Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Faulty heroes.

You and I may not know for certain if the rape allegations against Bill Cosby are true or not.  They certainly appear damming.  Some of those who do know, especially in the press, are now confessing shame that they have long been culpable in enabling him by remaining silent.  At the moment the accused is still avoiding the subject and many of his longtime fans wish they could.  Of course, we can’t and the women who have come forward must, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, “be paid attention.”  Rape and sexual abuse stories are far too common, a shameful commentary on our society.  Whatever happens, it’s likely that no story about Cosby, including his obituary, will fail to reference the consistent and damning “testimony” of more than a dozen women.  A hero will have fallen from his pedestal and will be the object of that special wrath we reserve for those who falter in that pantheon — those emperors who so blatantly wear no clothes, who fall far short of their myth. 

The late Joseph Campbell was fascinated by heroes, and concurrently with myth.  They go together.  His Hero with a Thousand Faces is a classic that many of us read in college and his six PBS dialogues with Bill Moyers captured our attention as few public conversations do.  Campbell spent his life contemplating The Power of Myth in which the hero plays center stage.  What made it so compelling to him and to us is that myth and heroes, past and present, continue to play large in our lives.  That pertains with fiction but perhaps more so in real life.  Myths reflect who we are and the values we hold dear; heroes personify the stories we tell ourselves.  Pop culture contributes some of them.

From 1957 until 1963 television spun the myth of the American family embodied in Ward Cleaver  — the heroic and prototypical father figure.   The Cleavers were nice folk who lived and saw the world from the perspective of their WASP identity.  Forget the melting pot and America’s already diversified population.  In this story, America was white and Ward’s kind of people were those who succeeded and ruled.  It was their birthright.  Leave it to Beaver (the Cleaver familiy's story) wouldn’t play in 2014, its myth, while not altogether discredited, far too simple in a country whose demographic shift can no longer be ignored.  An early sign of that shift came in the 1980s in the family and person of Cliff Huxtable — Bill Cosby. He shared many of the values and decency of Ward Cleaver; many of the same ambitions to do well and have his children do even better.  Huxtable’s mythic statement was that people who weren’t WASPs, in this case African Americans, could be middle-class, professional and feel equally entitled to the national dream.  For their time, and in the context of mainstream television, Ward and Cliff were our dads, our heroes.  Because he represented a greater breakthrough, a questioning if not shattering of the earlier myth, Cliff Huxtable somehow stood taller of the two.

It is always problematic, and perhaps unfair, to conflate actor and character.  After all, one is real and the other is fiction.  But if my reading is correct, Joseph Campbell understood that such a merger is natural.  When it comes to heroes, the real is transcendent and interchangeable.  Myths reflect us.  Our lives echo myth.  The heroes of fact and fiction merge and at some profound level can be one and the same.  Bill Cosby is just an actor, an entertainer, but especially as Huxtable, he became a hero.   And the merger took place for very good reason.  The Cosby Show (1984-92) aired decades after both Leave it to Beaver and the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle.  Lyndon Johnson in fact had signed the Civil Rights Bill just a year after Ward and his family went off the air, twenty before Cliff and his came to command of the small screen.

Huxtable was no civil rights activist, quite the opposite.  He and his family were the mythical fulfillment of the movement’s dream.  They were not on a journey; they had arrived.  Their lives were sitcom normal — funny and every day fare.  No one questioned how a black man could be a doctor; it was just assumed that his role was expected, as it should have been.  The whole point was that blackness really had nothing to do with the story or the characters aspirations.  It was in the simple fact of being, in Huxtable’s ordinariness, dare I say WASP-like nature, that he became a hero.  If Martin King dreamt, Cliff Huxtable was the mythical fulfillment.  If he could prevail at normalcy, so could any of us.  And part of that myth was that all was well, that the struggle, at least on some level, was over.  Call it a clear departure from reality, and it was, but like any myth African Americans embraced it with hopes for themselves, as did Whites who wanted to feel that the show was a token of their job well done. 

Maybe we shouldn’t merge mythical and real life heroes but we do.  The idea that nice heroic Dr. Huxtable, that Cosby who traded on being a benign father figure, might concurrently have been drugging a raping women shocks us.  It infuriates us.  How could we have been so taken in by a myth, and to wit a sitcom myth?  Why do we so readily buy into myth and heroes?  Well it appears that we have no choice.  While some of us may protest being taken in by them, heroes and their myths abound in every aspect of our personal and shared life.  George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind, all of them much larger than life.  Ronald Reagan is the hero of contemporary Republicanism.  Nelson Mandela is our modern day Gandhi, and Steve Jobs the heroic icon of stylish technology.   We put them on a pedestal hoping that some of their glow will fall on us, encourage or enable us to join them on the stage.

