Tag Archives: Brian Lehrer

Unverifiable

28 Feb

A lot has happened since last I posted here.  I try to keep this focused on culture, and not on politics outside of cultural issues. As readers know, we’ve been kind of hit over the head the past few months. How this has affected culture is beginning to show more as cracks in the foundation.

Today I was listening to the normally great WNYC radio host, Brian Lehrer, whose local show in New York covers all sorts of issues and local politics.  He did an interview segment with writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon about how parents should or can introduce their children to political issues in these troubled times. Lehrer is also one of the hosts of National Public Radio’s new call-in program, Indivisible, which promises to get people talking outside of their bubble and in the words of WNYC President Laura Walker, “find common ground.” The way that the show is run, and indeed the ultimate direction of today’s interview to me underscored the failure of American liberalism and, in particular, that failure within the press, to address what has happened and is happening in this country and the world.

Lehrer asked about striking the balance between educating children on the significance of the current moment without telling children what to think, or letting them make up their own minds as independent thinkers.  Although I was taken aback by the explicit assumption that parents are not allowed to educate their children about ways of thinking critically, or that taking them to a demonstration might infringe on their rights to think for themselves (full disclosure here: one of the best things my grandmother ever did for me was take me around her apartment building to get signatures for her anti-Vietnam War petition to her senators), Solomon made the good point that parents can reframe the discussion away from telling kids whom to vote for, and towards the implicit moral distinctions made between love and hate, respect and bigotry, inclusion and exclusion, racism, and so on, assuming we choose to live more moral lives.  Like a good liberal, you don’t tell people, even your children what to think, you let them make up their own minds, but you try to instill in them a sense of your own morality or, as Lehrer interpreted it, the difference between good and evil (even as we’ve seen a wedge driven between different takes on “good and evil” in the new national discourse).

Some parents called in and made some good points and asked good questions, including one woman whose 11-year-old son turned to her and said, “They’re all crooks, Mom, even Bernie Sanders.”  (The whole 17-minute interview segment is worth listening to.)  And this to me is why liberalism is losing.  First, on this level, when people get disgusted with the entire political process, and turn away from all candidates as equally bad, we know that benefits autocrats and harms participatory democracy, by definition, really. So low voter turnouts are not politically neutral; they benefit right-wing candidates.  Turning people against politicians – a big part of the current rhetoric of the last political campaign – and encouraging them to sit home does not have symmetrical results for both ends of the political spectrum.  It disproportionately harms those who run on more transparent, egalitarian, inclusive platforms that emphasize sharing of resources, citizen and informed participation, and global sustainability.

But at no point during this interview segment did anyone mention that parents, like the press, have a responsibility to tell listeners, whether children or adults, how to assess fact from fiction, truth from lies. There is much in political culture that is based on “opinion” (whatever that means, which is a topic for another day). But reasonable actions, regardless of one’s morality, cannot be made on the basis of misinformation, whether deliberate or not, or lack of information. And parents, as well as the press and teachers, have the solemn responsibility to teach the young how (and why!) to be better informed or when something is an absolute falsehood.  Truth.  Truth matters.  The American press did not do this until too little, too late, for the most part.  The New York Times and Washington Post seem to have woken up to this now, and some of the Times’s recent editorials, such as this one on immigration, are model summaries of critical thinking and the application of facts to analyze and undermine lies, deliberate lies by our leaders. You can still be neutral while denouncing lies and misinformation.  There may not be one absolute truth, and facts (and their ramifications) may be debatable, but we can’t allow them to be tossed aside as if they don’t matter and just believe the fantasies that tell us what confirms our prejudices. We may not be able to determine with certainty how facts relate to causes and consequences. But the search for that connection is vital to our survival.

