Human Depravity and the Reinterpretation of Art

When Saturday Night Live came back to the air after the events of September 11th, 2001, the show’s creator Lorne Michaels, flanked by the entire cast, asked Mayor Giuliani if it was OK for them to be funny. The mayor’s deadpan answer is now the stuff of comedy legend, the question and its real answer were important concepts in the days after a terrible event that many believed had fundamentally changed the world as we knew it—or at least how we interacted with and in it. We are now in the midst of another of those events that seems to have changed how we interact with and in our world, and primarily how we interact with each other. It is, in almost every sense, as tragic a realization as it was on that clear fall morning in September nearly two decades ago, because it speaks to the depths some will plumb to do harm to their fellow humans.

This new environment is our struggle to atone for the long-term suffering of females at the hands of men who somehow feel entitled to those intimate places of the mind and body and who have, throughout nearly all of human history, helped themselves to them with or without consent. We are, like the cast of Saturday Night Live, now wondering what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot say, and whether we can still admire works from a different time. Where Lorne and his cast were concerned about trying to be funny so soon after a national tragedy, we are wondering if we should still laugh at things that might have been born during a tragedy of which so many were simply unaware. We are trying to decide if we should still see certain films involving certain directors or actors. Should we go see certain comics? We are determining if we should be reinterpreting the art from another age. I find this to be a very dangerous and self-defeating proposition and one that will surely do far more harm than good.

Is it OK to go back and watch Louis C.K. from before we knew he liked to try to impress women by stroking himself in scenarios no normal person would think appropriate? If not, how are we to account for Hollywood’s fawning over the films of Roman Polanski long after he fled the country so as not to meet child rape charges? By most accounts, Ernest Hemingway was lacking as a father, had a great temper, and fell in and out of alcoholism-induced violence and abuse. Should we no longer be enthralled by his peerless prose and the window it opens to our souls in works like “Hills Like White Elephants” or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Perhaps Washington and Jefferson should be swept from the pages of our children’s History books and removed from our currency, disgraced slaveholders that they were.

How much should our present condition act as a lens on how we judge the works of others from an earlier time? This, I suspect, will be one of the driving questions of the next decade, and I urge great caution. I urge—dare I say it—conservatism, that is the resistance to social relativism that asks us to view previous events or works with an eye neither we nor those who lived or created them could possibly have had at the time. This is not an easy thing to do, to resist the urge to coat a distressing past in our newly informed morality.

This past week I was catching up on podcasts and heard Terry Gross interviewing Jonah Hill. She asked him, in light of the “#MeToo era,” about his reaction to a scene in Superbad. Ms. Gross has spent a significant amount of time over recent months engaging in this kind of questioning. It is a subject she clearly has strong feelings about. In this particular scene, Hill’s character and a friend are discussing whether/how to comply with the popular girl’s request of his character that he acquire the alcohol for a party she’s throwing while her parents are out of town. The line is, “You know when you hear girls say, ‘Ah, I was so shitfaced last night. I shouldn’t have fucked that guy’?…we could be that mistake!” Hill said he felt terrible hearing that back. He might have said it sounds horrific now. That is not what I expected of an artist.

I wanted Hill to say this:

[note: this is my imagined response; it is not, to my great disappointment, what Jonah Hill actually said]

[“]First of all, Terry, that was a funny line…and it still is. Second, and I think this is the most important part. My character was trying to buy alcohol because the girl he wanted asked him to. She has agency here. The anonymous girl he quotes says “I shouldn’t have [had sex with] that guy.” That girl has agency too. She decided to sleep with “that guy,” and she is capable of self-assessment. The sex he is discussing is consensual just as the responsibility for getting [beep]faced lies with all of those knowingly partaking, both girls and boys. There is a multidimensional dynamic taking place here. And here’s the real kicker, I think, Terry. That line is truth. Sometimes comedy does that, you know. It speaks a truth. And good comedy always does. Always.

[“]Think of this. Every weekend—probably every single day—a woman wakes up after consensual sex and knows she’s made a mistake. Hell…that’s the story of my sex life! (Terry laughs…) That’s truth, Terry. We cannot go around denying that fact. But there is even something deeper here.