Our need for heroes doesn’t go unnoticed by those who are bent on constructing myths, often of their own.  Reagan, Mandela and Jobs certainly understood that. The cult of the personality that prevails today is all about hero building.  Barack Obama wasn’t only a candidate for president, he was, and remains for some, something special: a hero.  Intellectually, we know that those with starring roles are mere mortals, but emotionally we want them to be more and assume that to be the case.  Cosby, in part by the roles he chose to play, built his own heroic myth.  His problem now is not simply that he may be a rapist but that such criminality goes against the constructed and accepted myth of his personhood.   The hero has fallen, and that’s something we can’t and shouldn’t accept or excuse.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Victory and loss.

While widely disputed, the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1925-43) has come to be associated with making the trains run on time.  Myth or not, I couldn’t help thinking of old Il Duce while assessing Tuesday’s election.  The Republicans, given up for dead but a few years ago, won and won big.  Perhaps more important for those of us aligned with the Democrats, we lost.  For the moment that loss was probably more consequential than the win, and we should seriously focus on why.  Was this a referendum on the president and his administration?  Whether justifiably so or not, I think it was.  So we should try to understand why a man beginning with such promise and twice elected has lost so much esteem; why the once sought after and admired campaigner was sidelined in this election? 

The fact that, aside for a short period, the trains in Mussolini’s Italy didn’t actually run on time turns out the be irrelevant.  In a historically dysfunctional country, the dictator sold the story and with relentless public relations that kept him in power for nearly two decades, the perception of on time not only persisted but also long outlived his discredited regime.  Perception and indeed myth, we should all know by now, can be far more powerful than fact.  That is ever more so in a political environment that trades so heavily on perception and mythmaking while happily suppressing fact.  Consider the vapid and misleading content of advertising in this election cycle.  Of course, the trains did run on time early on under Mussolini without which the perception, albeit exaggerated, could never have taken hold.

Perceptions take time to be formed and gain currency.  But it’s clear to me the Barack Obama is now branded as a man who may talk the good talk but has trouble with the walk — he can’t seem to make the trains run on time.  The seeds of this perception were sown even before he took office, planted not by Republicans but by Democrats, specifically Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary.  Their argument was that the Junior Senator was unprepared to take on the presidency.  His rhetoric was uplifting but his resume was thin — a state legislator and a first term on the Hill.  He lacked executive experience, like say a governor or the seasoning of a more senior senator (and two term First Lady).  Her 3 AM call ad was aimed at building this not ready for prime time image.  When the rollout of Obama’s signature ACA program ran so terribly amuck the words “I told you so”, expressed or not, hung in the air.  Sure Obama had a great campaign organization, perhaps the best ever, but clearly governing was something else entirely.  Compounding the problem was that Obama’s campaign juggernaut was famously built on mastering technology, which made people wonder all the more about what essentially was a massive software failure.

The bungled rollout of the ACA (cleverly branded Obamacare by Republicans and reinforced by the lemming press) was a watershed event for the president.  But it was not necessarily a irreparable.  What solidified the perception of weak management more than anything else was the VA problem.  While the ACA might be a source of political contention, left and right, providing service to veterans, especially those who returned wounded physically or mentally from war, is not.  There is widespread bi-partisan and public support for addressing their needs.  It is seen as a moral obligation.  That is particularly so at a time when so few of us are directly exposed to conflict and where a level of guilt for letting others (often economically disadvantaged) do the job is the room's unspoken elephant.  Finally, while highly partisan bickering in Congress, especially in the GOP controlled House, may account for Washington's gridlock and dysfunction, the "top dog" president ultimately gets the blame.  He acknowledged as much in his day after press conference.

Perhaps the most unfair burden carried by the president and undermining his approval rate is the fact that, despite substantial progress — lower unemployment, improved housing prices, robust business, a record stock market and greater access to affordable healthcare — a large segment of the population, perhaps the majority, is losing ground rather than gaining it.  Real income is down and the prospects for the next generation, even those with college degrees, looks anything but bright.  College costs and debt are staggering.  The two Americas, one super rich ($60 Million for, often not lived in, apartments in New York) and the other treading water or struggling (living from inadequate paycheck to paycheck), is not a perception but a harsh reality.  Obama didn’t cause that problem, but again is getting the blame.  The recovery is minimal or non-existent for many.  Young people and minorities who have been his base are the very same people who are feeling most pressed and frustrated.  They thought, realistically or not, that he was their savior.  In truth, the problem of economic inequality is so systemic that no single person can possibly fill that role, especially when his opponents are fighting hard to sustain the status quo.  The fact that many of Republican voters are also victims of and disadvantaged by income disparity seems to be of little consequence.  Speak of perceptions and myths.

The problems we face are real and for sure the administration has under performed in certain instances.  Add to that the fear factor produced by a toxic combination of the ISIS's rise (which Obama once discounted) and the manufactured hysteria about Ebola threatening the country.  The trains don't seem to be running on time.  But the perception that Obama is incompetent is way overblown.  What’s so mind boggling is that the Democrats themselves have not helped dispel them — quite the opposite.  By running away from the president and from a record of significant accomplishment, they have solidified the misperception and, in my view, paid a heavy price (they and we) for abandonment.  If you don’t ask the president to come out and campaign for you, then voters conclude that you too think we’re headed in the wrong direction.  While they may blame Obama globally, the only way they have of expressing their frustration is by pushing you out the door.  Fault them if you will, but voters don’t respond well to candidates running away from their own record.  They see right through them.

The bottom line here is that I think candidates who ran from the president and who emphasized their independence made a huge and costly mistake.  It was their pressure to avoid provocative decisions before the election that kept Obama from issuing his executive order on immigration.  That hurt badly with Latino voters, not to mention that it was wrongheaded in and of itself.  We’ve all complained that Republicans have been the party of no.  We have challenged them to put forward positive programs, for example alternatives to ACA that would address our healthcare problems.  But in this election certainly Democrats were not the party of “yes”.  Money and negative ads may impact elections, but ultimately it’s when candidates don’t stand up for their record or the record of their party, when they express no real vision for the future or avoid addressing the real problems that they cannot prevail.

This election was portrayed as the most important ever.  That has become the standard characterization for all elections these days.  The Republican takeover of the Senate and thus of Congress as a whole is consequential, but probably not the end of the world.  It may represent a step backward, even a substantial one, but just as Democrats (and the press) over read their victory in 2008 and even 2012, Republicans are likely to do so this year.   Pundits will predict the extended demise of Democrats just as they did of Republicans when Obama was elected.  But this country will continue to have a two party system and the pendulum of power will continue to swing back and forth.  Over the immediate term, deniers of human induced global warming may be successful in turning back or slowing environmental efforts, but at some point reality will win out.  Some major city will be under water.  Politicians beholden to the super rich may pretend the economic disparity isn’t something that can or should be addressed, but at some point the 99% will become so mad that they won’t take it any more.

We’re told that Americans are sick of gridlock and polls suggest that a majority of voters — by the way disgracefully only 1/3 of the eligible went to the polls on Tuesday — want compromise.  That may be true, but perhaps even more som all of us are hungering for leaders who have vision, have convictions, are willing to address real issues and are prepared to move the country beyond the narrow status quo.  Are Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren, albeit on very different sides, those kinds of people?  Perhaps so, and perhaps more than the assumed continuity candidates most likely to be facing each other in 2016, but we may not be ready.  Also, both of those partisan darlings are freshman politicians, holding their very first public office.  If getting the trains to run on time is of any importance, we may not be willing to take the risk of another disappointment, even one that is more perception than reality.

Friday, October 24, 2014

No new news.

We do many awfully stupid things in life.  One of mine was to go several years without taking a vacation.  I was just too busy, obviously too indispensible to take time off.  What an idiot, what kind of a life was that?  So I made a pledge to myself: take vacations and truly vacate.  My chosen retreat was the Caribbean off-season, ultimately on the small and beautiful island of St. Barths.  Along with my decision not to forego time off came some self-imposed rules.  First and foremost was to have no contact with my office.  The second was not to read newspapers or otherwise tune in to the news.  Both were possible on the island.  This was a vacation, a rest, from the work world and the whole world.  I would stay in St. Barths for a couple of weeks, governed by my rules of disengagement.

Guess what?  My office was there when I returned and the business functioned perfectly well for the weeks without my indispensible presence.  And what about the news?  The day I returned to reading the Times et al it appeared that nothing had happened in my absence.  It was essentially the same news just repeating itself.  To be sure there was some single story commanding obsessive and urgent coverage (think Ebola) while just yesterday’s (Ferguson) similarly singular focus had receded from the headlines.  And yes, the names and places being covered may have changed somewhat, but remarkably much what had been happening before my escape was still happening after, treading water much as does, surprise, real life.  Well, you’ll say, that may have been the case during those vacations but momentous, transformational, things do happen.  Think for example if I had been on retreat on 9/11?  Got me!  But not really, events like that are exceptional.  Moreover, when something big occurs we can be sure it will be reported ad infinitum for an extended period of time.  Juicy news events are never allowed to rest or fade away.  9/11 was milked for weeks and months on end and, to some degree, still is.

