Friday, December 2, 2011

Meantime, in Publishing News...

Economies on the brink of disaster and youth unemployment at 25-year high, but there's some good news from the publishing world: Pippa Middleton has been paid to - maybe - write a book!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hermione Granger and Hollywood

As Hermione Granger grew up, her bookish, brainy persona was reduced to being more sexy, less threatening – and less magical. --- In The Guardian

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pride in the Yankees

It was a good month to be proud – proud to be a New Yorker, proud to be on the right side of history. On June 24, New York became the largest state to legalize marriage equality. There were predictable howls, of course, but they were hard to hear amid the cries of joy. As though it had been staged, the vote came through on Friday night, still early enough to bring hordes of people to the Stonewall Inn, the bar where on June 28, 1969, riots began that presaged the modern gay civil rights movement. This night, things had come full circle. And with the annual Pride Parade on Sunday, it was icing – and a couple – on the cake.

With a majority vote and the governor's signature, citizens became that much more equal and the union that much more perfect.

But what took so long? Because for every person who insists it's too soon, that humanity isn't ready for single-sex marriage, there are hundreds of others who are sorry and ashamed that the path to equality in what's supposed to be one of the freest nations on earth has been so slow and rocky, to say nothing of unfinished.

Future citizens will cringe. Much as we cringe at photos of water fountains with the word "Colored" tacked over them, or at images of Phyllis Schlafly leading the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment, so will there be universal shuddering at photos of the 2008 California state ballot, with Proposition 8 inside – people's basic civil rights, being put to a vote, as though the rights of people to live and love as they want were no different than determining allocation of funds for state parks.

But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." We rarely move with the haste we should, but we do move. We turn our anger into power, and we achieve change.

And it does take anger. Organizations like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis had worked tirelessly to achieve gay rights, but the rage unleashed by Stonewall pushed everything out into the open. It's a point made in Larry Kramer's 1985 play 'The Normal Heart,' fortuitously in revival on Broadway. The play is about the rise of the AIDS crisis. At the time, it was a call to action. Now, it is history.

Thirty years ago, on July 3, 1981, the New York Times published its first article about AIDS. It was written by Lawrence K. Altman and called "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." The slowness of state, government, and media to take action during the early days of the pandemic is another point that makes us cringe – San Francisco ran rings around New York in pouring money into health care. In 'The Normal Heart,' a character asks why those who rioted at Stonewall and formed the Gay Liberation Front didn't fight for right to get married, instead of the right to legitimize promiscuity. Later, it's pointed out that "Maybe if they'd let us get married to begin with, none of this would have happened at all."

With the "Defense of Marriage Act" still federal law, 'The Normal Heart' isn't yet as purely historical as we'd like it to be.

'The Normal Heart' won three Tony Awards on June 12, 2011. The ceremony was hosted by openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris and featured an opening number in which he sang that Broadway "is not just for gays anymore." It was hilarious and even audacious and highlighted the historical home theatre has always been for gay men and women. But the Tonys of the past few years are also remarkable for what hasn't been part of the ceremony. As the 1980s wore on, the "In Memoriam" segment featured dozens of young men. Year after year, the audience was shown an entire generation of theatre professionals being destroyed. Those faces, each a slap in the nation's face for not doing more, more quickly, have been mercifully absent in recent years. The men, and the theatre, are alive.

We're still too far away from full equality for all citizens. But New York took an important step towards making what was once deviant, normal. And for that, we can be truly proud.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Post on Guernica's Blog

I am very honored to be published on Guernica Magazine's blog today, discussing the current war on women and how keeping poor women down is literally medieval:

Guernica / Sarah-Jane Stratford: The Taming of the Screw

Comments at Guernica most appreciated. Thank you!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

'Spider-Man' Is (Not) the Stuff of Legend

It's back. Although it never really went away.

'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' officially opened on Broadway last night, after a record 180-odd previews (some well-reviewed new plays don't run as long), several serious injuries, and a critical bludgeoning on what was meant to have been one of its opening nights, back in February.

At that time, New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote, "“Spider-Man” is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst." After the much-discussed sacking of the show's director, Julie Taymor, and an extensive rewrite, Brantley acknowledges that the show has improved: "this singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore."

'Spider-Man' is one of those shows that's becoming all too common on Broadway – the show that gets produced because it seems like a sure thing. It comes outfitted with its own brand. Tourists know what they're getting without needing a précis, and so long as they are given a spectacle, they will walk away happy. And it's critic-proof.

Which this mostly is. Even prior to the re-work, 'Spider-Man' was one of the few shows regularly playing to full capacity. Whether that was because of the above reasons for why it was produced, or because its troubles became legendary enough that people had to see it just to enjoy a train wreck, hardly matters. It's bringing people in, and may continue to do so.

But no matter how much redemption it might be said to earn in the form of box office receipts, the stories of its troubles will always cling like stubborn cobwebs. Putting aside those audiences, it might be Broadway's 'Heaven's Gate.'

(for those who thought that honor goes to the notorious 'Moose Murders,' which Frank Rich reviewed so memorably in the Times, the difference is that 'Moose Murders' was a comparatively inexpensive production.)

