Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Mad Men" and Crazy Me

The AMC cable TV series Mad Men, a discerning depiction of a New York ad agency in 1960 and the tone and temper of American middle class life in that era, has won much critical acclaim and 16 Emmy nominations. Its creators strived for authenticity in every detail and whether one looks back on that period as the good old days or views it with the virgin eye that accompanies exposure to an unfamiliar, bygone time, it’s a captivating examination of an America that is no more. As a prelude to the start of the series’ second season next week, AMC is running a Mad Men marathon of season one today, and although I’ve already seen it, I’ve been enjoying this second look.

I was eight years old in 1960 and was very much shaped by that era, a society defined by clearly delineated roles, modest technology and innocence, on its way out but still palpable. I was 18 when I worked for a now-defunct advertising and p.r. company that held the distinction of being the first black-owned firm of its kind on Madison Avenue. As Mad Men reveals, this world (even ten years later) embodied everything that we today regard with disdain, if not outright horror: racism, sexism, corporate chicanery, entrenched alcoholism, sexual harassment and chain smoking.

We’re supposed to be appalled – and fascinated. And I am both. But I’m also filled with a sense of longing; I miss a lot of that stuff. I miss straight skirts and high heels and higher hair and pancake make-up. I miss private offices. I miss TV in black & white with seven channels. I miss typewriters and heavy black telephones tethered to wires. I miss men in smart silk suits accented with unwarranted confidence and superiority. I miss ignorance of the rest of the world, a sense of unlimited plenty, the delusion of national greatness, the false promise of married bliss and suburban delight. I miss the lies and possibilities. I miss the comfort of certitude and prime beef and cocktails. I miss the companionship of Top 40 radio and thriving libraries. I miss a New York of native New Yorkers in disparate neighborhoods, a time before gentrification when some apartments were still cheap and middle/working class families could buy houses for $20,000 that now cost more than $1 million. I miss the time when one could clearly distinguish between Democrats and Republicans and neither (as a rule) felt compelled to bring religion into their politics.

Now, I realize that my nostalgia is in many ways ridiculous, born of emotional fatigue, intellectual disappointment, the frenzy of technology run amok, the hostility of social polarization, and a non-smoking outside world (I dearly miss cigarettes for 50-cents-a-pack that could be gotten from machines that were everywhere). I’m not forgetting that, as Mad Men shows, women were treated like idiots, toys and office perks, that many housewives were truly desperate. I’m not forgetting that blacks and Hispanics were totally disenfranchised, Jews were marginalized, and gays were relegated to shame-filled, secretive shadows. I’m not forgetting Boogeyman Communism and elementary school drills that tried to make us believe we could hide from a nuclear assault under our desks. I’m not forgetting that we were duped by advertising and politics, and that our sense of well-being was built on a foundation of sinking bullshit.

But I feel so displaced by the present, so restricted by political correctness, so limited by humorlessness in all quarters, so imposed upon by the needs, rights and imperatives of the rest of the world, so horrified by our methamphetamine pace, so defeated by environmental decay. Call me crazy, but I miss the miseries of a simpler time. But I do love cable TV. Life is such a constantly evolving (and devolving) trade-off, isn’t it?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lighten Up, America, It’s a JOKE!

“Defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people,” said the great and very funny Robert Benchley who, as a theater critic and essayist at The New Yorker in the 1930s, literally sat alongside the even greater and funnier Dorothy Parker. One time during a word game, Parker was asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence and she quipped, “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” It’s a good thing she isn’t around to say something like that now; she’d be tarred and feathered by the defenders of sex workers, the opponents of the cultural elite, and the supporters of Dignity For Plants.

As you no doubt already know, The New Yorker is being vilified for running the cartoon that illustrates this week’s cover of their magazine (and this post), created by New Yorker regular Barry Blitt. Racist! Offensive! Not Funny!, cry the outraged Obama followers. The New Yorker has even been accused of fearing the reality of a black President (that’s funny, too). However, unlike the Islamic extremists who wanted to kill Danish cartoonists who drew caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 that they found sacrilegious!, no one is calling for Blitt’s head on a palette – yet. But given the depth of outrage being expressed on the blogosphere and throughout the land, I don’t rule it out.

