Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Penumbrae are Emanating . . . ewwwwwww

So the right to privacy rendered concrete by Roe v. Wade was said by (I believe) Justice Blackmun to arise from the "emanations of penumbras" in the Bill of Rights. Within his majority opinion, Blackmun completely invented the trimester system as a legal (rather than purely medical) defining factor. In other words, Blackmun was no strict constitutionalist; it could be argued that Roe v. Wade was as politically motivated a decision as Bush v. Gore. Mr. M told us that Clarence Thomas kept a plaque in his office that read, "No emanating of penumbras, please!" (Somehow I feel like I must be wrong about it being Clarence Thomas, but why on earth would I think it was he if it wasn't?)

We all know the Supreme Court makes mistakes according to its time--Dred Scott, for instance. It's the Supreme Court case with the most painful dramatic irony that I know of (though damn, I'm going to start feeling really uneducated when my friends in law school read this blog), as in, the decision was not only that Dred Scott, a slave who moved to the North and tried to claim his freedom, could not claim his freedom, but in fact could not have brought the case before the Court in the first place because he wasn't actually human. Seriously. The decision says that. And a hundred and thirty years later, Thurgood Marshall was the Chief Justice. Gives you pause--as they say in Avenue Q, "except for death and paying taxes, everything in life is only for now." Of course, I find that doesn't usually make it easier to get through right now; I'd imagine Dred Scott would agree.

I'm not saying the right to privacy is a mistake, per se; I am questioning the existence of strict constitutionalists, contrary to popular rumor, and I'm saying the right to privacy, like everything else, is a fickle and changing thing. It will come, it will go. And a lot of people believe it's going now, and a lot of people (possibly including myself, though I'm not sure) believe that the conflict over that was what decided the election this year. T doesn't believe that (note to my friends 'n' family: you're just going to become features of this blog because conversations with you figure into the way I think about pretty much everything. If you don't wish for that to be the case, please Email me); L does, but L had an interesting take on it that I want to take up and loop around. L wrote to me that she couldn't believe abortion "(which is just such a non-issue)" had decided the vote. If Republicans really care about the safety and lives of fetuses, they should, she said, be focusing a little more on things like illegal mercury dumping. Which in all probability causes infinitely more birth defects and health problems than there are abortions every year.

I don't agree that abortion's a non-issue, especially with the religious flames rising as high as they are, but the second part is definitely important. How literally are we allowed to take the "right to life" enshrined in the Constitution? There is, of course, the death penalty, which is going to require at least one post of its own, but the abortion/mercury dichotomy is an interesting one in terms of public and private. It could be said that mercury dumping violates--at the very least it compromises--one's right to life. Legally, could a fetus's right to life actually be being violated? Given that it's incapable of bringing a lawsuit, and presumably the only people in a position to object to the potential abortion are not the person who'd actually be getting said abortion, who has standing? So on neither side of the abortion debate, which is about what is ostensibly a private matter, would there be a strict constitutionalist--one side has to operate from emanations of penumbras (PENUMBRAE, for fuck's sake) within the document, and one has to operate from very shady comceptions of standing. Mercury dumping, which is ostensibly a public issue, could get some strict constitutionalism in there, as it'd be a matter of where could you find in the Constitution that the right to life is any more than literal?

I don't think this post is going to be nearly as clear or thesis-oriented as many of the previous ones, because I just don't know where I'm going. But I think it's that both sides of any debate have a preconceived notion of some kind of public morality. Mel claims that the difference between liberalism and conservatism, fundamentally, is that the philosophy of liberalism is pluralistic and the philosophy of conservatism is polarized right and wrong, and while I agree, pluralism is itself a public morality, if much more difficult to enforce/use as entertainment than polarized right and wrong is/are. (My father thinks that the reason the right is so far ahead these days is because polarized right and wrong makes for much better Jerry-Springer-esque political fights in our society of instant-gratification entertainment . . .) And on such issues as abortion or gay marriage, the left has a public morality of privacy. We have a right to be left alone, we believe--must believe--that our decisions regarding our bodies and our intimacies are our own, that these actions shouldn't be legislated against because they have no effect on people outside of us. Which is my definition of intimacy, by the by--it's what's between individuals, usually two of them but occasionally more, as in my uncle's family, that is not of anyone else and not relevant to anyone else. So the right to privacy, the right to intimacy--the right to keep something as your own.

