Friday, July 08, 2011

A PROGRESSIVE IMPERATIVE

"Liberal" implies excessive, so "Progressive" has become the next best word, despite its historical baggage. Fine. I still don't know what Progressives mean when they call themselves that. I do know that "Conservatives" have no interest in conservation and religious conservatives have no interest in charity, so what the hell do any of these words really mean anymore? They seem to denote a team, not a game plan. I'm being so picky about the language today because "progressive income tax" is one of the most abused phrases in our enduring fight over taxes. And I'm willing to bet most people support or oppose it out of team loyalty only.

But who, in the name of Roosevelt, is leading the Progressive team?

Republicans cite Laffer and the ghost of Reagan to trumpet high-end tax cuts. Over the last decade you may have noticed that these tax cuts come as the cure-all to bad times … and good times, too! Just when we were starting to pay down the last big deficit in the 90s, we were told that tax cuts were morally necessary in such times of plenty. "Why should the government take in more than it needs?" Clearly the deficit wasn't a good enough reason for them then. Now it's their reason for everything. Now that we face a crisis from an even larger debt, we are told that tax cuts must, again, be the cure because they would solve the slump ... caused by the last tax cut.

Thus the "Tax Cut Imperative" fulfills the sublime goal of any ideology: it delivers its adherents from the contingency of history. Good times: cut taxes. Bad times: cut taxes. This is childish hypocrisy to any outside observer, but to the faithful ideologue, it is an a-historical constant too damn tempting to put down. And it makes sense on its own closed terms: so long as the government takes any of your money, you will always be tempted to fix your problems by taking some of that money back. This will always gain public favor so long as no one asks what caused the problem in the first place.

Where does this blinkered, one-lever philosophy get its strength? Simplicity is part of it, but how has it survived the last thirty years as a credible method to a loud plurality of Americans? It endures because it vents a deeper gripe: radical right-wingers don't just prefer tax cuts for the rich; they despise the larger system of progressive income tax altogether because it "punishes people for their success." Never mind conditions on the ground: so long as this system rules, perpetual tax cuts will remain the only persuasive policy to those who hate the larger system.

To date, self-proclaimed progressives have not made a compelling counter-argument beyond appeals to mere charity. Not to diminish the truth of the charity argument, but there is a stronger counter-argument that actually meets the very terms Republicans use to bash all income taxes. I don't know how to turn this counter-argument into campaign poetry, but Obama's got some clever guys working for him. I'm sure one of them took a lit class.

Here goes:

Like it or not, ours is a consumer-driven economy. When people stop buying shit, the economy breaks down. The poor are constant spenders by definition. When they stop spending, they dent the GDP more than a millionaire who's just lost a tax exemption for his corporate jet. Or who's just seen his top bracket go up one point. Why? Because capital behaves differently when it's pooled in large accounts than when it's being traded for a packet of Ramen. It has nothing to do with the virtue of the bearer; it has to do with the basic way all capital behaves ... in capitalism. I say let's keep our capitalism but fess up to what that word really means.

At a certain level of debt and poverty, interest causes a runaway black hole that keeps the taxpayer (dying star of this story) in a state of perpetual consumption. Similarly, at a certain level of wealth, interest compounds and accretes more wealth simply by being present in large enough magnitudes. Both rich and poor are constant consumers, but only the poor have to keep working to remain so. That is the fundamental class division in America and these classes need not be at war to enrich themselves and keep their essential quality.

For these reasons, progressive income tax places higher rates on cumulatively higher dollar amounts. Occasionally, Obama will point out that this higher rate only applies to the income above the actual bracket, not the whole income of the person who happens to make so much. If you make a million dollars, you’ve crossed the 35% tax bracket, but that doesn’t mean you're paying $350,000 of that million to the government. At the very most, you're paying $328,000 – and that’s before deductions, exemptions and loopholes lower it further.







In any case, the curve of these progressive brackets happens to be steeper at the lower end and gentle at the higher. See the chart above. The wealthy face no sudden, prohibitive rate increase as they get wealthier. But the poor and middle classes see their tax rates change much more dramatically -- just for going from "really poor" to "kind of less poor." If you want to go from making $30,000 to $50,000 one day, your rate jumps by two thirds -- from 15% to 25% -- along the way. But if you go from making $300,000 to $500,000, your rate only jumps by one-twentieth – from 33% to 35%.

So which class really lacks incentive to move up the ladder? The upward mobility of the already-rich is not subject to much friction from the IRS in this system. So what's the catchy rhetorical answer to "punishing the wealthy for their success" and "class warfare"? Calling it "progressive" fools no one and alienates others who may dislike progressivism for legitimate reasons.

A radically progressive income tax system -- all subsidies and exemptions being equal -- would a) have an accurate poverty line and b) not tax anything beneath it while c) making a steeper curve at the top end, not the lower. It would then draw two more bracket lines: one at, say, $250k and one at $1million. From zero to poverty, the rate is zero. The other three brackets would have rates that ascend more sharply in magnitude. Yes, I'm pulling those lines and rates out of my ass, but at least they line up with recognizable class barriers. Or they could ... if we took an honest look at what it means to be poor, wealthy, and everything in between.

But don't the rich and super-rich bless us all with their magnificent spending -- a glut to which we all aspire? Shouldn’t they be empowered to spend more for those reasons? They could so bless us and inspire, but they haven't. Right now, upwards of $2 trillion sits dormant in reserves that would ordinarily be lent, spent, or seeded in new enterprises. Instead, the moneyed classes have devoted their capital to the increasingly abstract and catastrophically volatile financial services sector. This money isn't being used in any real sense; it certainly isn't creating jobs. It's just being recycled among the wealthy where it mutates into the same exotic investment products that caused the whole system to collapse in 2008.

As Milton Friedman emphasized, tax cuts can stimulate because they can be implemented swiftly. But if the deficit is an emergency now, then new revenue must be obtained swiftly. This is why revenue increases need to be a part of any emergency deficit reduction package. Congressional Republicans have used the routine debt ceiling vote to heighten that emergency, but this tactic works against them because it's quicker to raise revenue than dismantle needed programs.

If that emergency must be squared with a sluggish economy, then new revenue must be obtained not just swiftly, but from sources that are least likely to feel the impact. By virtue of being dormant, that $2 trillion cited above would not feel the impact. It's just continuing to mutate like a tumor: if we add more to this mass with greater high-end tax cuts, we will threaten the health of the entire system. Again. This is not about punishing the successful; it's about categorical differences in the way money works in different discrete sums. Even in discrete sums, capital is dynamic and requires dynamic tax policy that reflects this.

We all know tax policy shapes behavior as well as balance sheets. Problem is, we can't ask the middle and lower classes to behave any better than they are right now. For a ghastly, grueling decade, they have continued to punch in more hours and productivity only to see wages stagnate, contract, disappear or emaciate in the form of lost benefits. Cutting Pell grants and clean water protection will not help anyone now, even if you believe the government has no business educating its citizens and protecting its water supply. However, such cuts are guaranteed to increase unemployment, and that likewise matters little if you think the government should not employ anyone but rich people. Why bother when the whole system can be reduced to two levers marked TAX and SPEND?

Of course, it matters still less if your real goal is to sabotage the recovery for future political gain.

At this point, I can expect my fellow progressives and liberals to sneer: "Well that's always been the difference between us and them. They see two binary levers and we are smart enough to see the larger matrix of forces at work, so naturally we should be trusted to run the government." Yeah, that'll learn 'em.

The tragedy of today's Republicans is that they've lost all sense of civic good. Liberals could counter with patriotism of their own, but right now they face a tragedy, too. If Republicans lack a sense of civic good, then Democrats lack a sense of civic leadership. Until our professor-in-chief (and I mean that cum laude) succeeds in teaching us something ... until our community-organizer-in-chief (ditto) actually organizes his national community, he will continue to let crucial battles fall to the worst impulses of a desperate, angry Movement. And he will not win re-election. He may yet luck out on the economy, but both sides now rightly scorn his lack of vision.

I have living relatives who endured far worse with nothing but a fireside chat to keep them going. For a decade now -- my whole adult life outside school -- we have been most generous to the wealthy among us. It’s hardly a slander to say to them now: you alone have the resources to cure this entirely-curable crisis. Nor is it too much to ask "the greatest orator of our generation" to passionately articulate the virtue of a progressive system. Don't just tell me why the right-wing is wrong in this instance -- I have evidence enough of that -- but why the progressive approach is a noble imperative and a worthy challenge, a good thing in itself.


More than wealth, the promise of mobility is what really animates the American Dream. President Obama embodies that promise even better than he embodies racial harmony. So make with the poetry, brother.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Last Vanity

Hips, breasts, butt, tummy, legs.

When you see a naked woman on stage, you take in a fantastically rich visual field.






When a man is naked onstage ... there's only one new piece of information.

Maybe that "rich visual field" is circumscribed by the cultural geography of censorship, but the difference between the sexes stands in any case. It stands like a proud, tall ... um.

Eyes up here, please.

Women deal with this all the time. Men ... only when they're trying to carry on a love scene in a play in front of 350 people, 8 nights a week, until May 9 -- get your tickets here!



Yes, I'm naked on stage for the third time in three years. Wish that meant I could say "by popular demand" but all three shows were in different corners of the country and all three shows were ... different.



In Sometimes a Great Notion, my character had to make a brief dash for his boxers after screwing his brother's wife. Three seconds, tops, in profile and in haste. Simple.



In Angels in America, I had to stand naked for an entire, decidedly un-sexy, scene while the nurse examines Prior's glands, lesions, and the two characters discuss the horrific side-effects of AIDS. Alienation effect, anyone? So more revealing because such a long scene, but I actually felt costumed by the fake lesions dappled on my body. Yes, all is vanity:






And now, in Itamar Moses's Completeness, my character strips following the sudden nudity of his date, the sexy, smart and beautiful Molly. The two characters stand in the blue light of night (or the blue light of some meta-god's petri dish experiment?) and then get into bed.



Someone once remarked that, like it or not, nudity on stage is a meta-theatrical moment because you suddenly realize you're looking at the actor and not the character. There's an implicit prudery to that truth, but only because sex is an unavoidably explicit action. As one essayist put it, "It is the most private thing we do and the most explicit thing we do." To the degree that we become the masks and costumes we've crafted to hide something else, nudity on stage has the power to perturb an audience.



Um, and the actor. Eyes up here, please. Oh wait. As I've already written, I'm not much for eye contact either, so ... I am literally and figuratively and symbolically exposed, yes?



I suppose -- all things being equal (ahem) -- male nudity isn't a meta-theatrical perturbation. Except in one crucial respect: it doesn't take a master Method actor to achieve the appropriate response to hot naked girl. Funny language, that: You can't "achieve" an erection because ... dude, it's not an achievement. Pretty straightforward phenomenon every other day of the week. So (all puns intended) why is it so hard for a paying audience?



This is the real reason you're looking at the actor, not the character. It's like seeing the bated sword in a choreographed stage fight. [INSERT SWORD = PHALLUS PUN HERE] One pretends past the danger to avoid killing the actor playing Claudius. And no one will enjoy a stage fight if they sincerely believe the actor is in danger (see under Taymor, Julie). Similarly, a naked dude on stage is in danger ... perhaps more so if he "surrenders to the moment" and sports a boner a propos to the scene.


What to do? Well, over-intellectualization is a kind of costume, so let's mend together, shall we?




Sex and desire didn't exist before the Fall. That only came when we started covering up. We were made to feel shame for stealing godly knowledge, but also for usurping godly powers of procreation and pleasure. Violate this compact, take off the fig leaf, do it in front of hundreds of fellow Eden exiles, and see what that does for your sense of sexual desire. Yes that's just a fancy way of saying "shrinkage happens" ... but we have language for the same reason we have clothing: to lie with style. As Dave Attel once put it, "premature ejaculation" is just a fancy way of saying "uuhh."



Another difference between naked lady and naked dude: Puritans and libertines both rail against the objectification of women, but both also take it for granted that men are routinely objectified. Perhaps further, that they should be objectified. Hell, we're eager to be objectified, to have the measure of our worth made so clear. [INSERT THESIS RE: OVER-COMPENSATION THROUGH MONEY, FAME, POWER, VOCABULARY HERE] When another Maureen Dowd asks "Are Men Necessary?" she thinks she's presenting a provocative trap for misogynists and father-worshipers everywhere. But for anyone who's had sex since age 24, this question prompts a sad laugh: of course we're not necessary. You're just now figuring that out? And necessary for what? More importantly: To what use might you put us? When we want to diminish a dude, we call him a "tool." So, I welcome the idea that we might not be so useful after all.



From it's giddy, heady, playful heart, Completeness asks a ton of heartbreaking questions about how one uses another person -- intellectually, emotionally, sexually -- to fix a prior or future problem. My character Elliot wants to be useful. He wants it so badly that he spends every conscious minute trying to craft a Master Skeleton Key to Everything [INSERT KEY = PHALLUS PUN HERE]. Meantime Molly uses one man ... to get over the last man ... to get over the man before that. Elliot the computer scientist must learn that his cybernetic skeleton key won't tell him who the right woman is. And Molly the experimental biologist must embrace the challenge of her greatest hypothesis:

What if there's a place in you that's only really touched when you get hurt? And
nothing else can touch you in that place. But certain things pretend they can.
So your choices are to believe until you can't
anymore and really hurt someone,
and I've really really hurt some people, or
to keep believing, to make yourself
believe, and then get hurt
yourself, again, in that same place?




I'm gonna wager our author Itamar already knows this, but how cool that the only italicized words in that passage are PRETEND and MAKE (BELIEVE)?


'Cause it's scary to be naked before the wrong person, never mind 350 of them, no matter how willing we both may be to pretend and make ourselves believe otherwise. So, dear audience, I love you and probably need you more than I know. I mean, I bare all, but you must bear it. I salute you. But forgive me if I don't ... um ... "salute" you during my big love scene. My need to hide in plain sight is one of the few forces stronger than my vanity. In a tragedy, those two forces would be equally matched -- they are opposite sides of the same Narcissus pool, after all. But for a romantic comedy like Completeness ... well ... anyone got any good fluffing tips out there?

It's funny because it's penis.

Friday, March 18, 2011

DARK MATTERS or THE PRIORITY OF THE SENSES

I’m blind in my left eye. Not completely. I know if you’re wearing a collared shirt, for example, but I don’t know paisley from polka dots when I cover my nearsighted right. The rest is a cubist hodgepodge that I’ve never been able to describe, even with the normalizing reference of the functional other. Things don’t distort like a trippy mirror -- it’s not some greasy finger swipe on a Retina View iPhone. It’s more like: the things I see I also feel as real unto themselves … so they seem robbed from within, if that makes any sense at all.

And it’s not like having an eye patch -- though that household experiment will quickly show you how hilariously bad my depth perception is! Sit shotgun with me as I drive and you’ll sprout a phantom brake pedal pretty quick. And since I can only experience depth through motion, I come across as more manic in person than I am at heart. Perhaps it goes without saying, but between the cosmetic liabilities of a lazy eye and the physical liabilities of zero depth perception, I have an acute fear of … superficiality. Maybe the mania real after all.

I imagine stereoscopic vision to be a kind of tactile, not visual, gift. One uses two eyes to wrap around the face in front of you .. and the “image” you experience is not just a broader panorama, but a composite holographic reality forged in a cortex at the back of your head. (As if reading Zizek weren’t already a giddy conceptual roller-coaster, I have to say: his Parallax View takes on a boneheadedly literal significance for me. Maybe I should try reading it in Braille?) Someone on Radiolab once described sound as “touch from a distance.” Well, vision presumes distance so … stereoscopic vision must be the highest kind of touch from the greatest possible distance, yes?


It’s been this way since birth. I have no memory of its loss, at least, so I’ve had little to mourn, just a lot to learn. If I mourn anything, it’s this fanciful construction of “touch from a distance.” Nietzsche would pat me on the back in that gentle, sympathetic manner for which he was so famous and say:
Yes! But your good eye is therefore stronger! It has tyrannized over the weaker
eye and you are better for your suffering!

Lovely thought, Fred, but I have no way of knowing because once you get beyond the senses, you have to wonder how those senses shaped everything else within. In other words: because mysight is divorced from the tactile, does that mean I’m fundamentally divorced from the things I see? Or, perhaps worse, does it mean that I’m hopelessly flooded with the visual because I must experience it as an unalloyed sensation? Either option makes me feel like a walking heart-attack. And when it comes to exploding hearts, one shouldn’t seek Nietzsche as a physician.



Whenever I go to a new eye doctor and tell him “yeah, a pre-natal virus damaged my retina while I was in the womb” they always reply with this curious “uh-huh” … as if to say “that’s one explanation, sure.” I’m open to other explanations, I suppose, because I happen to need my eyes -- both of them -- for my job. I’m not an airline pilot; I’m an actor. So the only lives at stake are psychic lives, not corporeal ones. As I said, it’s troublesome for cosmetic reasons, but mostly it’s troublesome because I long to connect with my dear scene partner, who must navigate my swinging “window to the soul” as he or she navigates … you know … the actual scene we’re working on.


This isn’t an issue when I’m in my element. I’ve carved out a specialty for monsters and sufferers over the years, so I’ve learned to express more through evasion, the tangled language of shadows. I’m nearly impossible to film, so the distance and lyric suspension of live theatre gives me a place to work without too much distraction (for the audience, at least). But what happens when I have to stand tall and simply say I love you?

Thankfully, no one says anything simply in Itamar Moses’s romantic comedy Completeness. Certainly no one says “I love you.” I may be wrong, but I don’t think the word “love” comes up at all. This is all to Itamar’s credit as a writer, so for lack of a more complete word … the connection, the hunger, the (actor lexicon alert!) motivation to simply look and touch and touch-by-looking …

(ELLIOT touches her face. Her arms. Just touching her. He does this for a few moments. Then:)

MOLLY: What are you doing?

ELLIOT: I don’t know. I just love this moment when you’re suddenly allowed to start … touching someone? Like, you’ve wanted to, but of course you can’t just walk up to someone and touch them, but then the membrane is broken, and you can? Like, I’ve been thinking about touching you? More or less since the first time I saw you?

MOLLY: Sure. I mean, I’d … seen you too.

ELLIOT: Well, right, but for all I knew that was imaginary?

So after rehearsals I run away and try to build a physic couture that will say it for me …

Zoom out. Most of the universe is blind. Not merely dark or dark matter, but actively willfully blind.


Most of the universe has no need for sight. What light there is diffuses and becomes more blind as time and space goes on. The more we see from Earth, the more we see no need of sight. The farther and further we peer, the more we see how peerless our vantage is. Most of the universe is blind. Not simply blind, but blind to an overwhelming magnitude, such that vision itself becomes a trifle. Unless you don’t look to far.

Meantime, we are creatures of sight. Most of our cognitive input comes from sight. What do they say? It’s 70% how you look … 20% how you sound … and 10% semantics. So if, as Lacan says, the subconscious is structured like a language, then what top-heavy mountain of light must we move to say anything like I love you and mean it? How does what I’ve seen without ever touching shape the way I touch? Vision is another kind of desire -- not a vehicle for desire, but desire itself. It must issue from some primordial need we had, one that predated sight because it caused it.


And vision is only possible or necessary at the origin, not the extremity. One must sit close to the young, burning source of it all. The angry mash of mass that births a sun. To propagate anyward is to leave your eyes behind. On a long enough timeline, vision is not the pinnacle of evolution; it’s only the beginning. And on a big enough scale … dark matter does most of the heavy lifting.

I have to wonder, then: can dark matter do the heavy lifting here in sunny SoCal?



Thursday, March 17, 2011

O.C. can you say?

In the spring of 2008, I was hoisted from an 18-month hiatus from theatre to do Aaron Posner’s production of Sometimes A Great Notion at Portland Center Stage. This project was very dear to me for many reasons. Imagine that tingling, numb-leg feeling x1000 -- when your body gets to do what it was built to do after an interminable car ride to nowhere. Then imagine that your first steps after 1.5 years of paralysis are to the grand, gorgeous Pacific Northwest where you get to shape a story about lumberjacks for an audience of the same. It was a countryside adventure, a reprieve from fruitless whoring in NYC, and an artistic re-awakening all in one.

This blog experienced a re-awakening, too -- one sustained by subsequent adventures at my home theatre, Rorschach in DC, and the 2008 election, about which there was plenty to blog. I went to Philly after that, then back and forth between DC and NYC for a couple years, like some Q-list celebrity spokesman for the Bolt Bus. Over the years, the blog became a weird dumping ground for thoughts, essays and arguments that could not fit into Facebook or Twitter (NOTE TO READERS FROM THE FAR FUTURE: Facebook and Twitter were the appliance-grade applications for our young century). As such, this blog has become a frustrating enterprise for any readers hoping for a steady output of … me, I guess.

I’ve just started rehearsals for Completeness at South Coast Rep in crisp Costa Mesa, CA and I find myself with the time and, I think, the material to make this blog the travel journal it used to be. Only … this is not a re-awakening like the 2008 adventure to Oregon. And so far, it’s not a countryside adventure because I’m stuck, detached from my cast mates who all live in L.A.. I’ve never spent more than 48 consecutive hours in L.A., so I had to learn that “L.A.” is as distinct and far from “Orange County” as, say, “White Plains” is from “New York City.” Bummer, dude.

After rehearsals I traipse back through a field of Big Box stores to the gated squad of condos where I’m being housed. I have plenty of books and writing projects and no other distractions apart from the mouthful of lines I must learn. The digital cable TV has no channel guide and everything is on Pacific Time besides, so I can’t avoid work through channel surfing even if I want to. And since the ocean is … somewhere over there, inaccessible on foot … I can’t avoid work through real surfing, either.

My cast mates are beautiful, whip-smart and solid.

The script channels everything I’ve always dug about its author.

And my part has this challenging balance of elements I know and love (chatty left-brain verbosity) and elements I don’t often get to explore (straight-up, non-sociopath love story).

Oh, and for the third time in as many years, I get to be naked on stage, so … insert your own “head-shot” joke here.

So why am I so out of sorts?

I suppose, if I squint hard enough, my life here has a kind of Spartan dignity, but who am I kidding: what’s “Spartan” about the Left Coast? Despite my pasty Lutheran complexion, I’m a total sucker for the sun, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Traveling for work has massive interpersonal liabilities -- to put it coldly -- but the travel itself is a gift because it clears the decks, “narrows the mind” (in a good way, thank you very much), and gives me a rare chance to look back on my routine with some dispassion. So again: why am I putzing around my apartment and writing this shit?

Maybe it’s this: The Oregon project happened to be a play about Oregon. The Philly play was based on the novel My Name is Asher Lev and Chaim Potok happened to be a Philly resident. columbinus in Alaska was simply awesome because it was … in frickin’ Alaska, yo. And in each of the above, I was traveling and living with a band of fellow actors. When I work in DC, I’m usually working with a group of dear friends. Here I feel like the imported replacement part, slightly mangled from airlift with too few peanuts (styrofoam and salted).

It’s only the close of the second day and while I can’t plead jet-lag anymore, I can say that, like jet-lag, I’m getting ahead of myself … but that’s what happens when you fly west to outrun the sun, isn’t it?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Hamlet on the Couch

PROVOCATION #1: I cracked open my journal while heading to work on the A-train. Been thinking about repetition in Hamlet ever since I got to do a nifty presentation on the subject at my alma mater last fall. Subsequent investigation led me to Nietzsche’s “eternal return” and to Deleuze’s Repetition and Difference, which I have yet to grasp completely. Anyway, when I journal about these things I don’t understand, I often make drawings:

And for the first time since I’ve lived here, a woman next to me asked what I was working on.

Now … I used to be a much more pretentious misanthrope, if you can believe it, so this woman’s breach of subway decorum struck me sideways. As any pretentious misanthrope can tell you, journaling in semi-public areas is a great way to keep your disgust with humanity raging, but it’s also a performance of sorts for that same semi-public. I’ll wager every p.m. secretly wants some hot chick to come up and say:

Wow, you’re deconstructing the fuck out of that text.

I actually met a college girlfriend this way, but ever since then I’ve preferred to journal in private. So when this perfectly nice non-dating prospect asked me what I was working on, I didn’t have a sexy, compact reply. I said something vaguely crazy like:

Oh, ah … You know how things tend to … I’m really fascinated with … repetition?
Like, as an epistemological phenomenon? Or something? Let me show you this
drawing …


I started to worry that my winter beard, my dark coat, my crackpot drawings and the pothed thesis statement above would frighten her away. But it turns out the woman is a psychologist! She mentioned Freud’s repetition complex and I mentioned repetition-in-Hamlet and how I believed Freud misdiagnosed Hamlet as just Oedipus-by-another-name. In a follow-up e-mail she remarked that, yes, Hamlet did have an Oedipal conflict because he was “jealous of his uncle,” the man who killed his father and married his mom.

Jealous of his uncle. Hmm.

PROVOCATION #2: Last night, I caught up with an old friend of mine over the phone. She’s a great friend because she has absolutely no patience for the ephemeral, la la la, navel-gazing nonsense common to pretentious misanthropes. Her advice for Hamlet-lovers and Hamlet himself would be: “Get the fuck over it.” Because Hamlet has an opinion on everything, he came up in our conversation somehow. We hung up and she went to a coffee shop where some local poet happened to be holding court on … Hamlet! Apparently, his take on the great Dane was similar; he said something to the effect that “Hamlet didn’t realize he was blowing things out of proportion.”

Jealous of his uncle?
Blowing things out of proportion?

Fie on that noise.

If these aren’t opinions you share, they’re definitely ones you’ve heard. The Freudian diagnosis amounts to calling Hamlet a spoiled two-year old – a loquacious man-child who somehow made it to age thirty without thinking twice about the stability of his parents’ marriage. And the coffeehouse poet opinion amounts to calling Hamlet a pussy. Both are wrong, but they’re wrong in a distressing way: they fail to account for the action of the story as it unfolds. Which means they are opinions one can have without ever experiencing the play.

The Freudian diagnosis folds up this 4,000-line 5-act story into a triptych:

Boy want mommy
Man gets mommy instead
Boy hates man

And the “get over it” camp has partisans within the play itself. As the villain Claudius says to Hamlet at the beginning:

'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd: (I, ii)

Or, as the long-winded Polonius says during an actor's heartbreaking monologue:

"This is too long." (II, ii)

Which, again, leads me to believe these are opinions and diagnoses most appealing to people who’ve never contended with the text or listened to an entire performance.

I call it “distressing” because we seem to have no shortages of performances. It’s been one of the most-produced plays for about four hundred years now. A major one comes through DC every couple years and no season in NYC is complete without at least three. So the problem probably isn’t access so much as how we theatre people -- my fellow pretentious misanthropes -- are producing the play.

That’s what I want to talk about here. But the best argument will be a gentle walk through the story. So strap in or check out now, folks …





Papa Hamlet dies during a nap outdoors one June afternoon. By July, his widow Gertrude has married his brother Claudius. In his first state-of-the-union speech, King Claudius addresses the awkwardness of this quick-change:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,--
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,--
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks. (I, ii)

Diplomatic way of putting it.

But there’s a kid involved. For him, “mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage” is not a calming metaphor or peaceful, zen-like balance of contradictions – it is a nightmarish perversion. Mom seems so happy to have his father dead. The world seems like “an unweeded garden” but one that still “grows to seed.” The kid, Prince Hamlet, is paralyzed by two traumas: the sudden death of his father and the sudden remarriage of his mother. The first is sad enough any day of the week, but Mom’s swift remarriage looks so fucking eager. It looks like Mom wanted Claudius before she had a chance to marry him. Either that, or she's just indifferent and will take the next man who comes along. Which is worse? These are the only options. The deeper Hamlet loved his parents before these traumas, the more he suffers after them.





The story could stop here so Hamlet could begin the long process of “getting over it,” but his parents, living and dead, keep appealing to his love for them as they make huge demands of him. Remember, the Freudian interpretation requires, as a necessary condition, that Hamlet should be obeying his father’s revenge request from the beginning. After all, he can only be accused of pathological procrastination if he has something he should be doing. But at this point, we haven’t heard from the dead dad, we don’t know about his murder or his demand for revenge.

What to do? Hamlet grasps for a metaphor of his own to capture and thereby arrest his mother’s lust. Like Carrie Bradshaw, she wore these trendy shoes to the funeral and they were still in style when she got married in the next episode? No, that‘s lame. Or: Mom’s eyes were still red with graveside tears when she stepped over the grave and onto a marriage altar? No. No image is adequate because it’s the action that haunts him. The wedding feast was made with leftovers from the wake, for fuck’s sake! And Hamlet’s the only one who finds this disgusting? Everyone keeps telling him to “get over it.” Nothing to be done.

Hamlet’s school friend Horatio appears with a couple sentinels and tells Hamlet that the Ghost of his departed father was seen at the gates, scaring the shit out of the guards. That night, Hamlet goes to see for himself and the Ghost appears again. Hamlet and the Ghost go off to another corner of the wilderness where the Ghost tells Hamlet that his father was killed by the man who now wears his crown, his brother Claudius. Hamlet had a feeling this was the case, but it was a fantasy he never admitted out loud at the time. Now the fantasy has come true: wrongful death. The Ghost tells him to focus on this wrongful death and revenge it.

But … just before the Ghost vanishes, it gives Hamlet second commandment: do not contrive against mom. “Leave her to heaven / and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / to prick and sting her.” (I, v)

Kill Claudius and leave mom alone. In other words: get over her.

A double-trauma followed by a double-bind. After dad’s death and mom’s remarriage, mom and step-dad say “get over your dead dad!” Then, dead dad tells Hamlet to “get over your mom” and kill Claudius instead. Get over it. An impossible horror followed by an impossible mission.

Paralysis turns into mania: how can Hamlet kill Claudius without hurting his mother, the woman who so clearly desires Claudius? How can Hamlet obey his dead father without simultaneously disobeying him? Dad seems to think Mom was just stolen like a piece of furniture, which says a lot about his feelings for her. But Hamlet knows otherwise. Indeed, mom’s active lust for Claudius was the subject of his first soliloquy and the source of his melancholy. How will killing Claudius fix or change that melancholy? Sure it would be fun and satisfying to kill Claudius, but it’s not enough. And once it’s done … he won’t get to do it again. If only there was a kind of revenge that was better than death



Hamlet tells his friends that he’s going to pretend to be insane. He doesn’t tell them why because he doesn’t yet know; but he needs their backstage secrecy since they’re the only other witnesses to the Ghost.

Happily (yes, happily), this act of insanity also frees him to tell the absolute truth to his enemies. If the jackass Polonius believes Hamlet’s crazy, then Hamlet can call him a fishmonger to his face and get away with it. Turns out telling the truth is the quickest way to get people to think you’re crazy, so the performance may not be so hard to muster. (How we cringe at actors – like me! – who overplayed the madness of Act II!).

While Hamlet refines his act of madness by telling sane truths, his meets some real actors. They perform a moment from a play he liked: a man stands frozen over his enemy and consequently perishes because he failed to strike first. Hamlet sees himself in this position. So he dismisses everyone and talks to himself. He marvels that an actor can feel so much and speak so passionately for someone they’ve never met, while he, a man beset on all sides by tears and blood, can say nothing. He imagines that the same actor would give a bigger, grander, more tearful performance of Hamlet’s story than he himself is actually giving (another warning to hams like me).

But then Hamlet overhears himself in the echo of his loud self-reproach. He realizes he can put his mom and stepdad through the same fit of self-laceration … by having their secret story performed before them in public. He begins repurposing an old revenge story to this end. He re-names it The Mousetrap.

Cats don’t just kill mice, they torture them. Torture. That’s the only action adequate to the revenge Hamlet seeks. It wouldn’t be enough for Hamlet to kill Claudius or Gertrude, he must expose them both, humiliate them, put them at odds with themselves. No death, no physical pain can compete with the agony of a soul consuming itself, turned inside-out. More than the wrongful death of his father, this is what Hamlet suffers and wants Gertrude and Claudius to suffer in return.

The Mousetrap works. Or, rather, it works to Hamlet’s satisfaction. Mom’s re-marriage and Claudius’s murder of dad are re-staged with disturbing accuracy … right down to the type of murder weapon. When Claudius makes a fearful retreat from the playhouse, Hamlet sees a flesh-and-blood confirmation of his ghost-dad’s testimony. Even better, he has succeeded in torturing Claudius into a spasm of conscience. Hamlet will never hear it, but Claudius immediately rushes to prayer, where he confesses what he’s done. Now that Claudius has been tortured and made to suffer guilt, Hamlet has confirmation and satisfaction enough to finish him off and confront his mother, too.

It’s not easy to kill a king. They usually have well-armed dudes hanging about and they’re not subject to formal legal action, you know. Even if Hamlet could take Claudius to court, he would have no proof, none, except the testimony of a ghost (inadmissible, hearsay) and then that one time he did this guilty look thing at this play that was going on. It’s not enough for any earthly court room, but it’s enough for Hamlet. At this point, we’re a little ahead of Hamlet, so it’s more than enough justification for the audience. And whaddyaknow, here’s the guilty man alone, unguarded, at prayer! Perfect opportunity!

Except …



Dad was killed before he had a chance to make the reckoning Claudius is now trying to make. Dad’s ghost is stuck in some wretched purgation for god-knows-how-long. If Claudius repents and goes to heaven, he will be better off. Hamlet wants the torture to continue in perpetuity. This situation has already exceeded any earthly legal system and now it exceeds the same for supernatural justice, too. Claudius deserves to die, but he should die when he’s in the middle of some act of villainy so “that his soul may be as damn’d and black / as hell whereto it goes.” (III, iii)

Mom summons Hamlet so she can school him on his playhouse pranks. Hamlet turns her accusations back on her:

HAMLET: Now mother what’s the matter?
GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
GERTRUDE: Why, how now Hamlet!
HAMLET: What’s the matter now?
GERTRUDE: Have you forgot me?
HAMLET: No, by the rood, not so.
You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife.
And -- would it were not so! -- you are my mother.

Finally, the disgust Hamlet felt from the beginning can come out here. Hamlet owes nothing to Gertrude except the truth. (He was watching her reaction to The Mousetrap, too.)

His violent accusations frighten her. She shrieks for help. Another voice shouts from behind the curtain:

“What ho! Help! Help! Help!”

Who’s there?

Here’s his second chance to kill. It must be Claudius, helpless and blind, caught in an act of villainy – or, at least, not an act of redemption. Right here, with mom watching, to boot! Bonus! Hamlet can fulfill his dad’s request while fulfilling the moral terms he just offered in the previous scene. All this and he doesn’t have to face the man he’s killing. Who could resist?

Hamlet stabs the curtain and kills the unseen man.

He discovers it was his ex-girlfriend’s father, Polonius.

Hamlet “gets over it” rather quickly – the meddling eavesdropper just got a fitting death – and he resumes his verbal assault on mom, insulting Claudius all the way.

O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.

And then ... as if there weren’t too many dramatic reversals in this one act ... the motherfucking Ghost reappears.



For the first time, the whole family is in the same room again.

Mom, dad, son.

I cannot describe what follows with the same breezy abbreviation above. This is the keystone scene of the play. Everything leads up to and tumbles out from scene.

Enter Ghost

HAMLET
Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure?

QUEEN GERTRUDE
Alas, he's mad!

HAMLET
Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by
The important acting of your dread command? O, say!

Ghost
Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul:
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works:
Speak to her, Hamlet.

HAMLET
How is it with you, lady?

QUEEN GERTRUDE
Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?



Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?

HAMLET
On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.

QUEEN GERTRUDE
To whom do you speak this?

HAMLET
Do you see nothing there?

QUEEN GERTRUDE
Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.

HAMLET
Nor did you nothing hear?

QUEEN GERTRUDE
No, nothing but ourselves.

HAMLET
Why, look you there! look, how it steals away!
My father, in his habit as he lived!
Look, where he goes, even now, out at the portal!

Exit Ghost

QUEEN GERTRUDE
This the very coinage of your brain:
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.

HAMLET
Ecstasy!
My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music: it is not madness
That I have utter'd: bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that mattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds,
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.

QUEEN GERTRUDE
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

HAMLET
O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night: but go not to mine uncle's bed;
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency. Once more, good night:
And when you are desirous to be bless'd,
I'll blessing beg of you. For this same lord,
Pointing to POLONIUS
I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady.

QUEEN GERTRUDE
What shall I do?

HAMLET
Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed;
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse;
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. 'Twere good you let him know;
For who, that's but a queen, fair, sober, wise,
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib,
Such dear concernings hide? who would do so?
No, in despite of sense and secrecy,
Unpeg the basket on the house's top.
Let the birds fly, and, like the famous ape,
To try conclusions, in the basket creep,
And break your own neck down.

QUEEN GERTRUDE
Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.

One of the reasons I find repetition so fascinating w/r/t Hamlet: this simple pattern-seeking exercise starts to integrate large portions of a long, sprawling story. In the scene above, Hamlet keeps repeating “Good night.” This should be an exit line, right? It’s an ending that fails to end. Instead, the ending line only breaks the scene open again. Between iterations of “good night,” Hamlet

1) asks his mother to repent (good night), then

2) ask her to not sleep with Claudius and even gives her some abstinence education! (good night), and finally

3) tell her that she should sleep with Claudius, but when he’s all hot and heavy, she should tell him that Hamlet is not mad, but mad in craft.

She says she will not.

Hamlet drags off and hides the corpse of Polonius.

Then he is ejected from the kingdom, possibly forever.

All repetition ceases.

At this point in the story (III, iv), Hamlet’s familial, inner-conflict has ended. I’ve completely left out the Fortinbras and Ophelia storylines -- the first because it’s an easily detachable one (and a repetition of the foreground plotline!) and the second because Ophelia deserves a huge blog post of her own. I’ve come to wonder why productions often cut Fortinbras, but still leave in the Ophelia storyline. Most productions treat her as an annoying distraction anyway, so why not be done with it and spare us another shrill madness scene or melodramatic nunnery scene? I don’t want to cut the Ophelia storyline -- I think it could be a fruitful place to center a future production. I do feel she’s kicked to the side in most versions, like another Rosencrantz but with breasts.

To end with Freud, then. If the Freudian version holds, Hamlet would exhibit a repetition formation with Claudius, no? But Hamlet only repeats when he’s dealing with dad (“Swear!”), his girlfriend (“To a nunnery, go!”) and finally mom (“Good night.”). Claudius and Hamlet only have about 20 minutes on stage together and each time Hamlet insults him to his face. Then he kills him twice over.

So where’s the jealousy, again? Where’s the pathological procrastination? Hamlet’s story may have Oedipal components, but his paralysis only lasts as long as Act One, his procrastination is done by Act Two, he’s gone overboard and tried to out-God God in Act Three, and then he’s booted from the court for killing the wrong man in a righteous way. So it’s not that Freud is incorrect; he’s only correct as far as he chooses to go.

The death of Polonius -- the blind stab at the curtain -- transfers the bulk of Hamlet’s inner-conflict … to Ophelia. The fatherless Hamlet has rejected the motherless Ophelia … and then he kills her dad, too. Hamlet the character/story/name/word has become shorthand in our culture for madness and suicide. But Ophelia is the only one who goes irreparably mad and successfully commits suicide. This is another reason she deserves her own post and her own production.

Hamlet cannot be judged in court and should not be pathologized via Freud because Hamlet is his own psychoanalyst -- just as he is his own Falstaff. If he deserves any judgment ... if one wishes to draw a tragic example from his story ... we could posit that his growth and liberation didn’t have to cause Ophelia’s degeneration and suicide. But how could it be otherwise?

HAMLET: Dead for a ducat ddddddddddddude? Whoa, wait. Polonius?
POLONIUS: Yeah?
HAMLET: Is that you?
POLONIUS: Yes, don’t hurt me, please.
HAMLET: My bad.

Or so the Family Guy version might have it.

In many revenge stories, the exiled hero teams up with an outside force to re-take the corrupted foreground and emerge triumphant. Following that formula, Hamlet would team up with Fortinbras, claim the crown, and … become the first enlightened despot or something. Go on to have some mod Scandanavian chill out club where people smoke weed, talk about the meaning of existence, and invent iPods. I don’t know. The point is that Hamlet breaks this formula and decides to return home, alone. He even writes ahead to Claudius to tell him that he’s coming back alone.

Why?

He doesn’t know Ophelia has killed herself, but he does know that Laertes will be gunning for a fight over his father, the dead Polonius. He makes as gracious a plea as possible:

Free me thus far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.

Laertes cheats in the duel and fatally wounds Hamlet, but he then asks for forgiveness from Hamlet and receives it. Laertes tells Hamlet that the king is to the blame. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned rapier and then force-feeds him the goblet of poisoned wine. Claudius dies. Gertrude was accidentally poisoned. Laertes dies. Hamlet has moments to live. All he mourns at the end of his life is a lack of time and a wounded name.

Addressing us directly:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you--
But let it be.

The Freudian take on those events says Hamlet could only kill Claudius when he knew he, Hamlet, was dying as well. Because the Freudian version places its emphasis on Claudius, linking him to Hamlet as a surrogate Oedipal fantasy figure, it neglects the prior and deeper emotional conflict regarding the Gertrude’s behavior. The play gets its emotional, purposive thrust from a grand displacement between the formal revenge genre structure and the suppressed suffering for Gertrude’s behavior. Hamlet’s actions are better understood as a revolution or oscillation between his parents’ alternating demands – not as a pathological repression of Oedipal urges. Like each of us, Hamlet must somehow reconcile the space between his parents, even after they do horrible things and demand horrible things of him.

Freud remains an indispensible thinker and a joy to read. To be generous, we may say that Hamlet was merely four hundred years ahead of Freud. His dizzying epic journey of the psyche exceeds Freudian coordinates by turning them outward. Oedipus refuses to know his true condition -- and this refusal hastens its fulfillment. Oedipus blinds himself as punishment; Hamlet commits a tragic action while blind. By contrast, Hamlet knows his true condition “not poorly, but too well.” Or rather, he knows it so well that he cannot outlive his defining trauma.

This is why we sense such a strange loss when Hamlet dies. Oedipus suffers to purify himself and to provide catharsis for the audience. Hamlet dies … and after 4.5 hours with him, we’re somehow bummed we don’t get to hear him talk anymore.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Center-Where?

Is there a more cowardly or pathetic talking point than the claim that America is a “center-right” country?

You’ve read it in syndicated columns and heard it from the stump and Sunday talk shows. Two trends attend each utterance. First: only right-wing spokespeople happen to say we live in a center-right nation, funny that. Second, and more telling: they only invoke the “center-right” to prove something else entirely; they never bother to establish this rather grand and contradictory stipulation up front. Through unchallenged repetition it’s become the sort of given-concept/received-truth that structures a debate before it has a chance to begin.*

Silly stuff first. Insofar as “center” means anything at all, it cannot tilt one way or the other. It’s like saying the Equator is a “center-North” line of demarcation. So when conservatives insist America is a “center-right” country, they’re really saying the right holds the center. Thus we discover that “Obamacare” (another sly coinage) is unpopular not because it’s an unholy mess with something to offend everyone, but because it’s a “liberal policy forced on a center-right country.” Arguing from this vantage is rather like conquering India with nothing but a Union Jack:



Liberals may agree that America has trended to the right over the past few decades -- but that’s an altogether different argument from this sideways assertion that America has an immutable, right-leaning identity. To say that America has trended to the right is to admit the movement and intervention of History -- which is to admit that it may trend back the other direction, too. It doesn’t matter if you view politics as a pendulum, a Punnett Square, a spectrum or Scott Sumter’s trippy hexagram. The conservative “center-right” talking point is a sad dash to flee the dialectic line of scrimmage. It provides nervous conservatives with a fixed identity that can never be lost, only momentarily challenged. And so, like the Baptist frat boy who only sucks dick when he’s really high, conservatives can convince themselves that America remains, at heart, an essentially conservative nation that lapses into liberalism from time to time. Simple as that, bro.

This is why, for conservatives, a proposition is “wrong” when it ceases to be “American.” (The argument-from-identity also goes a long way to explain the pageantry of the Tea Party.) Liberals have their own smug way of rigging the debate and, speaking as a liberal, I consider it every bit as toxic as the right’s rabid nationalism. For liberals, a proposition is “wrong” when it is “too fucking retarded to merit my consideration.” How much more fruitful (and civil) would our national debates be if we could concede, at the outset, that arguments-from-identity and arguments-from-fucking-stupidity are really just pissy admissions of defeat? If I could enforce one rule on a cable talk-show, it would be that no one gets to call anyone un-American or stupid.** Intelligence and ignorance are not fixed qualities like eye color; Red and Blue are not fixed states on an electoral map. Real America is a giant, silly precocious mutt of a country that constantly hews to a different hue. That’s why I love it.



In his brisk history primer The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus*** charts the ascendency of liberal and conservative movements according to the ebb and flow of two basic governing strategies: consensus and orthodoxy, respectively. Liberal movements accrue power through “big tents,” accommodation and compromise (to the aggravation of the base); conservatives through appeals to purity and identity (to the enduring joy of the base). This is why the Republican response to Obama’s 2008 mandate was not cooperation or concession, but should-to-shoulder obstruction. It was really the only play left in the game.



But the larger question remains: Is America a “center-right” country, even if that’s a fucking retarded concept?

No. No, it is not.

Why would a center-right country elect a liberal president by the largest margin in twenty years? And then approve his performance by the most durable measure in thirty? For any domestic issue, when has the right-wing position been on “the right side of history” in any sense but the ordinal? The Civil War? Women’s suffrage? Prohibition? The Great Depression? Civil Rights? Health care reform? Gay marriage? The environment? Financial reform? Those last three are particularly surprising failures because conservative ideology, read straight, would make a very strong case for fiscal fair play, family stability, and environmental conservation, but whatever. Conservatives for conservation? I know, it’s crazy.

Now that we’ve carved up the “center-right” canard -- placing center at center and right where it belongs -- let’s make a wishbone wager with the hyphen: What are the odds our Republican leaders will recognize the best of their beliefs, forget their ancient failures, and find common cause with this rightward-leaning, leftward-moving nation?

I give it a zero-plus.

FOOTNOTES

* the way the phrase “political capital” changes what we mean by “democracy” and “capitalism.” Or the way “War on Terror” hides, through escalating repetition, what it nakedly declares: a psychological struggle.

**Okay, so that’s two rules. Don’t call me stupid. It’s un-American.

***Considering his title, you might suppose Tanenhaus was arguing for the necessary or inevitable collapse of conservatism and that Karl Rove’s baleful dreams of a “permanent Republican majority” were being replaced by a liberal version of the same. That’s too bad for any knee-jerk cover-judges out there because the book is really just a swift, gentle survey of broad political movements. The title merely denotes the latest tide-shift. As far as the actual "death of conservatism," his modest thesis has it that the movement that began under Goldwater, fell apart under Nixon, crystallized through Reagan, entered its decadent phase in the George W. Bush administration. It has therefore spent itself and no longer works as a credible political philosophy. Whether Obama has anything compelling to offer in its place ...?