Unfortunately, whenever I try to listen to Indivisible (which I feel like calling Unlistenable or Insufferable), it feels as though there were a directive on high from the NPR management never, ever to correct callers’ statements, no matter how blatantly false or misinformed.  Invariably within the first couple of calls, a listener repeats some idea that is demonstrably, empirically false. And the hosts – seasoned NPR journalists – let these falsehoods not only sit there unchallenged, but even gain credibility as they are further distributed over the airwaves.  I’m not saying the callers are unintelligent, or uneducated, or that my opinion is more valid than theirs. We can disagree when we are all speaking from a position of being informed.  But there are times when they express beliefs about social conditions and historical events that are flat-out wrong.  It’s not politically correct to say that, and the shorthand way of dismissing this is to say it is “elitist.”  Yet somehow it would be hard to imagine a patient opining about how to conduct surgery and the doctor having to follow the patient’s instructions because all opinions are equally valid. For example, when people base their opinions about immigration on the belief that immigrants are “streaming” across the Mexico-U.S. border, that crime waves are higher because of immigrants from Mexico or the seven banned countries or simply that crime is at a 50-year high, and not a low, or that Obama increased the debt more than any other President – all measurably false, to remove any doubt – they are drawing conclusions and promoting remedies based on information and ideas that are completely erroneous. Aside from the moral dimension, it’s aimless to discuss whether building a wall is the best response if the so-called need for one can’t even be demonstrated in reality.  If the press isn’t there to report the truth, and to call out misinformation in an adversarial way, who is?

But there remains this need for liberals – and dare I say it, white liberals – to “find common ground” and be reassured.  One problem is, it’s really hard to find common ground when you understand the policies of those people who disagree with you are actually going to cause you harm, if not kill you. This is a loud and clear message coming from Black America right now, whether in the form of two essential and devastating documentaries this season, I Am Not Your Negro and 13th, in the need for discussions of reparations as voiced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or in the critique of broadcasters like Tavis Smiley, or on a less famous or public level, the lived experience of my students. It’s an uncomfortable truth that the ideal of “common ground” can’t fully be realized while “systemic racism” is a dominant cultural order, let alone one on the rise.

So when Andrew Solomon ends his interview by telling parents that it’s important to avoid heightening their kids’ anxiety, by telling them that things may get worse for the world under the current presidential administration, but “we’re going to be ok,” that to me seems less a prescription for lessening anxiety than a recommendation to teach your children how to practice denial.  That may be not only how we got into this mess, but what will keep us from getting beyond it. It may make for nice parenting, but it is neither good journalism nor sound advice for the future of the planet. If you really believe you’re going to be ok in four years, you’re in pretty good shape, comfortable, sociologically speaking. We have to start by admitting that there’s a good chance most of us are not going to be ok – if you know anything about climate change and its consequences, which is to say, science – and that catastrophes like nuclear holocaust, genocide, widespread gun violence, and ruptured oil pipelines that can contaminate the water supply for millions and wipe out entire indigenous communities, are preventable. But that’s only the case if we come together to start naming the truth or short of that, seeking it out, and cease ignoring facts while our press looks the other way rather than confront dominant falsehoods as is their job.

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A “Lincoln” for our times?

4 Jan

This morning I heard this interview on WNYC radio, about two new films, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Brian Lehrer was really on today, and he had on two guests, Tricia Rose of Brown University and Dana Stevens from slate.com, discussing not only the qualities of these films but their politics as well. I don’t always agree with him, but this was one of the best discussions I have ever heard on his program.

The discussion of Django Unchained reflected a lot of the discomfort I have felt about seeing it. Both guests asked pointed questions about whether Tarantino has thought through his film, and whether whites and Blacks would respond the same way to the violence, and whether in fact a Black director and writer would have handled the story differently. What struck me as the great unspoken was that Professor Rose had said she initially intended not to see the film, but eventually gave in out of curiosity and a desire to be able to discuss the film. This is not an insignificant point. Tarantino has, in a sense, won. He is a loudmouth who has built up such an influence, regardless of the morality of his films, that he has positioned himself and his work as must-sees, such that he always wins. Everyone, love him or hate him, has to pony up money into his wallet, because viewing his films, because of his loudness, has become de rigueur. Which strikes me as the proof of his commercial dominance, separate from any critical contribution he has to make. The quality doesn’t matter, what matters is that the consumers have to buy viewing rights to the spectacle, just to fit in to the conversation of the day. He grabs attention whether his film is worth seeing or not, whether you like him or not, whether he is moral or pornographic. The commercial industry has made him matter, whether or not he matters artistically, the market makes us listen. This is symptomatic of commercial control of the cinematic artform. Please go away.