The similarities between 'Spider-Man' and 'Heaven's Gate' are striking. Director Michael Cimino, fresh off his Oscar win for 'The Deer Hunter,' was touted as a visionary (although without question, Ms. Taymor is far more deserving of that accolade). He was given a lot of money and free rein to make his film, which almost immediately ran over budget and schedule. The executives at United Artists were tempted to fire him, but the dailies were beautiful and, after all, the man was an Academy-certified visionary. He finally gave them a film that was five hours and twenty-five minutes long. They forced him to cut it to four hours and the result was famously described by Times critic Vincent Canby as an "unqualified disaster" and similar to a "forced four-hour tour of one's own living room."

'Heaven's Gate' was promptly yanked from theatres and edited down to 140 minutes – this time, without the director's participation. It was then re-released. Roger Ebert was one of many critics who still could find nothing good to say about it. He noted that "If the film was formless at four hours, it was insipid at 140 minutes…It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen 'Paint Your Wagon.'"

David Ansen observed in his 'Newsweek' review that “An epic vision isn’t worth much if you can’t tell a story," but Cimino, who wrote the script, wasn't interested in creating a comprehensible narrative. He once said: "I don’t believe in words and dialogue. They are quickly useless. One only gets near people when taking the time to live with them." Which sounds like someone trying to say something "important," but forgetting that dialogue can be a key function in a film.

Julie Taymor does care about story, and would never say anything so asinine. But when she said that “tying this story back to mythology…is something I really wanted to do. It’s something you can do in the theater — go into this absolutely dreamlike mythic place, out of time, between reality and dream world,” it suggested that the story for 'Spider-Man' might be going places that would be hard to follow.

It was not, perhaps, Ms. Taymor's artistic hubris that made 'Spider-Man' such a spectacular mess. She has made films that failed, but her inventiveness and attentiveness have never been called into question. Ironically, she may have suffered from the same problem that helped fell 'Heaven's Gate' – too much money. With so much cash at hand, the show could be turned into an extravaganza of special flying effects, elaborate costumes, and set pieces. A complicated Greek myth plot thread allowed for yet more spectacle. But in the end, all that's created is what Steven Bach, one of the United Artists executives who oversaw 'Heaven's Gate,' described as "the perfection that money can buy, the caring it can't."

This is, after all, why theatre still matters. It has the power to make us care, to create connections in its own fully unique, millennia-old medium. Done simply, but with care for its story – as was the short-lived 'Scottsboro Boys,' 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,' and 'Passing Strange,' just to cite a few – theatre can truly connect and transport us. As the late, great book writer Arthur Laurents said, "That was all and it was enough for me: fantasies are better left fantasies."

-- Oh, and here's a 'Spider-Man' that has serious street cred:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Truth Can Hurt, Even When Tap-Dancing

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon in 'The Scottsboro Boys
Broadway's Tony Awards will be held this Sunday, honoring the plays and musicals of the 2010-11 season. Although nominations usually include some surprises – to the delight of journalists and theatergoers alike, most of whom hate being bored – this time the surprise was a juicy one. The long-closed Kander and Ebb musical 'The Scottsboro Boys' was nominated for 12 awards, second only to the likely winner, 'The Book of Mormon.'

Despite its pedigree – Kander and Ebb also created the legendary shows 'Cabaret' and 'Chicago' – 'Scottsboro' was not a Broadway success. There was plenty of speculation as to why, mostly centering on the show's subject: the horrible true story of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama. While they escaped the death penalty, they were jailed for years and most of their lives utterly ruined. The case did much to galvanize those who would begin organizing the Civil Rights Movement, ultimately bringing about the end of Jim Crow. Without knowing that 'The Scottsboro Boys' was a dazzling marvel, as vigorously entertaining as it was vigorously unsettling, Broadway audiences shrank from it.

Not that other shows dealing with complex, uncomfortable history have failed to draw audiences. 'Cabaret,' for one. But when it comes to dealing with American history, and particularly race, people get squeamish. It didn't help that 'Scottsboro' was not only about a ghastly episode of history, but used a ghastly musical format – the minstrel show – in which to tell the story. Minstrelry has the dubious distinction of being the first truly American theatrical style. Wildly popular in the 19th century, minstrel shows consisted of white people in blackface lampooning (and insulting) African-Americans. By the time the shows were passing out of fashion during World War I, they were already creating discomfort. As such, the format works well for 'The Scottsboro Boys,' a show that seeks to inform and unsettle, even as it entertains.

It's the "inform" aspect that also raised some objections. Some people complained that the show overused its artistic license, particularly in its depiction of the central defendant, Haywood Patterson (played by the highly deserving Tony nominee Joshua Henry). The show suggests that he died in prison in Alabama, rather than tell a lie that might have set him free; whereas in reality he successfully escaped the Alabama prison, only to be reincarcerated years later in a Michigan prison on a charge of manslaughter, and this was the prison in which he died. The show might have avoided going into these details so as to maintain the character's nobility – or maybe because it's a bit convoluted for a coda.

Whenever you're compressing several years of history into a two-hour show (the Scottsboro trials went on through 1938), things need to be cut and altered. It's the old saying, "God writes lousy drama" – sure, truth is often stranger than fiction, but if it's going to work in an artistic medium, it needs some massaging.

Arguably, it wasn't what the show didn't include that really bothered people. It was what it DID include. There's a difference between taking a true story and making it wildly inaccurate to serve modern taste or a creator's prejudice, versus streamlining in order to more deeply explore the characters and events. It might be best to term 'The Scottsboro Boys' as springboard history. Yes, it's not exact, else it wouldn't be good drama, but it might propel audiences to study the real events of the case if they don't know them, or revisit them if they do.