Never mind that the cartoon is titled “The Politics of Fear” and is intended to satirize the slurs and stupidity that have been hurled at Obama to discredit him. Never mind that The New Yorker has been the standard-bearer of American humor, satire and intellectual sophistication since Benchley, Parker et al held court at The Algonquin Hotel. Politically-correct sensibilities have been insulted and attention must be paid. There was no similar hew and cry when ugly caricatures of Hillary Clinton flooded the Internet, along with souvenir Hillary nutcrackers (just put the nut between her thighs and squeeze). But I guess we must pick our battles.

We’ve not only lost all perspective and common sense in this country, we’ve completely lost our sense of humor, especially about ourselves and anything/anyone we hold dear. Maybe this is another September 11th side effect, like not being able to make terrorist jokes at the airport, or having to pretend that the United States doesn’t have a cultural influence around the world that arouses the ire of people even crazier and more humorless than ourselves. Years ago, during a chat with my [black] father, I said “I believe in calling a spade a spade; oh, I forgot: this is the 90s, you can’t call a spade a spade.” We laughed. Having grown up in the era of All in the Family, Saturday Night Live and Jackie Mason in their irreverent heyday, I find today’s unsmiling propriety deeply depressing.

I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that this American cartoon crisis is happening at the same time that the Japanese are being chastised for a mobile phone commercial that features the company’s monkey mascot as a political candidate advocating change (racist! offensive! not funny!). Never mind that Japanese culture doesn’t have the same racist associations with blacks/monkeys that we do, it’s just not appropriate!!! In another monkey regard, animal advocates in Spain are trying to secure basic human rights for apes. Folks, we’ve lost our minds.

What I find especially interesting about all this humorless crap is that one could regard it as a smokescreen. Almost no one has mentioned the magazine’s very revealing article, “How Chicago Shaped Obama” by Ryan Lizza, which details Obama’s lesser-known political development during the early 90s and the fact that he has been a canny politician with his eyes on the White House for quite some time. I suggest that behaving as if a young, smart, black politician is devoid of the ambition, even ruthlessness, that it takes to become President is what’s really racist and offensive – and naïve. And anyone tough enough to be President should know how to take a joke, even one he doesn’t like, and advise his supporters to do the same.

Which reminds me: a liberal, a conservative and an independent walk into a bar…

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Oh, Grow Up!

I’m stupefied by all this brouhaha about Obama abandoning his stance as a new kind of politician, moving to the middle, flip-flopping on Iraq, pandering to the religious right, going hawk on gun control and the death penalty, blah, blah, blah. What the man is doing is trying to get elected, which he cannot do solely by preaching to the choir. And while I hasten to cite the well-known Emerson quote, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” I equally hasten to add that Mr. Obama has not been particularly inconsistent. Just because the Republicans chose to label him as “the most liberal” senator doesn’t necessarily make it so – or make it the slur it’s intended to be. The fact is, Obama is a man with a poetic, populist vision of an improved America driven by an engaged, participatory citizenry, and while he eschews business-as-usual politics, he’s by no means a radical and never claimed to be.

Only an idiot (or our present President) would make intractable decisions about how to get us out of Iraq seven months before he can take office. Obama wants us out of there, thinks our being there was and is a bad idea; he hasn’t changed his position on that. As for his championing faith-based social service groups, that’s a sticky wicket to be sure, but the truth is, many of them do an excellent job of addressing practical, everyday problems, as well as devastating emergencies, in a way that secular non-profits and the government have dismally failed to do. For example, it was church groups that really rescued people and communities from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast. It’s church groups that maintain many efficient food banks, shelters and other useful services from coast to coast. And most of them are not proselytizing as they hand out soup and blankets; many of these people are just trying to live their faith by being of service to others. Those of us who have good liberal reason for disliking and distrusting the religious right should learn to make distinctions between them and other faith-based groups – as well as acknowledge that even people we disagree with are capable of doing worthwhile things.

