Spaghetti Junction Episode #41

 

The Spaghetti Junction Podcast takes its name from the large boondoggle of highways found in large cities. The convoluted nature of intertwining highways is as daunting as modern life. Everything is connected, but we’re not sure how! Each week I explore some facet of politics, arts, and sports that wind and ripple significantly through our lives. You can listen to the podcast on iTunes, Podomatic, or Google play as The Spaghetti Junction Podcast. This is a transcript of episode #41: 

H.L. Mencken described conscience as an inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking. Think of me as the inner voice at Spaghetti Junction that’s looking out for you. Episode #41 poses these questions: First, Do you ever know who you are? Really? Second, The day the laughter stopped? Buster Keaton said that? Finally, Do sports and politics mix? For some its a non-sequitur. What are they watching?

MUSIC ROLLOVER

POLITICS

Sometime in the eighties, I discovered and then became a believer, if you will, in Sanford Meisner and his approach to acting. It worked for me; furthermore, when I began teaching his approach it worked for my students to amazing success. They became so much more available to the moment. I remember fondly how they always looked amazed when I asked them to listen and watch because the other actors will tell you who you are. In some ways, the character background work espoused by Method actors was busy work. According to Meisner, all you had to do was listen and the world will tell you who you are. Meisner did offer this qualifier: this is true when working with quality writers!

I began rethinking this Meisner phenomenon after listening to an Ezra Klein podcast recently, in which he interviewed Lilliana Mason, the author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. I cannot urge too strongly that you listen to this podcast. Google The Ezra Klein Show “The Age of Mega-Identity Politics. It’s more than an hour long but time well spent, especially the conclusions discussed regarding the evolution of a new cleavage in the American Political spectrum.

If the world, as Meisner contends, tells us who we are, can we resist? Can we change our identity? Under what circumstances would we change? At first blush, change sounds possible; but, the more I read about mega-identities that have permeated our lives, I am becoming skeptical. Changing our identity is not simply flipping a switch, or parting our hair on the opposite side; it’s an entire makeover not just of how we think of ourselves, but how we dress, where we live, and what we do each and every day of our lives; more importantly, how we see the rest of the world. That’s a far more daunting task then one might anticipate. It’s why Mr. Kayne West is absolutely wrong when he says slavery was a choice because it lasted more than 400 years. There never was a choice. For many, that is true today.

Identity, it seems, is closely linked to self-esteem, there is ample evidence of that in the sports world, where so many people equate their identity with professional or collegiate sports teams. In so many cases this fandom is rabid! When their team loses they become despondent, some almost catatonic while suffering the humiliation of the defeat. Equally telling is the search for someone or something to blame: the refs, dirty play by the opposing players, or simply cheating — the ultimate conspiracy. It’s a short step to hate, and as we have seen in so many situations, an even shorter step to violence.

A telling bit of research was discussed by Klein and Mason. They did an experiment with a partisan group of people wherein two social programs were described, one very stringent, the other more generous. They randomly assigned these proposals to the people regardless of their political affiliation, telling them that it represented their party position. They were then asked to defend their choices in an op-ed piece constructing arguments for positions they did not intrinsically hold! They did so, magnificently. In another experiment, they were told that social benefits would be distributed to each member of the groups in the amount of 5 dollars per person, then they constructed alternative distributions that changed the amounts based upon the party and asked if they would support such decisions. They discovered that participants would accept less than five dollars, if their party won, despite their receiving less than five dollars. In other words, both these examples demonstrate it’s about winning, not doing the right thing. Political identities have become hugely influential.

In 1998 Franklin Graham wrote an op-ed article about Bill Clinton QUOTE. “Private conduct does have public consequences,” Graham wrote in a 1998 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “Clinton’s Sins Aren’t Private.”

QUOTE. ”Just look at how many have already been pulled under by the wake of the president’s sin: Mr. Clinton’s wife and daughter, Ms. Lewinsky, her parents, White House staff members, friends, and supporters, public officials and an unwitting American public.”

He continued, saying, QUOTE. ”the God of the Bible says that what one does in private does matter. Mr. Clinton’s months-long extramarital sexual behavior in the Oval Office now concerns him and the rest of the world, not just his immediate family. If he will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?” UNQUOTE.

Yet today Franklin Graham insists that because Trump denies the Stormy Daniels incident, we should take him at his word, and furthermore, it is a private matter between Donald and Melania. I think this is a rather compelling spelling of hypocrisy! Again, it’s about winning. The religious right has made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump.