Good drama makes hard choices. Some people shuddered at 'Scottsboro's' use of the minstrel format, particularly because the brilliant writing, directing, and acting made it so entertaining, which added to the discomfort, which heightened the thrill. This should have brought audiences in by the boatload – it's the rare show that includes electrifying numbers about electrocution, for a start.

'The Scottsboro Boys' is not a show that wants you to sit back and relax for two hours. It wants to touch you, to make you see real people and the pain inflicted upon them. It wants to make you think, and ask questions. Above all, it wants to make you angry. Anger, real anger, is what changes the world. When someone stands up – or, in the case of Rosa Parks, sits down – and says "No," it's like lobbing a grenade into the social psyche. The more people realize that, the more they might take that knowledge gleaned from history and apply it to modern injustice.

Which is exactly what also made 'The Scottsboro Boys' relevant to our times. In the space of only 80 years, what was accepted then has long been abhorrent. But modern America is also the sweet land of birtherism, Prop 8, and HR3. Clearly, a lot more "No" is necessary.

Just think about all the great theatre it'll make someday.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

C'est N'est Pas Magnifique

As more French women feel emboldened to come forward about sexual assaults committed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other politicians, there are some in France who are desperately trying to insist that turning private behavior into a subject for the public discourse is purely American. The fact that there are political consequences is pronounced even more ridiculous. After all, it was the French who rolled their eyes and could not comprehend the ire when Bill Clinton was being publicly raked over the coals for being a rake.

The difference is, back then, the French had a point. While the president was not going to win any awards for being a good husband, and given the political atmosphere should have been more circumspect, one still needs to draw a distinction between consensual acts among compos mentis adults, and highly unwelcome coercion.

Both Maureen Dowd and Katrin Beinhold have written cogently about the ongoing story and the wider discussion regarding gender disparity. Kelli Goff made the further point that poor women come in for extra scrutiny. Plus ça change – women are no sooner done fending off attacks than they must defend themselves in the public eye. It must be blissful for the conservative cranks who want to turn back the clock to the 1950s. It was the rare woman then who, if she was assaulted, wasn't accused of having asked for it.

The larger problem, as both Dowd and Beinhold point out, is that men take up a disproportionate amount of political and journalistic space, meaning men still get to set the gender agenda, along with the political discourse. However the women conduct or present themselves, the contempt the men have for them is abundantly clear. In the 1950s – and earlier, and later - girls were told that they had to be chaste and modest or else boys wouldn't respect them. Guess what? Boys don't respect them anyway!

Australia recently elected a female prime minister, but that doesn't equal equality. When Finance Minister Penny Wong was interrupted in a meeting and firmly requested to be allowed to finish, MP David Bushby MIAOWED at her. She told him exactly what she thought of his schoolyard behavior, and he eventually apologized, but will it change anything? Some of the world's more repressive regimes justify their lack of women in the public sphere on the grounds that they are protecting the women from this sort of harassment.

Wittgenstein said "The world is everything that is the case," but increasingly, women are saying that it had better not be. They've been considered as having to be responsible for their own behavior and that of men for centuries. Decades ago, when Israeli ministers suggested a curfew for women to avoid possible rape, Prime Minister Golda Meir responded: "But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home."

She won that round, but the battles continue. In the States, it's the far-right that proves itself inherently misogynistic again and again in both behavior and policy – it's hardly shocking that so many proposed laws are directed at women, attempting to keep them "in their place." When Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, she was discredited as a bitter woman trying to bring a good man down.

Thomas prevailed, but plenty of men on the far-right have been brought down by sex scandals of their own creation. But cheating on a spouse, while reprehensible, shouldn't destroy a career. No, the problem is that these are the men who have extolled themselves as moral exemplars, so much so that they freely legislate how others live and love. They seek to punish women for putative promiscuity by taking away access to affordable contraception and safe abortions, but clearly hold themselves above their own moral law.

In France, they congratulate themselves for not being so hypocritically puritanical. Maybe not, but neither have they progressed. Liberté and égalité are very much just for the fraternité. A fraternité that might do well not to rally so enthusiastically around DSK and assorted atavistic attitudes about women. Assault is a crime, pure and simple. As Richard Nixon might have had it, there's a difference between being a dick, and being a crook.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorializing, Not by Rote

World War II Soldiers

In his thoughtful article in the New York Times on the most recent crop of books discussing World War II, Adam Kirsch poses the question, "can this war still be considered the 'good war'?" As he says, the "passage of time changes the contours of history," and these books are detailing aspects of the war's prosecution by the Allies that are decidedly less than noble, thus attempting to call into question the extent of the moral compass that has hitherto been so exact.

Not that history has shied from the war's dirtier stories. The firebombing of Dresden, the fact that Stalin was at best a complex and worrying ally, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have all been explored at length for decades. But with the exception of those who believed that we should instead have been allied with Hitler against Stalin to suppress the threat of communism (expressed by a repugnant character in the 1946 film 'The Best Years of Our Lives', representing the vocal minority), there has never been any cogent reason for any member of an Allied nation to feel anything less than pride for having fought and won the war.

Even as more stories of Allied ruthlessness are given a spotlight, it does not – nor should it – lessen the pride in the fight. The British and other European nations can regret not taking a harsher diplomatic stance during the 1930s, and the Americans can be remorseful about not entering the war at once to stand with our friends, but understanding more about the nature of the fight only gives us a clearer sense of both the present and the past.