[“]Comedy is an art form and art must shine a light on places we don’t always want to acknowledge exist. Part of this joke, the part that makes it so relevant now—YES even now!—is the commentary it is making about the culture I think you are trying to tap into and dissuade. Should high school girls ask guys to buy them alcohol for a party they shouldn’t be having so everyone, who is likely underage, can drink to excess and lose their inhibitions? Should that boy go and break the law to achieve it? Should young men rely on alcohol to find a way to “yes?” None of this should be happening, Terry. Not in a perfect world. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and our art has to reflect human frailty and imperfection. Our art has to comment on the world as it is, and if we squirm a little while we laugh because it makes us a bit queasy or uncomfortable, then the art is doing exactly as art should.

[“]That line is not a throw-away slapstick line. This isn’t Larry slapping the [beep] out of Mo. That line is a complex characterization of the young human condition. It is funny. Still. It’s also disturbing. But above all, it’s true. So, I guess that’s how I feel about hearing that now. I feel proud to have been a part of making the kind of art that can remain relevant and meaningful a decade on…what a great question, Terry. You truly are a national asset.[“]

[Here ends my dreamed-up response.]

Everything my Jonah says here is real. The line is funny. I know this because when I told it to a confidant who also happens to be a woman that has never seen the movie, she laughed out loud. That’s important, but it is not the main affair. Art is perhaps more relevant today than it has been in my lifetime. In a world where people pick their own “alternative” facts, where reason seems to be sliding into the oblivion of the Twitterverse, where what you “know” comes to you from a self-reinforcing media and social machine that implores you never to question it or yourself, art is the only thing with a small chance to make people think about things in a way they have never thought before. The staunchest Levitical evangelical could not see The Laramie Project and not be moved in some small way. The most ardent pacifist could not hear John Ondrasik’s “Note to the Unknown Soldier” and not feel something they have never known before. Art, because it is a personal medium, necessarily stands apart not only from the artist, but from their time, and—until it is internalized—apart from those who view it.

Certainly, there is comedy I do not care for. I’m sure this happens to us all. Some of it makes me too uncomfortable to enjoy. Sometimes that is because it is too close to my own experience or it impinges too significantly on my own biases. These are not issues with the art or artist. They are mine alone.

There is visual art I cannot revere. I have yet to find the message or meaning in Picasso’s modern interpretation of the nude form, though his classical sketches and some of his sculptures are moving forms of expression to me. Some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography disturbs me deeply. Some of it seems to have been made purely to foster that very response, and I cannot respect such self-indulgence. These are personal judgements, however, and they have no bearing on the ultimate worth of the works I may despise.

It is not up to one person—even more so, a group of like-minded people—to say what should and should not be seen, what should and should not be funny, whether the work of a fallible human caught in the depths of his own depravity should be vanquished from the canon. It is not up to a “movement” to tell others what is now deemed acceptable in retrospect and what is not. All of these works teach us something. They communicate in ways that are forever important in the struggle to divine our own humanity.

I hope Terry Gross and other insightful interviewers continue to ask artists how they now view their creations. It is all right if some of them say they no longer see its value for reasons that have to do with artistic choices at the time or those choices in relation to a greater understanding or maturity on the part of the artist today. There are tens of thousands of words whose value to me is simply their volume. What they say is no longer important, if it ever was. I want to hear artists discuss their craft and their creations, but I hope I never again hear an artist acquiescing to the current mood of the country or saying something to inoculate themselves from righteous trolls lacking the intellect or introspection required to find the multifaceted and relevant forward reflections of that art into the narrative of our times.

Yes, it is OK to be funny, and it is OK to laugh. Even now. Even about that, whatever that is for you. If it makes you question why, all the better.

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Trial by Fire, Glass, and Steel

I wrote this one week after September 11th, 2001. Seventeen years later, I have to say the jury is still out on the questions I posed and desires I stated back then. I did not know the loss of morality my country would willingly take on. I did not know how such good will could be so wantonly squandered by men of low character in some of the highest offices of the land. I did not foresee my service’s willingness to mortgage its future for political expediency or to forsake the identity and capability it alone could provide for the nation. I am saddened on this day every year both for the loss of innocent lives and for our seeming inability to make ourselves better because of it. In reflection, I offer the following….

At 8 o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife’s best friend woke me with a phone call. It was the second time she has been the first to call with terrible news. The first was during pilot training. In calling to find out if I was all right, she told me that a jet from my base had crashed and killed its two pilots. This time she called to tell me of the event of our generation. I didn’t know it, but I woke to a different world.