Ezra Klein suggested that we think of our minds as being truth-seeking machines, when in fact they operate more like a press-secretary, justifying our beliefs. Ultimately, this identity philosophy is about winning and losing only, because identity is tied to esteem and anything that endangers our self-esteem, we resist, especially if we are thought to be in competition and thereby at risk.

This apparently happens in Congress, too, where legislation is not a compromise between competing philosophies, but a zero-sum game where legislation is framed as one side must win, and the other must lose!

This is profoundly disturbing. What is the outcome, the endgame for this era of Donald Trump? Is it game over? Do we evolve, and if so, in what direction. If we don’t evolve, do we just slowly sink into oblivion, a footnote in the arc of history?

Miss Mason suggests that it is far too early for that conclusion. We are, she says, still in the process of sorting out a new cleavage among American Politics, and its expression is nascent. The cleavage of the 60s with its push for social justice had nowhere to go because there was no party of social justice. Today there is one. What we have today is a cultural war (incidentally, this is the 50th anniversary of Hair!) One outcome might well be a civil war, but I would hope better angels would prevail. Still, We are in the process of separating ourselves into two major groups: one, on the right, that is conservative, Christian, and white. The second, on the left, is liberal, non-white and atheist. I take exception to her characterization in that while I am liberal (for the most part), I am white (not non-white), and not exactly an atheist! I simply believe the proclamations set forth in the Declaration and Constitution matter.

The X-factor in all of this is the element of self-esteem. When so much of your identity is tied to politics, religious preference, racial integrity, and cultural identity, there is a risk when the stakes are high. With so much crossover among identities, it’s simply too much baggage to drag from one place to another. Should Donald Trump prevail, many of us will feel that our identity as liberal, multi-cultured, ethnically compassionate individuals with tolerance for people who do not look or pray as we do, is existentially threatened. Real compromise can only happen when we experience the humanity of others. That is no easy shift in this polarized environment.

There are those who pooh-pooh the cultural issues and claim that Donald Trump was and is about economics. They will point to a recent PEW research that says among non-college educated voters who voted for Barack Obama, 20% of those voters switched to Donald Trump. Trump did this by calling out the Americans as Losers, repeatedly! Not exactly the best political slogan. The difference is that he not only called them out for being losers (unlike himself), and did it repeatedly, but he also identified a reason why! He pointed to a scapegoat: Mexicans and immigrants in general. There’s more to his pitch, for sure. But this was the opening gambit that made people listen. “You’re losers (not like me) because of foreigners.”

I think the election of Donald Trump was more nuanced than landing on any of the following solely: race, economics, religion, and culture.

To be sure, There is no substantive data that suggests that immigrants and/or religious persecution are responsible for wage stagnation and the shift of manufacturing jobs outside our country for cheaper labor, or simply automation. It’s not that simple, folks. Donald Trump would have us believe that our problems are due to immigrants and religious persecution. What has Trump done to mitigate those economic concerns? A tax cut that primarily benefits big business? Reducing consumer protection? Removing restrictions on clean air? Removing restrictions on government lands? Rattling sabers in such a way as to threaten nuclear war? Sowing distrust and dissension among our allies? Undermining the integrity of our institutions, freedom of the press, and first amendment freedoms? Praising fascist regimes for anointing their leaders for life and suggesting he should be president for life?

Unemployment may be down, but most economists describe the economy as sluggish, and the repercussions from loosened restrictions have yet to be felt — its too soon. As for the Tax Cut, there is little direct uptick in wages, as much of the tax cut has gone to buying back stock and enriching the top investors and major companies. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research: QUOTE. The labor force participation rate, the percentage of civilians 16 years and older working or actively looking for work, now sits at 62.8 percent. The last time unemployment fell below 4 percent in 2000, that rate was near its all-time high of 67.3 percent. UNQUOTE. Trump is trumpeting these numbers this week and attributing it to him. The reason given for the drop, however, is that more people dropped out of the labor pool entirely. Remember, too, these job reports were once described/dismissed as rigged by Trump during Obama administration. Now, they are correct! How convenient. And, he always claimed that people dropping out of the labor force was why the unemployment rate was so low under Obama.

He hasn’t done anything, but attempt to erase the presence of Barack Obama. Issues. This is where we need to attack Trump — on issues, not behavior. Behavior gets turned inward and portrayed as attacks on people’s self-esteem. When you do that, they get angry and fight.

Up is down, and down is up, in the Spaghetti Junction. It may take generations for people to gather the impetus to change. Illustration: It took almost two generations for Southern Democrats to leave the Democratic Party for the Republican tent. This conflict is for the long haul, and we better be ready. I still trust Meisner, and fundamentally I believe we have the capacity to resist what the world wants to tell us while continuing this inexorable march toward inclusiveness. My students learned fairly quickly. I hope we do, too. It’s just right.

