you are making a convincing argument. And heaven forbid that I should make any suggestion like that!)

Now, that’s not to say that these rhetorical judgments aren’t accurate at least some, if not most, of the time. But do we really get anywhere by casting them around? Likewise for those who accuse the anti-war faction of anti-Americanism, of wanting to see the country punished. Doubtless there are many, if not most, who feel to one extent or another that the country does deserve everything it gets, but it’s an indelicate situation at best.

What is missing from both sides is this willingness to engage in constructive conversation. I’ve often said that spirited political discussion should be like flirting, with all the joys, mysteries, tension and frustration that accompany it. Foremost, it should be fun. But I see precious little fun out there, not when so much of it seems to be concentrated on inflicting pain and scorn on someone else.

What is most interesting about this phenomenon is the breathtaking arrogance on display, the absolute certainty of right and wrong that so often accompanies these expressions, often with little if any regard for civility. It goes far beyond the normal desire to assert a total understanding of the truth, to an area which requires that the opponent be held up to maximum scorn, personal attack, and embarrassment (if possible).

Take, for example, the recent blow-up surrounding Sean Hannity. Hannity’s in hot water with a lot of conservatives over his intemperate comments to a priest a couple of weeks ago. Not only intemperate, but factually ignorant. Not only factually ignorant, but designed to ignite, inflame, provoke. In other words, his usual shtick. Now, you’re not going to see any love letters to Sean Hannity from me. He may have his fans out there, but I’m not one of them. Nonetheless, it was amusing to see the vitriol that was being expended against him in the blogosphere. From a purely emotional standpoint, a lot of it was extremely satisfying. But like many of the best things in life – fame, food, sex – it also left one with that empty feeling afterwards.

One of Hannity’s gravest offenses, according to the blog comboxes, was his lack of respect toward his priest-adversary. Go to the videotape – the accusations are pretty tough to deny. And, of course, you don’t look to these televised shout-fests expecting to see much respect passed between the debated parties. But, when you look at the blogs, more likely than not, you’ll come across a piece about Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, the ├╝ber-liberal of the American Catholic Church, and likely as not you’re going to read comments about Mahony that are probably harsher than those Hannity used. They even use the “H-Word": Heretic. Again, this isn’t an opinion that I’d particularly disagree with – personally, I think Cardinal Mahony’s actions are often, how should we put it, suspect? But you can’t help noticing the irony in it all, because many of these commentators share the same conservative outlook as those who rip Hannity for doing the same thing – dissing a priest.

This isn’t meant to single out the Hannity story – it’s only one example of thousands out there that make up the modern blogosphere. You’d think the Catholic blogs would be less susceptible to this kind of behavior, but you’d be wrong. Not that there’s more of it than anywhere else; perhaps it’s just more scandalous. Whether talking about the liturgy, theology, what have you. Sometimes the priests get on line and they fight back. The whole thing makes for a faintly distasteful sensation, as if you’re looking for someone to try and remain above it all.

There are blogs out there that we don’t link to anymore, because of the lack of civility in posts and comboxes. (There’s even been the odd bit of profanity, which it seems to me is not a good thing for a religious blog.) There are blogs we’d like to link to, ones we agree with on a broad range of philosophical or political issues, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it, because they’re just too much.

It’s all too much, really. It’s so easy, it’s almost laughable. You could start a drinking game just based on the first few words in the combox, especially the ubiquitous “Um…” (a word banned from this site, by the way). Nine, or perhaps nine and a half, times out of ten, “Um” serves as a preface to some kind of snarky correction.

Now although we’ve spent most of this particular piece talking about Catholic blogs, I’m not by any means limiting the discussion to that. Look at the last week or so in the political blogosphere, and you’ll see some pretty nasty stuff about Tony Snow’s cancer, for example (at Wonkette, among others). We’ve spent the last month or so highlighting other examples of incivility, and those have only been the ones that captured our fancy. Invariably, when you start talking about things like this, someone’s going to come along and defend the right to say whatever’s on your mind – they’ll talk about concepts such as free speech, and they’re eventually going to work their way to how those who speak their mind (like Rosie O’Donnell, for example, or Ann Coulter) are demonstrating “courage.”

These people think that courage has everything to do with standing up and saying whatever you want, doing whatever you feel like doing, as long as it’s controversial and guaranteed to create a stir.

That’s not what courage is at all. Any fool can stand up and shoot his mouth off. It doesn’t take anything more taxing than the ability to speak, or use your fingers on a keyboard. Maybe a little technical know-how to set up a blog, but they’ve made that pretty much dummy-proof as well.

Courage doesn’t mean fearless. It means being able to overcome your fear, to go ahead with a principled course of action regardless of the consequences. A lot of true heroes, people who truly fit the profile of courage, admit to great fear. The difference is that their fear didn’t stop them from doing what they knew had to be done.

In that context, there’s nothing particularly courageous about getting on a blog and telling people what you really think about life, and about them. There’s nothing particularly courageous about getting on a TV panel and shouting at the top of your lungs, laying out the one and only version of the truth. There’s nothing particularly courageous about demonizing those who disagree with you, about cutting them to the quick with your catty comments, about preaching to the choir instead of trying to explain your viewpoint.

No, to be courageous is to put your opinions up for open debate, to open them to the possibility of civil disagreement, perhaps even correction. In some circumstances you may have to wait, even until after your death, to see them validated. It's about taking a chance with your opinions, rather than simply trying to steamroller people with them. That's real courage. That other stuff? It seems to me more like a waste of time and energy.

****

Relievedebtor at Architecture and Morality recently posed the question, “Is Our Lack of Manners a Return to Primitivism?” While some forms of etiquette (such as the curtsy) tend to give to the ruling classes a tacit authority for ruling, “Postmodernism has taught us to distrust authority, and consequently, it seems we distrust the rituals, however minor they may appear, that are complicit in such trust.”

Perhaps this is what it’s all about – distrust. We don’t trust the government anymore, which is probably a good thing. We don’t trust actors or athletes or other celebrities, which is definitely a good thing. Trust in church leaders has been damaged, in some cases and with some people beyond repair, which is sad more than anything else. But what is most damaging out of all of this is the lack of trust we have in our fellow man.

It’s one thing to be wary and prudent. However, to engage in dialogue (like so many other things) requires an element of trust. It’s like working a trapeze act. If you’re not sure your partner’s going to be where he’s supposed to be when you’ve finished that third somersault, you’re going to be hesitant, lacking confidence about the whole thing. Without that confidence in the merits of dialogue, is it so surprising that it so often resorts to defensive posturing and grand pronouncements?

Relievedebtor concludes, “To disregard manners is to disregard authority. To disregard authority is to lose self-governance. To lose self-governance is to begin the path to primitivism.”

The fear is that this is where we’ve arrived. We seem to be regressing into some kind of post-apocalyptic culture, a permanent Mad Max syndrome that has replaced manners with noise, thought with emotion, restraint with orgiastic expression, and respect with scorn. We’re producing an entire generation of intellectual knuckle-draggers, totally incapable of understanding concepts such as “good intentions,” utterly unwilling to engage in civil discussion on any kind of scale. If Darwin is in a place where he can appreciate it, he must be enjoying the irony of this de-evolution back to a primitive social state. Next thing you know, we’ll be replacing our keyboards with soup bones and clubbing it out in the public square. And we’ll be hard-pressed to call it “progress.”

Cross-Posted to Stella Borealis Catholic Roundtable

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Throwing Out the First (Hair) Ball

By Mitchell

With baseball season starting this weekend, it seems like a good time to dip into the archives with this 2005 piece about perhaps the greatest cat-baseball movie ever made, the 1951 classic Rhubarb.

*****

Based on the novel by H. Allen Smith (one of the finest humorists of his time), Rhubarb tells the story of a yellow ferel cat with a nasty disposition who's "adopted" by a wealthy businessman, T.J. Banner (Gene Lockhart, whom you might remember as the judge in Miracle on 34th Street). Banner, who's constantly surrounded by "yes" men, admires how the cat treats everyone with distain, rich and poor alike. This cat, he says, has spirit. He's a fighter, and if there's one thing T.J. Banner has always admired, it's a fighter. T.J.'s greedy daughter Myra thinks he's crazy, but his public relations man, Eric Yeager (Oscar-winner Ray Milland), affectionally tolerates the old man. It was Eric who was assigned to capture the cat from the golf course where he lived (stealing golf balls off the greens), and when Eric finally succeeds, he has the scratches to prove it.

Although Banner owns many successful businesses, his pride and joy is his baseball team, a bunch of losers named the Brooklyn Loons (read: Dodgers), managed by Len Sickles (William Frawley, Lockhart's political boss in Miracle on 34th Street). If only, Banner thinks, his team had the same fight his cat had, they might win for a change. After watching the cat trash his study, Banner decides to name him Rhubarb, after the term for a baseball imbroligio. (In one scene, trying to explain what the cat's name means, Eric explains: "Lady, you know what happens at a sale, when two women get hold of the same dress? THAT's a Rhubarb!")