As Kirsch says, we turn events into myth for the purposes of memory.  "We need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them." Where we fail history, both in its truth and in our understanding, is in romanticizing the prosecution of war. Even when causes are just – the impetus of the Union in our Civil War; the Allies in World War II – the battles themselves are still ugly. It's David's paintings and Wilfred Owen's poetry that are beautiful. The poetry of the first world war in particular reminds us of the humans who were conscripted into the great inhumanity. Most wars throughout history have been the attempt of humans to destroy other humans for the sake of human gain. World War II forced humans to destroy other humans to preserve humanity – a point acknowledged by the former enemy as well.

Which is perhaps why the Allied side of this war, as opposed to many before and since, has virtually escaped being satirized. The stances and policies of the 1930s are subject to jokes, as are American neutrality and, of course, the Axis powers, especially the Nazis. These points were made the subject of criticism through comedy at the time and are still done so today.

Frank Adu and Woody Allen in 'Love and Death'
World War II remains an untarnished memory because of its clarity. Kirsch states that "the present is always lived in ambiguity," but if a war is going to be fought successfully, the combatants actually require certainty. Otherwise, there is no means of justifying the action. The attempt to do so without a tangible and unambiguous enemy is what has prompted jokes, such as Woody Allen's point in his 1975 film 'Love and Death,' satirizing the Napoleonic Wars (among other things). The squad leader explains "If we kill more Frenchmen, we win. If they kill more Russians, they win." Allen's character - a proudly unwilling soldier - asks "what do we win?" The answer is nonsensical, the question quickly dismissed. Although it is not discussed, it is easy to imagine that Allen had Vietnam in mind as he chronicled the silliness and ultimate pointlessness of the combat.

In Alan Bennett's 2004 play 'The History Boys,' a character who treats history as an opportunity for show and personal gain opines that "there's no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it" – meaning that in honoring the dead, people don't recall the facts surrounding any given war. The character's approach to history is irresponsible, but in this sense he has a point. Memorial Day should not be an excuse for forgetfulness or detachment. Our present is always bound in our past, and understanding the past in full is the only means by which we can guide ourselves in the present and thus into the future. We honor the dead, but history lives.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"...And I Feel Fine."

Apocalypse, As Envisioned in the Middle Ages
The end of the world has been in the works for a while. The first recorded mention of it was on an Assyrian clay tablet, ca. 2800 BC, wherein the writer complained that "bribery and corruption are common" and so assumed that the world must be getting ready to call it quits.

The predictions of apocalypse are comparatively scattered until things really heat up in the middle ages. (One presumes the Greeks and Romans were too busy inventing things, writing literature and philosophy, and building aqueducts to think much about whether it was all going to get obliterated.)

Medieval life, however, was just about as rough as Hobbes supposed life without organized community would be, with: "no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" being more or less de rigueur for most people's existence. Faith was just about all anyone had, and though very few could read the Bible themselves, they understood that it mentioned a time when God would return to the earth and establish a Kingdom of Heaven there. For people constantly dealing with wars, diseases, and any number of hardships, this couldn’t happen fast enough.

There were those who tried to speed it along. Plenty who joined in the Crusades did so thinking they were fulfilling biblical prophecy and were in fact pilgrims to the Holy Land. The fact that nothing they did seemed to bring about a biblical apocalypse did not sway people from thinking it must be coming soon.

In 1184, a prediction of the end of the world appeared in the form of the Letter of Toledo, insisting that astronomical forces meant the world would end in September 1186. So certain were the believers of this prediction that, when October 1186 rolled around, they simply changed the date and other pertinent points and said the end would be coming soon enough. This lasted a good few centuries before enough new predictions took over to capture attention.

Oddly, there don't seem to have been any predictions of the end times as 1348 dawned, which seems a poor show on the part of the prophesiers. This was, after all, the year of the Black Death, when half or more of Europe's population was obliterated. Perhaps, as it got underway, it seemed obvious that this was the end of the world, and no one needed to be so tactless and redundant as to point it out.

After the plague, life actually improved for a lot of peasants – the shortage of labor meant they could negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions, although this process was not without a few snags. Likewise, the inability of clergy to stop the disaster, and the poor quality of the monks who were hastily recruited to fill badly depleted ranks, made a lot of people more cynical about religion. All told, it seems a recipe for the beginning of the end of end times predictions.

But this was not to be. The certainty of the end being nigh continued to flourish right alongside the Renaissance, although more and more Europeans were growing skeptical and much less willing to give the doomsayers an ear.

Ears were given to a British soldier, William Bell, in 1750. There was an earthquake in London, which was unusual enough, but 28 days later, there was another. That was enough for Bell, who took it upon himself to tear through the city announcing that in another 28 days, the world would go belly-up, London first. Widespread panic led to people leaving the city in droves (although exactly why they thought they would be safer in the countryside is unclear). The appointed day, however, saw no apocalypse and the city authorities made their own announcement: Bell was a nutcase and was tossed into Bedlam.

His fate did not dissuade other doomsayers. The world was supposed to end regularly throughout the nineteenth century, and the Jehovah's Witnesses were sure that World War I was the Battle of Armageddon. (reports from Ypres might almost bear them out)

And on and on and on until now. When Sunday rolls around and this current crop of believers finds that the world is still as they know it, they'll shrug and start making calculations to determine the next date of rapture.

Wonder what their high school math teachers would say?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Photos Be Damned

Roman coins with Sejanus's name erased after his execution

Amid the clamor for the release of the photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse – or perhaps video of the corpse-in-making – it might be noted that, to paraphrase Wilde, "the only thing worse than having one's death photos released, is not having one's death photos released."