On the other hand, Lehrer’s critique of Lincoln could not have been more similar to my own. He was especially critical of Tony Kushner’s screenplay, or ambivalent in much the same ways I am. At the level of dialogue, period accuracy, and character, it’s brilliant. But Lehrer finds the portrait of Lincoln to be hagiographic, and is disturbed by the lack of strong African American characters and Abolitionists. Was it historically true that all the movement towards ending slavery constitutionally was entirely a debate among white people?

When I saw the film, I was bothered by the lack of strong Abolitionists, and particularly by the absence of Frederick Douglass. It is true that the role of Thaddeus Stevens, brilliantly portrayed by Tommie Lee Jones, is pivotal and complex. But here’s the issue I have, and I haven’t seen this addressed anywhere yet. I did see an interview with Tony Kushner on Bill Moyers’ program. Now, I confess I have never seen nor read Angels in America, so I am not familiar with Kushner’s best work as America’s pre-eminent political playwright. But in his interview with Moyers, Kushner justifies his portrayal of Lincoln as the Great Compromiser, one who held to his principles while being able to compromise effectively to achieve what he wanted. Then Kushner draws parallels to President Obama as a brilliant compromiser, admitting that Obama doesn’t always get what we know he wants (e.g. the public option in the health care plan) but that through the art of compromise he is able to bring together the entire country, not just his progressive followers, in moving the country forward. Be sure to read the viewer comments on Bill Moyers’ website – I am not alone in my criticism!

We have the benefit of hindsight to know now that Lincoln’s approach worked, both in saving the Union and in amending the Constitution. Kushner’s implication in the screenplay and in his discussion of Obama is that compromise is an effective, mature approach by a President to achieve social change. Lincoln is a good liberal movie: it shows Lincoln’s effectiveness, his wisdom and judgment and progressive ideals, but it is not prophetic. The film is made to upset no one, or at least none of its white viewers. The ideal of egalitarianism, of truly equal justice under law – which in theory is not that radical an idea – is not part of Lincoln’s agenda. The Radical Republicans are still depicted as, well, radical, and Kushner chooses to promote the portrayal of them as radical, rather than a more prophetic, radical vision himself. And Frederick Douglass and Black Abolitionists are not depicted at all. I had the feeling after watching the film, and especially after watching Kushner’s interview, that as an artist he is saying the mature, even wise political choice is to learn to compromise, to move forward incrementally by bringing everyone along, not to be impetuous and immature.

It may be right and more effective for an elected politician to take this approach, especially in the executive role. And it may be right for a body of people, as the Quakers have shown, to use compromise effectively as a way of building consensus and promoting respect throughout the community for diversity of views, as they work towards social justice. But I’m not sure it’s right for our artists, like our activists, to abandon their responsibility to be prophetic, by which I mean to be the intellectual engines that not only promote change but act as innovators of idea and guardians of our higher conscience. In other words, Kushner is not constrained by the same political realities that Obama is. And leaders must also lead; not all leadership consists of synthesizing opposing views. We need prophetic voices especially in the arts, but also in the civic sphere; where would Abraham Lincoln have been if Frederick Douglass had advocated patience and compromise? And can we picture Arthur Miller, say, offering the sagacious position that compromise is mastery of social change? I look back at The Crucible, All My Sons, even Death of a Salesman, which is the least “political” of the three, and they are absolutely uncompromising, that’s part of their power.

The relationship between artists and leaders, and between artists and activists, are important and critical yet need not always be smooth for us to move together towards a more progressive vision.

It’s easy for me, who have never written anything worthwhile and could never write dialogue like Tony Kushner in a hundred years, to sit back and criticize him for making the thematic choice to offer wise compromise as a political ideal. Yet it seems to me that the role of the artist is not the role of the President. The artist’s role is to take risks, occasionally to be prophetic if the times call for it (or if the artist is trying to create that kind of work), but to be uncompromising, morally as well as artistically.

Our mainstream, well-compensated artists tell us we live in times when to be able to compromise is to be seen as wise and mature. That is a theme, and it is part of a legitimate theme. But it’s not the only way that social change happens, it’s not an insight that moves us forward. It’s an insight that reassures us and cements our national mythology. But isn’t one role of literature, of the arts, in this society to prompt us, to challenge us to move, well, forward?

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