After many years Banner dies and, to the amazement of his business associates and Myra (who has been fairly counting down the days to the old man's death), he leaves the balance of his estate, including the baseball team, to the only living thing that ever showed him trust and loyalty - Rhubarb. Realizing the limitations inherent in a cat running an empire, the will provides that Eric will act as Rhubarb's guardian. He's not sure at first, but when Myra attempts to murder Rhubarb, Eric remembers T.J.'s words that "if you're right, fight for it." Rhubarb's always been a fighter, which is what the old man loved about him, and Eric is determined to fight as well.

His biggest fight concerns the baseball team - the players, perhaps understandably, are reluctant to pay for a cat, even if he does own the team. Fans around the league meow at them, and an umpire even left a bowl of milk at home plate before the start of the game. The players are threatening to sit out the season and Eric, along with his fiancee Polly (Jan Sterling), manager Sickles' daughter, realize something has to be done. Eric convinces them that the miracle Boston Braves of 1914 - a team that rallied from last place on the 4th of July to win the World Series (true, by the way) - owed their success to a lucky yellow cat that served as their mascot, they start to have second thoughts. When the Loons' hitters come through in the clutch after having petted Rhubarb, the superstitious players become convinced: with Rhubarb on their side, they can do no wrong.

The Brooklyn team - now dubbed the "Rhubarbs" by the tabloids, with Rhubarb and Eric accompanying them to every game home and away - catches fire and wins the pennant. Now, they're prepared to face their archrivals, the New York club (read: Yankees) in the World Series. The entire city is electrified, and in the days leading up to the Series seemingly everyone in Brooklyn is placing bets on the Rhubarbs to win. The alarmed bookies calculate that if Brooklyn wins, there's no way they'll be able to cover their losses. Then one of them, Pencil Louie, strikes upon an idea - if something were to "happen" to the cat, it would almost certainly mean defeat for Brooklyn, and the bookies would save their skins.

Pencil Louie's first thought is simply to kill Rhubarb, but then he realizes there's money to be made - surely Myra would pay them to get rid of the cat. With Rhubarb thus out of the way, Myra gets her father's fortune, Brooklyn (and the people betting on them) loses, and the bookies get their necks out of the noose. In short order Rhubarb is catnapped, New York evens the series, and all of Brooklyn is in a panic. Eric and Polly launch a desperate search for the missing cat, even resorting to seeding the clouds with dry ice to cause a rainout that postpones Game 7 for another day.

In the end the good guys win, of course. Rhubarb is found, the bad guys are captured, and Brooklyn rallies to win the series. Eric and Polly marry, and Rhubarb is last seen with the female cat who's been sitting in the box behind Rhubarb with her lady owner throughout the season, trailing a litter of little kittens.

Rhubarb is a charming fantasy, featuring a top-notch performance by Milland (including a hilarious send-up of his drunk scene in The Lost Weekend), wild slapstick comedy, and Smith's satiric jabs at television and commercial sponsors (a pivotal moment in one game is interrupted for a "much more imporant" message from the ever-present Friendly Financial Company, whose commercials are ever-present during coverage of the games).

It tells of a time when baseball was an ingrained part of the American culture, when teams were part of the very fabric of the cities they played in (as the Dodgers were when they played in Brooklyn), and when the idea of a cat owner/mascot wasn't perhaps all that outrageous. And of course it's perfectly believeable that baseball players, a superstitious lot since the game began, would become convinced that petting a cat before going to bat would bring them good luck.
Best of all is Rhubarb himself - one source says fourteen cats were used to portray him, with the prime cat being a tiger named Orangey. His transformation from feral loner to tycoon to good-luck charm is the stuff dreams are made of.

Smith's original book spawned two sequels, neither matching the charm and outrageousness of Rhubarb. As both novel and movie, it is the essential baseball story - the tale of a team and its lucky cat.

Monday, March 26, 2007

What's In a Name?

By Drew

Mitchell’s article last week about The Mikado brought to mind a number of connecting thoughts, or at least thoughts I'll try to connect.

According to my Dover edition of The Mikado, there are two lines that were altered in the 1940s “to avoid giving offense.” In one, during the “little list” song, Koko refers to “the nigger serenader and others of his race” (in reality, Gilbert was referring to blackface minstrels). In the “more humane Mikado” song in Act 2, there's a reference to one who is "blacked like a nigger" (same point of reference). Traditionally, these are now rendered as “the banjo serenader” and “painted with vigor,” respectively. (Interestingly enough, there is also a line early in Act 1, referring to Japan, stating “For where’er our country’s banner may be planted,/All other local banners are defied!” One wonders if this were considered offensive in the 1940s as well.)

It makes sense to change these lines, not only because they’re anachronistic, but because they have nothing to do with the general plot. They’re lines which simply give color to the songs (no pun intended) but don't affect the story.

Now, the reason I find this interesting is that last week there was this story about a parents’ group in St. Louis Park, Minnesota trying to get Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn removed from the high school’s required reading list because of repeated references to the “n-word,” which, because we’re all grown-ups at this blog, we can categorically state was “nigger.” Ken Gilbert, one of the parents pushing to have the book removed from the reading list (he was careful to point out that he’s not trying to ban the book), says use of the word should not be tolerated “in informal conversation or popular entertainment.” According to Gilbert, "There's no word that brings you to a lower level. ... It makes children feel less than equal in the classroom." Predictably, the whole thing has found itself if court, where so far the school district has been successful in keeping the book on the list.

A group of teachers, parents, administrators and community members examined Gilbert’s request and ruled in favor of the book, determining "the literary value of the book outweighed the negative aspect of the language employed."

This may be true as far as it goes, but it also misses the larger point. Twain’s greatness stems not merely from his literary prowess, but his ability to paint a historical picture of America and her people as they were at a given time. And in that period of time, “nigger” was a word that a whole lot of people used, many of them without prejudice. In our more enlightened times we can understand how offensive that is today, but that isn’t how people saw it at the time, and if we’re not going to engage in revisionist history (one of the liberals’ favorite techniques), we have to understand that we can’t use today’s standards to gauge yesterday’s behavior. It just doesn’t work.

Twain’s book is not just entertainment – it’s a historical document, a portrait of our heritage. Take away that aspect and you remove much of Twain’s significance – or any great artist, for that matter. Many’s the bad joke about the abstract painter who just “paints what he sees,” but nonetheless that’s an essential part of art – to hold a mirror to society and reflect it back.

Let’s consider more contemporary examples, starting with Norman Mailer’s World War II novel The Naked and the Dead. In that book, Mailer (at the behest of his publishers) used the euphemism "fug" in lieu of the f-bomb (hey, we may be adults here, but even we have our limits). The substitution has been a source of much humor over the years – it drew far more attention to the word, making it stand out, than would have been the case if Mailer’d simply used the f-word as it was.

Contrast that to a movie like The Departed (or almost any movie rated PG-13 or below), where you’re going to hear the f-bomb all over the place. The defense of the use of this word usually consists of something like, “this is the way people talk in real life,” which I can verify to be substantially accurate. Some of it is gratuitous, some the result of lazy writing. But there’s no doubt that, however distasteful, using the word in context serves a purpose. To have a gangster, in the heat of the moment, exclaim something like “darn” or “shoot” just wouldn’t be believable. The audience wouldn’t accept it, nor should they. And that’s just a part of life – you can hear language worse than that at any school playground.

Perhaps some time in the future we’ll have reached a point where words like that aren’t used in polite company anymore, but does that mean we’d be going back and changing movies like The Departed? Not if we’re smart, because in doing so we’ll be destroying that looking glass that shows they way we were at a given point in time. Whitewashing everything that’s gone before us, trying to protect people from seeing the truth as it was, is not only fruitless, it’s dangerous. It doesn’t give us real life at all, just some sugarcoated fairytale impression of life. It prepares our young people poorly for facing a world that isn’t nearly as genteel as we’d like to pretend it is, and it makes a joke out of the idea that we can prevent the errors of the past by learning from them.

To wrap this up, let’s take a look at a discussion last week over at Amy Welborn’s blog about Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In this case the controversy is not over racism, but anti-Semitism (which, I suppose, is a form of racism, but of a different kind). Is Shylock, as portrayed by Shakespeare, an example or an indictment of anti-Semitism? As one of Amy's commentators pointed out,

[Isaac] Asimov argues that as offensive as we might find this, it simply isn't "antisemitic" in any modern sense of the term, because for Shakespeare and his audience, Shylock was simply a *literary* stereotype, not a jab at anyone whom they expected ever to meet in real life. In other words, the "Jew" was a stock villain for literary and dramatic purposes, the same way the "Soviet agent" or "Commie spy" was a stock villain in so many Cold War-era movies and novels.

Another commentator, friend of this blog Tim Ferguson, mentions “If it makes us uncomfortable, then that is a testament both to the realism of the play and also to the societal and individual growth we have undergone as we continue to digest the Gospel generation to generation.”