Which is to say, let's let the Romans do something for us. In ancient Rome, there was a policy called damnatio memoriae, meaning "damnation of memory." If you were executed and this policy was passed upon you, it meant that every trace of your existence was wiped clean from the city. In a world where honor was the most important facet of being a citizen, this was a heck of a way to ruin your legacy. To render someone so unimportant as to warrant no physical remembrance of them was to dismiss all they did in their life on their route to ignominious death.

One of the most famous recipients of damnatio memoriae was Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a soldier and member of the equestrian class who rose to be prefect of the Praetorian Guard and the right-hand man of the emperor Tiberius until his runaway ambition finally tripped him up. He was not an easy man to conquer, having finagled matters so that he was as good as running the empire. He could arrange all the political downfalls he wanted, but was himself untouchable.

Until he got touched. When Tiberius finally received credible word of the threat Sejanus posed, he used craftiness of a sort Sejanus might have instigated to create confusion – sending a series of contradictory letters to the Roman senate that made those who supported Sejanus start to think otherwise and those who hated and feared him feel emboldened to act. A few more feints were made so that, soon after, Sejanus entered the senate thinking he was going to receive the sort of official power that might make him ruler, and was instead arrested.

As it happens, his death was public – that was the modus operandi of the time and since it was an easy matter to sweep up all his remaining supporters and dispose of them as well, it made for a convenient purge and impromptu public holiday.

The Romans, however, were long-term thinkers. They knew that what mattered most in the end was how a person was remembered. Someone who was honored, like the emperor Augustus, could be deified. But someone who had brought dishonor to the state could be expunged, completely removed from memory. To any decent citizen, this was the greatest punishment of all.

Thus was Sejanus wiped from record – his statues and coins destroyed, his name crossed out of papers. Obviously, enough existed here and there for historians to piece together the story, but it didn't do anything to make anyone think better of him, or want to emulate his means of gaining power.

Osama bin Laden wanted glory too. He wanted to establish and govern an empire, one that would be in the hands of his family for generations. He would have liked to have been honored after death, especially if he had been considered a martyr. Photos of him in death might satisfy morbid curiosity, cynical uncertainty, or the desire to shore up triumphalism. But for those so inclined, they could also create sympathy and a touchstone for a new movement. So while it would be historically irresponsible – to say nothing of impossible – to go full Roman and erase all evidence of his existence, we should definitely add a little dash more of "damn" to his memory by not viewing the evidence.

Monday, April 25, 2011

'Born Yesterday' Feels Like Today

Early in the first act of Garson Kanin's 1946 comedy Born Yesterday, now revived on Broadway, the wife of a recently bribed senator says to the recently arrived-in-DC Billie Dawn: "Too bad the Supreme Court isn't in session. You'd love that," Billie answers: "What is it?" To cover, her boyfriend's lawyer laughs and says: "Lots of people would like to know the answer to that one."

Although Billie, a classic dumb blonde, later learns all about this country and its institutions, she and her teacher, journalist Paul Verrall, would probably be dumbfounded by the current description of the Court – an institution that handed the Koch Brothers, among others, the legal right to "advise" their employees how to vote.

The Nation describes the blatant politicking undertaken by Koch Industries prior to the November 2010 election, an act that is no longer illegal thanks to the Citizens United decision of January 2010, giving corporations the right to free speech. The Kochs provided substantial funding for the case, and in their advocation of candidates who adhere to their views, they are both returning favors and shoring up their investments.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote that the ruling is:
"a rejection of the common sense of the American people…who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt…While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."

The danger of corporate money in politics is what sets Born Yesterday's plot in motion. Harry Brock, he who bribed the senator, is in town to see he gets what he paid $80,000 for – an amendment guaranteeing "no interference with free enterprise – foreign or domestic." Brock has been bragging to Billie about how he's going to run everything. She admits to the lawyer that she doesn't care either way. His response: "Very few people do, that's why he may get to do it."

The strength of Born Yesterday's satire in its time was that Brock freely said things no corrupt businessman would dare say aloud in 1946. Whereas a mogul complaining how difficult it is to expand because of "This law, that law, tariffs, taxes, State Department…pesky rules and regulations—" then telegraphed a man who needed to be brought low, today he might be deemed a hero. If the only reason Brock would pick up Ayn Rand's 1943's behemoth The Fountainhead would be to bash in someone's head, he nonetheless echoes her views when he proudly describes his work ethic as "every man for himself…you gotta get the other guy before he gets you."

It's surely no coincidence that Brock's business is junk (scrap metal). The temptation for naughty innuendo involving how "big" he is and the current slang use of "junk" is great, but this is a man who's developed a $50 million empire, making the joke less funny. He's a forerunner of the Kochs, whose empire includes such tempting subjects for metaphor as toilet paper and fertilizer.

When Brock is interviewed by Verrall, who writes for the New Republic and is the sort of idealistic and intrepid journalist who was often a heroic character, representing the rigor and fearlessness of our fourth estate (no, really); he says he doesn't mind if the story makes him look bad – that makes people scared of him and then they leave him alone. So much for fear being a motivator. The Kochs probably don't mind a negative story either. Partly because they can guarantee regular puff pieces from the conservative press and partly because people are less frightened than overwhelmed. The Kochs don't need anyone to be afraid of them – they can take public inertia all the way to the tax-dodging banks.