BUT! I think this might have been where I was going when I wrote the first two paragraphs two weeks ago. That is the very essence of the right's economic stance, isn't it? (Economically retarded here--please correct me if I'm wrong.) Fiscal conservatism is fundamentally the belief that your earnings, your financial decisions, are your own, that it's unfair to claim that you have a respnsibility to answer to anyone else about your moneys. To be really reductivist (I hope my dad is reading my blog and is prepared to shoot me down), the right feels about money what the left feels about issues more physically/sexually/intimately oriented.

And when I draw that comparison, they both seem stupid, and neither seems enshrined in the Constitution (though, to be fair, I haven't read the Constitution for a few years now, it's just that Mr. M and Ms. L were *really fucking good teachers.*) Public morality, while by no means settled, exists, and the debate is relevant to how we relate to one another. The right to *marriage* is different from the right to intimacy. While I hope everyone knows that I do support gay marriage, I do think too much is being made of the debate, and that marriage laws are really different from sodomy laws. Sodomy laws are (no, WERE! Yay!) bullshit for exactly that reason: there is no non-Leviticus-defined argument to claim that consensual sodomy is anything other than intimacy, and intimacy has nothing to do with anyone else. Marriage, gay or straight, is actually making demands of society, demands both financial and emotional. The fact that people have sodomy (do you "have" sodomy?) doesn't mean that people who share their citizenship are tacitly responsible for said sodomy. With marriage it does mean that. And it's the same with abortion. To say a society allows abortion does make us all part of a tacit agreement to believe certain things we may not all believe . . . what Blackmun was attempting to do was make it not a public act, and I think ultimately that will not last. I'm not sure I believe it to be a constitutional issue, penumbrae or otherwise. Though it's going to stay constitutional, it may be a case I think the Court never should've taken. But if it ain't constitutional, then what is it? Moral? Laws and morals are another question for another day. But I should stick in here that my dad thinks, and I agree, that the pro-choice movement loses some ground by not acknowledging that abortion is difficult. Ultimately, yes, it can--and legally must, in a society that isn't so good about birth control and is ridiculously overpopulated--be a choice between a living, cogniscent woman and her living, non-cogniscent fetus, but it's not an easy decision, and it's not a good option but rather a necessary evil. And it may be that the left loses ground by not acknowledging that, though that takes us back to the polarity issue.

And money and mercury are the same thing. Not as each other, but part of the same system. It's ludicrous to say that our finances are not tied up with the society we live in--anything that allows us to earn money is part of that, given that consumers are, and so it's a public act. We as wage-earners or wage-givers or whatever the fuck we are (I just read THE JUNGLE) are exerting an influence on society and it only makes sense for society to exert that influence on us, ditto marriage slightly grayer ditto abortion. (Purpler ditto?) And let's not even get into education stemming from that . . . that too is its own post. But the environment doesn't get to consciously or systematically exercise its influence on us . . . environmentalist buddies, are you out there? Please help me.

Okay, I have no idea if that made sense to anyone else. I'm not entirely clear on whether it made sense to me. It started out being about the fact that no side on the Supreme Court can really claim more loyalty to the Constitution than another, and now I guess it has to do with the fact that no one political party/political hand/whatever can claim to have more loyalty to a social or moral public system than another. I think that's what I said, anyway.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

We Three Kings Be Renting Our Hair to Boal

Sorry. That was a really tough title to come up with. Sue me.

But hey, it does let you on to the topic, doesn't it? It even implies the spoiler warning right in there, so I don't even have to make it. (I wonder if I'm going to have one spoiler warning per post . . . we shall see.)

Cassie posted something interesting about RENT and HAIR, and this weekend at T's I saw THREE KINGS. THREE KINGS is a little bit separate from the other two, but the ending does relate, so I'm going to start there.

In 1999, when THREE KINGS (which is excellent and you should see it, though I warn you not to attempt to do anything for hours afterwards) came out, you could probably actually see it as a movie, maybe even some kind of an action movie, where the things that happen are happening to characters in a movie. Nooooooo longer. This is probably a failing on my part, and I guess then on the parts of the people I was watching it with as well, but now that there's another war in Iraq (THREE KINGS is about the end of the Gulf War, if you didn't know), I was watching it almost as documentary, certainly as entirely plausible. Except for the ending. At the end, the refugees get to cross the border (though to Iran--that wouldn't be terrifically helpful in this day 'n' age, that's for sure) and Mark Wahlberg (*such* excellent acting) survives, neither of which probably would have happened in real life. Otherwise it seemed transfixingly real, and led me to say incredulously, "That was the *Gulf War.* *Nothing fucking happened* in the Gulf War. Imagine what's going on over there now."