We should remember that the word “kike,” which is (rightly so) deeply offensive to Jews, was in fact coined by American Jews in the 19th century to refer to those Jews who had immigrated more recently than themselves and were less educated. Wikipedia says it was used with affection; other accounts I've seen suggest that it was a somewhat derisive term, meant to draw a distinction between the Americanized Jews and the less-assimilated newcomers, whom they would try to help out.

The point here is that words mean things, particularly in specific contexts. To try and separate that word from its original context is not only wrong, it's intellectually lazy. As I pointed out in my Leni Riefenstahl piece last year, one must have the ability to separate the morals of the artist from the morals of the art. In the same sense, one must take works like Huckleberry Finn and view them not with contemporary values but as living witnesses to a time past. That's what makes them timeless - Huckleberry Finn tells it like it was; maybe we wish it hadn't been that way, but there it is. The inability to understand this - make that the refusal to understand it - shows that we are still a young, and immature, country.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Lay Off the Political Commentary in the Sports Page, Will Ya?

By Mitchell

You know, I've about had it with sportswriters playing political pundit. First William K. Wolfram, and now William F. Reed at SI.com. (What is it with writers using "William" and a middle initial? On the other hand, where would that leave William F. Buckley, Jr.?) At any rate, in his story about Tubby Smith, the former Kentucky basketball coach (and first ever black basketball coach at Kentucky) who stepped down yesterday to take the job at Minnesota, Reed offered us the standard liberal analysis regarding Smith's long-standing troubles with many of Kentucky's basketball fans:

Of course, some racism also was involved. In the rural areas of the state, where poverty and ignorance have been chronic problems, Smith was never accepted because of his African-American heritage. This is a state, remember, where right-wing religious zealots dominate the debate over flag-burning, prayer in the classroom and same-sex marriage. Thankfully, however, such narrow-mindedness and intolerance no longer represents the majority.

Now, wait just a minute. There's probably little doubt that race played a role in the way people felt about Smith. But to take these three issues - legitimate political issues all - and lump them under the category of "narrow-mindedness" and "intolerance" - is, well, narrow-minded and intolerant. It might even be considered bigoted. Beyond that, it's not only a cartoonish understanding of conservative politics but a broadly charactured portrayal of religious conservatives in general.

Reed’s comments were gratuitous, adding nothing in the way of either news or insight to the story. They were a cheap shot to advance a political agenda in a story that had nothing to do with politics. Certainly Smith’s race played a role, and a historic one at that. But there is nothing in the content of Reed’s story to suggest that opposition to flag-burning, school prayer, and homosexual marriage had anything whatsoever to do with how fans felt about Smith.

Besides which, where does Reed get off, in what is ostensibly a sports story, taking the attitude that we should be thankful that issues such as flag-burning, school prayer and homosexual marriage don't represent the majority opinon? Has he been talking to the folks at the Harris and Zogby polls? Does he really have any idea how the majority of Americans feel about these issues, and why?

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this kind of extra-curricular political commentary at Sports Illustrated. Back in the early 90s, one of their staff writers launched a potshot at the conservative student newspaper The Dartmouth Review for being racist, without bothering to check that its editor at the time, Kevin Pritchett, was black.

Where it gets interesting is that, when I checked back at si.com to provide the link to this post, I found that the story had been edited. The paragraph, in its entirety, now reads:

Of course, some racism also was involved. In the rural areas of the state, where poverty and ignorance have been chronic problems, Smith was never accepted because of his African-American heritage.

Interesting, huh? Here's the way the story now appears. To get the wording of the paragraph as it originally appeared, I offer a big H/T to Chris at Fifty One Outs, who read the same thing this morning that I did, but was smart enough to post on it right away.

And due credit to either Reed or (more likely) his editors at SI.com for coming to their senses and realizing that his ugly and biased comments had no place in a story, even an opinion piece, about Smith's history at Kentucky.

We've come to expect this kind of banal commentary - mischaracterizations, intellectual laziness, snide comments cloaked as "news" - from the front pages of the MSM. It's one reason why so many people are drive to the escapism of the sports page. Now, increasingly, you're not safe from it there, either. It goes to show, I suppose, that there's no sense in making distinctions when it comes to the MSM. Birds of a feather stick together.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mikado es Sukado

By Mitchell

The Mikado contains some of W.S. Gilbert’s wittiest, most clever lines, and some of Arthur Sullivan’s most operatic music. It’s one of the most popular, and most often performed, of the duo’s operettas, and it was the attraction Saturday night in a sly, witty, rambunctious production by the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company. The GSVLOC, as their name would suggest, has specialized in G&S for almost 30 years, with one featured production a year (and occasional performances at the Lake Harriet Bandshell).

It’s hard to really know how to review a community production like this. It’s not as if the reader is going to use this as a guide on how to spend his entertainment dollars. For one thing, the production only runs through April 1. For another, you’d have to travel to Minneapolis to see it. (It’s sold out anyway, in case you were interested, but there’s always standby).

However, assuming all that, there’s a lot to talk about with this production, the strongest we’ve seen from GSVLOC in several years.

First of all, a word about last year. You may recall that we had some problems with a director who seemed utterly committed to imprinting her chromosomes on a political interpretation of a contemporary political interpretation of Princess Ida, even (or especially) where none existed. But where we criticize, we also give credit when it’s due; and this year, happily, there was no such problem. In fact, Joseph Andrews, the director of this production, even expressed his own reservations about gimmicky stagings of classic productions. But how to keep it fresh? The end result, as Andrews put it, was to “remain true to the magic and merriment of the original production, but also offer the slightest hint of newness to the production for you, our loyal audience.” Considering what we’ve experienced over the years, this could have been a cause for some discreet concern, but Andrews was true to his word. The innovations were slight, consisting mostly of a play-within-a-play format, in reality the guise for a tribute to Warren Loud, the oldest member of the GSVLOC and a veteran of many a production, now confined to a wheelchair.

The show opened with a brief introductory piece, the story of an old man (Loud) preparing to move from his home, while the movers and his family bustled about. The movers were, of course, meant to suggest various characters in the operetta, while his three granddaughters were, naturally, the three young girls and the shrewish daughter turned out to be Katisha, the shrewish – well, more about that later. To pass the time, one of the girls (later seen as Yum Yum) puts on the record player a recording of one of the Old Man’s favorite pieces, The Mikado, and we hear a snippet of the actual recording of the overture, before the live orchestra (well-conducted by Roderick Phipps-Kettlewell) takes over. This set piece closed with a charming montage of pictures of Loud’s life, leading into the beginning of the show. And a crowd-pleasing show it was.

The evening (as well as the story itself) belonged to Peter Hedlesky as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. In a role that has been played by everyone from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Groucho Marx, Hedlesky pulled it off with a style that would have done Cyril Ritchard proud, a performance that managed at once to be arrogant, timid, mincing, sly, and altogether winning.

Since so much of the action swirls around Ko-Ko, it’s important for the success of the production to have someone who can pull it off. As the haughty government official, engaged to marry his ward Yum Yum, keeping her from her true love Nanki Poo, he should be the villain of the piece. Yet it’s obvious that Ko-Ko isn’t really bad – he’s an Executioner who can’t stomach the thought of killing anyone, a man who, when Nanki Poo boldly professes his love for Yum Yum, agrees – after all, it’s nice to have someone confirm his good taste! It is Ko-Ko to whom Gilbert has given many of the funniest lines, and if you don’t have an actor who can win the audience over, who can make them identify with instead of scorn him, those lines are going to fall flat. And he’s far too sympathetic to resent – even Nanki Poo, whom Ko-Ko has just sentenced to death (nothing personal you understand, just a legal arrangement) doesn’t hold it against him.

Ko-Ko’s partner in crime, as it were, is the impious Poo Bah, played with flair by John-Scott Moir. Poo Bah is every bit as arrogant as Ko-Ko should be, but masks it beneath a false humility of sorts, hilariously rationalizing his corruption by insisting that it offends his sensibilities and family honor to constantly have to wield power and accept bribes. Like Koko, his is bluster with no bite, a man who, in the all-too-familiar words of many a political operative, is “someone you can work with.”

Timothy James plays our hero, Nanki Poo, the lovelorn troubadour (second trombone) who in reality is the son of the imperial king, the Mikado. Last year in Princess Ida we thought he was perhaps a little light as far as the voice, with a sound more suited to musical theater than operetta. We still think so, but he’s so winning in his portrayal, making you root for him even though you know he’s going to get the girl in the end. Then there is his beloved Yum Yum, played capably by Sarah Wind. Yum Yum is a little of everything – vain, insecure, selfish, giving, despairing, delighting. In other words, the mass of contradictions that is typical of so many young girls. (I don’t believe Gilbert ever goes into detail on how old Yum Yum is supposed to be, but I’d guess she couldn’t be much over 20, if that.) Wind seems to capture these mood swings with the just the right combination of seriousness and absurdity that makes the role work.