ARTS AND LETTERS

Parallels or metaphors are a powerful tool for perspective. It’s a distancing that allows us to separate the forest from the trees, to see the real underlying issues without the clutter of distracting noise; unless our reach exceeds our grasp. This was the case recently in my hometown op-ed page. I’m afraid a conservative columnist’s reach in his recent column entitled “The Day the Laughter Stopped” exceeded his grasp.

The columnist in my hometown paper attempted to trace a direct line from a Fatty Arbuckle incident, through several trials that resulted in Arbuckle’s acquittal, to the Hayes Office and movie censorship. He quotes Buster Keaton’s contemporary remark, “The day the laughter stopped” as the tragic tipping point for censorship — by the elites, he says. The implication of the remaining column is that somehow our recent White House Correspondents dinner is more emblematic of the day the laughter stopped. I’m afraid not.

This columnist seems to ignore the historical facts that included much more than Fatty Arbuckle being improperly prosecuted for manslaughter for breaking an actresses hips in a moment of intimacy, from which she subsequently died. That’s rather when the laughter started! Please, Hollywood was as rampant with sexual harassment then as today. Furthermore, this columnist chooses to ignore that the Catholic Church played a significant role in the development of this code for films. The industry tried to keep that a secret. Fatty Arbuckle is nothing more than a historical footnote to Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. The columnist claimed that “film became answerable to the elites!” Oh, my. I simply had to answer this egregious misrepresentation of fact and consequence. Film did not have to be acceptable to the “elites”, it was Hollywood’s attempt to police themselves before an almost certain government intervention, and the process had significant input from religious centers, especially the Catholic Church. To this day, I remember as a young person my parents lamenting the Catholic Bishops inserting themselves into this censorship code.

But to suggest that the creation of the Hayes Office led to Keaton’s proclamation, while true in terms of timeline, is hardly accurate socially, or in context; and as a lead into his argument regarding the recent Correspondents dinner, it is misleading! The sanctimonious whining following the dinner is enough, already!

In the columnist’s words, “Humiliation is not funny.” No sir, it isn’t, and tell that to the myriad number of people humiliated by word or tweet from Donald Trump — on a daily basis. The writer then stretches his parallel further trying to compare school behavior among cool kids and nerds or gays (not a reference to homosexuality he says) His take away is that the queer people will rise up against the cools, as in the Christmas Story when Ralphie punches the bully.

Well, we now have hypocrisy in the building!

I do not support the lengths to which Ms. Wolf went to “Roast” a decidedly deserving administration, because I do not believe sinking to Trump’s level carries the fight in a meaningful way. Make no mistake, however, the mocking hateful rhetoric of the roast was not substantively different from Donald Trump on the campaign trail, or from the White House on his phone at 5 AM. Spare me your outrage, Sir. Where were you during the campaign and the ensuing year and a half of a crude narrative spewing from the White House, from press briefings, from campaign styled rallies and twitter accounts.

These are historic times. This past weekend was historic: Albert Pujols reached 3000 hits and Donald Trump reached 3000 lies. Another historical note, this past week was the 50th anniversary of Hair. Not much has changed, truly.

And Yes rest assured that Ralphie will rise up and punch that Bully Trump where it hurts most — in the ballot box.

THE WORLD OF SPORTS

We try to address issues of sports and politics because sports and politics are intertwined with so many aspects of our lives; in some ways, it’s the canary in the mine shaft. Some approach sports as pure entertainment, an escape, from the very entanglements of politics. Unfortunately, sports is about as free from politics as film or literature. It’s convoluted in the Spaghetti Junction, and everything seems to inform each other.

It was admirable that we could turn to sports to show a solidarity among Americans following the 9/11 events, trumpeting a sense of strength and resilience by participating in sport as though nothing had happened. Those terrorists could not interrupt or change our lives. We refused to let them, and we all gave ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back for doing so.

The very fact that the Saints could play in the Superdome so soon after Katrina was yet another symbol of our resilience and strength of character, again trumpeted loudly as the spirit of an exceptional people. We reveled in our self-congratulatory praise for how we handled a crisis. They were crises, and we did handle them, to our credit.

But just as the arts hold up a mirror to our real lives, so too does the world of sport. It too is a microcosm of our everyday life – whether it’s the creeping corruption, alcohol or drug abuse, sexual predation, and more… like it or not, whether we want it or not. Our values play out on a diamond, a court, a gridiron, a course, or whatever the surface may be. We are human, after all, in every circumstance, large and small.

