Why I Chose Not to Program The Death of Klinghoffer and Why I Still Support It

Over the past week or so I’ve had many difficult exchanges with friends and family over social media around posts I’ve shared about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer. I’ve shared articles defending the production, reviews of its artistic merit, social critiques of what the controversy represents and even parallel experiences of the production in other cities. Those who were convinced it was anti-Semitic remain firmly convinced. Those who believed the protests were just another example of right wing denial of any legitimate Palestinian narrative remain similarly unswayed. Depressingly, this episode has only reinforced the worst stereotypes each side had of the other in the ongoing shouting-match over Israel (can we really call it a conversation at this point?). The Jewish general manager of the Met Opera has been compared to a Nazi sympathizer and a supporter of Hamas. I’ve read comparisons of the actions of those who opposed the performance of the opera to a “book burning of Adams’ work.” By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first loses — and it’s hard to find any winners in this encounter.

Achille LauroMy own feelings about the opera itself are mixed — I saw the film version created for Channel Four in the UK directed by Penny Woolcock in 2004. At the time, I was considering it for possible inclusion in the Washington Jewish Film Festival in my capacity as the Festival’s director. I remember being entranced by the music, disturbed by its portrayals of history and touched by certain images that have stayed with me over a decade later — such as that of Klinghoffer’s wheelchair sinking through the water after he has been murdered and thrown overboard. I chose not to include the film for a number of reasons, some practical (opera on film is a tough sell) and some artistic/thematic. While I appreciated the aesthetic strengths of the work, it felt far too removed from its subject to be included in a Festival in which other films dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict spoke with greater authenticity and authorial intimacy. The work overall, felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict, looking to illuminate the tragedies and universal lessons for both sides. Firsthand knowledge of course, isn’t a prerequisite for great art, but when the subject is one that brings such passion along with it, one runs the risk — as Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have certainly be accused — of naivety. That is why the work itself turns the characters themselves into archetypes more than real people, the terrorists are an extension of the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the Klinghoffers are extensions of the chorus of exiled Jews. One cannot blame Klinghoffer’s daughters for objecting to the opera — that is not their father up there (but neither should they have the last word). We are all products of our history, but the opera isn’t really interested in why these people were affected in the ways they were. It is why the captain is in many ways the most interesting character, he is also a product of history, but its effects on his character are more subtle and his choices stem from a much more personal, interesting and humanely flawed place.

A friend I respect greatly wrote me, “folks flying planes into skyscrapers, dragging gay men to their deaths behind cars,etc? They get no inner lives.” I simply can’t agree. Their inner lives may leave them twisted and deranged, committing heinous acts because of the person they have become, but to deny that their inner lives are not worthy of some kind of artistic exploration is to go too far. Why? Because to have that attitude is easy when you’re talking about Hitler, Osama Bin-Laden or Pol Pot; but there are a lot of shades of grey between them and the historical rungs of the ladder that the Achille Lauro terrorists occupy. To elevate Klinghoffer’s murderers to the level of genocidal prime-movers is to engage in a false equivalency that blurs our understanding of evil. It runs the risk of a turning a tradition which takes the weighing of justice most carefully, into a shrill hyperbole.

So, my defense of the opera has to be couched in the acknowledgement that given my own opportunity to program it, I chose not to. I think it is probably fair to say that even if I had wanted to program it, given the controversy that already surrounded the work, I might have faced internal and external opposition that would have made including it unwise and impossible. And it is that last acknowledgement that leaves me so unsettled. Because what was at stake in this debate was not the production of this specific opera in this specific venue. It was the freedom of artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Israelis and Palestinians, to engage with the most sensitive and provocative topics in their histories and create music, theater, dance and stories from them, and for arts presenters to provide audiences with the opportunity to see and judge for themselves the results.

That is not a priority for many of the opponents of The Death of Klinghoffer. While there were some true arts supporters among the opera’s opponents, for many others (among them, the organizing core), the opera was another front in the total war for Israel’s survival. And while I can share their goal — that Israel survive — I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to that survival, or even that it was antagonistic to it (or for that matter, that its survival depends on a “total war” footing). I believe this as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a writer, and as someone who has first-hand knowledge of terrorism. But by mounting such a large, public and compelling campaign against an opera that most people will never hear or see, a profoundly chilling wind has been blown across the landscape of Jewish culture specifically and American culture more broadly. In development offices and board meetings across the land, well-intentioned but misguided leaders will ask themselves when faced with the prospect of presenting potentially challenging and controversial material, “Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?” Only the most committed (and masochistic) will conclude that they are willing to risk it.

As I was getting this post together, another deadly chapter in this ongoing conflict was written in Jerusalem. A terrorist plowed his car into a crowded Jerusalem train station and took the life of a three-month-old baby girl; an attack which was initially reported in the A.P. as, “Israeli police shoot man in East Jerusalem.” Up in Ontario, an attack with still unfolding causes and consequences reminds us that terror, like that of the Achille Lauro, remains a frequent feature of our landscape. Events like these and their coverage illuminate how pro-Israel activists can see malevolence lurking around every corner and why their suspicions are not without a basis in reality. The urge to circle the wagons and put-off critical examination of ourselves and the “other” for the distant future is strong.