The rest of the cast does equally well, particularly Lara Trujillo as Katisha, the jilted woman who was engaged to Nanki Poo and then lost him (and after meeting her, you’ll have no trouble understanding why the guise of a traveling troubadour seemed a preferable alternative for Nanki Poo) and has now come looking for him. This could be a standard Wicked Witch-type role, but Trujillo seems to find the humanity buried beneath the surface. And then there’s Christopher Michela’s Mikado, and I would swear that he was channeling The Great Gildersleeve, with his rolling eyes, mustache, and voice inflections (if you’ve ever seen a clip of the old Jack Benny program where Jack encounters a floorwalker in a department store, you’ll know exactly what I mean).

This was a Mikado for pop culture sensibilities, as evidenced by the Act 2 PowerPoint presentation used to show the inverse relationship between executions and the well-being of the people. It was perhaps a little over the top, but all in good fun, so we’ll give it a pass. Also requiring passes were the snide little jabs at the current administration in Washington that were slipped into the libretto (jokes based on current events being a trademark of G&S performances). We didn’t really mind Bill Frist being included as one of the names in “I’ve Got a Little List” (after all, how could you pass up the chance to rhyme “Frist” and “List”?) but including those who believed in Weapons of Mass Destruction as members of that list (which is a list of people that the world could do without) seemed to be pushing things a bit much. And then there was the slide in the PowerPoint that purported to show the number of people injured in hunting accidents with the Vice President, along with a reminder to “thank Dick and Lynne.” Really, what is it that makes these artist types assume that their audience is comprised exclusively of liberals? (On the other hand, after looking at the bumper stickers in the parking lot after the performance, it’s hard to blame them for coming to that conclusion.)

But these amount to mere quibbles. At any rate, those who were in attendance were witness to an evening of fun performed with a reckless abandon. It was the best G&S we’d seen in quite a while. And we left the theater with a smile, which for your entertainment dollar is not a bad exchange at all.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Local Bus Accident Victim Tells St. Peter He Did Know What Hit Him

(St. Paul, MN) Melvin Upshack, 58, a local plumber and part-time bartender who died in a bus accident in downtown St. Paul, reportedly gave full details of the fatal accident to St. Peter upon entering eternity at approximately 3:47 p.m. last Friday afternoon.

"Oh, I knew what hit me alright," said Melvin "It was the Route 17 bus making a big right turn onto Wabasha. I was kind of not paying attention when I stepped off the curb, and there it was, bearing down on me like a big falling building. Before I could jump back, it hit me full force, crackin' my head open like an overripe cantaloupe. It was my own fault, I ain't blaming no one. But no one should say, 'well, ol' Melvin never knew what hit him.' I knew all right, and it hurt like hell."

Melvin's report to the heavenly authorities, carried on a number of special access celestial blogs, apparently contradicts the time-honored notion that many people involved in sudden, catastrophic events blissfully enter the afterlife without an awareness of the violence being wracked upon their mortal frame. Not so, says Melvin.

"I've already met a bunch of other people up here who also knew exactly what hit them. Bomb blasts, hunting accidents, volcanic eruptions. I even heard from one guy smashed by a falling wheelbarrow. It don't take long to figure out what's happening, just a milisecond, actually. But that's enough.”

In the end, Melvin sounded an eternally philosophical note. “None of it is pretty, man, but it's real. We got to face up to that. The truth ain't gonna hurt nobody. Well, actually it might, but not as much as that bus."

Hadleyblogger Mary contributed to this report.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Happy Birthday, Number 6

By Mitchell

It's the 79th birthday today of Patrick McGoohan, star of one of the greatest TV series of all time, The Prisoner. We really should spend time talking about this someday, this allegorical series that more than any other demonstrates the glory of the human individual against all efforts of "the system," whatever that might happen to represent. It should come as no surprise that McGoohan and the series have been longtime favorites of ours.

But in the meantime, suffice it to say that, without any previous knowledge of the significance of this date, we spent this evening's DVD Theatre watching the 17th and final episode of The Prisoner (plus some assorted bonus features), bringing to an end our most recent Monday night tradition. Imagine our surprise then, upon looking up some minute detail of the series, to discover that it was McGoohan's birthday. Conspiracy aficionados would want to make something of it. We prefer to think of it as kismet.

At any rate, many happy returns (coincidentally, the title of episode number 7 of the series, which is also one number more than six) to a terrific actor whose work - Ice Station Zebra, Bravehart, three memorable appearances on Columbo, and many others - should be constantly appreciated. If you've not seen him lately, check him out here, and appreciate him in his own time.

Wish I'd Written That...

By Judith

"If [Theodore] Dreiser was a genius, as so many critics of the twenties and thirties devoutly believed, then he was an idoit savant, capable of creating unforgettable characters on paper but devoid of any other gift save an uncanny knack for persuading women to have sex with him. Even the staunchest of his supporters would be reduced to despair by the impenetrable stupidity with which he dabbled in the great political issues of his time. Mencken spoke of his 'insatiable appetite for the not true,' while a more recent critic, who praised him as 'America's greatest novelist,' went on to describe him as a 'bore, crank, celery-juice drinker, and member of the select company of morons who believed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was part Jewish,' an indictment that would be funnier were it even slightly exaggerated. Ultimately his passion for politics killed his art stone dead. He spent the last twenty years of his life snuffling out causes like a truffle-hunting pig, and never wrote another readable word."

Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Around the Web

By Drew

Over at 2Blowhards, Michael (who so coureously links to our blog) has another good post, this time on Leni Riefenstahl. You'll recall that we blogged about her last year. Be sure to not only read the piece, but also the fine comments (including one by yours truly).

Mitchell tells me he thinks 2Blowhards was the first non-Catholic blog they linked to when they started Our Word, and I can see why. Consistently informative, eclectic, and fun. In other words, a perfect fit for us. Be sure and check it out!

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Stupdity of the Mega Millions Jackpot

By Bobby

The lure of "lotteries for education" under the Zell Miller Education Planin Georgia has pushed North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Oklahoma into implementing state-run "education lotteries" in the past ten years. Unfortunately, people do not understand the stupidity of the lure of Mega Millions or Powerball, the other major multiple state lottery game, now run in a majority of states of the Union.

Seven years ago, when I began to take control of my investments through advice learned from The Motley Fool by deciding to participate in Dividend Reinvestment Plans, I learned the dollars dropped into a DRIP program would cash more than money placed in a state lottery.

People should understand that instead of spending ten or twenty dollars persession on the false hope of winning the multiple-state lotteries, the two big-money multiple-state lotteries, the twenty to forty dollars could be held in savings, and keeping the savings to the point you can invest up to fifty dollars in a strong stock, mutual fund, or index fund. Many well-managed firms such as SCANA, Duke Energy, and Lowe's (I own all three) offer Dividend Reinvestment Programs which allow you to spend as little as $25 (that's probably one to three cycles of lottery drawings) per payment,and others such as Exxon Mobil $50 (two to six cycles of lottery drawings) to participate in the programs, once you purchase your first share through programs where you buy your first share directly from another person through a program similar to First Share. (If you do not own the shares required, you may also spend $250 to participate in the program without buying shares from another party.)

When you consider the money wasted in the big lottery drawings by the millions of losers who do not make it rich, and you avoid them by pouring your cash into stocks you study, you will be guaranteed winners by studying the stocks and their industries. Ten dollars in a well-performing stock or mutual fund (even if that is just a fraction of a share) will beat even one dollar in the false hopes any day.

Once the big lottery dream fades away, and someone has won the money, the millions of losers will be beating themselves for the money that ran away from them. But those who poured their $10 and $20 bills instead into buying stocks will be rewarded with investments which will last the test of time, and will be paying themselves every quarter.

The investing money will pay dividends which can be reinvested long after the wasted dollars of an euphoric mega-jackpot lottery are gone.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Breaking News

Al-Qaida Leader Confess to 9/11, Beheadings, and A Few Thousand Other Acts of Terror

(WASHINGTON) — In a military hearing held last Saturday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to planning and helping to carry out a far-ranging list of dozens of terror attacks, including the 9/11 suicide hijackings in New York that took the lives of more than 3,000 people. He also said he personally beheaded American journalist Daniel Pearl, shot a Marine in Kuwait, and devised other plans to destroy the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower in Chicago, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The 26-page transcript of the confession, released by the Pentagon yesterday, also revealed that Mohammed claims to have been behind the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the murder of Nicole Simpson, the crash of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Luisitania, and the collapse of the Chicago Cubs in the 2003 National League Championship Series.

"I was not, however, in Dallas in November 1963 and had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination," he is quoted as saying. "Those who claim to have pictures of me on the grassy knoll are merely trouble-making infidels."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Denny Hecker Named Minnesota "Czar"

(Inver Grove Heights, MN)--In a stunning but not totally unexpected move, local car dealer and uber-businessman Denny Hecker has officially been named "Czar of the State of Minnesota" by Governor Tim Pawlenty and the Minnesota legislature.

