Thursday, October 19, 2017

Nobody Expects the Politically Correct Inquisition

(I should have written about this a week or two ago, but don't worry -- more of the same kind of material will circulate as long as Trump is President.)

The above cartoon began to circulate after Mike Pence walked out of a football game to make known his displeasure to NFL players taking the knee during the national anthem.  Liberals made much of the fact that the action was planned in advance -- like the players' protests weren't -- and cost the taxpayers perhaps a quarter of a million dollars, which is chump change in the Federal budget.  The same complaint could be made about any president's official visits to disaster sites, or other symbolic gestures, but of course when it's Not Your President or Vice President who's doing it, it's completely different.  The Democratic outrage that ensued was a bit odd, considering how many of these people claim that they regard Pence as a lesser evil that they can deal with when Trump is impeached.  I regarded it all as yet another distraction from the actual purpose of the protests, by making them all about Trump.

But then several people I knew, liberals all, passed along the cartoon above.  It too is far from the worst thing in the world today, but it infuriated me anyway because of the people who thought it was funny.  As with Stephen Colbert's "cock holster" quip, it's not really funny; there's no wit about it, it's just a crude and juvenile homophobic taunt, which means it's not the sort of thing liberals should be spreading.  But evidently they thought it was so hilarious that they had to share it.

Ordinarily I respond to homophobic rhetoric on the Internet with sarcasm -- how nice of woke liberals to show their superiority to Rethuglicans by indulging in homophobic attacks, that sort of thing -- but not this time.  I was direct:it really pisses me off when liberals show how woke they are by indulging in homophobic or misogynist attempts at humor -- which generally fail, as this one does. If you spread crap like this around I don't want to hear any bullshit about how much you care for equality and everybody getting along together. You're not an ally.

A few weeks earlier, Mel Brooks complained in an interview with the BBC that "political correctness is 'the death of comedy'.  He said Blazing Saddles, his Western spoof about a black sheriff in a racist town, could never be made today."  This is bullshit.  Blazing Saddles couldn't have been made just a few years before Brooks made it, not because of "political correctness" but because of the Hollywood Production Code, which was the result of the movie industry appeasing religious (especially Roman Catholic) reactionaries.  (I imagine that it couldn't have been made before the Code was adopted either, because of its flamboyant profanity.)  And even after the Code was replaced with a rating system, Brooks encountered resistance to making and releasing the film.  As I recall from the commentary track on one of the DVD versions, some of the actors Brooks wanted refused to speak the naughty words, and others were understandably uncomfortable about spewing racial slurs on camera.  ("Understandably," because of the well-known tendency of audiences to confuse actors with the roles they play.)

Contrariwise, movies full of racial slurs and profanity are reasonably commonplace today, especially when black filmmakers produce them.  But has Brooks never seen, say, Pulp Fiction, which contains plenty of both?  The racist material in particular seems to be there more simply for the taboo-breaking frisson rather than any dramatic or, as in Blazing Saddles, satirical reason.  I don't believe that "political correctness" is preventing such movies from being made.

Brooks went on to declare piously:
But there is one subject he insists he would not parody.
Referring to World War Two, he said: "I personally would never touch gas chambers or the death of children or Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
"In no way is that at all useable or correct for comedy. It's just in truly bad taste."
However, he says that is the "only thing" he would avoid. "Everything else is OK."
This is passing strange, because one of the sources of Brooks's notoriety was Blazing Saddles' predecessor, The Producers, about a couple of sleazy Broadway impresarios who stage a musical, written by a diehard Nazi, celebrating Hitler.  It's just in truly bad taste.  I've never been able to get through the entire film myself, not because I'm offended but because it's not all that interesting: as in Pulp Fiction, the "humor" comes from the breaking of the taboo.  Brooks has never disowned The Producers, and indeed in his dotage made it into a very successful stage musical.  At any rate, he has his own personal "political correctness," the line he won't cross.

Even more obnoxiously, Brooks tried to exalt comedy, especially his kind of comedy, into a virtually spiritual vocation exempt from criticism.  "Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It's the lecherous little elf whispering in the king's ear, telling the truth about human behaviour."  Numerous critics pointed out that Brook was wrong about the jester's traditional role here.  I certainly agree that comedy, like art in general, can and should take risks, even if it offends; but those who are offended can and should speak up.  Traditional racist, sexist, homophobic &c. comedy wasn't meant to take risks, quite the opposite: it afflicted the afflicted while comforting the comfortable.  It couldn't have been made if it had done otherwise.  Because of the ambiguity of art and entertainment, many of such comedy's targets turned it around and found some kind of affirmation in it.  But to pretend that Sambo shows, for example, were intended to "tell the truth about human behavior" is dishonest.