I read an article recently by a Washington Post columnist who expressed great discomfort with sports writers venturing into political analysis – especially Sports Illustrated Magazine. He led the article with the following quip: QUOTE. There’s a famous old Woody Allen joke that: “those who can’t do, teach. And those that can’t teach, teach gym.” Well here’s a modernized version of this old saw. Those who can’t do, write. And those who can’t write, write about sports.

One of the most amazing revelations about the shameful and unpatriotic antics by NFL players who are taking the knee or even lying on the ground stretching during the national anthem has been the near-universal approval by sports journalists. The left has infiltrated the locker room, and sports commentators now all think they are social reformers and muckrakers. Fake news is now endemic on the sports pages too. UNQUOTE.

Now, this strikes me as elitist and obviously arrogant to assume a sports writer incapable of recognizing and commenting on social implications within the world of sport. They are writing about what they saw, heard, and felt. He continues QUOTE. Apparently, Colin Kaepernick and his fellow kneelers are modern-day Jackie Robinsons. By the way, Jackie stood for the flag and the national anthem. So did other sports pioneers of racial equality like Jesse Owens and Arthur Ashe. UNQUOTE.

This is a decidedly narrow construction with no understanding of the real history, the real circumstances of their assimilation or pseudo-assimilation. I guess the racial epithets endured by these athletes when they broke the color barrier don’t matter. The painful process each of these athletes experienced playing-sports-while-black is, in his mind, irrelevant to the fact they were allowed to play. The truth is they were allowed to play under duress. In this writer’s mind this is apparently irrelevant because they played and toed the line. Did they have a choice? No, West; they did not have a choice. He then writes QUOTE. The tone of nearly the entire issue is in the headline of the first story: “Stick to sports? Not possible when the passions stoked by protests and the president threaten to subsume the games themselves.” Do the editors even realize this is a non sequitur? It is the protesters, not Donald Trump, who stoked these fires months ago, and it’s the very acts of protest that are subsuming the games themselves. UNQUOTE. NON-SEQUITUR??? This is not a writer. This writer needs to read more deeply, and widely.

The protesters didn’t start this whole process; rather, it was the tendency by so many police departments to shoot and kill unarmed black men for driving-while-black, walking-while-black, smoking-while-black, or simply breathing-while-black. The players did not disrespect the American Flag so much as a call for it to live up to its promise. That sounds patriotic to me! For a major columnist with a national paper, this myopia is alarmingly narrow and bigoted. Remember his quip? Those who can’t do write, and those who can’t write, write about sports… which is exactly what he is doing because he is unwilling to think, let alone write.

This Washington Post writer perfectly mirrors the conversation of Mason and Klein referenced earlier. His political identity and professional identity are mega-identities that overlap to the point where he cannot recognize the humanity of the protestors plea, nor the humanity of the players themselves. They are foreign to him because he is cocooned within his own echo-chamber and insulates himself by claiming they are the offenders. They are paid to play, so shut up and leave the opinionating to him. By that measure, all of us are paid to work, and work only. None of us has the right to express an opinion wherever we might be in our lives. Balderdash!

Trump brought this on by manipulating the average citizen into believing that the source of our problems was immigration, and from there he said bad deals were made, while he has failed to negotiate a good deal on anything… in the Spaghetti Junction.

My friends, the rot of hypocrisy is everywhere around us in the Spaghetti Junction. The long game here appears to be a re-alignment of coalitions/groups/identities within this country that directly challenges any reading of the Declaration and Constitution. Resistance is not simply a matter of voting, but being aware of the subtle slips into autocracy that we are experiencing, not only in our political world but the spheres of arts and entertainment. Perspective is a precious commodity for our collective health. We can’t afford to give up on politics because it’s tough and some people are dishonest. Challenge. Challenge. Challenge. Challenge policy rationally, not from anger, hostility, or opponent profiling. The fight is only beginning — in the Spaghetti Junction. I certainly appreciate Jeremy’s comment that I ask the questions that need to be asked. We are trying to make sense of this Trump conundrum and the challenges he presents to our country. The question that hangs over all is why will Donald Trump not call out the Russian attack on our election process? He avoids Russia, and the evidence is overwhelming.

Thanks for joining us today. If you like the Spaghetti Junction please like us and leave a comment at podomatic.com, iTunes, or Google Play. Likes and comments are coin of the realm in the world of podcasts that open us to a wider audience.

Comment

There is no comment on this post. Be the first one.

Leave a comment