But the larger, more important reality is that Obama wants to get elected and he genuinely wants to be a conciliator among the many polarized factions of our society. He’s reaching out to populations usually shunned by liberals, because he knows he can’t make peace or find common ground with people if he doesn’t communicate with them and motivate compromise. Obama’s base includes many young people who, consistent with their age, see everything in black & white opposites of good/bad, right/wrong, our side/their side. Maybe Obama isn’t naïve – but they sure are. Did they think their maverick would vanquish the political status quo before he got into a position of power? They should support Obama’s efforts to transcend labels and help all of us to see and respect each other’s humanity – and point of view.

And the media should stop inflating and inflaming every smidgen of potential controversy. This isn’t a soap opera or a competitive reality TV show, this is our country and our future; this is the real thing. It would be unconscionable for the American public to have been subjected to this torturously drawn out campaign only to have the serious substance of it put through a wringer of ignorant assumption and malicious inference. I still don’t know if Barack Obama is for real or not, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and reserve whatever outrage or disappointment I may feel for when we get George Wacko Bush out of the White House, send John McCain packing, and get down to the business of putting this country back together again. For now, we should reject false news and media histrionics with solid facts and intelligent discussion, as well as fairness, patience, a little trust and a lot of common sense. That would truly be a change we can believe in.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

On Patriotism

I’ve always enjoyed The 4th of July: the start of summer in earnest; an opportunity for grilled food in somebody’s backyard; the challenge of coordinating a red, white & blue outfit that looks stylish instead of ridiculous; fireworks, I love fireworks; and, yes, a sense of patriotism, not a mindless rah-rah-America! kind of patriotism, but a palpable sense of pride and affection for my big, crazy country, a unique construct of remarkable personalities, high ideals and lofty promises greatly sullied by a checkered past, a surreal present and an uncertain future.

In the 60s and 70s, when I was actively working/ organizing against the Vietnam War and on behalf of civil rights, I felt like a genuine patriot – someone who loved her country enough to tell the truth about its shortcomings and work to help correct them. I never forgot that the Founding Fathers were elite, white, male slave-owners, or that we annihilated the Indians, or that women were disenfranchised citizens until the passage of the 19th Amendment gave us the right to vote in 1920, or that we have behaved like the stereotypical Ugly American in many other countries (especially small ones) around the world. But neither did I forget how physically vast and varied and beautiful this country is, or how ingenious and innovative we can be, or that we’ve also helped millions with our might and our money around the world.

Since the horrors of 9/11, the machinations of the Bush administration have shamelessly capitalized on that tragedy to deliberately undermine authentic democracy and replace vital longstanding rights, privileges and due processes with fear-based restrictions and other outrageous assaults on liberty. Shame on them – and shame on us for letting them get away with murder and abject insanity. Perhaps we can turn the tide in this election year. I sure hope so!

My politics have become more armchair and online than frontlines in recent years, but I still regard myself as a loyal American, frustrated by our passivity and materialism, but buoyed by our frequent decency, generosity and courage. And I’m still comforted by my memories of The 4th of July in years past, times in my childhood when my parents took me to the beach; the over-the-top Bicentennial in 1976; watching sweet, homemade parades in the small town in Upstate New York where my folks retired; Op Sail parties I gave here in the Tower in years when the Tall Ships, their sails aloft, sailed up and down the Hudson (and I still had an unobstructed view of the river, now long gone).

And times that I stood on city rooftops with friends watching fireworks and feeling like a kid, an American kid, a kid who attended a public elementary school where we had weekly Assembly with a flag-bearing Color Guard and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang My Country `Tis of Thee and it all seemed grand. I don’t know yet if I’m doing anything tomorrow (although I’ve already planned possible outfits), but I’ll spend the day feeling pretty good about being an American – and being determined to keep on speaking out about where we’ve gone wrong.