I liked Blazing Saddles because it turned its satire on white racists, but I suspect that many whites liked because they thought it gave them a license to say "nigger."  As, apparently, many white schoolkids do with Huckleberry Finn, or rap.  I'd hope that it couladn't be made today, though, at least in its original form, because it's too uneven.  (That is typical of Brooks's films, except for Young Frankenstein, which had fewer comic peaks and more valleys as time went on.)  I wasn't offended by the fag-joke soundstage number featuring Dom DeLuise later in the film, but I never found it funny either; it takes no chances, it's a reprise of the 30s-style Hollywood fag jokes itemized in Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet.  The closest it comes to edginess is having some of the rugged cowboys saunter off arm-in-arm with the queeny chorus boys, and that's not close enough.  (Heathers, and numerous other later comedies, came closer.  Colbert's "cock holster" line and the Pence/Trump blowjob cartoon fall even shorter.)  I think that Richard Pryor, who co-wrote it, probably deserves more credit for Blazing Saddles's virtues than Brooks does, if only because on his own Brooks never again reached those heights.

The proof of the comedy, and the satire, is in the laughter -- and people disagree on what to laugh at.  I think again of Ellen Willis's satirical definition of "humorless": it's what you are if you don't think rape, big breasts, or sex with little girls is funny -- but you're not humorless if you're not amused by castration, impotence, or vaginas with teeth.  And if an artist fails to produce the results he or she aimed for, he or she needs to be told.  Yes, comedy should take chances, but taking chances often fails, and while I sympathize with comedians who don't want to be told, they need to know when they fail.  I might watch a comedy about Nazis, the gas chambers, and all the other subjects Brooks rejects -- if it was really funny.  It's a question that can't be answered in advance.  Blazing Saddles only proved itself by being made.  As Joanna Russ wrote, "To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political."  Like comedy, it's hard to do, and not many bring it off.  Nothing is sacred, including comedy.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Hundred Selves

Through the windy night something
     is coming up the path
     towards the house.
I have always hated to wait for things.
     I think I will go
     to meet whatever it is.*
I should probably avoid sites like The Neglected Books Page; it's not as if I need to learn about more books that I might want to read, after all.  There are hundreds of books piled around my apartment that I want to get to, and I hardly need to add to them.  Or do I?  I think that is really a metaphysical speculation, so I'll leave it there.

The fact remains that a couple of evenings going through Neglected Books's archives pointed me to several books that I hadn't known before, and was glad to have discovered.  Isabel Bolton's The Christmas Tree, for example, originally published in 1949, with a gay man as a key character.  And I just finished reading Elizabeth Coatsworth's Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, which pleased me even more.

I've long been interested in books about aging, by aging people, whom I see as pioneers advancing before me into the country of Old Age -- less and less before me as I get older myself.  May Sarton's journals were the first for me in this genre, if genre it be; then Jane Rule's writings, both fictional and autobiographical, about old age.  I've also returned to books by older women writers who were well-known in the mid-twentieth century but are less well-known now.  I tend to think of them as "lady" writers, which I've come to realize is unfair.  Many of them have rather old-fashioned styles, but when I become accustomed to their manner I find that they are more realistic, hard-headed and honest than most of their male contemporaries.  Coatsworth (1893-1986), probably most famous for her 1931 Newbery-Medal children's book The Cat Who Went to Heaven, led quite a life.  She traveled around the world from an early age, usually with her sister or her mother, and didn't slow down much even after she married (rather late) and became a mother.  She and her husband -- also a writer -- settled in Massachusetts and Maine, which puts her close to some other interesting writers, like Sarton, Ruth Moore, and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Personal Geography was Coatsworth's last book, though she lived another ten years after it was published.  It's a collection of short pieces that cover parts of her life from childhood to her years of widowhood.  I was struck by her travel descriptions, some of which took place a century ago, in Europe and Asia very different from what they later became; since she lived into the 1980s, she saw many changes and paid attention to them.  Nor did she idealize the past too much:
I loved China the most.  At that time it was half ruinous, with the especial sadness and poetry that hang like a mist over ruins; I doubt if I should care much for communist China, though it may be a better place to live in [89].
I did not know travel at its dawn, as Marco Polo might have claimed, though he, too, had many predecessors.  But it was at my dawn, and the early light lies on my memories.  We never went on tours, or by schedule: we followed our whims stayed for a day or a week or a month in one place, or struck off at a tangent when someone told us of some wonder.  Only once did some pilgrims to the high Buddhist monasteries of the Korean Diamond Mountains look at us in wonder as the first white people they had seen (and examined our clothing almost to our skin) but we traveled at a time when all ports did not look alike and when people, East and West, wore the clothes their ancestors had worn. I should never feel such joy traveling in today's homogenized world [181-2].
To each her own!  I'm even more impressed by Coatsworth's travels when I consider that this was before air travel, cheap international telephone calls, credit cards, bullet trains, to say nothing of the Internet.  Nor was the world in those days necessarily safer.  I get a lot of joy from traveling in today's homogenized world, and I think I'm too much of a sissy to dare what she, her sister, and her mother dared to do.