Verrall opens Billie's mind, explaining, "All the bad things in the world are bred by selfishness" and that selfishness can even be organized as a government – "then it's called Fascism." Yes, but it can just as easily be called capitalism sans regulations.

The Kochs, who donate to artistic institutions, likely don't believe art has the power to rouse people. If they do, they'll hope for a quick end to this revival of Born Yesterday. It gives people way too much to think about. When Brock insists that he's got his rights like anyone else, it's pointed out that he keeps buying more and more rights for himself. Verrall asks what Brock and his ilk want: "You've got all the oil, lumber, steel, coal, and aluminum – what do you want now – all the people? All the laws?" Verrall's job is to tell the public the truth, which will stop Brock from buying and selling legislation as though it were junk. It did then. Could it do so today? What has more power – truth or truthiness?

Or maybe Kochs and Company won't notice this aspect at all, and instead applaud lines like "I'm gonna get it fixed so I can do business where I want and how I want and as big as I want." That's what they have fought for, after all, and they'd laugh knowingly at Brock's retort to Billie's insistence that it's a free country: "That's what you think."

They would dismiss the notion that government is "you and me and a few million more" and that those who thirst for knowledge and fight for justice can make it tough on men like themselves. They know better. They know that when Verrall says "you near-sighted empire builders have managed to buy little pieces of it once in a while, but you can't have it all. If you do, it won't be this country anymore," he's right, but it doesn't matter. It'll be their country, and that's all that counts. They know that today, Brock could be one of the men running the country or, "better than that," running the men who run it, without being married - his beautiful, stupid girlfriend would have her own reality show, making them even more millions.

Across the street from the New York Public Library is a plaque bearing this quote from Born Yesterday: "I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in."

Book, anyone?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, fire broke out on the 8th floor of the building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, just off Washington Square Park. Within half an hour, the fire was out, but 146 mostly young women were dead. Many had plunged to their deaths from the windows of the 9th floor, choosing this quick end rather than burning.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a sweatshop. Women worked with their elbows practically touching, as long as 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, for about $5 a week, making the shirtwaists that were such a liberating garment for so many women. The Triangle's owners were fiercely anti-union. They were also not interested in basic safety measures, such as sprinklers or fire drills. Several of the exit doors were kept locked to "prevent theft." (the women reported having to endure their bags being checked on leaving every evening, to be sure they weren't absconding with fabric scraps) The fire escape not only wasn't strong enough to handle a mass exodus, it didn't even reach the sidewalk.

You can read all about the fire and the impact it had on American workers, factories, legislation, and the psyche in David von Drehle's book, Triangle, the Fire That Changed America. It's a story that needs telling again and again, because we're in serious danger of spinning back to the mentality and practices that started the fire.

I work at the Writers Room on Astor Place, a few blocks from where the Triangle was housed. On Friday, March 25, I attended the ceremony marking the centennial, making comments on Twitter and taking pictures with my iPhone.

The march began down Broadway, with a steady drumbeat and many members of labor unions and the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. As they have done every year since the fire, people carried shirtwaists with a ribbon bearing each worker's name. This year, for the first time, all 146 were named, thanks to the assiduous efforts of historian Michael Hirsch, who uncovered the identities of the six unknown victims.

We gathered outside the building, now part of New York University. You can see the banners hanging from the windows where the women jumped:

Here is a picture of the shirtwaists, with the banners in the background:

Many members of unions carried signs with the name and age of a Triangle victim:

Despite being a cold day, the crowd was huge and enthusiastic. This picture does not do it justice:

There were a number of speakers, many either leaders or members of unions. I didn't keep track of names, but here are some of the quotes that stood out for me:

"Let us continue to honor the dead and fight like hell for the living."

"The most important tribute to the victim is not words but DEEDS."

"May we never lose our sense of outrage at the injustices around us."

"This is a fundamental choice between what is wrong and what is right." - that was from a Wisconsin teacher and union leader. I was pleased that there was much talk of Wisconsin, and that the Jumbotron ran photos of the union protests there. The teacher told us how Wisconsin, traditionally so progressive, was the first state to pass worker compensation laws - in 1911, the year of the fire.

After the speeches, a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" and the ladder from a fire truck on Greene Street was slowly raised to the 7th floor, showing us the other aspect of the day's tragedy - that though the NYFD arrived quickly, their ladders were too short to save the workers trapped on the 9th floor (the executives on the 10th floor escaped via the roof):

Each name was then read. A bell rang after each name and a flower was laid. I wept.

All the shirtwaists were laid across the street:

This was the firefighter who rang the bell, with the individual flowers before the podium. The orange bouquet is for Bangladeshi workers killed in a similar fire:

In one of the few visual examples that could be given of what Triangle helped to change for the better, the NYFD showed us how today, many of the workers could be saved:

Honor the dead. Fight like hell for the living.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It Was 630 Years Ago Today...

Maybe the trouble with the ongoing clashes between unions and union-busters is that the busters feel they have nothing to lose. What can the protesters possibly do to them? The same sentiment existed at the start of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 – and the unyielding government got a surprise.

Society-changing events are usually precipitated by a disaster, and disasters don't come much bigger than the Black Death, which swept through England in 1348 and decimated roughly a third of the population. The surviving peasants saw that the crisis had created an opportunity. There was now a labor shortage, which gave them unheard-of leverage. If a peasant's own lord wouldn't pay a fair wage, he could accept a neighboring lord's better offer. Although the feudal system forbade such peasant-poaching, the peasants now held the cards.