"This is something that would have happened eventually," said Pawlenty, "so we decided to just move ahead and finalize it. There are some forces that are just too big to stop."

Hecker's expanding business presence now includes real estate, mortgage companies, life and property insurance and financial services. A line of Hecker "one-stop life stations," including birth centers, grocery stores, funeral homes and crematoriums is also being planned. In addition, The Wall Street Journal reports that Hecker is in negotiations to buy every major professional sports team in the state, including the Twins and Vikings. Hecker's press secretary would neither confirm nor deny those reports.

"Look, there are worse people we could have given this power to," said Pawlenty, speaking at an official coronation gathering at Hecker's palatial home in Inver Grove Heights. "We see Denny every day, on billboards, the sides of buses, in TV ads. His bland, white, nondescript face has a definite Minnesota feel to it. We know Denny. And he knows us. He knows our needs. He will take care of us."

In the first official act of his reign as "Minnesota Czar," Hecker announced on his talk-radio program that Minneapolis and St. Paul will now officially merge into one large, centrally governed entity that will be officially known as Heckersville.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Wish I'd Written That...

By Mitchell

What They Don't Want You to Learn from Evelyn Waugh

"Art," the only aim of which is to annoy and upset its audience, isn't really art.

Elizabeth Kantor, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature

Monday, March 12, 2007

Culture Is Where You Find It

By Bobby

Culture has been an issue, as I have read in the past few installments. But it reminds me of this from a 2001 National Review Online piece, written after Dale Earnhardt Snr's death:

"But the most glorious aspect of all is the fact that racing represents a total rejection of several negative cultural developments. This fact is quite obvious to anyone who attends a NASCAR event.

"Races open with a prayer and a showing of the national colors, both of which are reverently received despite the fact that many fans are ingesting booze at a ferocious clip. Because prayer has now been officially deemed as a private ritual, the sight of 100,000 or so bowed heads at a non-religious gathering is a reminder of how much religion once infused American life.

"This can cause despair among nostalgic members of the audience, yet they can be assured that the Good Lord is much more likely to make his reappearance at a NASCAR race than at a general convention of the Episcopal Church, for the crowd will be much friendlier. "

(NOTE: This reference is directly aimed at the lack of beliefs in the Episcopal Church because of the scandals in the church. You may have heard of many of those scandals, mainly because they have turned their back on the faith in favour of social actions promoting leftist views. Since this column was written in 2001, a rule change was implemented in 2004 where drivers are now required out of their cars during all official pre-race ceremonies, and the Episcopal Church elected both Bishop Schori and also Bishop Robinson.)

"Pious heads return to earth at the start of the engines. These horses roar. Because sound begets sound, soon enough the audience is roaring as well. This is helped along by the fact that race patrons are allowed to bring in their own alcohol, which is in great contrast to other professional sports, which not only insist that the public pay for stadiums through tax increases but mercilessly gouge the drinking public. "

(As a rule, most speedways are not funded by taxpayers; they are paid by entrepreneurs, such as Kevin Whitaker, the Greenville-Pickens Speedway owner, who owns a local Chevrolet dealership in the area. In your state, Elko Speedway is not funded by the government. Elko drivers race for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Minnesota State Championship. Some tracks have banned bringing alcohol in the wake of 9/11 and strictler laws.

In some states, you cannot bring alcohol to the venue if they are selling booze. You can bring your own sandwiches and drinks -- preferable non-alcoholic -- at the hotel, camper, or home, and have them ready to munch at the track.)

And drivers aren't afraid to make public appearances, and that includes the ballet, the orchestra, or Broadway theatre (which some drivers and crew are known to visit during their championship banquet week).

In 1998, Texas Motor Speedway had Van Cliburn play the National Anthem for their race, owing to Cliburn being from Fort Worth.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Art and Politics, Part 4

An Our Word Roundtable

(For parts one through three of this discussion, see here, here and here.)

*****

Mitchell: Well, we seem to have gotten a little afar afield here, when the original question was dealing with the leftist slant of political opera.

Judith: I think your point was that just because art is political doesn’t mean it has to be ideological. And even if it is, it still has to have that sense of timelessness in order to be real art.

Mitchell: Look at Stravinsky – what was the ballet he did, the one that caused so much ruckus? Not The Firebird.

Judith: The Rite of Spring.

Mitchell: That's it. Remember the riots that happened when that was first performed? People were up in arms. That was very provocative, because it broke the mold of what people were expecting. So in that sense I’d submit it was a very political work.

Drew: It’s a great piece – a landmark in classical music.

Mitchell: And the point is, Stravinsky isn’t trying to make an ideological statement in the way we’d think of it today. So let’s accept for the moment that “political” doesn’t necessarily have to mean ideological, and it doesn’t have to be bad. That still doesn’t answer the question as to why it seems to belong to the left-wing.

Drew: Well, I think this is something I suggested in my piece a couple of weeks ago about ceding artistic endeavors over to homosexuals. The same goes for non-homosexual driven political art. The question is whether or not the right is going to cede the entire realm of art over to the left. Whether we’re talking about music or movies or literature, it’s very difficult to find something that isn’t agenda-driven. And in most cases that agenda is a liberal one.

Mitchell: People aren’t stupid. They can see an agenda being pushed. And a lot of the time it’s pushing them in a direction they don’t necessarily want to go. Furthermore, the message – and it doesn’t have to be subliminal, it’s often overt – is that if you don’t go along with it, if you don’t see the artistic merit in it, then that means you don’t “understand” it. So if you don’t agree with them, then it’s your fault.

Judith: Part of the problem is that for so much of red America, there’s an instinctive suspicion of things like classical music. You know, the arts-and-croissants crowd that Rush Limbaugh always used to talk about.

Mitchell: The thing is, and I probably sound like an elitist liberal for saying it, but for a lot of cultural conservatives their idea of high culture is NASCAR and country music.

Drew: Gag me! [Laughter]

Mitchell: Although we've got good friends, including people who blog here, who are country and NASCAR fans. I mean, I'll watch NASCAR myself, at least Daytona or Indy. I'm talking about people who view that, often defiantly, as a substitute for culture, rather than a part of it.

Judith: Sure. But Rush was right, and Paglia makes the same point. Even though the art itself might not be political – it’s hard to see how the left is going to co-opt Mendelssohn into their sphere of influence – you’re talking about the people who hang around art. And there are plenty of times when you and I can feel out of our element in a crowd like that. It’s when you learn to keep your mouth shut.

Drew: And you can’t just let them define themselves as the audience. That’s why they’re able to go around with such a smug attitude toward everything.

Judith: But at the same time conservatives have to be very careful that they don’t get iconoclastic about it. That’s the Puritan influence on American culture.

Mitchell: Why shouldn’t conservatives be interested in culture? The bulk of it – several hundred years’ worth – should speak to traditions that conservatives would want to uphold.

Judith: Well, something else that Paglia was talking about in that Colorado College lecture last month was the dramatic cutback of funding for the arts in school, and how that was a reaction to the NEA and the liberal projects they were funding.

Mitchell: Artists like Mapplethorpe, Serrano.

Judith: And conservatives were right to protest against that. But here’s another example where liberals are their own worst enemies, because they wind up antagonizing so many people that it results in cutbacks in arts funding.

Drew: And conservatives have an even greater suspicion of the arts-and-croissants crowd than they did. [Editor: Read what Paglia has to say on this very point, in this piece from 2005.]

Mitchell: Although if you were really cynical –

Drew: Which none of us in this room is. [Laughter]

Mitchell: Heaven forbid! [Laughter] But if you were really cynical, you’d wonder if this is what some of the liberals had in mind to begin with, to drive the conservatives out of the arts field completely so it would be dominated by liberal ideas.

Judith: You wonder how much of the cutback in arts in school is responsible for the coarsening of culture today.

Drew: Certainly they’re not teaching culture in the schools anymore.

Judith: And there’s something wrong with that. Is there any real music appreciation in schools today? I don’t want to sound like a big government conservative, but I’d much rather have the schools teaching about music than they do diversity and multicultural stuff.

Mitchell: Yeah, but then a lot of the great composers wind up getting written off as dead European males. Or Nazis. Or both.

Drew: But that’s what they do anyway.

Judith: I think Paglia may have a point though, that if we’re going to have money put into the school systems it would be nice if they’d teach more music appreciation, get kids involved in it at a younger age. Hopefully you’d have some safeguards on what they’re teaching, though.

Mitchell: There’s something else to this discussion that I want to bring up, and that’s the relationship between truth and art.

Judith: We’re come a long way from that initial statement on political opera.

Mitchell: But I think there’s something else at work here that needs to be pointed out. I did a piece last year on the relationship between truth and art that asked the question, basically, as to whether art that was based on a falsehood could still be considered art. If it’s just opinion, if it’s purely political, that’s one thing. But if it’s based on something that’s objectively false, then is it still worthy of being called art?