And yet we were all three (me, T and her roomie) entirely grateful for the implausible semi-happy ending. And this is where the connection to RENT comes in. Probably in 1999 I would have been artistically disappointed by the ending of THREE KINGS; here in 2004 I just this side of required it. Wish-fulfillment much? Which is the same deal as the even-less-plausible ending of RENT--given how desperately I, and presumably David O. Russell (though he *made* the movie in 1999, but maybe he has some connection to the Gulf War that I don't know about explicitly), needed the slight relief of the movie ending as it did, even as I knew it to be implausible and not happening right now, can I really deny Jonathan Larson and his audience of people between six and twenty years older than I, coming of age in one way or another during the American peak of the AIDS crisis and having it deeply impact all those who surround you and effect/attack you, the relief of imagining that ending could happen to people? Which concept offends the work of Augusto Boal, though it seems at first to have some impact on it.

Boal is the creator of the system of Theater of the Oppressed, which is based on the notion that typical theater/art, that is to say Aristotelian catharsis, where you watch theater in order to go through a journey with the characters and to purge your emotions through watching them, is oppressive because it means you purge your feelings in a non-real world, and having them purged don't have to look at their relation to the world in which you live. In other words, or partial other words since Aristotle wrote this concept about the incredibly unforgiving genre of Greek tragedy, since THREE KINGS took me (relatively priveleged in relationship to this situation, though that may change with the advent o' the draft) through such an intense journey but allowed me to believe that such an ending was actually possible, I've purged the need to actually do something to change the conditions that caused the horrors in the movie to occur. Theater of the Oppressed, which I don't want to go into too much detail about right now, is way more interactive--one part of it allows audience members to step into situations they recognize in an attempt to change them. Theater of the Oppressed does not offer answers, it allows the audience to step in and find its own solutions.

You know the Ways to Divide the World--dog people/cat people, techies/fuzzies, beer people/wine people, etc.? My father and I once proposed as one of them question people/answer people, and while applying it to people doesn't always work, I think question art/answer art is one of my strongest deciding factors. In spite of the temporary relief that the ending of THREE KINGS provided, it turned a piece of incredible, incredible question art into answer art, providing the fact that there was one right thing to do, evidenced by the fact that a) the thing they all felt was right to do eventually got done and b) Mark Wahlberg got to survive. Sure, they had to endure a lot of stress and horror and lost a friend, but they got home to the U.S. and everything was okay--I mean, I'm sure Russell meant a certain level of irony by having George Clooney and Ice Cube become Hollywood military consultants, but it's subtle enough that it was probably lost on the majority of the movie's audience. Fundamentally, at the end of THREE KINGS, everything is Okay. Same deal for RENT, as long as you have your family of friends who have made all the same social choices/have all the same social values you have to support you.

Which is, to get to part of the end, why I find HAIR a superior piece of theater to RENT, and specifically consider "Where Do I Go," one of the songs C cited in her post as exemplary in HAIR, superior to all the songs in RENT except for "Santa Fe." Not musically necessarily, because I think Larson's a bloody amazing musician, though the MacDermot-Ragni-Rani team ain't bad themselves (and yes, I did have to look up their names in my iTunes, 'cause I know you were wondering). But in terms of lyrics and service of lyrics to plot, HAIR is about questions. Any answer it offers, say in "Aquarius," (yes, the this-is-the-dawning-of-the-age song itself) it manages to subvert in the course of the storyline. It's showing characters/a social group that thinks something is right, rather than insisting that its audience think the same things right, which I feel RENT does. RENT does put its values out there straightforwardly (this is actually a song lyric that follows--Maureen: "I think we need an agent." Joanne: "That's selling out." Mark: "But it's nice to dream."), but it castigates any individual, within the piece or within the audience, who does not share them to the letter. "Santa Fe" is the only song that really offers a dream and, because of its impossibility, which is inherent in the music as well as the lyrics, doesn't believe that dream as a true solution, simply wishes it could be. And "Where Do I Go," while not nearly as musically compelling, subverts not only the character's professed philosophy/lifestyle, but the very social values the piece ostensibly wholeheardtedly endorses. I think it's wishes and desires within art that propel us to action, not answers. Though that's a very oversimplified answer I just gave right there.

I don't know . . . I am definitely propelled by art, in that it's got the strongest effect on how I make a lot of decisions, choose a lot of directions, etc. But as my father's pointed out, art is basically my family's religion. It's where we seek transcendence, it's what changes us the most, it has a strong impact on our views and decisions. So I relate to art as many relate to Jesus/the Bible, look at these three pieces as many must look at, say, Leviticus? Maybe. I certainly don't see individual pieces of art as irrefutable, the way many see the Bible. Or do I? What's in my canon? Good lord, I have to go to work and can't really start this now.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Some Balloon!

Yeah yeah yeah, she gets a blog and she won't freakin' post in it. Whatever. (Disclaimer the second: I give away aspects of THE HANDMAID'S TALE in this post. If you haven't read it, you better go and read it right now, and then come back and read the post.)

Last summer, I actually went as far as downloading the Patriot Act at work and trying to get through it in my leisure time (for about half of my job, there was *tons* of leisure time). I couldn't really manage it; a lot of it is really just "Section X of Y legislation is officially amended to read 'p + q' . . ." where every letter represents approximately eighteen characters and a decimal point. Not exactly informative, though it might have been if I were a substantially more patient human being. But I think we can be pretty confident that the Patriot Act is around for a little while longer; however, I'm not quite as scared of it as I ought to be. The trouble with me is I have a truly ludicrous amount of faith in the U.S. Constitution, which I feel like screwing with for a little while.

As Mr. M, my astounding 12th-grade history teacher, said, "A balloon! Raised in 1798! That's still floating! That's some balloon! . . . And don't tell me it's hot air." The constitutional democratic republic that is the U.S. has held up for more than 200 years, and in the history of the nation, that's pretty fuckin' hardcore. Are the risks of it falling to disaster greater than they have been? I don't know . . . unfortunately, last year I reread THE HANDMAID'S TALE, one of my favorite books, and a lot of it has been resonationg for me. While I don't at all believe we're headed for a regime that demeans and destroys women as Atwood's Gilead does, when she finally outlines how the Gileadean government came into power, it did seem like something that could happen here, as it could have then ('83), I guess. It wouldn't even have to be quite as extreme. In HANDMAID, there were a lot of religious extremists in isolated patches all over the country, with a few of them in place in the government; they managed, then, to assassinate the President, machine-gun the Congress, and create an interim government which suspended the Constitution. The rest was history (if you don't know what I'm talking about, read the frickin' book).

First, n.b. that you'd have to suspend the Constitution to get any such overthrow done here. Some balloon, indeed; that's the only realistic dystopia that can be written of the U.S. On this particular front, as on most non-slavery-oriented fronts, rock on founding fathers. But think about it. Even now that Ashcroft's gone . . . an extremist group wouldn't even need to assassinate the President to make a plan like that work, a government based on radical right-wing Christianity. The purpose that the assassination served in HANDMAID was to create fear--even at that time, her writing in the '80s, they blamed it on Islamic terrorists--and it wouldn't have to happen to the President to serve that function; look how September 11 is being used already. Somebody with machine guns could probably get into the Capitol Building with relative ease, because all it would take is to have three or four right-wing extremists elected to seats in the House or Senate. Not such a stretch. These extremist senators/congressmen would be able to bypass security with relative ease, their psychotic affiliates with them, and really, if they passed the Patriot Act, think what *any* kind of interim government would allow to get past them out of fear, even if not all of them were flunkies of the masterminds. I know that plan's not completely thoroughly outlined--I kind of combined two conceptions of the end--but it seems plausible to me. Not that I actually think it would happen, because really I don't think I do. But I think fear makes a whole lot of things possible, especially when we're right to be afraid, and no one can deny that. I'm pretty much waiting for the next disaster in New York (though I know S-D and SK disagree with me), and while my paranoia that we'd start having an Israel level of small-scale suicide bombings after we invaded Iraq proved misplaced, I still don't think it impossible that that could start up. Either way, I feel sure we're living in an interim now (see HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX), and don't even really know what that means.

I also recall the day we came into the class of Ms. L, my tenth-grade American history teacher who was then only a year older than I am now, to find that a new set of rules had been instituted. The rules were: 1) No talking without permission; 2) No leaving the room; 3) No arguing with me; 4) No discussion of the rules inside or outside of class (she had, she said, requested that certain members of the class report back to her to let her know if any such discussion was taking place). Being the liberal students we were, we attempted to protest; each protest was met with "You're arguing with me." We all thought she had to be joking, but couldn't find any crack in her facade. Ms. L then selected three members of the class to serve as an editorial board, and the rest of us were divided into groups who were to write journalistic articles that portrayed these rules in a favorable light. We discussed the rules quietly amongst ourselves, in our small groups; my group's small gesture of rebellion was to attempt to write a neutral, journalistic article (look for a later post on journalism and objectivity later, especially you, M), but the editorial board had been instructed to select the article that came closest to portraying the rules in a favorable light. Finally, AM was sent to the office for arguing too much; she returned with B, an administrator, certain that she'd won. Ms. L said to B, "I've instituted some new rules, and we've been writing articles about them. Here's the one that the students picked as the best." We all began to protest that that was not how it had been at all, but were silenced by "you're arguing with me." B read the article and said, "AM, this doesn't sound that bad. It just sounds like she's having some trouble controlling you guys, which knowing this class is not impossible, and is doing her best to create a good disciplinary system." Half of us shot our hands up, and finally, after thirty-five minutes of not being able to speak our minds (torturous for my school's students, and to my tenth-grade self it felt much longer), we were allowed to make comments, which we still made carefully, about how this seemed against the principles of our school, so on, so forth. Finally, Ms. L, still stone-faced, says, "Well, a lot of you have been speaking about our 'principles.' Where do you think these 'principles' come from?" We were all silent, and as the bell rang, she cracked her first smile and said, "The Constitution."

It's a bloody amazing document, as that exercise only drove home for me (I still remember almost every detail of that class period, seven years later. I can tell you who was in my article group, who was on the editorial board, you name it). So sometimes when I think about it hard enough, I can still agree, to quote AVENUE Q, that "George Bush is only for now." I remember being a junior in high school, at Model Congresses, loving, as I still love, the graceful and exciting system that is the U.S. government, having such faith in it. That's something that HANDMAID'S TALE allows me, as well (***hardcore spoiler coming***)--the book does not end with Offred being taken by the Eyes, the secret police, but rather with a set of historical notes on the story we've just read, the transcript of a talk given at an academic conference sometime in the 2100s. Which, for an often paranoid woman obsessed with the dystopia as a literary genre like myself, is a pretty amazing thing to have in the canon. Dystopias other than HANDMAID tend to be based on the notion that something could happen to government, of a country or the world, that we as a society could never bounce back from. HANDMAID showed a horrible era, an era that, like any other era thus far, passed.

The only thing that seems truly different to me, that belies This Too Shall Pass, is nuclear proliferation (thank you Mr. Kerry). There are people who hate this world enough, and have enough faith in the existence of another world, that they'd be willing to completely destroy it, and it is entirely possible that destructive power of that scale could fall into their hands. 320 tons of unsecured explosives, hello.

I don't know, though . . . now I want to play with the word "faith." Sarah was the first person to separate faith from standard religious faith for me, and it's an important distinction. I have a ton of faith; I cannot bring myself to believe that the events outlined in the above paragraph or the one three before it will actually take place, even though I recognize it as entirely plausible that they could. I think I will die as an individual, rather than die at the same time as my world dies. It could be naivete on my part, in fact I know some of it is, but I'm not really interested in changing that. Yet it is the same conviction, or at the very least it is an emotion identified by the same word, that could allow Osama bin Laden or some affiliate or some isolated, desperate psychotic to destroy at least the city of my birth, and potentially the world. I have faith in something different than they have, but both of us, most of humanity, is governed by faith. Any recognition of reality and subsequent continuation of life is faith, isn't it?

Within the small scope of my life as an American woman, I have deep faith in the Constitution, in this balloon--the word, I'm sure, chosen by Mr. M to represent how delicate it is, in addition to the fact that it floats above us--that was raised in 1798 and is still floating against all odds. The four coming years may prove this faith misplaced; I'll see where I am in 2008. But somehow I believe I and most of the people I love will be in 2008, although there are a lot of reasons not to believe that. Although the Supreme Court, like anything else, is a fickle and changing thing (that's quoting the AENEID, by the way, and in the AENEID it's a woman that's a fickle and changing thing, to which T responded, "Damn straight, Mercury!"), it hasn't destroyed us so far, in spite of the horrific things it has managed to do over the years (look for a post on the Supreme Court soon). I do believe in people, fundamentally. Which is partially stupid.

And yes, L and M, I hear both of you yelling at me for not discussing the destruction of the environment in a post like this. But I think I've bloody well talked enough. I'll get to it at a later date.

Monday, November 08, 2004

We're Not Gonna Pay

If you haven't read/seen either RENT or ANGELS IN AMERICA, and care if aspects of the endings are revealed, don't read this post.

Lately and suddenly, I have been listening to RENT with a vengeance I have not had since ninth grade, when I had to be obsessed with it because my friends were. It's an amazing phenomenon, really, that everyone of my generation who has any interest in musical theater can sing the entire first track of that musical verbatim. It's leaving me very conflicted, especially because I'm thinking of the polarity surrounding Bush's reelection as similar to that surrounding Reagan's, and, though it was not produced during that time, RENT is one of the two theater pieces that stand as the most prominent works coming out of the late-Reagan, fairly-early-AIDS years. The other is Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA, which I may or may not get to in this post. Yes, the TV movie was recent, but Kushner's play was written in the early '90s about the mid-'80s.

RENT was written by Jonathan Larson (that's got its own controversy attached to it, but I may get to that later), first workshopped at New York Theatre Workshop (an East Village stronghold) in the late '80s and coming to "full fruition" in the early '90s. At NYTW, it was tapped to go to Broadway. It did, and would go on to become a huge hit and cultural phenomenon, but Larson unfortunately died of an aneurysm (sp?) during the first preview. (Controversy: after his death and RENT's success, his dramaturg, whom I've known, sued to get partial authorship credit that she claimed Larson was planning to give her, and it caused a huge and interesting split in the NY artistic community. She eventually lost, but it's still interesting.) By the time RENT made it to Broadway, the marginalized, alternative lifestyles it lauded were barely marginalized and alternative any longer; the East Village was trendy and getting trendier, and while the show would say differently, it was attracting a resident population much like the "good" characters in RENT (not Benny), but richer. I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with all this, but I think RENT and the AIDS epidemic are what I wanted to talk about.

Generally, what I feel about RENT is, to paraphrase my mother, that I wish I could hear the next thing Larson would have written. That is, I think Larson's clearly an incredibly talented composer, but RENT, basis on LA BOHEME nonwithstanding, is incredibly trite, both lyrically and message-ly, and that its ending is a serious cop-out. But that takes me to ANGELS IN AMERICA, overall a much better piece, but with the same issues of ending: implausible life-savings, last-minute pull-throughs for no reason except that the authors couldn't bear to let their characters (or in the case of RENT, their characters' lovers; Mimi, in my view, qualifies as little besides an abstraction of love for Roger) die. Instinctively I turn from that as an artist, but at the same time, Kushner and Larson were writing in and/or about the height of the early AIDS epidemic, in a time when particularly artistic circles and circles of homosexual men (a disproportionate number of whom, always, are in the arts) were decimated, leaving particularly gay men but everyone in such circles feeling their lives were both literally and figuratively at risk. (Sometimes I really wish I had been of an age of reason then; it seems awful, but I am so deeply curious about what it was like. G says this is the biggest marker of the five-year age difference between the two of us--I remember when I was just learning to read well, seeing the early signs about AIDS on the subways and figuring out what every word meant, reading the "Decision" comics--the New Yorkers will know what I'm talking about--while G remembers her first complex encounter with it being an HIV+ speaker coming to her high school, and being the only person to talk to the speaker afterwards.) And at that level, I want to be like, so what's wrong with a little wish-fulfillment? You're watching tons of people in your life die, and you can't bear to let too many people in your theatrical work do so. Can I fault authors for that?

It's dishonest, though, and what I value most in art is honesty. The endings are illogical in the worlds they have created, RENT much more so than ANGELS IN AMERICA (my biggest dramaturgical problem in the latter piece is not with the ending per se, but with Prior's encounter with the Angel--the answer he comes up with seems way too simplistic), and therefore betray both their writings and their audience. RENT's got plenty of other problems on that front too, and if you really care, I think you should read, or borrow from me, Sarah Schulman's book STAGESTRUCK. While she can be kind of a pain in the ass, she's got a lot of interesting things to say about RENT. Basically, she wrote a novel with a very similar storyline--including many of the non-LA-BOHEME-oriented plot details--except that a lesbian, one of the Maureen/Joanne couple (I've yet to read her novel, so I'm not clear which) was the protagonist and the novel placed the gay experience as the central, protagonistic viewpoint, whereas in RENT, whatever marginalized groups we are exposed to, our protagonists, the people who lead us into and through the plot, are the two white straight men in its entire world, Roger and Mark. This is true even if you believe, as I do, that Collins and Angel are the only compelling romantic couple in the piece (even as "Today 4 U" is one o the biggest pain-in-the-ass songs ever). And the truth is that RENT probably could not be the hit it is if not for that. We can hear and sympathize with the straight white guy's gay friends (I recall TM, when I was a freshman in high school and he a junior, saying of Joanne and Maureen, "But it was dumb! I mean, I know some lesbians, and they're mad cool, yo! Those lesbians [i.e. M & J] spend all their time just being lesbians!"), but we, the audience, cannot be asked to *be* the homosexuals/minorities ourselves. The straight white guy has the universal experience that can lead us into this world, and the straight white author (Larson) is the one who can see all the viewpoints within it. So Schulman claims, and while I think she has a lot of minor points that can be successfully challenged, for me that part kind of stands. Also, it allows SWG to avoid feeling his automatic complicit-ness with the establishment, if this is the world he gets to lead us into.

Will we get the kind of art out of Bush's second term that many got out of Reagan's second term and its aftermath? Will the Iraq War/the War on Terrorism take on the artistic magnitude of either the early AIDS epidemic or, earlier, the Vietnam War? Will we be able to find that kind of resonance in it? What does it mean to find that kind of resonance in it? I think I'm going to stop here, because this is going to be a much much much longer post if I try to go into all of that now. What are other people's thoughts on this front? I'm not talking about Artistic Revolution here--though I do want to go into that further, talk about RENT versus HAIR as embodiments of a generation, bla bla bla etcetera--but more about what an artistic community does in response to disaster, not just Bread-and-Puppet-esque direct-action political theater but what politics infuses, and what's the cause of our doing art; at what point, especially in this country, politics infuses our daily lives enough to be in all our important theater . . .

Friday, November 05, 2004

People Who Want to Be Led

Aight, like I really know how Bush won. But I'd like to think about it. My mother, who was poll-watching in Miami (as it turns out, in a heavily Cuban and pro-Bush district where no one had complaints), points out that all the discrepancies were in districts with electronic voting machines. Hmmm, no paper trail much? I do think they were a stupid idea in the first place, and I don't doubt they were tampered with in a few districts. (Speaking of tampering, quick story--I went to the polls wearing a "lick bush in '04" T-shirt, which turned out, unbeknownst to me, to be considered electioneering and therefore illegal. No one noticed until I was done voting, and then they simply made me button my jacket, but I still found the whole situation amusing.) But I'm also not willing to attribute it solely to voter/district fraud. It seems too easy, and in some ways fails to acknowledge how close the race has been throughout.

My friend M related to me a portion of a conversation in which her friend told her that the country is divided between people who want to think and people who want to be led (the latter being Bush supporters). At first I was sure that this was unfair and that I disagreed, but now I'm puzzled and want to take it apart. I think I still disagree, but let's go.

I do not, nor can I for my life, understand how anybody voted for Bush thinking he was stronger on defense. I cannot understand how anybody voted for him thinking his choices regarding this war were considered or appropriate. If he is not a war profiteer himself they are certainly his bedfellows--for him, not particularly strange ones--in Iraq, and as to the "war on terror" itself, it is at least as unwinnable as the ostensible "war on drugs." Yes, September 11 was bigger than anything the U.S. has ever encountered before, and on the scale of one-fell-swoop attacks in general it remains pretty huge. (That's for a portion of knee-jerk liberals out there who I know think Americans need to shut up, September 11 wasn't really such a big deal, this kind of thing happens in other countries every day. And Americans do need to shut up about September 11, especially certain presidents, but it was and continues to be an incredibly big deal, and things of that scale do not happen in one fell swoop in other countries every day. Other countries live under constant attack in a way that most of this country does not, and in most ways that is at least as horrific as September 11, but the dramatic one-time effect of September 11 is a huge part of it and does not occur every day anywhere.) And yes, it changed and should have changed the way Americans think about terrorism. But warfare is no longer going to be conventional--it does not abide by the rules set up by Realists or by nations any longer. As horrific as this concept is in some ways, the attempt to win the war on terror is an attempt to go back in time. And therefore ridiculous. This shit has been going on for a long time, and although we as nations and individuals should be working to temper it, fighting a "conventional" war against a process started by people who felt they couldn't be served by conventional war, a process created to subvert conventional war, is counterproductive, dumb, scary and fans the flames. And even if not everybody would analyze it exactly like that, I don't understand how you could fail to see what a spectacular failure the war in Iraq is, and the justified increase in anti-American sentiment it has inspired. (N.b. the distinction between justified anti-American sentiment and justified anti-American terrorist action, something Bush supporters often fail to do.) No, there hasn't been another September 11 since September 11--but there wasn't one before then, either.

(Yes, I do recognize the Cole, the embassy in Kenya, and I don't mean to belittle them by any means. But the fact of an attack taking place on American soil makes a huge difference to most Americans, unfortunately myself included. And the time between the previous attempt on American soil--the WTC bombing in '93--and September 11 was more than four years. In the interim, if the guerrilla attacks in Iraq are not analagous to the Cole and the Kenyan embassy, hell if I know what is.)

So I've cut that out, but terrorism isn't the primary issue for a decent number of American, and particularly Middle American, voters. The primary issue for them is "moral issues." A decent number of voters in the heartland went to Bush simply because of his stance on abortion and gay marriage. Myself I'm a little lost on why the lives of the unborn are of greater value than the lives of American soldiers, but there's a decent number of people who use the argument that American soldiers made a choice and that they're sacrificing themselves for the greater good--the concept of American martyrdom being rooted in the president's evangelical Christianity. But I think it's fair to say that most soldiers serving on either side of the Iraq conflict, unlike, say, most suicide bombers, don't want to die. Okay, responds the single-issue voter, neither do the unborn, and while the war in Iraq will end of its own accord, abortion will not--it's got to be legislated. And given that it's very likely that Rehnquist will die within the first ninety days of Bush's second term, and he's one of the Court's conservative strongholds (Scalia being the other and Thomas being a weakhold; O'Connor and Kennedy can occasionally surprise you), if abortion is your primary issue this is nothing to laugh at. Depending on Bush's nominees and who becomes the next Chief Justice and all that good stuff, Roe v. Wade could well be overturned in the next few years.

But then, you say, isn't it true that those single-issue voters must be willfully ignoring the status belli, and therefore "want to be led"? Well, kids, America's known for wearing blinders when it comes to the non-domestic. It happened under Clinton (Rwanda for fuck's sake), it happened under Bush the elder (who heard of Kuwait before 1991?), it happened under Reagan (seriously? I've only been alive for four presidents? weeeeeird). Despite the newscasters' sensationalism, few and far between are those outside the intelligence community who could have imagined, much less predicted, September 11 or anything of the kind. Next to no one gave a second thought to the Cole or the Kenyan embassy before 2001. For a decent portion of the country, New York City is as foreign as Iraq. You mourn for a little while because the whole country's doing it, but it isn't real, and there's no reason, given the cultural polarization of the U.S., why it ought to be. We're going to have to do a whole lot of paradigm-shifting before that is a fully viable argument.

So the answer to M's friend is, I do believe that those who support Bush based on his defense policies want to be led rather than think. But supporting him based on his domestic policy seems to me a somewhat different matter, given that there are tons of liberals/Democrats/whatever who also vote based purely on domestic policy. I can't claim they aren't thinking; I can only claim they're thinking about very different things than I am, and in very different ways. (Gay marriage I'll hit on another day; this is plenty long already, and I have a cold and need to take a nap.)

Yeah. Somebody please throw me for a loop here.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

So Here's the Deal

I am not generally into weblogs/blogs/livejournals/etc. as a form of interpersonal communication. I've found that they encourage a lot of passive-aggressive interaction and other things I'm not into. But I have always read my friends' with devotion and interest, and recently, in anticipation of the election, my friend Connor opened his blog ( to the rantings and ravings of his friends to represent a broader spectrum of political opinion, and I posted.

I really enjoyed it.

This led me to decide that I need a public forum for my political thoughts. Since the personal is political, it will occasionally veer in that direction, but everything I post here will be about and based in politics. If you want to know what I had for dinner, call me. But these are thoughts I need to straighten out, particularly in the wake of this here now election, and I find I am much more likely to write things that I am confident others will be reading. So here we are.

And if you're wondering about the title and url, they come from a 1950s comic book called POGO, by Walt Kelly. It's way out of print, but you should do your best to get a hold of it. The characters are swamp critturs living in the backwoods of Georgia (Pogo is a possum) who continually find themselves in political situtations on a compellingly absurd level. I will post the actual Third Rail Theme in its entirety at a later date, but below is the first campaign song that the resident turtle, Churchy La Femme, composes for Pogo's inadvertent presidential campaign (see I GO POGO, 1951):

Oh, once the opposition
Was completAlly opposed
To all the suppositions
That was GEN'rally supposed;
An' NOW the superstitions
That were tho't to be imposed
Are seen by composition
To be slightly decomposed!

It all fits with the current political situation rather well, I think.