Big business and government were displeased, and enacted first the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351 to maintain the status quo. The laws stated that peasants were not allowed to move around in search of a better wage, bargain collectively, or refuse to work. Additionally, wages had to be fixed at 1346 levels.

The demand for labor put peasants and landowners in the unique position of working together to work around the two statutes. As long as the laws remained on the books, however, the feudal system stood firm. The peasants, having seen tantalizing possibilities, were bitter.

Grumbles turned into rumbles with impositions of poll taxes. The government, being engaged in the costly Hundred Years War with France, needed cash. War was traditionally funded by landowners, but the lords wanted to save money. John of Gaunt, de facto ruler during Richard II's minority, came up with the bright idea of making the peasants share the burden, charging a tax per head in 1377. It worked a treat and was repeated several times. This wasn't a bother for the lords, but brutalizing on the peasantry. The odd exemptions were little help. An unmarried woman could claim an exemption if she was a virgin, but had to undergo an inspection by the tax collectors for it to be allowed.

The 1381 poll tax levied a flat rate that was more than twice the amount of the previous duty. The peasants were enraged. A protest that swelled to 60,000 strong marched on London, following their leaders Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, and the radical priest John Ball. The latter had become famous for composing this ditty: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" He earned even fewer friends in the upper classes when he said: "How can [the landowners] claim to prove that they be lords more than us, save by making us produce and grow the wealth that they do spend?"

Today's Republicans should count themselves lucky – the 14th century protesters burned down John of Gaunt's palace, along with several other important homes.

At this point, the king agreed to negotiate. The rebels, first pledging their allegiance to the king, asked for labor contracts, the right to rent land at a reasonable cost, and an end to feudalism. The king conceded. Unfortunately, the peasants then overplayed their hand by tracking down the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury and cutting off their heads. At a meeting the next day, the king's men expressed their dissatisfaction with this turn by killing Wat Tyler.

This breakdown in labor relations had the effect of dispersing the peasants and eventually killing the protest leaders. Despite several other uprisings around the country – horse-borne social media being surprisingly effective – the government soon regained control. The king then announced that all his promises were revoked because he had made them under pressure.

King & Co. proclaimed a triumph for the rights of landowners, but he was only half-right. The poll tax was never raised again, and feudalism's end was accelerated. Furthermore, it was recognized that the peasants had rebelled less because they wanted a more equitable slice of pie than because they wanted equity, full stop. The days of accepting one's lot as a vassal were over.

Today's protesters will probably eschew burnings and beheadings. But the union-busters preparing to welcome the 19th century might take a minute before donning their bowler hats. Right now, people are mad. Sooner or later, they're going to get even.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day: Remembering the Ladies

In 1911, when the first International Women's Day was celebrated, it was still illegal for women to vote in most parts of the world. The suffrage movement was met with scorn and ridicule, even from many women, and the labor movement was seen as something akin to treason.

It was the labor movement that helped prompt the first International Women's Day. You can read about its history here. Women and men campaigned for women's rights to work, vote, and hold public office, among other things. We are right to congratulate them and ourselves for having accomplished these rights throughout a great deal of the world. These were historic impossibilities, till they became possible.

Then again, there is that old saying, "A woman's work is never done." A saying that continues to be infuriatingly accurate when it comes to fighting for women's genuine equality.

Take the labor movement. While the current Republican war on labor was presumably not planned to coincide with the centennial of International Women's Day or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it is striking that such attacks are coming now, when we might be most attuned to the historical correlations. The push for organized labor began with people who were marginalized. The sweatshops are now mostly overseas, but teaching, a profession historically dominated by women – and commensurately underpaid and under-respected – is now being marginalized in a manner that should be appalling to all observers.

Labor unions are comprised of both men and women, but the impetus remains the same: strip a group of its voice, and you strip it of its power. Historically, you'd be hard-pressed to find a government that was willing to give women power, much less equality. Even after the American Revolution, when Abigail Adams exhorted her husband John to "Remember the ladies," he basically said, "Yes, dear" and then participated in the creation of a new government that hung out a sign saying "No Girls Allowed." This, even after women had thrown their efforts into the fight for independence.

Some things don't change – after the terrific uprising in Egypt, a committee to create a new constitution is comprised solely of men. Jordan's Queen Noor notes here that women's rights are often among the first things to be compromised on when a new government is establishing itself. We, and our concerns, are still seen as frivolous.

To say nothing of worthy of derision. Time and again, when women have spoken up for themselves, the male response is to laugh. Note the jeers and "comic" insults hurled at women marching for suffrage in 1913.

Maybe this is why feminists are accused of not having a sense of humor?

Then again, we've proven that not letting the jeers stop us is one way to gain our point.

So this is what we have to remember – don't let the derision get us down, don't forget our past, and don't stop fighting for what we still need to achieve.

And finally, as "M" puts it to James Bond, but really to us all – don't stop asking if we are equal:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Triangle and Circular History

There was an interesting convergence of events this last week when the final six victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were identified on this, the centennial year of the event, while the unions who fought so hard to prevent such an event ever occurring again are taking a terrible beating.

Corporations and conservative politicians have hated unions from the beginning. For all that America claims to have no entrenched class system, unions have traditionally been the only real means by which ordinary workers could look the status quo in the eye and say: "We're just as human as you – treat us that way."