I watched with amazement as two airliners plowed into the sides of the twin World Trade Center towers. I watched with terrible wonder as those towers fell to the ground and, like every other American, questioned if this was all just a bad dream. It was not.  Since then I have watched the news almost constantly over the past few days while I try to wrap my mind around this singularly distinctive event in the history of this country and the world as a whole.

The pundits and unofficial spokesmen for America began almost immediately trying to put a face on what will be remembered on the same level with world-altering events like the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima. Such comparisons sprung to the lips before anyone took the time to consider the effects. Our leaders stood strong; they spoke strong words. Retaliation. It didn’t take long for that word to emerge.  Recently the responses have become more measured. There is a subtle warning tone, and only time will tell if the public is capable of receiving it. This will not be quick or easy. It will not be clean.

Our country has been attacked. There are those that say we are now at war. I submit that we have been at war for a long time. We were distracted by a celebrity murder, the questionable sexual practices of a president/general/Supreme Court nominee/congressman, and the rise of the next boy band or augmented teen song goddess. In our shallowness we failed to see the depth of hate living among us. In our summertime schoolyard daze following the end of the “evil empire” and the victory of the Cold War, we failed to understand that our need for expediency in our too-busy lives would become the chink in the armor that killed thousands this terrible Tuesday. It saddens me to hear a radio announcer say the National Anthem has new meaning. It hasn’t changed; we have. Where was the outrage and lasting national resolve when over 200 Marines lost their lives in Lebanon? Where was it when our embassies were attacked and hundreds of Africans died? Where was it when our ships could not find safe harbor in Yemeni ports? Where was the outrage and resolve the last time the World Trade Center was bombed? We are fickle, and we should have seen it coming.

America is an enigma. We complain like spoiled children and protest for our own pet issues. We are apathetic about politics and world events. We drive to work never looking out the side windows of our cars, totally self-absorbed. Yet we project our ideals across the globe. Our military patrols hostile skies and waters. Our charity finds its way into the third world, and we want everyone on the planet to have the freedom we have. “Let freedom ring,” goes the familiar refrain.

Those responsible for this act are smiling at their apparent success. They toppled two of the greatest buildings ever engineered by man. They killed thousands of innocent civilians. I’m certain they are relishing our despair. They are fools. They smile while their God weeps. In times like these I want to believe in heaven and hell and think their journey on the river Styx is filled with a foreboding anguish before an eternity in the worst kind of hell ever conceived. But I believe instead they are in the black vastness of death from which there is no return and no end. I hope that in the instant before they ceased conscious thought, in that fractioned moment between life and death, they knew they had failed…their heaven just a myth. If it is so, it makes their crime against humanity all the more potent. Individuals claiming every religion on earth have at one time or another killed or attributed death in the name of their god. Even today two of America’s so-called spiritual leaders, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, blamed this disaster on God’s revocation of his protection over us for any number of our own “evils.” Words from the jawbones of asses. What an imbecilic destruction of all that could be good. I heard a line I will never forget this morning.  It was spoken by a Muslim cleric who said, “terrorism knows no religion.” Even I would say “amen” to that.

I have been heartened this week by our greatest national commodity–the intangible American spirit. While it’s true we may worship our heroes to the point of absurdity, perhaps it’s because there are just so many. Steely-eyed firemen seemingly without fear; the possibility that several passengers put others above themselves and wrested control of a doomed aircraft; officers, enlisted men and women, and civilians in “safe” desk duty at the seat of our nation’s military might. All snuffed out by a few misguided extremists. Had they studied their enemy and its history even superficially, they would have seen their folly. The terror bombing of the great Zeppelins, V-2 and blitz attacks on London, and even the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive on Nazi Germany all miserably failed in their quests to destroy the morale of the populations below. Terrorism on this scale is similarly doomed. In fact it can do nothing but strengthen, or awaken, a nation’s resolve. Terrorism on any scale should forever do the same. I have played the famous scene at the end of the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora” over and over in my mind’s eye this week. Admiral Yamamoto standing on the deck of his battleship, Yamato, having just successfully attacked Pearl Harbor says the line no historian was there to record, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.” I hope our enemies have considered that real possibility. Perhaps they would wake in a cold sweat if they had rational thought.

Our nation seems to be rising to the occasion history has once again dealt us. The time of national distraction and petty bickering must now end if we are to answer the call of destiny. The free world is feeling our pain and recognizing the task ahead. For a people used to seeing its flag burned in demonstrations across the globe, pride swelled in seeing it waved in the streets by people of many nationalities. For the first time the Queen’s Royal Guard played our national anthem at Buckingham Palace as Brits waved the flag of their former colonies. Over two hundred thousand Germans stood outside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, one-time symbol of the divide between good and evil, and memorialized the victims. All of Europe observed three minutes of silence at the exact same time. From that small instant in time came the most poignant moment of all. The citizens of Sarajevo stood still and silent in reverence for our dead. This city once split along ethnic lines and nearly destroyed by civil war, this place that held the pity of the world stood in somber reflection for the greatest city on earth. Such is the depth and meaning of this tragic event.

It is perhaps a sign of character that America is so slowly stirred to violence. We do not long for nor relish war. We come late to most unless prodded by extreme events. Such an event has occurred; America is handmade for the coming fight, a true struggle of good versus evil. It is how Hollywood would cast us and how we have cast ourselves many times over. America: the knight in shining armor, the man in white, the defender and protector of a world sometimes unaware of our hopes for it. We have faced the evil of tyrannical leaders bent on world domination in the First World War. The evil of genocidal and imperial systems in World War II. The evil of a world united against their will under the weight of an iron curtain. The evil of denying the very freedom we represent based solely on the color of one’s skin. We have fought them all. We have prevailed. It is time to prevail again.

There are no glory-days ahead. Theater newsreels will be silent. Our papers will not discuss large and noble campaigns. This war will not be fought on conventional terms but in the shadows by clandestine means. The cleanliness of cruise missiles and the majesty of battleships cannot root out faceless culprits under the protection of rogue states, or a militant without regard even for his own human life, or the nice man living next door and walking in your park who decides to fly an airliner into one of the tallest buildings in the world. I wonder where it will take us. The Vietnamese fought for over fifty years to expel all western influence from their country. Can we fight such a protracted war or will our need for expediency once again outweigh our sense of security at the airline ticket counter? Will individuals continue to be stirred to action and refuse to be victimized or will we roll over back into our slumber and apathy? Will a Latino who reports on the suspicious acts of a man of middle-eastern descent be accused of racial profiling, or will he be lauded for his attention to detail? In the most litigious country on earth and one that prides itself on the rule of law, can we stomach trial by silenced firearm on the edges of civilization? These are the challenges that confront us as we beat our chests in public and cry in solitude.

I went to work that day because I could not afford to do nothing. A trip that normally takes 20 minutes took an hour and half. Though in uniform and with the proper ID, my car was searched by security forces and sniffed by a military working dog. As I busied myself with menial tasks, I was ordered in a frantic moment to my commander’s office. “The boss wants to see all the F-16 pilots.” There were three of us. The rest were kept at bay by the enormous security measures at the gate. The Wing Commander entered the office followed by my group commander. He said a few haunting words, then we ran from the office to our planes. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in the cockpit, engine running, waiting for the order to launch and take down a civilian airliner not responding to air traffic control. In a lucid moment spent considering my task and listening to my own breathing over the intercom, I knew my world had forever changed.

I suspect the whole world has changed. Our answers to the questions above and our actions in these first few years of this new century will define my generation. They will likely define the legacy of America and the free and civilized world. I hope that like our fathers and grandfathers before us we are up to the task. I hope that our country and our world will stand behind us, resolute and unwavering, for it is now up to us to decide whether irrationality and senseless acts of waste and destruction can win over civilization and the inherent freedom of man.

 

Principle and the Politicization of the American Classroom

March 14, 2018 is likely to usher in a new landscape in American discourse, a possible sea change in the way we engage on certain issues. But the change is not that our youth have found their voice or that they are finally the ones who may change the national conversation on gun violence or that there is some slim hope that we can crawl out from under the overbearing boot of the gun lobby. It is not that perhaps rational humans can discuss the intricacies of a Constitutional phrase the avowed “originalist” justice threw out to suit his own view of a personal right. It is not that we may be ready to address the rationale for ordinary citizens to own weapons originally and solely designed for war. No, these are not the coming change in the tide of community activism. All of these could have come about without what is planned for this day by high school students across the country. The sea change, cheered on by the left and tacitly approved by numerous institutions of higher learning that will not allow attendance records for this act to blemish would-be candidates’ admission prospects, is none other than the politicization of the American classroom. Forgive them all, for they know not what they do.

Certainly, it is heartening to watch a segment of our population, often looked down upon for their supposed self-indulgence, roundly and loudly disproving all of that. It is heartening to know that a new generation, most of whom cannot even vote, are willing to step into the breach where so many cowardly adults—the great concentration of whom are in DC and state capitols across the country—have failed in a sworn duty to uphold public safety. I am in awe of some of the students who have spoken in intelligent and coherent ways about what can and should be done to address our nearly unique problem in the developed world. Leaders are being made, as they so often are, in the midst of a crisis. Those leaders, based on what we see now, are poised to solve issues our current set of leaders have simply given up on. What should give us all hope is that their chances of success are aided immeasurably by the fact that they will outlive all of the failed generations that came before. Yet the actions planned for March 14th should strike fear in the heart of anyone committed to principle and precedent.

When thousands or millions of high school students walk out of classrooms for 17 minutes tomorrow—in remembrance of 17 innocent lives and in support of public safety policy to mitigate the threat of future school shootings—they will walk back into a classroom where there can no longer be any expectation of education separated from ideology, politics, or the “strongly held beliefs” of their peers or those placed in positions of authority over them. They will have said, in a most public way, that school classrooms are places for political activism and should no longer be sanctuaries of objective fact and critical thought. The giddiness of those on the left so cheering this action by an apparently awakened youth have not considered the consequences of this act or their support for it. That is a shame, but it is not surprising in a country more respectful of the concept of ends justifying means than of a logically consistent and deliberately considered life.

I have recently engaged with school administrators about a middle school Social Studies teacher displaying a “Make America Great Again” hat in his classroom. Soon to be discussed with the same administrators is the playing of Christian “praise music” during class. These are preposterous actions perpetrated by teachers on unsuspecting students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs who deserve far better treatment. There are ethical issues with both and perhaps Constitutional issues with either. But if it is appropriate for students, on school time and property, to protest a lack of support for the sanctity of their near-adult lives, is it not also appropriate for them to take school time and protest in support of the sanctity of what some may consider unborn lives? If it is proper for students to demand legislation on weapons limitations from the school grounds, then it is equally proper for those who feel threatened by what they consider to be a lifestyle choice to protest the position of authority an LGBTQ teacher has over them in that same environment. What constraints can there possibly be for a teacher who decides to explicitly state his support for the campaign and the man—not the office—of the eventual president? What of a student whose deeply held beliefs compel her to audibly and publicly pray during each class, unwillingly conscripting her peers into religious theater and trampling on others’ freedom of conscience? The answer, of course, is that there can be no constraint, once the precedent is set, until the Supreme Court hears the multitude of cases that will surely propagate from this seemingly justifiable and “inherently good” act.

There are spaces in our shared lives that we should reasonably expect to be apolitical. Our military is so both because of law and because of the deep professionalism and cherished sense of commitment to the principles most eloquently described by Samuel Huntington in his seminal work, The Soldier and the State. Public venues where there is limited choice in companionship, such as the pressurized tube of an airplane or cramped public transportation, are places where one should not be subjected to the loudly professed views of others. Church sanctuaries should be similar spaces, though increasingly they stray far from the noble concept the term “sanctuary” once described in more brutal yet chivalrous times. And public schools should also be places where young citizens of every different creed, color, and orientation should not have to face the politics of others except as they relate to the objective study of the complex histories of our multi-faceted nation.

Do not misunderstand. These are places where everyone should be able to discuss, in the Socratic way, the issues of our times in an effort to understand the country as it was and as it is. I make no case for the supposed “safe spaces” cropping up across campuses nationwide; they are no friend to our sacred rights so clearly enumerated in the 1st Amendment. A learning environment is by necessity a place where beliefs are questioned and uncomfortable topics lead to a deeper understanding of our human condition. These laudable goals are not the point of focused political activity, particularly those expressions framed as protest and activism. No student—right, left, or otherwise—should have to be exposed to the purely political rantings of whoever speaks loudest or for this singular moment has captured the national conversation. No student should have to endure a one-sided display from an authority figure of a dark and often disturbing presidential campaign. They should not be forced to listen to praise music. And they should not protest on school property and during school time what some will believe is support for curtailing other, equally enumerated Constitutional rights. This protest flings wide the school doors for all manner of protests based on all manner of ideologies. That is good for no side and for no one at all. If the first casualty of war is truth, surely the first casualty of blind activism is principle. You, your students, and the country will surely suffer the consequences.