The insightful Biblical book Ecclesiastes (1:9) puts the “new” in its place:
…Only that shall happen, which has happened.  Only that occurs, which has occurred. There is nothing new beneath the sun.  
Ecclesiastes dates back to around 250-300 BCE — that’s a long time and a lot learning ago.  So we might fairly argue with its blanket assertion.  For sure really new things have been discovered over the years, a process that continues — think new drugs or technologies.  On the most elemental level, most of us have experienced the new, or the new to us.  And maybe the operative phrase new to us is the point.  Perhaps it explains why so much of what is reported as “news” comes to us with little surprise.  We approach it with a sense of déjà vu, something we’ve heard or seen it before or, as with my post vacation experience, little and mostly nothing new has happened.

In recent years the character of the “news” we encounter has shifted, though not necessarily for the first time. These things tend to by cyclical (nothing new).  In the golden era of network news, what we may call the (Edward R.) Murrow and immediate post Murrow era, broadcast news was mostly delivered both objectively and authoritatively.  No one embodied that tradition more than Walter Cronkite who anchored on CBS for nineteen eventful years (1962-81).  Cronkite was seen as “the most trusted man in America”, someone we could depend on to deliver it straight and clear.  It was Cronkite who told us definitively that Kennedy was dead, and once he announced it speculation became fact.  When, in a very rare display of opinion, he voiced doubts about our mission in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson declared, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost middle America”.  When Cronkite stepped down (a move he soon regretted much as had TR promising not to run for another term), the era’s demise would follow.  It took some years, but in proper cyclical fashion (Ecclesiastes “To everything there is a time an season”) the news would revert to the kind of (William Randolph) Hearst tabloidization we see today.  Not only is the news rarely new, it is sometimes seems fabricated out of whole cloth.

If Cronkite was the epitome of trustworthy journalism, Ted Turner is the one responsible in large measure for what came after.  Two years before “Uncle Walter’s” retirement, Turner launched CNN, the 24/7 “news” service that by definition was destined to quickly obsolete the new in news by repeating it over and over.  Once the novelty, the newness, wore off, whatever importance it might have had was greatly diminished.  Far more significant, is that CNN and its successors had to fill a lot of empty space.  The fast-paced up to the minute “headline” or telegraphic format they latched on to proved inhospitable to in-depth journalism.  To keep its audience 24/7, content had to be entertaining, and to build loyalty (a base) it had to abandon objectivity.  This is not to discount how CNN started — it was the place to be when big news broke — but ultimately it had to face the real world where big news is by far the exception not the norm.  In that no news is new place, they essentially had to find another way to make a sustainable living.  Fox and MSNBC followed suit, albeit in a more hyperbolic mode.   For them new is not even the issue or objective.

What CNN wrought should serve as a cautionary lesson for the likes of the NY Times and Washington Post who are themselves transitioning from once a day (print) to 24/7 (on-line).  Their news focus remains pretty solid — for this discussion in the Cronkite mode — but more entertainment is edging its way onto their digital front pages.  They want to keep us engaged and think to do that something entertaining, more fluff, is required.  They are probably right.  Thus far an appropriate balance remains, but that was true in Turner’s early days.  24/7 news was predicated on the idea that people want to access information at their convenience (a prescient precursor to our on-demand internet culture), but it also assumed there was a large news-junky audience hungering for more food.  What’s happened, even to those assumed junkies, is that news, especially when so little of it is really new or new any more.

As I’ve been suggesting all along precious little of what we claim to be new really is new and that is a challenge for those who are charged with giving us the news.   Part of their problem of course is that much as we claim to want depth even the most devoted junkies often don’t get far beyond a story’s headline.  The power of the headline has long been understood and not only by the Hearst’s of this world but by the Sulzberger’s as well.  How often have each of us read a headline only to find that the copy below tells a vastly different story.  Headlines are meant to entice us and writing them is an art.  When the editor or writer has an agenda headlines are often employed as tools of opinion.  Aggregators of the news like Huff Post will take a perfectly straight forward story from the Times, Post, or other publications and headline it into a partisan sensation.  Needless to say, their counterparts on the Right do exactly the same.  The sad thing is that headlining of this kind has become the sum total of our political campaigns, all sound bytes  no substance.

Headlines, they used to say, sell newspapers.  And so they do even when “paper” has morphed into digital screens. Dig beneath the surface of the hype and you’ll probably join me in concluding that very little truly new is happening  nothing new under the sun.  On an intellectual level we’re on to that lack of newness, but we happily play the game.  And why is that?  I’d venture a guess.  We pretend the news is new, but there is something reassuring in knowing that it’s just more of the dependable same.  We actually like the pretense and that, even more than the headlines, is what makes news sell.  It is also why we demand precious little in terms of quality and objectivity.  We don’t want to wake up from the dream, most especially in challenging times.  And that isn’t new.

Note:  Days ago the fabled Ben Bradley died in Washington.  “No new news” notwithstanding, great journalists existed in his hay day and they still do today.  We would all be diminished were not that the case.