From their inception, unions were perceived – not without some veracity – as a challenge to the wealth and political structure of the United States. Laissez-faire capitalism was the guiding economic force in the country and immigrants, deemed lucky just to be allowed to be in this promised land and have a job, were supposed to succeed by dint of their hard work and earned luck or accept their fate without complaint. Wealth, property, and liberty were entwined in the psyche and treated with a religious fervor, so that when the unions were perceived as attacking all three, they were seen as both anti-American and godless. This attitude was reflected by a judge during the 1909 "Uprising of 20,000" strike, when he said: “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!”

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which employed 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, was not unionized. The women worked long hours in abusive and unsanitary conditions for a pittance. When fire broke out late in the afternoon on Saturday, March 25, 146 of the workers were killed. There were no laws that said sprinklers must be installed, or doors kept unlocked, or fire drills held. If businesses wanted to spend the money to establish safety measures, that was their prerogative, but to do so was considered at best a moral imperative.

The fire proved to workers that if they were going to be safe, they must band together and take care of themselves. Now, the state stepped in as well and created safety standards and laws to uphold said standards. Businesses may not have been thrilled with the new regulations, but those that complied did not exactly descend into poverty. Neither did hiring union workers turn them all out of their mansions.

Unions brought poorer people into stable lives and the political process. It wasn't enough just to vote – which, during the mass strike of 1909, women could not – the power of a group was necessary to effect change. Unions gave the majority a loud, powerful voice.

Which is why they are still despised by the corporate power structure. The same people delighted to extol American economic dominance during the postwar era neglect to mention that this was achieved in large part through regulatory laws and unions.

Not that unions are exemplary. Even plenty of union members will be quick to acknowledge otherwise. Like any other business model, some flexibility and adaptability are necessary to flourish. But when Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin wants to take away collective bargaining rights, and Speaker Boehner says unions have "a machine gun" held to the heads of local officials, this is asking that unions bend backwards all the way to the 19th century.

And by the way, history shows that by and large, businesses left to their own devices prefer not to self-regulate.

Corporations have undercut a lot of workers by crying poor and sending their business to the poor around the world, but they shouldn't count on that party lasting forever. The uprisings in the Middle East are going to cause reverberations. Once more people see that they can demand better and then get it, nothing will stop them.

Till then, Jon Stewart wraps up a history lesson in a funny and disturbing bow:
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Friday, February 25, 2011

Here Comes the Sun

Today would have been George Harrison's 68th birthday. Not that I need an excuse to listen to one of his best songs:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What a Difference Thirty Years Doesn't Make

The George Santayana quote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it" is useful for historians, essayists, philosophers, and desperate history teachers who hope to avoid an over-reliance upon expensive prescriptions. It's a sort of career choice comfort food. But correct though it is, it also bumps up against the adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," an observation of French critic and journalist Alphonse Karr. Quite the conundrum.

Hands up, all who would like to see a Santayana/Karr cage match.
(which, admittedly, might look a bit like this:

When thinking about change vs. the status quo in politics, the more applicable saw might stem from the comparatively modern philosophy of Pete Townshend: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

While it's recognized that the complex realities of governing will yield a similarity in policy-making that borders on the homogenous, there does nonetheless persist the quaint opinion that we are entitled to expect better. As Stephen Sondheim noted, "Desperate times call for desperate measures," so the same tedious non-starter policy points being rehashed in government – many of which seem designed to lead us straight back to the 19th century faster than a TARDIS – can invariably lead one to feel a touch put out.

Britain and America are supposed to be autonomous nations, so one wonders how each of their governments manage to endorse and even cheer the same disastrous policies. This even despite the policies' proven ineffectiveness. As David Cameron's new government in the UK prepares to essentially demolish the Arts Council, those fighting him might take small comfort from the sitcom 'Yes, Minister,' which shows that this is hardly anything new and the Arts Council staggers on:

'Yes, Minister' and its companion series, 'Yes, Prime Minister,' was a satirical series that began in 1980. It featured the hapless MP Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) and his attempts to legislate while being cleverly thwarted by his Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne). Sometimes helping one or the other (and usually trapped) was Hacker's Permanent Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds). Although the program was a favorite of the new and deeply conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, it was a witty and often savage skewering of the political system and definitely gave no one warm fuzzy feelings about their government.

The shows are consistently cited as some of the best of British sitcom, but beyond the brilliant writing and acting that earns its place in history is an immediacy that one might wish it no longer had. To wit; we've all seen how different pollsters can achieve wildly different results. Sir Humphrey demonstrates how:

And his cynicism about local government is, one suspects, not confined to the British:

"If the right people don't have power, do you know what happens? The wrong people get it," sounds like invective spewed by Fox News whenever a democratic election in the Middle East results in a leader the American conservatives don't like. Of course, in at least one respect, the British run rings around the US – one doesn't imagine John Boehner will be defending either the opera or the countryside anytime soon. Or any universities.

As for anything in the way of equal opportunities and creating diversity, this conversation doesn't feel as distant as one would like:

Although to be fair, there are now women in senior cabinet positions in both governments. So this time, the meeting would be in a specialty sector or private industry. We've come a long way, baby.

The continued relevance and accuracy of 'Yes, Minister/Prime Minister' is such that it is often taught as part of political science courses. Thirty years on, one might have hoped it would rate more as history. After all, as Sir Humphrey once said: "Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis" or "Times change and we change with the times." In the case of modern government, it seems chance would be a good thing.

As a postscript, one rather wishes Sir Humphrey had been on hand with these diplomatic options when the invasion of Iraq was being discussed, as it might have led someone to reconsider: