Monday, November 24, 2008

Inishmore Tangent

For some reason, I keep thinking of a Christian comedian named Ken Davis.

My mom used to be a youth minister in suburban Maryland.  This job forced her to sprout antennae tuned to that narrow wavelength of culture that was somehow both Christian and Cool.  Anything to keep the kids attention.  For instance, when M.C. Hammer released his single "Pray" in the early 90s, my mom bought the cassette and displayed it in her office.  I do not know if she has graduated to Kanye West, but I doubt it.

What makes self-identified Christian rock so awful is the clumsy studio grafting of scripture over the devil's music.  The resulting mash-up somehow manages to blaspheme both Jesus and satan.  Christians know they're stooping to contemporary motif and the rest of us resent (nay damn) the co-opted genre.  And yet, as bad as Christian Rap, Christian Ska, and Christian House music may be, you can always redeem yourself by listening to something else.  Wash your heart in the blood of Hendrix, Dylan, or Talib Kweli and be born anew -- the grace of good music is indeed infinite.  

But Christian Comedy ... that coats the soul with a permanent residue of liquid cringe.  There are many ways to get a bad song out of your head.  So how does one un-learn the Antijoke?

Ken Davis comes back to my memory as I try to parse the experience of playing Padraic in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.  But I can't quite articulate why; I just know this thread would be distracting in the longer term paper blog post I'm putting together.  Was it the pasty Lutheran complexion?  The floppy glut beneath the jawbone?  He reminded me of every chaperone we ever had for church group trips -- trying to be the cool one by making a covert detour from the caravan to buy a sheaf of donuts.  Ours would be the deliciously deviant mini-van!  There was something sickly about his humor (and his humour) that made each laugh sound like an penance, or each joke an occasion for pity.  

Not that the jokes were especially bad, just that they were told with a kind of strangled mirth.  I'm not a good enough writer to describe this sensation, but I can try to transcribe what it says to me.  

It's okay.  It's finally okay.  We're allowed to laugh!  This show has been approved before the fact and you will encounter nothing in your laugh to challenge what is most sacred.  We confess up front that what follows is not only TV-G, but in direct service to the humorless authority of our jealous god.  How wonderful that even He allows us to laugh under certain circumstances.  We will bat down other smirking curiosities with redoubled force because tonight we see that it's physically possible to genuflect and guffaw at the same time.  And if you feel guilty, just think ahead to tomorrow's work -- repurposing laughter to mock the damned.

Well, that's as much as I can remember without consulting YouTube.  Here's Ken in his own words now.  Okay, they're not all his Words.  He's borrowing a few from Cosby, I think.  Maybe they came with the sweater ...

But seriously, folks.  

What does Ken Davis have in common with Martin McDonagh?  If I had to wager a mean mini-thesis, I'd say that they both ask us to make a sick moral concession which permits not just laughter, but a creepy righteous laughter on top of it.  For both men, laughter is not really a source of liberation or intuition or existential discovery (the way it is with St. Bill Hicks, for example).  No, the Catholic Laugh can only liberate those who are already saved.  It can only intuit a Law that was already imposed from the outside.  And it can only discover new ways to weaponize this singular joy of living for deployment against the unenlightened.


If I recall, there isn't a single joke in the Bible.  God is only funny if you take him at his Word.  Or if you accept that the joke is always on us.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Inishmore Journal

Hey kids.   We closed The Lieutenant of Inishmore this past Sunday.  For the past month, I've been borrowing a book of essays on Martin McDonagh from co-star John Lescault ...

... and I promised I'd return it soon.  So this is a hold-over post while I finish a longer one about the play and our production.

Doesn't Marty look bad-ass on the cover?  Here's a playwright who has the BALLS to depict Aran Islanders as the shoe-polish-eating bumblefucks they are.  You see, it takes great courage to mock rednecks onstage for theater audiences paying $70+ a ticket.  That'll show 'em.  Also, did you know that terrorists are assholes?  Well, McDonagh is brave enough to say it.  Terrorists are dumb-ass jerk-face dick-heads!  

I have no affection for backwater zealotry or the god that provokes it, but I'm still pretty sure McDonagh's first goal here was to make people laugh.  Nothing more.  That's my bold thesis on L of I anyway.  He uses blood as the base material for farce the way The Underpants uses lust.  If you care to dig any deeper, you're only going to be disappointed.

So why am I taking forever to compose my own line-by-line analysis?  Because there's something suspicious about the canonization of McDonagh and I confess it's interfered with my ability to approach this play as either jolly farce or serious character study.  It's neither.  Contrary to every synopsis written about the play, the title character Padraic is not a psychopath.  And contrary to Catherine Rees, this play does not force the audience to "confront their own approaches to the sentimentality of the Irish political movement and to interrogate the causes of Padraic's dislocation and isolation in a world which no longer remembers the history it is fighting for."  

I have a feeling some critics and thinkers are working overtime to justify their own violent laughter.  And that's what I'm trying to unpack at the moment.  In the meantime, here's our chart for the number of walk-outs per week:

That doesn't include the last two weeks.  Two Fridays ago, we had a record-high one-night walkout tally of 17 -- of which 10 left during my nipple-slicing moment in the second scene.  I guess they were just closeted terrorists who couldn't bear to see their own dark urges exposed onstage, right?  Well, that's the prevailing logic for Rees and a whole slew of critics who think McDonagh's doing something radical with this play.  Here are some of the reactions we could hear from the stage:

I don't know if you can read that last one, but it says "Well, if you put the Irish together, that's what you get."  And here's a picture of "a complex metaphor for violent sectarianism" ...

Now, I know you can't spell "Catholic" or "fanatic" without "c-a-t."  But does that really count as post-Syngian intertextuality?  

More soon ...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

For Jason Stiles


Four years ago, I was working on a production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist with Rorschach Theatre.  We retrofitted Fo's farce for the War on Terror, pouring years of frantic discontent into the play.  We didn't really rehearse the play, as I remember.  Instead, we spent our evenings doing freestyle op-ed monologues, hoping to shoehorn every last outrage into the script.  I can't remember what I was hoping the night Bush won 62 million votes over John Kerry's record-high 59 million.  But I remember sharing the anger and despair with my most lovably cynical friends Jason Stiles, Marybeth Fritzsky, Melissa Schwartz, Grady Weatherford, Daniel Ladmerault and others.  Last night we gathered again, in person and by phone, to watch, shout, cry ... and sleep easy for the first time in years.

Bush's 2004 victory looked conclusive, but only against the flat gestalt of the 2000 fustercluck.  I remember W braying the next day that he'd "earned political capital" and that he intended to spend it.  First stop?  A privatization of Social Security that never materialized.  Next?  Diagnosing Terry Shiavo from the Senate chamber.  Third: Hurricane Katrina, in which 1800 Americans perished.  The glossy, shrink-wrapped Homeland Security apparatus revealed itself as a haven for despicable cronyism better suited for spreading insecurity abroad than security on the homeland.  And suddenly people realized that without some oppositional reflecting surface, W had no identity whatsoever.  He needed homophobia to keep his own people inspired in 2004.  He needed a political opponent to denounce or destroy.  The Apophatic Presidency.  
Who's the one to blame for this strain in my vocal chords?
Who can pen a hateful threat but can't hold a sword?
It's the same who complain about the global war
But can't overthrow the local joker that they voted for.
Through no effort of ours, Bush will be gone.  President Barack Obama (say it out loud one more time) will face a similar challenge in defining himself.  Will he lead a party of protest or a party of governance?  Like most of my election-night party chums, I retain a pessimistic reflex in the midst of this unmistakably liberal mandate.  I can already see the 2012 challenger standing at a podium, slowly unfolding an old, then-forgotten sign ...

For me, Obama's triumph is a rebuke to cronyism, anti-intellectualism, the culture wars, and disaster capitalism.  What will he put in its place?  I still think he's The Virgin President, but will his (INSERT MANLY EUPHEMISM) advance American hegemony or heal the planet?  Will he lead us away form an Ownership Society and towards ... I don't know what to call it ... a Creative Nation that rewards productivity over paperwork?  Will the Bill of Rights be, at least, 25% stronger now?  I seem to remember that being part of the oath ...

I'm not being cynical, I promise.  Let's not forget that Obama's triumph also includes the repudiation of Clintonite triangulation -- the very cynicism that assumed, as a matter of fact, that Obama was "not fundamentally American in his thinking and his values."  These morning-after questions are really just bullets on my wish-list.  But for the first time I feel free to wish.  President Barack Obama ... say it again, people ... has either delivered hope or capitalized on hope.  That's enough gas to drive to January 21.  Here's hoping for new energy past that.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Open Source Obama

Has any candidate inspired more armchair quarterbacks (speechwriters/debaters/asskickers) than Barack Obama?

Watching the first Presidential debate, I felt much like Maureen Dowd (or Christophers Hitchens and Matthews): where was the knock-out punch? Why won't Obama finish him Mortal Kombat style? In a column titled "Barack Obama Doesn't Need Your Two Cents," Christopher Beam explains how all the sideline shouting cancels itself out. He should attack Palin! He should ignore Palin! He should warm up! He should cool down! And so on. I'm starting to think this slow-boil frustration is actually part of the Obama strategy. Call it DIY Rhetoric. And then pause to watch the following video again. Because now that McCain has conceded Michigan and publicly vowed to do nothing but throw poop for the remaining month, it's worth remembering which candidate actually has an affirming vision for the country:

Back in the primaries, Hillary Clinton actually tried to turn the screeching downhill skid of her own candidacy into a point against Obama. Why can't he close the deal? True, he's winning, but would you trust a guy who takes this long to beat me? It's a cotton candy assault. Say it once and it's tasty. Say it twice out loud and it evaporates in your mouth. She's essentially right, of course, since John McCain would be beating her much more thoroughly right about now. But only in the Clintonian crazy-straw of triangulation* and capitulation does this ploy make sense.

At the time, my shower-stall speech on the subject went something like this ... ahem:

I find it incredibly inspiring that we've taken our time to pick a nominee. Yes, many people have had their minds made up from the beginning. But this election is too important to resign to knee-jerk primary race trend-setting. Think about it. For the first time in ages, the national attention span has paused to consider the needs of each state in the country. How often does the mainstream media sit down to hear from the people of Montana? How often do national news networks stop to look at voters as diverse as Hoosiers and Tarheels? And within the same week, at that? Hillary may find this race tedious, but I think we're healthier as a nation when we give each corner of the country a chance to be heard. I think we have an invigorated, battle-tested candidate when they've been called to make the case to Americans everywhere, not just Iowa and New Hampshire. Call me crazy, but I think democracy is stronger when everyone gets a chance to participate.

And so watching the first presidential debate felt like watching the Act Two anticlimax of a sloppy kung-fu movie. "Man, if McCain tried that shit with me, I'd be all like suck THIS motherfucker! WOO-HA NEEEEEEEEEEYAAAH!"

As it happens, I'm living in the battleground state of Virginia for the next couple months -- so I have a place to take this frustration. For the past two Saturdays, I've been canvassing in the DC suburb of Shirlington ("commie country" according to McCain's brother). One of the Obama operatives there pointed out that Arlington county is overwhelmingly Democratic, but they only got 55% turnout in 2004. Their goal is to reach 80% this year and the voter registration deadline is today. If anyone else out there feels like a helpless fantasy football player, I can tell you that nothing sublimates spectator spin better than knocking on doors to spread the word.

On my first day, I confessed to the Obama reps on hand that half my motivation for helping came from this armchair quarterback impulse. I believe in Obama, yes. But I also believe he's in danger. And then it struck me: Barack Obama is the CSS Zen Garden of political candidates. I don't know if this is ingenious, cybernetic open source democracy or the Borg Collective, but the man needs people to complete him. In that spirit, I humbly offer the following post-debate dream sound bites. I hope to have fewer of them after tomorrow's town hall bout in Tennessee.

"Thank you for joining us, John."

Simple. Casual. Innocuous. It only sounds cheeky if you honestly think McCain's campaign "suspension" and debate postponement were serious maneuvers to abate the Wall Street meltdown. Obama made much the same point in his opening remarks when he said "I believe now is the time we should be speaking to the American people." But he could have politely reminded John that he'd already won a round just by showing up. And he could have "owned" the occasion up front.

"You can't treat international negotiations like a junior high school lunch room. No new clubs, no pretending the other person isn't there."

McCain wants to form a League of Democracies. But what happens when free-thinking societies freely think such a club is ridiculous? France, Germany and Britain are out. McCain booted Spain before the fact. So who's left? The League of Democracies is to international negotiations what Earmark Cuts are to budget policy -- a feeble cosmetic idea that doesn't begin to confront the challenges at hand. Combine this with McCain's blithe ignorance about the nation of Iran and you get a foreign policy that goes over very well with fourteen-year-old girls: la la la I can't hear you this is the cool kids table.

Every other democracy has open negotiations with Iran. And why? Because Iran happens to have a large, vibrant, young, pro-Western population. They see the elder theocracy dying off very shortly and their main beef with America isn't our freedom (gasp!) but the simple fact that we've already invaded two of their neighboring countries. McCain and his neocon boosters should be proud because we've already overthrown Iran's democratically-elected government once in living memory. But we can't just keep invading the same country every half-century. American regimes now have worse mileage than American cars. This won't stop McCain from inflating the tires with talk of a "second holocaust," but please.

Many sober minds on both sides of the aisle have pointed out the ironic temperament swap between the young black man and the white elder statesman. I wish Obama had inverted the age disparity by connecting the League of Democracies and Iranian diplomacy with McCain's adolescent world view, too. Which brings me to my last fantasy play ...

"You have to be able to look your opponent in the eye."

Is there a better way to connect the debate about international relations with McCain's bizarre behavior during that very debate? Obama made the same point in his Denver speech by pointing out how "McCain likes to say he'd follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell. But he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives." So why not take the same moral high ground w/r/t diplomacy and fuse that with McCain's cowardly shuffling during the debate? McCain has now repeated two disastrous gambits from Carter's failed 1980 campaign. First he tried to skip the debate altogether. After Obama called the bluff, he tried to pretend Obama wasn't on the same stage with him. Both were attempts to minimize his opponent as a spoiler. It only takes a brief rhetorical judo kick to turn this nonsense back on itself. McCain likes to say he won't blink, but he can't even face the man he's running against.

I don't have anything to add to the Biden-Palin smackdown. It was more declamation than debate anyway. But even within that tightly-girdled pageant, Biden burnt away everything but Palin's eyelashes. Who would have thought his most forceful answer (and Palin's most excruciating fumble) would be on the basic Constitutional definition of the Vice Presidency?! It's worth watching again because, in many ways, the whole debate boils down to this.

I mean, for fuck's sake, they even had the Constitution written in large letters behind them. I knew Palin would be consulting her notecards the whole time, but she can't even answer the question when the crib sheet is hanging in a tapestry right behind her opponent? Never mind the Bush Doctrine. I have the horrid feeling that Palin couldn't have recited the preamble with Joe blocking her view.

I don't expect Biden to point this out, but I thought maybe SNL might.


*Clintonian triangulation Remember when she offered Obama the VP slot before she had the lead to do so? No one expected her to follow through on the promise, of course. The offer was made to float the mere idea of an inverted ticket and thereby deflate Obama's steady triumph in that race. As Obama was quick to point out, you can't offer a second-place spot when you're the one in second place. But no matter. Both Clintons are extremely generous when the gift isn't theirs to give. As Jon Stewart once put it, their "integrity is at its highest when the situation is at its most hypothetical."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

While You Were Blinking

DOCTOR: Have you noticed any adverse side effects in your son since he began taking Ritalin?
HOMER: Well, he's stopped blinking. He says that's when they get ya.

--Simpsons episode, c. 1999

PALIN: I -- I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink.

So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.

--September 11, 2008 interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC

I can see what Palin was talking about now! After drinking two pots of coffee and chomping a sheaf of nicotine gum wads, I am now sufficiently "wired" for every new threat to rational discourse. While I was blinking, I missed the whole Lipstick on a Pig story. Now, we've been told by McCain's folk that this election isn't going to be about issues. It may be about personalities or campaign money. But as Palin demonstrates with her manic fealty to "the mission," it's really about the collective attention span.

I won't bother embedding the YouTube video that documents every last blink, wink, stammer, and groping locution of Sarah Palin's first press interview. Nor will I re-play the Bush Doctrine sound bite because I hear Charles Krauthammer has the copyright on that term and has fully absolved her of any misunderstanding. More on the Chucky Lexicon soon.

Like just about everyone, I assumed that if Sarah Palin were going to fumble, she would do so on some arcane policy quiz or left-field factoid. Who is the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia? Did you agree with the telecom immunity bill? She could easily, nay proudly, botch these questions or quickly tease out right answer. But if I had to ask the softest of softball questions for a guns-and-god Republican candidate, it would be "Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?"

This is an important distinction because her next interview is going to be with Sean "Why doesn't mom love me?" Hannity. I think we can expect him to be gently deferential as he drills her on, say, the three branches of government or the state flower of North Dakota. Because if you can't ask her about the biggest initiatives within your own party, then it's time to skip to the swimsuit competition.

Forget the pregnant pause that followed Gibson's question and the charitable wide-shot that covered it. Forget her annoyed tone as she answered this question with a question, "In what respect, Charlie?" Forget that Charlie followed up with the generously open-ended "What do you interpret that to be?" We're now playing the Game of Questions from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead.

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: What do you interpret that to be?
PALIN: His world view?
GIBSON: No, the Bush Doctrine enunciated September 2002 before the Iraq War?
PALIN: What does it all add up to?
GIBSON: Can't you guess?
PALIN: Are you addressing me?
GIBSON: Is there anyone else?
GIBSON: How would I know?
PALIN: Why do you ask?
GIBSON: Are you serious?
PALIN: Was that rhetoric?

Everybody with us? We've gone from a yes/no softball, to an open-ended invite, to a specific query. Palin could have blathered any affirmation she wanted for the first question. She could have interpreted her heart out for the second. And she simply should have known the third. But she fumbled all three. So far, the most effective defense for Palin's ignorance and lack of curiosity has been to make explicit what most of us have assumed since she was announced: that McCain has treated his first executive choice like a scratch-and-win sweepstakes. And just as McDonald's employees can't participate in their own contests, the winner of McCain's long-shot lotto should not have any insider knowledge. So not knowing the Bush Doctrine actually makes her more qualified. You have nothing to worry about because she's just another coupon-clipper like you.

If only they could explain why everyone has to clip coupons these days. Or how a $25 billion dollar coupon (earmark cuts) can pay for $200 billion in tax cuts and the $500 billion we already owe this year. But I shouldn't lecture. If you have sight of Russia, you must perforce have insight into Russia. And if you play Sodoku, you know a thing or two about numbers, so all that insider elitist Washington hoo-ha about the economy needn't scare you, either.

Dammit, I did it again. Sigh.

- - - - TEAR HERE - - - - - - - - - - - - - TEAR HERE - - - - -

Have you ever wondered what a nagging, trivial story like Lipstick on a Pig looks like after you extract it from the globulous maw of hypernews? Well, Glenn Greenwald yanks that festering tapeworm from out the anus of mainstream media in a magnificent essay over at I don't think I've ever seen someone trace every meme and mutation like this. He follows the phrase from its first utterance to its latest iteration as a major news story. But even if you blame Obama for the lion's share of that distraction, Greenwald's piece still reads well as a case study in media watchdogging. In an election where every blink counts, it's refreshing to find someone with the brute patience to tell a complete story.

While you're over there, check out his latest column, too. He explains how the real tragedy about Palin and the Bush Doctrine isn't her ignorance of the subject; it's that this ignorance disqualifies her from a debate we desperately need to have. Sadly, many of us on the left relish the spectacle of that ignorance too much to engage or change it. It struck me watching Tina Fey's pitch-perfect impersonation on SNL: this mimicry reveals nothing about Palin's character (the way Colbert's funhouse mirror actually brings O'Reilley and Hannity into sharper focus). No, Tina Fey actually beautifies Sarah Palin and offers the temptation of years of bankable laughs if we let her achieve higher office.

I know I sound like a humorless jerk right now, but it took me five years to realize that W was chosen by Dick Cheney to placate more than the wacky right. He was chosen to make liberals so delirious with indignant mockery that we failed to fight him. In times like this, I switch from John Stewart to Sage Francis:

But some of y'all still haven’t grown into your face,
And your face doesn't quite match your head.
And I'm waiting for a brain to fill the dead space that's left,
You're all, "Give me ethnicity or give me dreads."
Trustafundian rebel without a cause for alarm,
Cause when push turns to shove
You jump into your forefathers arms.
He's a banker, you're part of the system,
Off go the dreadlocks in comes the income.
The briefcase (the freebase)
The sickness (the symptom)
When the cameras start rollin' stay the fuck outta the picture pilgrim.

Mr. Save The World, spare us the details,
Save the females from losing interest.
And Miss Save The Universe,
You're a damsel in distress,
Tied down to a track of isolated incidents.
Generalize my disease,
I need a taste of what it's like.
Living off the fat of kings,
I play the scab at your hunger strike.
Slow down Gandhi, you're killin'em.

Who's the one to blame for this strain in my vocal chords?
Who can pen a hateful threat but can't hold a sword?
It's the same who complain about the global war,
But can't overthrow the local joker that they voted for.

--"Slow Down Gandhi" from A Healthy Distrust

I smell similar bait with Palin and simply wish we had better candidates before better comedy. When every blink counts, the only political capital worth measuring is attention deficit dollars. Authentic wit is the shortest distance between two ideas. As Ted Widmer recently pointed out in Slate, Obama is losing that fund-raising drive:

The last politician to zing a convention as effectively as Palin did was Ann Richards, the formidable, beehived governor of Texas—a Democrat. Her 1988 oration was a work of genius, not only for its classic line that George H.W. Bush was born with "a silver foot in his mouth"—a much more complex and interesting joke than anything Palin said—but also for its New Deal earthiness and brassy feminism.

Rousing as it was, Biden's recent speech has nothing on this. His joke that McCain should be called "Bush44" takes too long to set up and isn't worth the effort to repeat. If Rudy Guiliani = noun + verb + 9/11, then McCain = ?! We need something more than petty ad hominem gestures to complete that equation.


Jesus said to turn the other cheek. The Bush Doctrine says you can strike both of the other guy's cheeks before he's hit either of yours. It takes spectacular effort to maintain the agonizing contradictions at the heart of right-wing morality. True, the apocalyptic death-wish of Revelations has a free-market match in disaster capitalism -- Christian doctrine blessing the Shock Doctrine. But overall, the American right is still losing energy and credibility on laughable concessions to its evangelical base. Like it or not, a solid majority of Americans are pro-choice. They know that Intelligent Design is a joke and climate change is real. Stem-cell research hurts no one and has the potential to help everyone. But because 25% of the country believes that Adam and Eve rode a dinosaur to church,* men like McCain still bend over backwards to appease them.

Remember, the Democratic primary may have taken a long time and ended on a 50-50 split, but the Republican primary crumbled in whole chunks along deep ideological fissures, leaving only one candidate who didn't look or sound totally ridiculous to a general election audience. John Kerry's 2004 primary victory owed to a similar succession of Lesser Evil choices. That quick contest yielded a candidate whose chief appeal was that he wasn't George W. Bush. Or Al Sharpton or Howard Dean or Joe Lieberman.

A similar dilution characterizes the emergence of John McCain. Imagine a Democrat snagged by three Nader-sized factions. Until a few weeks ago, McCain represented the American Right sans libertarianism (Ron Paul), religiosity (Mike Huckabee), or sadism (Mitt Romney). He called out the religious right for the "agents of intolerance" that they were. He dismissed Rush Limbaugh as "a clown" and suffered mightily for that slight. He told W to his face that he should be ashamed of himself during the 2000 campaign. Which is why it's so sad that he chose to debase himself by aligning with Bush so many times and then disowning or reversing his few noble departures: tax cuts, torture, global warming. His choice of Sarah Palin completes this degeneration because she steers the campaign back into Karl Rove's Culture Wars. At the end of the primary race, I wondered what was left of the Republican Party. Now I wonder what's left of John McCain.

Don't blink or you'll miss him, too.


*Adam and Eve rode a dinosaur to church
Credit where it's due. This is a Tina Fey joke from a few years ago. Can we get more of this, please?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace: 1962 - 2008

He was found in his home this past Friday. He hanged himself.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Mere Triumph

For the past week, I've indulged in a Spurlockian diet of news and blogs. And like the sad, paunchy Morgan gulping his umpteenth fillet-o-fish, I've watched my metabolism and mental health plummet as I wolf down another Hitchens column or Sullivan post. So I'm writing this to purge myself of all the angry speculation blogging my arteries. Call it Denver Detox. Or angryoplasty.

God, I wish I had a sport to follow instead. But who needs that when you've got CNN's Ballot Bowl '08 traveling to Mile High Stadium, followed by a Hail Mary pass from McCain? I suppose we should expect Chief Justice Roberts to douse the winner with Gatorade on inauguration day.


Let me begin with a funny piece of right-wing bitchery that followed Obama's acceptance speech:
We were thrilled by his speech in front of the Greek columns, which were conscientiously recycled from the concert, “Yanni, Live at the Acropolis.” We were honored by his pledge, that if elected president, he will serve at least four months before running for higher office.
Ha ha! The rest of that David Brooks column is a hilarious sample of white resentment. He tries to make many jokes but can only pound his fist against the logo. Like most angry crapitalists, he thinks the best way to attack someone is to mock the brand name they're wearing. Brooks hates pretty much everything, from Frappuchinos to Coke Zero to the Acela train to beauty, achievement, M&Ms, etc. That little sample above was the only shard of genuine wit I could find. Because let's face it: it is pretty funny to imagine Obama leaving office in 2010 to serve as Secretary General of the U.N. At the rate he's going, he could be High Prefect of Alpha Centauri before his IRA matures.

But if Obama's rise follows a scary singularity curve, then my calculations show that Sarah Palin is only a heartbeat away from becoming Lord Protector* of the Milky Way. Of course, one quick way to embiggen your constituency is to count the unborn children spawned by rape and incest. Palin's own family census has rapidly expanded between drafts of this very post!
  • Mayor of 6,000 for 6 years.
  • Governor of 600,000 for 2 years.
  • VP of 300,000,000 for 1 year -- at which point McCain will croak but not before making abortion illegal so she can be ...
  • President of 500,000,000 for one trimester -- at which point the planet will explode from one catastrophe or another.
For all the tactical questions flying around, we should add the following reverse-hypothetical and then be done with the whole mess: Would McCain have picked Sarah if Hillary were Obama's VP? Everything about the Palin choice smacks of demographic calculation, stagecraft and mere reaction to the Obama camp. McCain met Palin once six months ago. He reached out to her and began vetting only after Obama tapped Biden as his VP. If McCain wanted a young, dynamic governor who appeases the Limbaugh-Coulter set, he could have chosen Bobby Jindal -- an effective "identity politician" with experience both national and local, legislative and executive. And since Palin was only on the radar about as long as Hurricane Gustav, why not pick the guy who's been on TV saving the poor masses of New Orleans?

I know there are a lot of cynical answers to that question -- or answers that try to make McCain look cynical. But with all the resumes on McCain's desk, Palin basically shakes out as Romney without Romney's debate baggage. Unfortunately, she is also Romney without Romney's economic experience -- the other gaping hole in McCain's platform and the issue Obama rightfully owns.

The general election may be the biggest game show on television, but let's remember that the Vice Presidency is not a runner-up prize. It is not White House! The Board Game! The job has two important components and a trillion trivial ones, none of which suit Hillary's gifts or Palin's qualifications. So what's the real game here? Barack Obama lent some of his change (and Change) by selecting Joe Biden. John McCain has lent all of his experience by selecting Sarah Palin. Obama countered McCain's Experience Charge with Joe Biden, and now McCain is countering Obama's Change Charge with Sarah Palin. And back and forth and back and forth. Like two lone kings inching into the stalemate corner of a chess-board, both men have succeeded in canceling out or deadening the potency of each other's catchphrases and criticism. All that remains is the tenacity of the players. In American politics, that means the dollar and decibel count of their supporters.


Bush-Cheney revolutionized this relationship in a couple of ways. Instead being a back-up copy of Bush, Cheney was Bush's back. Rove was the brain, Cheney the spine, and dad had the keys to the house. Cheney wasn't a "force-multiplier" -- to borrow a now-popular army surplus term -- he was the only purposive force in the Bush Administration. Biden may add heft and horsepower to Obama, but there's no doubting that Obama's vision governs the whole enterprise. This odd compact worked well with Bush-Cheney because we were in a state of permanent emergency anyway. It will work for Obama-Biden because the two men complement each other's talents without inverting the chain of command.

Palin, meanwhile, cannot fulfill the first and simplest VP duty: to manage the executive branch during an emergency and become President at a moment's notice. This might not matter if McCain didn't happen to be a 72-year-old cancer survivor. Of course his age and health don't disqualify him from the most stressful public service job in the universe, but they do require some responsible backup in the VP slot.

This might matter even less if McCain and Palin were correct about the major economic, international, and social issues of the day. But because she hews to the Jesusland shock doctrine -- and because McCain still proudly apes the Bush-Rove-Cheney legacy -- a McCain-Palin ticket brings nothing new to the game except a desperate descent into identity politics where, at best, they may collect some stay PUMAs. So be it.

*Lord Protector Her anti-abortion, anti-envrionmental, anti-gay, pro-Intelligent Design platform certainly has a Cromwellian feel to it, don't you think? But hey: he was a reformer!

- - - - - - - TEAR HERE - - - - - - - - - - TEAR HERE - - - - - - - - - - TEAR HERE - - - - - - - -

If you've read this far, maybe you'll indulge me on a little craft project for the rest. Blogging makes me anxious because I feel like I'm writing on water. And yet, that's not slippery enough. I'll go back to the digestive metaphor from above by comparing blogging to toilet paper: an infinite cyber-spool of single-column commentary, made to be ripped off and disposed. The content, more often than not, has an emetic quality to it. It is scatology perfected. We go to Facebook for connection, we go to blogs to throw poop. We gorge at YouTube. We pray at Google. We forage through eBay and Amazon. If Obama seems like the oracle of our times, it's because he's mastered this medium while his opponent has yet to learn e-mail. Like Moses, he can cause whole memes to part and make passage for his people.

So here's my project.
  1. Print this post.
  2. Tear at the dotted line above.
  3. If you disagree with the preceding analysis, I invite you to burn it or wipe your ass with it. No hard feelings.
  4. If you agree with the preceeding analysis, I invite you to recycle it or better, eat it and forget about it.
Either way, the whole McCain-Palin VP-stakes armchair tactics thing should be forgotten so we can move back to the mere triumph of ideas.

You see, I'm tired of being a prisoner of my own indignation. I'm tired of last-minute Republican lightning rods. We knew that the 2004 Gay Marriage Amendment was never going to pass. We know Palin is manifestly unqualified to be McCain's VP. So why do we waste our energy and breath on them when we know that their only purpose is to stoke the cockles of fundamentalist Christians? Because McCain's own campaign chair has declared that this election is about personalities, not issues. Because they know Obama wins on both counts and it's easier to smear and pander than pave over the horrors of the last eight years. Because they're counting on us to cave to our anger, forget the past and forswear the future. Because it's worked before.

So let's not give into our own smug detachment -- Palin will guarantee that Tina Fey never goes hungry. But I say it's worth sparing a few hours of farce for a generation of goodwill and prosperity.

It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it. For over two decades -- for over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy: Give more and more to those with the most, and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the ownership society, but what it really means is that you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck; you're on your own? No health care? The market will fix it; you're on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don't have boots. You are on your own.
Well, it's time for them to own their failure.
There is a radical idea buried within that piece of classic Obama rhetoric. The Ownership Society gives its members one moral imperative: thou shalt consume. As Bush was quick to say before the ashes of 9/11 had settled: the consumption must continue, even and especially in times of crisis. Get fat, get debt, get angry. Eat, gorge, buy. Fuck, burn, kill. We can buy the troops we don't have and do retail therapy when they die.

The ownership imperative frees us of the need to create anything but zygotes and receipts. It makes the mouth the dominant erogenous zone of the body and the body politic. It makes an erection something you buy and an orgasm something you eat. It means there is no reward for a nation that works harder and harder to produce more and more. Because even though the productive force of America's working poor has increased year after year, they have lost wage value, union rights, health care, retirement, and Pell grants for college.

The Ownership Society has been given a long and scenic test drive. It's time to take this lemon back to the dealership. I won't buy it from a war hero and I won't buy it from a sharp babe with a machine gun. This jalopy simply has shitty mileage -- even after you inflate the tires.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Did You Think I Meant County Matters?

So apparently no one in the RNC has seen Citizen Kane.

I mention it because that campaign didn't end too well. Take heed, ye owners of the ownership society -- Rosebud was many things, but at the end of the day, she was just another product. Yes, my elitist friends, that's two obnoxious high-brow references in one small post. I've got a longer one I've been polishing -- should be up tomorrow afternoon.

In the meantime, I must offer a humble shout-out to fellow Rorschach company member Jason Linkins over at The Huffington Post. Jason quoted some of my last post last week. So in exchange for sending hundreds of readers this way, I can only return the favor by directing my vast cohort of 18 daily readers to his column at HuffPo. In the age of the "money graf" Jason is the Tantric multi-orgasmic master. Do enjoy! He can also be found at his inaugural blog, DCeiver.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Barack's Attack Dog

As I read the McCain camp rebuttal to the recent number-of-houses barb from Obama, a dark shroud of implacable fear surrounded me. I realized later that it was actually some kind of crypto-partisan guilt because this was exactly what I would have said if the tables were turned:

Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?

Does a guy who worries about the price of arugula and thinks regular people 'cling' to guns and religion in the face of economic hardship really want to have a debate about who’s in touch with regular Americans?

Now, brothers and sisters, before you dismiss this counter-slam for its superficiality, please pause to admire the streamlined execution. By calling out one McCain flaw, Obama gets plastered for a handful before the sentence is half-over. It's a tight little cluster bomb of a rebuttal, lacquered with a stealthy dismissal of the whole attack -- it ends with a purely rhetorical question mark as if to say, "Let's not even go there." Compact, piercing, and inflammatory, it hits its target while giving the impression that it was launched from the high ground. Of course, it wasn't launched from the high ground; it was launched by a Rove protege using a Clinton crib-sheet. But no member of the Obama team has been able to deploy fighting words with such force and precision.

Enter Joe Biden. I remember feeling instant admiration for the man when, channel-surfing four years ago, I saw him in a C-SPAN clip (is there any better way to catch C-SPAN?). It was during one of his Judiciary Committee hearings and he was smacking around John Ashcroft for defending Abu Ghraib. At the time, there wasn't much of a formal debate about torture. This was well before Cheney attempted publicly to codify torture and toss out the Geneva Conventions. The theatrical sadists of Abu Ghraib were defended and dismissed as bad-apple frat house kids. And unlike Cheney's subsequent row with Congress, there was no specific policy at stake and therefore no focal point for sustained discussion. We swallowed the shame and re-elected Bush. But for a brief moment, our cruelty and hypocrisy were held in lyric suspension by the most powerful image to cross the national Imaginary since the panoramic hellscape of 9/11:

If you want a thousand-word capsule for this -- and an incisive review of a certain Mel Gibson movie -- click here.

Joe Biden was one of a few people to correctly intuit and loudly decry the basic moral failure of Abu Ghraib. Instead of making it another pissy bullet point for Bush's managerial incompetence, he made it a deeply personal issue of right and wrong. As the father of a soldier, he knew that the horrors of Abu Ghraib now gave the enemy license to practice the same indignity on his son. Held to this fatherly imperative, the Bushies didn't look tough or confident anymore -- they looked like pube-less bullies playing dress-up with dad's clothing.

Even if you believe, like Sally Quinn, that the President should be a manly winged centaur who protects his children (and presumably shits cocoa puffs for breakfast), you have to admit that Biden fulfills the emotional need at the center of that father-worship fantasy better than Cheney. His aggression and his wit are inseparable. And unlike Hillary Clinton, he won't be gunning for his boss's job in 2012 or beyond. Best of all, he is a value-added veep, not the naked gesture of electoral or geographic conciliation that Obama-Clinton or Obama-Kaine would have been.

In other words, there is no appeasing strategy behind the choice of Biden. He's simply better for the job than Hillary. His qualification derives not from yesterday's primary contest, but from tomorrow's challenges. Obama didn't pick him just to win one contest in November, he picked him to help govern for years beyond it. And let's not pretend Hillary actually wanted the number two slot to begin with. She's an all-or-nothing executive, not a supporting figure or attack dog. If she's not going to run the whole show, her talents are better employed back in Senate committees, not Observatory Circle.

(I understand the frustration felt by Hillary's supporters because I supported her too for a while. See the end of this post for my own personal Clinton postmortem.)


The torture debate is as good a place as any to segue from Biden to McCain. Like most of my lefty brethren, I do hope he picks Mitt Romney. I relish this prospect about as much as Kristol and McCain wish they had Hillary to rip apart right now. The electoral temptations of a Romney VP are obvious enough: He has roots in the indispensable Democratic territories of Michigan and Massachusetts. He was the (distant) runner-up in the delegate count. And unlike the Hillary Clinton, Romney actually represents a stubborn ideological faction within the Republican Party. He is also favored by the hard-right chattering class (Limbaugh, Coulter, et al) that would rather lose this race than see McCain become President. Finally, Romney's clumsy flip-flops and embarrassments are the sort that can be swept up and blunted while he marinates for four years as President-in-waiting.

Like two people in an elephant costume, McCain-Romney might each believe that they're the one who's really running the show. And the fractured American Right would happily join in that delusion and redouble its energy this fall.

But because of this, the primary fight between McCain and Romney was more pronounced and substantive than the superficial squabbles of Clinton, Biden, and Obama. If the McCain camp thinks they're having fun re-purposing Democratic primary jabs, just wait until they have to explain away McCain contra Romney smack-downs like this:

Or, better yet, this:

Or my personal favorite, this:

Clinton chided Obama on vague, subjective grounds: the length of a resume, the "readiness" to lead. By contrast, McCain beat the shit out of Romney for insoluble political and moral issues that can't be reconciled in a tart convention speech. Plus -- and it's a HUGE plus -- I'll bet dollars for donuts that Biden has the balls to confront Romney at the debates and ask him point-blank why he continued to work for an officially racist organization well into his adult life. Good luck carrying that bullshit rationalization into a general election against the first African American nominee in American history. But please, do try!

This is assuming McCain doesn't nominate Bobby Jindal, who satisfies the hard-right just as well as Romney and handcuffs the Dem's identity politics almost as well as Biden handcuffs the Republican's foreign experience charge. At 36, Jindal really makes you wonder about the life-expectancy rate in the late eighteenth century, when the Constitution set the minimum Presidential age requirement at 35. He's exactly one half of McCain's age. This would out-Quayle Quayle except Jindal is also the dynamic, articulate governor of Louisiana and Rush Limbaugh has dubbed him "the next Ronald Reagan." Did I mention he's the son of Indian immigrants?

Regardless, McCain still has one rather large tactical advantage over Obama at this stage in the game. For all his doddering low-blows, he's not dumb enough to ignore it. Because McCain isn't announcing his VP pick until August 29, Obama-Biden can only criticize half of the McCain ticket during the biggest campaign event of the season. For this same reason, McCain can use the Dem pageant to inform his VP choice, making that nomination a broad counter punch before his own pageant even begins. And when it does begin, McCain-Romney or McCain-Jindal will have the double-barrel blast of a surprise VP who enters the convention completely undiminished by the preceding DNC love/attack festival. Given this, I can understand why Obama would wish to close the gap between the VP announcement and the convention. After Labor Day, it's four big TV stops for the debates and then we're done. But right now, the election calendar favors the reactionary attack position that McCain has already exploited so well.

So I'm happy about Biden. I'm hopeful for Romney. But I fear the terrain gives McCain a generous handicap either way.


Because I'm a wonky geek with no real mommy damage to speak of, I admired Hillary's ability to answer debate questions with clear and specific bullet-lists. So for any frustrated Hillary supporters out there, let me present my departure from your camp in a similar fashion.
  • Her resume isn't that much thicker than Obama's.
  • To ascertain their policy differences would be an agonizing exercise in the bifurcation of hairs. McCain is not going to satisfy Hillary's view on abortion, Iraq, health care, or the economy at large.
  • Which leaves the question of executive/managerial competence. I humbly offer the recent primary-source profile of her primary campaign from the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly. You see, Obama won the primaries without stooping to innuendo and slurs-by-association and he did it with grass-roots organization that eschewed defense/pharma lobby money. He ended the whole marathon with class and cash to spare. Clinton took huge sums from the military-industrial complex and drug/insurance companies, added a huge personal debt of her own, and then squandered every penny slinging dirty ads. As the e-mails released in the above article show, she also failed to manage a civil war within her own campaign team. These are not the marks of a good or effective executive. There's plenty to admire in the woman, but she's also a low-blowing spendthrift who can't uniter her own team, never mind the party or the country.
  • As someone who endured baseless charges during the Whitewater scandal, she should know better than to use the same smear tactics against Obama w/r/t Rezko. But she doesn't and she didn't. Even the Wall Street Journal picked up on this hypocritical ploy against Obama.
Race and Gender cut to the quick because they both directly engage our sexuality. At the end of the day, racial and gender divisions aren't policy problems because they require a more intimate act of "transcendence." In this sense, they are one and the same issue (as in, "to issue" or give birth). I happen to believe -- to the irritation of my colleagues -- that sexism is a far graver issue than racism in this world. But that's precisely why the world deserves a better "identity politician" than Hillary Clinton.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Duh Profundis

They say that the average person's vocabulary contains more negative words and phrases than positive. This might explain why free-form snark rules the day, I suppose. On the whole, it's easier to spit invective than construct a compliment. And if you don't believe me, go fuck a rusty exhaust pipe you unrepentant joytard.

They also say that 90% of the neurotransmitter traffic in your brain is devoted to inhibition. Consciousness emerges through a plastic cascade of retreats -- an "inwardness" that characterizes the mind at its physiological building block. This is why I often find the asceticism of Schopenhauer and Beckett so irritating and redundant. Yes, we are born astride a grave (at least for now) but must we eat astride a toilet? Is the recipe complete without acknowledging the poop that will ultimately issue from it?

My sister got married this past weekend! Right now I feel as happy as I do old -- which isn't a bad tandem if you think about it. Somewhere between my third and fourth glass at the reception, my sister told me I was scheduled to make a toast. And I started to choke because for the life of me I couldn't summon one appropriately embarrassing story about her or her new husband Dave. Inhibition won over invective, I guess. What can I say? They're good people who deserve each other. And I can't wait to play the goofy uncle part that was written for me so long ago. They're also a smart, loving bipartisan couple whose very existence makes it easy to forget the wasted lump of carbon twitching under the breastbone of Ann Coulter or Frank Rich. They even made t-shirts that said "RACHEL-DAVE 2008: Peace. Hope. Matrimony."

Photos coming soon ...

I was watching MSNBC yesterday after my run. They sampled Obama's recent charge that McCain's off-shore drilling proposal has netted him a cool $1million from the oil lobby. Then some anchorface let a RNC wonk ramble through a feeble retort for two minutes. I waited for the conversation to begin, for some back and forth, for a confrontation or at least for an equally feeble response from a DNC wonk. But instead she excitedly rushed to her next story ... Tyra Banks posing as Michele Obama in the New York Post!! OMG!!! Apparently, this was such an imminent development that the network didn't have time to pull up some b-roll or slap together a title graphic. So the giddy anchorface had to hold up a copy of the Post so the camera could zoom in and catch the story. This was followed by thorough coverage of David Letterman's top ten list re: Barack's recent birthday.

Many, many chunks of uninhibited invective rushed to my throat. In no particular order:
  • Like everyone else in the comedy business, Letterman has stopped writing jokes. What the fuck happened to jokes? By jokes I don't mean Mike Meyers mugging or Colbert hyperbole. And I don't mean SNL's mean-spirited parodies or Sarah Silverman's reflexive turds of self-hatred. I mean that quaint modernist chestnut that doesn't need an attitude or posture to make you laugh: a set-up, a punchline, and some spark of wit to unite the two.
  • It seems Paul Shaffer has been instructed to slobber over every other word that comes out of Letterman's mouth so that the lameness of the material can be deflected to the lameness of Paul Shaffer -- thereby converting stillborn non-jokes into their Splenda equivalent: ad hominem mockery.
  • And speaking of SNL -- isn't it amazing how they've managed to get progressively, but imperceptibly, worse from year to year? I think it's part of a strategy to generate perpetual nostalgia for last year's not-quite-as-lame "Best Of" DVD. They really ARE cooking astride a toilet: the material only becomes compelling on the way out.
  • Family Guy and Robot Chicken are two orders of magnitude less creative than the above, but at least they leave a small carbon footprint. They're made of 96% post-consumer material, after all. They don't even recycle actual jokes -- they just recycle the mere memory of, say, having watched an obscure movie like The Empire Strikes Back. The "joke" is supposed to be the little memory neuron that fires with recognition of something you've already seen.
  • So just to sum up. Jokes are out. Mockery, nostalgia, and pop-referencing are in.
  • A man leaves Harvard Law School where he served as editor of the Law Review. He turns down clerkships and oxford-cloth lawyering gigs to camp out on the South Side of Chicago and help people. Clearly he is an arrogant bastard out of touch with regular American families.
  • What the hell is going on? McCain released an ad placing Obama next to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. I guess to show that Obama's popular. Britney*, you recall, advocates unblinking fealty to "whatever our President says." And Paris Hilton** -- that paragon of dynastic decadence -- is supposed to have common cause with the son of a goat herder. What the hell is going on?
  • Now, I'm guessing that the anchorface dug up the Tyra Banks story on her own because they had to zoom into a hand-held copy of the Post to explain it. But who arranges these things? Did the Obama campaign really think it could counter a RNC spokesperson with two pop-culture nuggets, Tyra and Letterman? Is it working? Or is this just how cable news works? Either way, I'm depressed.
  • Amazing how W managed to erase his blue-blooded pedigree with a few charming gaffes every other word or so. Bush never had to apply for a job or feed his family. But it's all in the twang, you see. And we don't like no uppity boy speakin' with fancy elitist subject-verb agreement and all that. So just to be clear: W comes from a regular American family and Obama is the authoritarian jerk with an outsized sense of entitlement, right?
  • Amazing how W managed to keep the rest of us so thrilled with our indignation and superiority that we forgave his petty catastrophes as the only real jokes worth telling in postmodern liberal America. Knock knock. Who's there? Katrina. Katrina who? Katrina Lewinsky. (REDEEM PUNCHLINE VOUCHER HERE)
  • What's worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm? The Holocaust.
  • How do Helen Keller's parents punish her? They beat the shit out of her.
  • How many women with PMS does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. (long pause) It just DOES, okay?!
*Britney Isn't it amazing how her downfall and rehab and downfall was built into that first hit single? We knew back in 1998 that this was going to end in disaster. We were banking on it. Consequently, there was nothing remotely scandalous or newsworthy about her drug problem or custody battles or weight gain -- it was all part of the plan. We invested in her disgrace the day she first menstruated and now she's finally paying us back. It was like a college fund -- but instead of knowledge we got to masturbate over the image of a 15-year old girl and then punish her for it when she reached womanhood.

**Paris Hilton Has anyone done a parody character called Helena Travelodge? To complete the irony, she should be a Fulbright Scholar. And beautiful.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Borrowed Kettle

I think it's possible to absorb the first third of Slavoj Zizek's book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2004) without a working fluency in Lacananian psychoanalysis or Hegelese. Here's a fun passage that samples Zizek's freewheeling cold fusions and metaphorical mashups:
According to Jewish tradition, Lilith is the woman a man makes love to while he masturbates alone in his bed during the night -- so, far from standing for feminine identity liberated from the grip of patriarchy, as some feminists claim, her status is purely phallic: she is what Lacan calls La femme, the Woman, the phantasmatic supplement of male masturbatory phallic jouissance. Significantly, while there is only one man (Adam), femininity is from the very beginning split between Eve and Lilith, between the ordinary hysterical barred subject ($) and the phantastmatic spectre of Woman: when a man is having sex with a 'real' woman, he is using her as a masturbatory prop to support his fantasies about the nonexistent Woman ... The catastrophe occurs when the two women collapse into one, when the 'ordinary' partner is elevated to the dignity of Lilith -- which is structurally perfectly homologous to the Zionist elevation of the 'ordinary' Jerusalem into the Jerusalem the Jews had been dreaming about for thousands of years ...
At one point in the '07 workshop, Jason pointed out that for all its digressions and blind alleys, the emotional currents of This Storm Is What We Call Progress still follow a basic love triangle. Lily and The Woman With the Silver Skin have some kind of erotic tie apart from the tutor-mentor relationship they exhibit when we meet them. Adam enters the scene and falls for Lily, but falls harder for the world of the Silver Skinned Woman because her knowledge of Kabbalah offers clues to his Gentile father's madness and suicide.

There is another female character who we never see. God is repeatedly referred to with a feminine pronoun, but I'm speaking of a character who's never even mentioned. Her existence and identity fuels the power dynamic that binds the three on-stage characters as they grind through the necessary convulsions of the love triangle. She is the Jewish half of Adam's hyphenated soul* and for all the fallen-father drama on display, it's a little odd (but maybe appropriately spooky) that we never hear about her -- I didn't even think about her until a couple weeks into rehearsal. I'm speaking, of course, of Adam's nameless mother.

I can only imagine how Adam would tell the story of his parents courtship! "Starving, Gentile, artist father" meets Jewish woman. Father falls deep into the spell of Kabbalah and starts talking to walls, seeing faces and speaking in tongues when Adam is 7 or 8 and continues his descent through Adam's adolescent years, then dies trying to fly off the Golden Gate Bridge when Adam reaches manhood. Bracketed by two powerful women in the foreground drama, Adam eagerly hurls himself into the same thicket of gender/power dynamics that seduced and killed his father.

Not surprisingly, Adam has an op-ed in his pocket about the State of Israel and its spooky overlap with the fascist persecution that catalyzed its creation. Zizek points out a literal overlap in his book, too:
Anyone who is interested in the history of anti-Semitism should remember 26 September 1937: on that day, Adolf Eichmann and his assistant boarded a train in Berlin in order to visit Palestine: Heydrich himself gave Eichmann permission to accept the invitation of Feivel Polkes, a senior high member of Hagannah (the Zionist secret organization), to visit Tel Aviv and discuss the co-ordination of German and Jewish organizations in order to facilitate the emigration of Jews to Palestine. Both the Germans and the Zionists wanted as many Jews as possible to move to Palestine. The Germans preferred to have them out of Western Europe, and the Zionists themselves wanted the Jews in Palestine to outnumber the Arabs as quickly as possible.
He goes on to state that both groups, therefore, were pursuing a kind of "ethnic cleansing." I'm sure there's a great Kosher joke to be had here, but damn if I can summon one. It reminds me of another passage from Storm, where Adam compares an aliyah to membership in the IRA. He's half-Jewish and half-Irish, so both branches of the family tree are marked by terroristic religious warfare.
Because, you know, because, before recently I was no more likely to do an aliyah than I was to join the IRA. But, but, but Zion is descending into this fanaticism and mediocrity. Jews are finally white people, but all that being a white person gets you is the right to be as brutal and vicious and banal as you like without having to say you're, uh, sorry. To build these ugly-ass suburban tract houses on someone else's land because God told you you could have holy sod lawns and holy, holy, holy, aluminum siding.
Like any good artist, Adam holds banality and ugly-ass suburbanity as morally equivalent to brutality and viciousness. Hannah Arendt makes an appearance later to paraphrase her own insight about the "banality of evil" by dismissing the whole Third Reich as "an old and oft-recurring story and not particularly original."

Now, it's fun to snipe at the Philistines (what Zizek might call "the jouissance of the theatre geek"), but the unoriginal thesis that "evil is unoriginal" is only one part of the dialectic engaged in Storm. The preponderance of the play is about how the mundane and the ecstatic converge everywhere. Records descend from the sky. Tupperwear and metro cards become holy totems. Oddly specific prophecies abound ("the next person you see will die in an elevator accident"). Hasidim Jews wear baseball caps and bomber jackets. And "all the bullshit writing that's around us everywhere is some kind of prayer" -- this includes Chinese take-out menus and junk mail. So while Adam can get a lot of reinforcement from Arendt, and a lot of righteous glee by savaging the ugly-ass suburban aesthetic, he also has to contend with the "banality of god" glowing at him from every Manhattan sewer.

On the surface of it, this Kabbalistic code-breaking resembles John Nash's schizophrenic scribbling in A Beautiful Mind or Catherine's madness in Proof.** Any collection of symbols -- random junk mail, magazine articles, Chinese takeout menus -- can be thrown into the cipher-mill and "divined" for paranoid Communist infiltration or, in the case of Adam's father, the emergent life-force of God herself.*** But the question of madness isn't nearly as interesting as the question of power, even when the two seem inseparable. Sex, art, politics, religious ritual -- these are different wormholes into the same ecstatic flush and Jason finds a potent scene for each of them. In Storm, the Kabbalah isn't offered as a subject unto itself; it's mostly another wormhole. Or rather, Kabbalah is the skeleton key that opens innumerable over-the-counter wormholes everywhere.

Near the end, Arendt goes on to explain that the real drama isn't about the banal gray concrete of Nazi power, but the brilliant man who loved her slightly less than that power. How do you separate Heidegger's ideas from his ideology? How does Hannah (or Lily or Adam's mom) separate love of the former from revulsion for the latter? How does any man find common cause between his heart and his solar plexus? And between both and his dick?

For me, these are the questions raised and the dramas activated by Grote's Storm. Also there are great jokes! We're extending through July 27, so do join us at Camp Rorschach in cushy Georgetown where you'll find a veritable multiplex of crazy-fun shit. We just opened Skin of Our Teeth to critical acclaim and the Randy Baker's episodic project Dream Sailors launches tomorrow. You can read a profile of that one in today's Post as well.


*hyphenated soul Adam is trying to write a Sam-Shepard-meets-Tony-Kushner solo show called "American Shylock." We joke backstage that once he fails at this, he turns to the Irish half of his checkered lineage and writes a show called "American Shamrock."

**a treat for veteran readers I've complained about A Beautiful Mind and Proof before and it's precisely because they can't find any space between madness and insight, preferring instead to ape the same Promethean morality tale while fetishizing intellect along the way.

***to divine Interesting how that verb can simultaneously reflexive and active. You can divine odor from a gym sock, or you can divine the fuck out of a gym sock and worship the thing. Transubstantiation is in the hand of the beholder?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Against a National Theatre

Like just about any theatre professional who's lingered in an unpaid Manhattan sabbatical, I've had tons of free time to blog and bitch about The System. I keep waiting to catch the crest of the perennial Why We're Screwed debates, but I always get to the beach at low tide. I also think I'm one of maybe three bloggers who hasn't seen or read Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America. But now that Isaac is dedicating four forthcoming posts to the subject, I figure this is as good a time as any to pull out that dusty screed I've been saving on my desktop for the last year and half.

A passage from Parabasis:
... better work results from a system in which more people are making a living from their art. I witness this every time I hold auditions or go into a rehearsal room. Many people who want to work in theatre and also not starve find one of several different options for subsidizing employment. They either (a) work a full-time day job that they do not care about, (b) work a full-time job that they do care about, (c) work a part-time or sporatic job (like temping) that they do not care about or (d) work a part-time or sporatic job that they do care about. I know very few people who belong in category b, who are capable of having two simultaneous work passions that take up fourteen hours of their day. I know a lot of people in Category A, and it is largely those people that I’m talking about here.

For the five years I worked in DC, I was happily lodged in the manic rush of category B. I was a screenwriter/film editor by day and an actor the rest of the time. The living wage came from the former and the latter received all the passion and commitment. My familial, fraternal, and romantic relationships suffered, no question. But I loved my work and felt too much gratitude for the opportunities in front of me to pause and critique the larger system. During this time, many extremely talented friends would call to report on the bleak prospects for meritorious advancement in the LA-NYC theatre scene. I never felt the need to leave the District and I would stump for DC each time they called, but no one ever believed me. Or, if they did, it was no matter because the nominal distinction had become more important that the qualitative distinction (Much has been written about this superficial bias, and it's not my real concern here).

The artist's life comes with an implicit poverty vow that gains extra charm because most of us are already some flavor of socialist. I'd like to take that view seriously for a moment to see if a simple inventory of our "means of production" would reinforce the general anywhere-but-new-york meme that's been gaining traction for the last few years.


We forge theatre in time, space, and people. The production of theatre, the actual live event, requires actors and real estate before it requires anything else. The presence of the playwright -- the very reality of the playwright -- is the first thing the audience pretends away when they suspend disbelief. Contra Albee (Mamet, et al) good writing cannot redeem bad acting the way great acting can redeem mediocre writing. A quick perusal of any New York theatre review will tell the same basic story: competent, even compelling acting put in the service of bad directing or playwriting. This critical distinction persists because it is not the actor's job to imagine the intentions or inner conflicts of the playwright. However, it is the job of the playwright to imagine the intentions and inner conflicts of genuine characters. To sustain the illusion central to live theatre, actors employ the (intensely creative) art of forgetting. We must unlearn the plot, the ending, the secret appraisals of other characters, previous productions in history and previous performances within the current production. In a sense, we must also unlearn the identity/pathology of the playwright.

Not surprisingly, the Mamet/Albee school loudly insists that actors are not creative artists, but interpretative artists. More compelling theorizers like George Hunka will simply say that the playwright is the Origin of the theatrical experience, but this amounts to the same judgment. Forgetting for a moment that the very phrase "creative artist" is about as redundant as "smart genius" or "strong bodybuilder," what possible distinction remains for the "interpretive artist"? True, we judge some actors against a literary Ideal when it comes to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare endures and earns this standard because interpretation remains an inexhaustible task. Any "definitive" production of Shakespeare -- satisfying and refreshing as it is when it emerges -- will always gather some friendly mockery in succeeding generations because we discover that Hamlet has as much to tell us about post-modernism and the War on Terror as he does about Freud and existentialism, etc.* As Walter A. Davis put it in Get the Guests (his wonderful analysis of Albee and others), "representation exceeds intention." Or, to paraphrase Marx, what we create is always ahead of where we are. If we accept and internalize this, we see that the quest for airtight interpretation has no place in live theatre. It is therefore foolish and insulting to relegate the actor to the status of "watchable" meat-puppet when a true understanding of their primacy only expands what is possible in dramatic literature and dramatic performance.

That's a much bigger subject, of course, but indulge me on this point for a moment because I think the mistaken primacy of the playwright comes to bear on Isaac's econ questions.


A quick hand count. The word "commodity" is still anathema to authentic theatre folk, right? We despise the corporate model that exports mass-produced, tangible widgets through a franchise system with some alienating bureaucracy at the top. Well, without veering too much into the debate about intellectual property or royalties, consider first that the script (primary or not) is the only thing can be mass-produced and disseminated with perfect fidelity. We hamper ourselves enormously and abandon all pretensions for a "National Theatre" or "American Theatre" when we treat actors as commodities instead.

The publishing industry requires a centralized-product-producing model to function. The Internet may be gradually undermining this model the way it's started to undermine the monolithic status of the New York Times, but that's only made things easier for the playwright. Actors, unlike scripts, are still living things that cost a lot of money to shuffle and relocate, never mind the interpersonal costs of migrant worker life (see, again, Isaac). This bizarre, inverted model -- where the lifeblood is commodified and the commodity is sacrosanct -- owes its continued hegemony to the New York Centrism that dominates our present conception of "American Theatre."

An example of the surcharges built into the NY-centric system. I was playing a supporting part as a local actor at Arena's Kreeger Theatre in DC and got $850/week gross. A good friend of mine was playing one of the leads and came to the project by way of NYC, where her agent had talked up her contract to $1000/week – but 10% of that new figure went right back to the person who secured it, leaving her with $900 gross. One of the other leads came to the table with an established history of DC theatre and Arena work and consequently, didn't feel the need to engage his NYC representation to get a fair deal. So an agency can help you get a part and pay for itself along the way, but the whole process of negotiation and commission is completely redundant for the community surrounding the venue.

For someone in their position, the real profit (and the second NY-centric surcharge) comes from the free housing and transportation provided by the theatre. Deft subletees can maximize regional work to live rent free for months at a time – which is great, as long as you don’t mind not having a permanent home. The Round House columbinus production had two out-of-town actors: one ensemble member from Alaska and one lead from NYC (Will Rogers, who had been with the project since he was a student at NCSA). Round House put them up at the Hilton down the street for three months. By contrast: when I was called to re-join the same project at New York Theatre Workshop as one of the leads, such amenities were not forthcoming. In fact, I was told I needed to have an NYC address, and my own housing in the city – in essence, to fund my own semi-permanent relocation and become a “local” NYC actor overnight if I wanted to keep my job.

So the NYC system doesn't just trade on expensive exports that have to be reinforced and mediated by an extra layer of bureaucracy in the form of agents and managers. The system is also hostile to imports. The exchange of talent is a rigidly one-way transaction. Some artists relocate to New York because their school plants them there; others move at their own peril and at great expense. At this time, it's worth introducing some figures from the closest thing I have to a control sample: the regional and NYC productions of columbinus.

The world premiere happened at Round House Theatre's Silver Spring, Maryland stage. This 150-seat venue charged $30 a ticket and paid $400/week -- I was non-Equity at the time. NYTW is a 199-seat venue that charges $60 a ticket and pays an Equity Off-Broadway contract at $500/week. As it happens, the NYTW salary falls just underneath the commission-able threshold for agents and managers. So an actor can work there without sacrificing 10-20% of their gross pay to their “people.” But even then, taxes and union dues leave you with, perhaps, $400-450/week. Depending on how farsighted you are with taxes, this money can go a long way, but $1600-$1800 net pay per month doesn’t leave much room for savings or Equity's new health care premiums, to say nothing of the disproportionate cost of living in NYC. By way of comparison, New York unemployment insurance caps at $405/week before taxes. And that number is purposely designed to be unlivable as a motivation for finding employment.

Try swapping any of the variables in those two examples. To find an Arena salary in a NYC theatre project, you’d have to be on Broadway, simple as that. All the mid-sized and larger venues in DC routinely cast the majority of their parts with local actors and pay a wage that has no NYC correlate outside Broadway. At any rate, if a 150-seat house in suburban Maryland can pay non-Equity actors a wage that keeps pace with an esteemed 199-seat Off-Broadway house we might want to ask where the 100% ticket price increase comes from and where it goes if its not being used to accommodate visiting talent or provide a more livable wage.


The answer is the second of the two main ingredients I identified as our means of production earlier. Real estate. Now I'm sure we all reserve some extra admiration for the ice sculptor who manages to carve a perfect Venus on the surface of Venus ... but surely this basic environmental liability isn't what makes it a masterpiece. The top-down orientation that informs Albee's script-bound view of theatre has a structural match in the NY-centric model surrounding it. If we dare to reverse this, we open ourselves to a founding recognition: The Theatre is a dynamic place bound in time before it is a piece of "timeless," easily-reproduced literature.

At present, New York is the only place where bad art constitutes a territorial affront** and good art remains undersold and oversupplied. In any supersaturated market, marketing itself becomes as prohibitive as real estate costs. So in addition to agency, casting and real estate, theatres must spend still more energy and money playing with reductive "brands" and vying for the fractured attention of audiences who already have a couple dozen masterpieces to chose from in any given season.

If we wish to exempt ourselves from the vagaries of the late capitalist system that keeps us beholden to markets and real estate, we have two significant internal revolutions available to us.

1. Theatre, as a medium, must recover its roots in dance and improvisation to escape from a script-bound conception of the aesthetic. As long as we insist on reducing the theatrical event to that which can be symbolically codified -- and as long as we appropriate musical, verbal or televisual standards to enforce it -- we will kill what remains of the medium's vitality and immediacy. We will make architecture, not art. I know actors can be annoying as fuck, but that's why the biggest challenge here falls to them. It would be nice if theatres returned to the company system, yes, but a truly radical theatre would build itself from the ground up, with performance, not text, as the ground. So rather than call for another lame moratorium on Shakespeare, I suggest that fellow actors become the proprietors first. Sadly, too many actors remain content to treat themselves as commodities, as sexy objects of fascination.

2. The Theatre, as a place, must find a place for itself that doesn't require submission to avoidable bureaucracy and scarcity. I have no doubt that there are more than enough amazing actors, directors, and designers to fully populate a dozen regional circuits, but that the overwhelming majority of them are sitting idle in New York. The same things that make New York an invigorating cauldron also make it an insulating womb. If one wishes to divine a sexy "American" imperative from all this, consider this next revolution our Manifest Destiny of the Bodied Soul or something. Artistic cognition can be contemplative, critical, cathartic, kinesthetic, and polysensual ... but it is also the site of something much simpler. It is sui generis and it is pure exploration. I've said this before -- we feel a kindred calling with priests, doctors, musicians, judges, social servants, and gym teachers. It's about time we recognized our kinship with explorers and left mom's basement. Because I'd like to think New York is the Heart, Brain, Soul, Womb, Tomb or Towering Cock of American Theatre, but more and more it looks like the Liver. Now before any of my colleagues bristle at that metaphor, recall: the liver is still the BIGGEST internal organ, and every drop of life blood must pass through it. So I freely validate any claims to size or universality. I only ask that we remember in turn the Liver's true function: to digest and detoxify.

But to back up that parting metaphor, I need to dust off another essay about the nature of criticism in New York and how all of the above fits with what thinkers as diverse as Christopher Lasch and Herbert Marcuse call "alienated labor." Suffice it to say that The Culture of Narcissism and Eros & Civilization both have a lot to teach us about what's wrong with "American Theatre." Far from being exempt from the workaday grind of professional drudgery, New York theatre professionals have crafted a masochistic system that outdoes its secular-corporate counterpart by a magnitude of 10. We work for $1/hour. We log 60-hours a week easily. We forgo relationships and families, health insurance and retirement and all voluntarily. And then we scoff when someone choses to work at Wal-Mart. It's time to take our critique of late capitalism and turn it back on ourselves.

More later ...

* Hamlets In the past five years, I've played Hamlet, and seen the Silent Hamlet, the Digitally Reconstituted Binary Iamb Wooster Group Hamlet, Jeffrey Carlson's directed by Michael Kahn, Wallace Acton's directed by Gail Edwards, Sean McNall's at the Pearl (by far the best of them all), and most recently Michael Stuhlberg's in Central Park. I find it hard, even painful, to imagine a similar string of Georges and Marthas. I don't want to spend all night arguing with my friends about whether or not the latest George effectively conveyed Albee's arcane dialog instructions -- but I can spend hours contemplating the subclauses paused into existence by a new reading of 2B or not 2B. Nobler-in-the-mind? Nobler, in-the-mind-to-suffer?

** territorial affront Could there be any doubt that Manhattan's island-economy scarcity creates the thuggish, gang-like enforcement of theatrical ghettos? Broadway, off-Broadway, Fringe, downtown, Brooklyn, showcase and Indie theatre? NYC is by far the most democratically mobile populace in the country. But you wouldn't know it from the bitching that ensues when someone suggests seeing a show in far-flung enclaves like Brooklyn or (gasp!) Jersey City. In the meantime, bloggers keep complaining about the commercialism of Broadway, but they still feel reverence enough for that 20-square-block chunk of Midtown to defend it from unwashed Midwesterners. I'm guessing most still regard Broadway as the pinnacle of any theatre career, too. I've been reading a book of Albee's essays and if I've learned anything from the dude it's that this gripe goes back as far as 1962, probably earlier. I don't get it. Either we move on or we add the Reformation of Broadway to our list of crusades.