Like Ruth Moore, Coatsworth appreciated her rural neighbors but wasn't sentimental about them:
When a lightning storm begins after dark, the farmers and their wives always dress, to be ready to save the stock if the barn is struck.  Fire, the unknown -- one begins to fear the things that the farmer fears.  And one understands more and more their helplessness before bad neighbors or tramps.  Each man is so isolated.  He does not dare make enemies: someone may dig up his potatoes, but the farmer does not dare voice his suspicions; someone may carry away one of his sheep, but he does not dare rouse bad blood, that may end in a burning barn or a fire in his woods [128].
Ah, the good old days!  And she's matter-of-fact about her aging, failing body.
I forget words (the other day I came to a full stop because I had lost "button" from my mind), and generally use a synonym because I know that any word is better than none.  I forget names, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that I have always forgotten them.  The long-ago day comes back to me when a stranger asked me my name -- I was perhaps six -- and the sudden quesetion drove it entirely from my mind.  I still remember the bewildering feeling of "I don't know who I am"; and perhaps I still feel it [157].

These remarks are necessarily self-centered, but not by intention.  They are written primarily for people of my own age or for those who are approaching it, to discuss honestly the problems which we all face.  It is my good fortune to have inherited, nothing so dashing as courage, but acceptance of what cannot be changed, and a willingness to enjoy the small gifts of life which still are so plentiful if one will look for them [158].
She's good company.  I'll hang on to this book, as I have to May Sarton's journals, and refer to it now and then as I catch up with her.
*Elizabeth Coatsworth, Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography (Brattleboro VT: The Stephen Greene Press), p. 183.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Conspiracy Theories for Me ...

Guess who said this:
Much of this is being carried out stealthily, in closed sessions, with as little public notice as possible. Other Republican policies are more open, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, thereby isolating the U.S. as a pariah state that refuses to participate in international efforts to confront looming environmental disaster. Even worse, they are intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.

The reasons behind the policies are a mix. Some are simply service to the Constituency. 
Noam Chomsky, of course.  It's an excerpt from his next book of interviews with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio, due to be published in a couple of months.

I'm an admirer of Chomsky, I've read most of his books on politics, and I've learned a lot from him.  I also have some significant disagreements with him.  Like just about everybody, he's critical of conspiracy theories, but when I read this excerpt it occurred to me that if you took it out of context, you could easily accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist.  (He often has been accused of just that, particularly his discussions of the media.)  Especially the coy epithet "the Constituency," referring to "the Constituency of private power and wealth, 'the masters of mankind,' to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase," but also the dark references to the Republican agenda being pursued and enacted out of the public view.  This is, of course, exactly what is being done in Congress, as with the Obamacare repeal bill -- though also, as Chomsky knows, with Democratic initiatives like the Transpacific Partnership "free trade" pact: when legislators know that they are working on a highly unpopular bill, they will want the populace to remain safely ignorant of what they're doing.

As I've said before, conspiracies do happen, and dismissing theories about them out of hand is dishonest.  The question is the quality of the theories, which is often difficult to assess when you're dealing with secretive activity.  As Richard Seymour wrote (via) earlier this year, one sign of invalid conspiracy theories is their "assumption of omniscience": the conspirators know in advance how their opponents will respond, and have already prepared countermoves to exploit and defuse the efforts of the Resistance.  They are also, in Patricia Roberts-Miller's sense, demagogic: the theorist is the good Us, the conspirators are the wicked Them.

Chomsky isn't a conspiracy theorist, but I think that this interview shows how difficult it is for even a careful thinker like him to avoid adopting the tone and rhetorical tactics of a conspiracy theorist.