Judith: That goes back to what I was saying about timelessness. If it’s based on a falsehood, like you say, then is it going to stand the test of time, or is it going to be exposed for what it is?

Drew: It’s harder to say when you’re talking about music, to find out what it is.

Mitchell: But that brings us back to The Handmaid’s Tale, which was really nothing more than a leftist piece of propaganda. That’s not art.

Drew: No, I’d agree with you, that’s pure politics.

Mitchell: And that’s what it’s going to come to be seen as. It’s a political speech, pure and simple.

Judith: If it was aimed at anyone other than conservative Christians, they'd call it hate speech.

Mitchell: And the author’s got a perfect right to do that, just as I have a perfect right to ignore it. But I’m not going to sit back and have someone tell me that I’m too close-minded to appreciate it as art.

Drew: And you have to ask whether something that’s created primarily to offend can be considered art. Is Piss Christ art? What about The Pope and the Witch?

Mitchell: Well, I have to say first of all that the play hasn’t happened yet, at least when we’re talking about it here [Editor: Shortly after this roundtable, the play was produced in Minneapolis. See here for coverage.], and none of us are planning to go see it, I don’t think.

Judith: No.

Mitchell: But you might as well stage that to music, and maybe the Minnesota Opera would put it on. [Laughter] But that goes beyond offensive speech. It’s blasphemy. It’s a screed, pure and simple, and I don’t see any way that can be considered art. Any of it.

Drew: I think the bottom line here is that there aren’t any easy answers.

Judith: Paglia has it right, I think, when she says there has to be a return to religious inspiration in order to create art. And you can’t have art that’s comprised of blatant attempts to antagonize others.

Mitchell: And conservatives have to take a more active role – not ideologically, necessarily, but don’t let the liberal political agenda drive the artistic agenda. Care about it – don’t write it off, don’t cede it to liberals. Recognize the influence it has on the health of the culture. Don’t let liberals define the art and the audience. Don’t let them politicize everything.

Drew: In other words, art for art’s sake?

Mitchell: I’ll say it again – don’t politicize everything. It’s a message both liberals and conservatives need to appreciate.

Judith: This has been fun.

Drew: We have to do it again sometime.

Mitchell: I’m sure we can find something else to pontificate about. [Laughter]

Art and Politics, Part 3

An Our Word Roundtable

Part three of a four-part roundtable discussion on art and politics (and some other things inbetween). Go here for parts one and two.

*****

Drew: What about the rest of the statement, the attack on “corporate indifference”? What do you think that means?

Mitchell: Well, I suppose there’s a positive side to what he’s talking about. What I mean by that is this: if you assume that Corporate America is “conservative,” then you’re saying that in order to get your political message across you have to do so in a way that makes it more palatable to the public at large. And that means putting it in a more entertaining framework so the corporate suits think it’s something other than what it is. You trick them into backing it because they don’t know what it is they’re putting on. So, assuming that the production they cloak it in has any artistic merit, this could be a good thing. It forces a political message to at least be entertaining at the same time.

Judith: But Ross has also got a point – corporations don’t really care about anything other than the bottom line, and they’ll cut arts funding in order to increase the shareholder return by one penny. Look at what ChevronTexaco did with the Saturday Met broadcasts.

Mitchell: Chesterton would say, I think, that business has a responsibility toward contributing to a culture that enhances the lives of their employees, in more ways than simply making them wage slaves. And while you can certainly make the case that the lack of corporate funding is simply the free market at work, you still have this shift in corporate thinking. Back in the 60s there was a TV show called Voice of Firestone, it had started on radio in 1928 I think, and had moved to TV in the late 40s. It was considered a prestige show, classical music and entertainment, but by the early 60s it had a very low rating and the network - I think it was ABC - wanted to move it out of the way of their more successful shows. Well, Firestone didn't care about the ratings; it had always been good publicity for them, and the audience was loyal even if it was small. ABC wanted to move the show to a later time slot so it didn't drag down the ratings for the rest of the network's shows, and Firestone says, wait a minute, if you put it on at 10:30 it's gonna be too late in the evening for our viewers.

Judith: Because their demographics skewed to an older audience.

Mitchell: Right. Even then the classical music audience was older. And finally Firestone says, in essence, look - this is our show and if you don't put it on at a reasonable time we're going to take it off the air altogether. And that's what they did, and they put all their advertising money into sports. And that's how you got things like the Firestone Tournament of Champions in bowling.

Drew: Your point being, I'd assume, that this was a case where the sponsor was interested in more than making money - they actually felt they were contributing something.

Mitchell: Right. And Judie's example about ChevronTexaco, I wonder if the extra bucks they made by pulling out of their Met sponsorship was really worth it to them.

Judith: I'm sure they thought so. You can never have enough money, right? [Laughter]

Mitchell: And I don't know how you get this back to the idea that corporations are some tool of conservative politics. Maybe they've supported the Republicans in the past, but as I've said, that's hardly a conservative position. To the extent that conservatives have become advocates of entrepreneurship and competition, they're exact opposites of Corporate America, who wants to protect their own status quo. And this is really a pet peeve of mine, this assumption that corporations are conservative institutions, because politically speaking they aren’t.

Judith: Conservatives are seen as guardians of the status-quo, protecting art from deconstruction. Maybe that’s what they mean when they talk about corporations being reluctant to fund controversial material.

Mitchell: But I think you have to get away from this idea of Corporate America as being a conservative bastion. As I’ve said before, and I’ve written a bit about this, in all the important social issues – immigration, diversity, abortion, competition in the marketplace, personal liberty, religious freedom – Corporate America is solidly on the liberal side politically. And face it, if we’re talking about liberalism on campuses – which we haven’t been in this discussion, I know, although we’ve talked about it before – then the CEOs and HR heads that are running corporations today came straight out of that milieu. Can we really be surprised that they’d have a liberal mindset?

Judith: A lot of them vote Republican, though, and give Republican candidates money.

Mitchell: You’re being the devil’s advocate now, because you know conservative and Republican isn’t the same thing at all. And all these corporations are so concerned about being socially responsible, but apparently that doesn’t include the arts.

Drew: Unless it’s some kind of avant-garde project. Or something that will bring them credit from the social elites, for being "relevant."

Mitchell: Xerox was that way in the 60s, always sponsoring socially relevant programming. They even entered into a deal with the UN where they sponsored a series of movies that put the UN in a good light - not overtly, necessarily, I mean in this case it was still entertainment first, politics second, with good writers and all-star casts, and Xerox made it possible for these shows to be on without commercial interruption. And they faced all kinds of opposition from groups like the John Birch Society, but they went ahead with it anyway. And I'm not slamming Xerox here, I'm just making the point that corporations will fund programming when they get good publicity from it, and that usually means some kind of liberal cause.

Drew: Or if they get politically blackmailed into it by some special interest group.

Judith: What about conservative boycotts of offensive shows?

Mitchell: I suppose we're getting a little far afield here, but that's a good point. That's another reaction against what the average person might see as the cultural elite.

Judith: You think those boycotts are products of the average Joe, as opposed to conservative interest groups?

Mitchell: Well, in the sense that the average viewers aren't insisting on having shows laced with their own favorite political content. I think they're just lobbying for political-free content, in not having these TV shows preaching to them. So boycotts may be organized by a group, but I think that average viewer is just fed up with preachy entertainment, which turns out to be not very entertaining.

Judith: Depending on what kind of entertainment it is. It could be the kind of thing that corporations are very attracted to – something that’s new and different, to show that they’re hip and with it. They try so hard, and they don’t really understand what they’re doing, but they want to be attentive to their customers, so they give them what they want. Neat way of avoiding personal responsibility.

Drew: If you want to take another side trip here, let’s look at movie and TV studios as part of corporate America. They aren’t interested in developing art, for the most part. They deal with the lowest common denominator, and for them the bottom line is profit. It's like Mitchell said with that Voice of Firestone example. So you’re not going to be able to sell them on programming as a public service. They’re only interested in ratings and box office returns.

Mitchell: But when they start pushing the liberal agenda, they might give the show more slack. They’ll shower it with critical acclaim, give it a bunch of awards, and then blame the public for not supporting it.

Judith: We’re not smart enough. We don’t have enough taste.

Mitchell: And in some cases they’re right. But if you look at the demographics, what makes money nowadays is the stuff that panders to a particular age group, and that isn’t exactly the group that the three of us belong to. [Laughter]

Drew: Speak for yourself. [Laughter]

Judith: But there really is a sense that everything is changing before our eyes, that the things we used to have are going away, and they aren’t coming back. Do you suppose all generations have felt that way?

Mitchell: To some point, I suppose.

Drew: But the difference today is that culture has become so fragmented. There’s something for everyone, hundreds of TV and radio stations out there, so you don’t have to compromise, you don’t have to produce anything that appeals to any kind of mass audience. With a channel for everyone, there’s no such thing as a shared experience anymore, except for a big news event or the Super Bowl.

Mitchell: And what does that do to our culture?

Drew: It doesn’t help it, that’s for sure. No shared experience, no common language that people speak, where somebody mentions something and automatically everyone else knows what you're talking about.

Mitchell: And in its own way, that’s as much of a political consequence as anything we’ve talked about here.

Judith: A lot of what you see on TV isn’t art, and it doesn’t make any pretension to be art. Those that do are less likely to be actually artistic, and more likely to be political.

Drew: And so we’re right back to where we started.

*****

Tomorrow: the conclusion.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Art and Politics, Part 2

An Our Word Roundtable

Yesterday we introduced a four-part roundtable discussion of politics in the arts. (See the beginning of yesterday's post for the quote that started it all.) Part two continues the discussion. Remember, we're not necessarily experts - just opinionated.

*****

Judith: Let’s talk some more about the inspiration for art. Camille Paglia had a very interesting point in a speech she gave at Colorado College last month – that people need to return to religious roots in order to produce art that is truly inspired. And this from a self-avowed atheist! Granted, someone can have deeply-held political beliefs and the talent to display them artistically, but anything – art or politics – means little if it doesn’t have something deeper than humanism or materialism as the outcome.

Mitchell: As far as I’m concerned, that’s the problem with this so-called “political art” that we’ve been talking about – all that’s really backing it is a political vision. There’s no artistic vision involved. It’s like we keep saying – they’re just preaching to the audience. Their first priority is a political one.

Judith: Remember last year when the Minnesota Opera did The Elephant Man? You mentioned it at the time.

Mitchell: They had this stuff about hosting a forum to discuss the disabled in America, something like that. Again, I think they were using the opera primarily to transmit a political agenda. And again, let’s see if fifty years from now, or even twenty, if The Elephant Man is a part of the standard opera repertoire.

Drew: But your point is that music has always been political, just not as overtly as it is now?

Mitchell: Yeah, there’s always been a political element to music. Mozart wrote The Magic Flute about Freemasonry. Beethoven’s Fidelio had this theme of freedom, the resilience of freedom and how people will always fight against injustice, and that struck a cord in the 30s and 40s when you had these dictatorships in Europe. It was kind of adopted as a theme by people fighting against totalitarianism.

Judith: But the key to these pieces is that the politics was never allowed to overshadow the art. Fidelio contains universal truths, and they’re going to be relevant no matter when it’s performed. But most people are going to appreciate it for the music, for how it sounds.

Drew: You could argue that The Magic Flute is the most heavy-handed of them all, with all that Masonic symbolism they have all over the stage.

Mitchell: And I have to admit that The Magic Flute’s probably my least favorite Mozart opera. You listen to the opera quiz on Saturday afternoons, that’s always the one opera most of them are saying they could go without for awhile.

Drew: But as long as we’re hanging around Germany, we probably ought to talk about Wagner. What about him?

Judith: The Israelis certainly consider his music to be political.

Drew: Yeah, they still don’t allow it to be played in public, although that’s been kind of flaunted in the last few years. I think, what’s his name from Chicago, Daniel Barenboim, performed Wagner in a concert there a few years ago. But you’re right, officially I think it’s still taboo. And there’s certainly no question that Wagner was political, and his politics are pretty odious. But some of this comes from what you read into an artist’s work. He’s bound to show some of himself in his work – he wouldn’t be an artist if he didn’t. And the Nazis certainly adopted him as their Kapellmeister. But here’s my point, and I’ve made this in the past, you can listen to Wagner purely for the music, the shear artistry of the man, and not be overwhelmed by whatever message he might be pushing.

Mitchell: Of course, you’re a big fan of Wagner, as I am.

Drew: Very big. Sure, he’s an acquired taste. You know, Mark Twain said that Wagner’s not as bad as he sounds. And I don’t think that was meant as an endorsement of the man personally, from everything I've read he was a miserable human being, but he wrote some of the loveliest pieces in all of classical music. You shut yourself off from a lot of beauty when you clamp your hands over your ears every time you hear the name of Wagner. And yet I don't blame the Israelis for their attitude.

Judith: The point again is that his music lives outside of the context in which it was written. It’s timeless.

Drew: I wrote this piece about Leni Reifenstahl, the German documentarian, last year. Even though we’re talking about music here, you can’t really talk about Wagner and the Nazis without getting into her. And there are those who see her films as nothing but Nazi propaganda. But if you look at them, they’re captivating, they tell an incredible story. And her techniques were legendary, the kinds of things that she pioneered. You can see her influence in filmmaking all over the place, movies like Star Wars. Again, there’s that timelessness that allows it to continue to be relevant. Maybe her movies were propaganda, although she would have argued that. But they were art as well, and she wasn’t going to make some shrill piece for Hitler that was nothing but clips of him screaming into the microphones and didn’t have any artistic value at all. Maybe people would have watched it back then, because they wouldn’t have had any choice, but we wouldn’t still be talking about it today.

Mitchell: I’m really reluctant to get into The Grapes of Wrath, the Minnesota Opera piece Alex Ross mentions, because we haven’t seen it.

Judith: Didn’t want to see it. Steinbeck’s too preachy in his work. I never cared for his novels when I had to read them in school.

Mitchell: I agree. I think the best thing he probably ever wrote was Travels With Charlie. And I still don’t think there’s any reason to be commissioning a piece like that when there’s so much good stuff out there that’s underperformed. But although people are talking about it like it’s a piece of Americana –

Drew: It is a classic, you have to admit that.

Mitchell: Sure, but there are a lot of classics I don't care for, like The Great Gatsby. Judie’s right, Steinbeck's got a leftist message that must be very attractive to the arts crowd. Would they have been willing to stage an opera based on one of John Dos Passos’ novels?

Judith: Of course not. Once Dos Passos turned to the right, they ostracized him. That’s why he never won a Nobel.

Drew: But that’s something that Ross is talking about, or maybe it was another critic, but Grapes is full of American music, telling the American story. Capturing the sounds of America, that kind of thing.

Mitchell: Which makes me think that it’s more properly musical theater than opera. But that’s for another time.

Drew: But I think the point is that it appears less threatening that way, and it makes the message more agreeable to people because they can appreciate that it sounds good.

Mitchell: You might have a point there. We’ll just have to wait and see if it catches on, if we still see it being performed 20 years from now. But you don’t deny that it’s got a liberal message.

Drew: No, of course not. It’s one man's opinion of the American story. And I think you’re right, how much of a factor did that play in its selection as a commissioned piece by the Minnesota Opera?

Mitchell: When you’ve got underperformed pieces like Menotti’s The Consul that aren’t performed as much any more.

Judith: I was wondering when you’d bring up Menotti. [Laughter]

Drew: At least from a topical standpoint, The Consul is as relevant as anything that’s out there today.

Judith: As long as you’ve got dictators and totalitarianism, you’re always going to be able to tell a story like that.

Mitchell: And that’s what makes it timeless.

Judith: Again, but that’s why it’s art and not just a political message. Because it can be performed without seeming to be a museum piece. Maybe the music’s dated, although I didn’t think so the last time I heard it, but as far as the story goes it’s as political as anything Verdi or Rossini would have written, and just as timeless.

*****

Tomorrow: part three.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Civility on the Right

By Drew

I don't know this for a fact, but since we make such a big deal here about civility, I suspect a few of those lefty bloggers might be wondering about the Ann Coulter deal. Again, Stanley Kurtz at NRO says all we'd need to say about it:

What to make of all this? I’ve already argued that Peter Wood gets in right, in his new book A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. There’s plenty of anger out there on both the left and the right. Yet there’s also a difference between the two
sides. The right is embarrassed by the new vulgarity, as we see in the move by conservative bloggers to repudiate Coulter. The left, on the other hand, seems at home with New Anger, as we see in The Nation’s defense of the Edwards bloggers, and in Wolfe’s failure to recognize the troubling nature of his conservative-fascist comparison.

That, it seems to me, is the main point.

A Discussion on Art and Politics

An Our Word Roundtable

We’re going to try something new here at Our Word – a roundtable discussion featuring some of our contributors.

The occasion for this symposium is a quote from Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, and author of the blog The Rest Is Noise, which we link to here. In a wide-ranging discussion, we talk about the premise of the quote – that political opera is almost always of the left-wing variety – and segue into other topics: why liberals are predominant in the arts, whether or not political art is really art, the relationship between art and truth, the impact all of this has on culture and society, and the influence of corporate America.

The participants are Mitchell and Judith, the managing editors of Our Word, and contributing editor Drew. Those of you who are regular readers probably would figure it wouldn’t take much to get this group started, and you’d be right. We’ll start this multi-part discussion with the quote itself:

“Political opera—by which one almost invariably means politics of the near- to far-left varieties, right-wing classical composers being an elusive species—faces an obvious paradox. Opera houses draw a diverse public, but for financial support they lean heavily on mega-wealthy corporations and executives, whose labor practices and moral self-justifications would elicit new blasts of invective from the likes of Brecht and Steinbeck. Brecht wanted to use opera as a kind of Trojan horse, to enter the palaces of the upper classes and prick their conscience. Gordon, Korie, and the Minnesota Opera administration seem to have had a similar purpose in mind, smuggling a fairly savage attack on corporate indifference into yet another musicalization of a familiar book. Chances are that no minds or hearts will be changed, but you have to admire the brass of a composer who makes the line “It’s not my fault” a four-note echo of Beethoven’s Fifth.”

Mitchell: So what do we make of that?

Drew: Well, personally I like Beethoven's Fifth. [Laughter]

Mitchell: He calls Brecht the great politicizer of art. So it's all Brecht's fault. End of discussion. [Laughter]

Judith: It's a very thought-provoking article - he's a terrific writer. I don’t think anyone can disagree with what he said about political opera, or a lot of art for that matter, being left-wing. It’s true because it’s true. The question is why?

Drew: As I see it, there are several issues involved here. You’ve got the question as to whether or not it’s true that there’s a liberal bias in political opera – or other kinds of political art.

Mitchell: I think we’re all on board with that.

Drew: Then there’s the secondary questions – why is it this way, has it always been this way? What does this mean for art in general?

Mitchell: As to the why, I mentioned last week that I thought there was this idea of substituting self-satisfaction for actual accomplishment. And I thought one of the reasons for that was that our culture and our economy have changed the emphasis from manufacturing to service. So rather than actually getting something done, you find it easier to tear the other guy down. In this case liberals find it more important to make great pronouncements and lecture people than they do to create transcendental art. You know the old saying, “Those who can, do – those who can’t teach”? Same kind of thing, I think. It’s easier to talk about a problem or an issue than it is to do something.

Drew: So conservatives tend to look at manufacturing as accomplishing something, and they’re probably thinking, do you really accomplish the same kind of thing by, let’s say, acting? They would probably think not. Now, where do they get that mindset? To be honest, I think liberals feel the same way, deep down. What else to explain why they’re always getting involved in social causes? Maybe a lot of them really do care, but they’re also trying to justify the huge sums of money they make. The Protestant Work Ethic still exists to some extent in this culture, and so does liberal guilt. That’s the big thing driving them, liberal guilt.

Mitchell: Definitely.

Drew: And so they have this liberal guilt about being successful, about having boatloads of money, and they think they have to justify it somehow, they have to validate themselves because deep down they suspect they aren’t doing anything that’s really all that important. I don’t think conservatives have that same sense of guilt, and that might be why they don’t feel they have to assuage their consciences.

Judith: You hit on something there by talking about “transcendental.” For a work of art to truly be art, it has to be able to transcend its own time. So much of this political art we’re talking about is so topical – the artist has substituted political polemics for actual creation, which is I think what you were just saying – that when you look at it a few years down the line it just looks old and dated. It doesn’t have any real staying power. For it to truly be art, it has to have a sense of timelessness, of always being relevant in a way. Beautiful music will always be relevant because the chords it strikes resonate in us – it’s part of the natural rhythm of life. That’s why some art, even though it might have started out to be political, lives long after the political issue has faded away.

Mitchell: Well, and you know this because I do it around you all the time, I’m always talking about looking at things in context. You can’t remove something from the original context from which it came and expect to fully understand it. But by the same token, for art to be truly timeless, it has to be able to exist outside that context at the same time. Is that what you’re saying?

Judith: Exactly. Look at the Bauhaus movement in architecture. That was definitely a political statement, and I’m not sure it wasn’t an ideological political statement. It might have suited the times, but if you look at the buildings that came out of that era today they fall completely flat. They’re cold, gray, lifeless, without any kind of beauty. They look like prisons. They leave the observer totally unmoved. They’ve failed to live outside their own time – their context, as you put it.

Mitchell: Sounds like you're talking about a modern Catholic church. [Laughter]

Judith: But look at Verdi. His operas were extremely political. It wasn’t just the music he was interested in. He worked directly on the libretto to make sure it emphasized political points.

Mitchell: Sure, but Verdi wasn’t about to sublimate art to politics. While the political aspect was important, it was more important to him that it was a good piece of art, with music that sounded good that people would want to listen to. You have to keep in mind that a lot of these composers were working on commission – they couldn’t afford to make something that people wouldn’t buy tickets to. Verdi was an artist – he wanted something that was a work of art, not just a political screed. He was entertaining people, not just lecturing them.

Drew: And look at Verdi today. Or Puccini. Classics. Take Tosca – we don’t really have an appreciation for the political elements they were concerned with. We have to have them explained to us in the program notes. But how much does that matter? We don’t need to know about politics to appreciate the story – love, jealousy, political intrigue. Maybe he was making a statement by having Cavaradossi paint his painting in a church, but that’s not important for most of us. His music lives beyond his politics.

Judith: Does that mean you have to put some distance between yourself and the events someone is writing about before you can appreciate them? Does that mean an opera like Nixon in China will have more of a shelf life as we get further away from it as a historical event?

Drew: Well, I don’t know about that. I don’t think Nixon is a very good opera myself.

Judith: Man, I hope not. John Adams has to be one of the most boring composers around. His music might work well as background noise, but it just doesn’t go anywhere.

Mitchell: Adams, and Philip Glass. I see the Met is doing Satyagraha next season. I’m not sure I want to keep my Saturday afternoon open for that. [Laughter] You notice it’s not on their HD schedule.

Drew: The point is, you take a piece of crap like The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Minnesota Opera thought they were being very daring in putting that on. It’s hard to see that anyone’s really going to appreciate that as anything other than a political screed. Once it’s removed from its political environment, does anyone really think that’s going to be seen as a classic a hundred years from now? That’s not transcendent, it’s shrill hectoring.

Mitchell: I think liberals are just more political in general, their lives revolve around it. That’s not to say that there aren’t conservatives who are the same way.

Judith: We met enough of them when we were in politics.

Mitchell: Yeah. But so many liberals, they’re defined by their liberalism because for them there’s nothing else. I’ve talked about this before, about stand-up comics, especially the political ones, who get applause instead of laughs when they tell a joke. Now, the only time I think a stand-up should get applause is at the end of the act, when he’s going off stage. The rest of the time people should be laughing. But they tell these jokes, and they aren’t very funny. The audience applauds to show they’re in tune with what he’s saying, like, “Yeah, I agree with that!” They approve of the content, they agree with his viewpoint. But they’re not laughing, because he’s not funny.

Drew: You have to wonder how much you see that in political art. I mean, how many of these pieces get staged not because they’re any good, but because the producers agree with the ideology expressed in it? But if you’re staging productions not because of the artistic content but because of the political message, you’re going to appeal to a very narrow audience – the people who share that viewpoint. The rest of them, you’re going to turn off. And then they’re going to wonder why they don’t draw much of an audience, why there are so many empty seats and they have problems paying the bills.

Judith: Because of the liberal message?

Drew: Yeah, and because people ultimately want to be entertained. They don’t mind something with substance, I think a lot of people hunger for that. But they don’t want to be lectured to.

Mitchell: No, and that’s part of what I’m saying. You can do it one of two ways. You can either make a work of art that has a political message but is first and foremost an expression of art, or you can do something that is first and foremost a political lecture, really, with some tinkling in the background. And you can decide how you want it to be remembered.

Judith: Who was it, Sam Goldwin, who always said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Mitchell: Yeah, exactly.

Drew: That’s part of taking back the culture. You look at some of the so-called art that’s out there today, whether we’re talking about political or religious, and the stuff that the conservatives come up with is so heavy-handed it isn’t even good. Some of these religious novels, for example, are just evangelistic screeds. They aren’t concerned with plot development or character development. All they want is to deliver a message. They’re very earnest, and sincere.

Judith: That’s about the most damning praise you can give.

Drew: Yeah. I’m sure the people who write this stuff mean well, but they’re not really concerned with creating a work of art. Same with paintings. You see the one of Jesus helping a kid hit a baseball, and I appreciate the feeling, but it’s all kitchy sentiment. It’s greeting card stuff, it belongs on the Hallmark Channel. It’s hardly Caraveggio. And art ought to appeal to more than just sentiment. It should appeal to the intellect as well.

Mitchell: But now you sound like you’re making a case for political opera.

Drew: No. That’s all the other direction – all intellect and no sentiment – or let’s say sensual, rather than sentiment. We’re talking about something that appeals to the senses, and political polemics thinly disguised as art doesn’t appeal to any sense other than anger. What I mean is that conservatives have to realize that getting into the arts means more than simply creating a piece based on an agenda. It may mean the absence of any political theme at all – that alone would distinguish it from the stuff a lot of liberals put out. Just don’t be so heavy-handed, is what I’m saying. Try to make something worthwhile, instead of playing a game that the liberals already play, and better than we do.

*****

In part two of our roundtable discussion, we'll discuss the inspiration for art, the substance of political art, and more on the need for art to be timeless.

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