Yet, I do not believe that attacking straw men in the arts serves the long-term interests of the pro-Israel community. It conflates real terrorists with those who wish to understand why terrorism still attracts thousands to its cause; those who are ideologically committed to our destruction with those who wish to understand the historic grievances that feed such fundamentalism. Our tradition demands better.

photo by D. R. Walker, via Wikimedia Commons

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My Submission to the KCRW Independent Producer Project 24-Hour Radio Race: The Jewelry Box

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#RadioRace Journal

Radio Race Banner

 

 

 

 

12:50
Took a nap from 10:30 to 11:30. Woke up. Showered. Brewed a fresh pot of coffee and ate a bowl of Rice and Beans. Figured that would keep me going through the day and provide an aesthetic guidepost: keep it simple, nutritious and satisfying. Now sitting around waiting for the secret theme and realizing that I may be in way above my head, but…too late now.

2:08

The theme is “You Should Know”

I’m pursuing a couple of different angles and will pursue whichever one pans out first. But I feel like I should have known this was coming.

Thinking Face

 

 

 

 

 

3:03

Getting a little frustrated. I’ve got what I think is a good story, but having trouble getting in-touch with the subjects. Right now trying to crowdsource a work-around but am encountering obstacles. Tried calling the public information officer of a local police department to get some traction, but their voice mailbox was full. Have since texted and emailed them with no response. Thinking up Plan Bs in my head and wondering at what point I need to let go of this idea and try for a story that may excite me less but be more achievable in the time frame.

3:20 pm

First big breakthrough! Made contact with my source who I first read about on Craigslist. Didn’t notice that they had listed their phone number as a way of contacting them. Slapping my head, but they totally seem interested in what I was doing and are calling me back as soon as they’re done shopping at Costco. It was an incredible rush.

7:24 pm

So, I went and met the interview subject at the Costco. We agreed that it was too noisy at the Costco to do the interview and after a few false starts, we found a park nearby where his kids could play while we spoke. I wish I had insisted a little harder on a quieter place because I’m listening to the interview now and it has issues that I think could have been avoided if we had been indoors. My relative inexperience in radio is a major hurdle right now. Back home now listening to the interview and wondering if I need to re-record some of it — if the subject is willing. I’ve reached out to him and am waiting to hear back. It was extraordinarily nice of him to agree to do this once, so twice might be too much to ask for.

Waiting at Costco...like a real journalist

Waiting at Costco…like a real journalist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9:12 pm

Ok, so maybe I over-reacted about the sound quality. I’ve cut down the interview and played it for Melissa and it isn’t as bad as I feared at first. I still need to cut out another 45-seconds to get underneath the 4-minute limit, but I’m beginning to hear the story take shape. To know what the important ideas in it are and what can be lost. I’m really happy with how it ends. I’ll say this, it really helps to be interviewing a smart, articulate person. Turns out the guy is a journalist for Bloomberg news so he also knows how to tell a story.  I do have a long night of editing in front of me, but I’d give myself a solid “B” for the first 8 hours of the 24 Hour Radio Race.

10:14 pm

Under Four Minutes!

 

 

 

 
Sort of amazed that I’ve gotten the basic story under 4 minutes. There’s still a lot of work to do, but the arc is in place and under the time limit so I’ve got some room to play with secondary tracks and music. I think I might need a Diet Coke. Luckily, one of my former co-workers sent me one the other day.

Diet Coke for Josh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2:25 am

Getting to the point where I need to get some sleep. I feel good with the first draft I’ve laid down. I even found some music on Soundcloud with a Creative Commons License that I can use for underscoring the story. I just hope I’ve done some sort of justice to the story I’ve been given, which I realize now I haven’t really written about yet. I’ve spent the past week listening to as many episodes of KCRW’s Unfictional as I could cram in. I listened while mowing the lawn, riding the metro, managing my fantasy baseball team or washing the dishes. One of the stories mentioned that they often got good ideas from Craigslist — which was such a simple idea, and yet it hadn’t occurred to me. So, I went online and fairly quickly I spotted this post in the Lost and Found section. It all worked out.

Ok. Going to sleep for a few hours.

9:30 am

Ok. So I slept a little more than I planned, but I’m still happy with my story this morning. Going to play around with some small edits here and there and then upload no later than 12:30 so I’ve got a safe buffer in case Soundcloud acts all wonky. I’ll embed the story here once it is actually up, but you should check out all of the stories that people are working on. Part of the thrill of this has been following the Twitter hashtag #RadioRace and seeing all the other teams posting from around the world. It was kind of like being back in college during finals week when everyone was cramming for finals at the same time or working in a computer lab on a big paper (I went to college in an era where if you wanted to write your paper on a computer, you had to go to a computer lab to do it.)

12:30 pm

Done! I turned it in. It was an amazing experience and I’m glad I did it. I learned so much along the way and given the chance to do it again, I think I’d do a much better job. But given the time-frame and the equipment I had available to me, I’m pretty proud of what I produced. It’s a pretty long-shot that my piece will make the Top Ten of the contest given how many actual employees of real radio stations are involved. I’ve listened to a couple of the pieces that have been turned in and they are very impressive. It’s a great project and a good example of how technology has really democratized media. I encourage everyone to check out as many of the projects as possible and perhaps even try your own hand at producing a piece next year!

 

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24 Hour Radio Race or What On Earth Am I Doing?

24 Hour Radio Race PosterOne of the greater advantages of being in a transitional period is the opportunity to try new things. When you work in the same place for 17 years, your list of “things I would do if I only had the time” can get kind of long. With a full-time job, my side projects were limited to my playwrighting, which I could reasonably pursue by typing away on the Metro during my morning commutes downtown. Since I ride from the end of the line I could always get a seat in the morning, and I probably wrote about 80% of my most recent play on the Red Line (who needs Amtrak’s Writers-in-Residence program with its questionable TOS). The way home in the afternoon was a different story, and frequently I found myself standing the whole way home either reading from an e-book or listening to a podcast. I’ve loved This American Life since it started being broadcast in the DC area years ago — long enough that I used to record episodes off the radio on CASSETTE TAPES! The Moth is another favorite podcast and recently I’ve started listening to KCRW’s Unfictional. I’ve done some minor sound engineering over the years, recording short intros for podcasts of events at work and I even put together a 12-minute version of a much longer oral history I recorded with my grandfather before he died. So when I saw that KCRW was holding a 24 Hour Radio Race, I decided to sign up and give it a shot.

If you’re familiar with the 48-Hour Film Project, this is the same idea, except without the film part and in half the time. This Saturday at 10 am Pacific Time, I’ll be emailed with the theme for the contest. I’ll then have 24 hours to write, record, edit and upload an original 4-minute, non-fiction radio story. Everything needs to be done within that 24 hour period, so there’s really nothing I can do to prepare other than make sure I know how to use my sound editing software and let people know that I may need to call on them as resources for possible interviews once I know the theme. Last year’s theme was “The Last Thing You’d Expect” so I anticipate that there will be a similarly broad theme this year.

My goal isn’t so much to win the competition as to see if I can put together a listenable radio piece in 24 hours. It is exciting and a little terrifying. I’ll be posting updates here to my blog to document the process of making the radio piece.

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Doubling-Down on Philip’s Jewish Identity in The Americans

Last season Melissa and I became unabashed fans of the FX television series The Americans. Since then it has quickly emerged as one of the best shows on television for its complex and multi-layered characters, its authentic-feeling spy-craft and its relative faithfulness to Reagan-era Cold War atmospherics in costumes, pop-culture references and plot lines. One of the running themes of the series is the differing attitudes the main characters, Philip and Elizabeth bring to their jobs as KGB “illegals” living deep under-cover. Elizabeth is the more ideologically committed of the two, while Philip is more skeptical both about the wisdom of their Moscow handlers and whether America is really the mortal enemy – he even considers defecting early in the series.

Part of the pleasure of the show is that Philip and Elizabeth are both deeply drawn characters, yet their backstories are largely unknown even to each other and only gradually and piecemeal revealed to us. We’ve learned some about Elizabeth’s childhood and her time in-training for the KGB as well as a plot-line last year about one of Philip’s former loves from the USSR. But we haven’t learned as much about his family background, which led me to speculate in a post last year that he might be Jewish. I laid out my reasons and in doing so, also cited an interview by the show’s Jewish creators in which they alluded to “a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season…Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”

Is Philip thinking whether or not this man can be turned...or something more?

Is Philip thinking whether or not this man can be turned…or something more?

Last night’s episode (Season 2, Episode 4 “A Little Night Music”) brought that Mossad/Refusenik story to the forefront and positioned it for at least a multi-episode arc. The episode opens with Philip at a synagogue listening to Baklanov, a former-Soviet physicist addressing the congregation about how dismal it was to be a Jew in the Soviet Union, how grateful he is to be in America, and how it offered the best future for his family and his children (cut to a shot of his slightly homey-looking wife and geek-in-training son listening with admiration in the front row). In a wonderful non-verbal acting moment, Philip (played by Matthew Rhys) seems to envy the safe harbor that America has provided Baklanov. Given the anxieties Philip and Elizabeth have for their own children’s future given their occupation and exacerbated by the recent murder of fellow agents Emmett and Leanne (and their daughter) one can hardly blame him. Reporting back to Moscow, Philip claims there is no way that Baklanov could ever be “turned” to spy for the Soviets.

Moscow decides that if the physicist cannot be turned, then he will need to be “exfiltrated” – kidnapped and returned to the USSR. Elizabeth and Philip are put on the case and as the episode ends, the attempted kidnapping has gone sideways. They are ambushed by another male/female pair of agents, one of whom they incapacitate while the other escapes with their car containing the targeted physicist chloroformed in the trunk. Roll credits.

The scenes-from-next-week confirm my initial suspicion that the spoiler agents are indeed from the Mossad. Why they were protecting the physicist we’ll probably learn and how this blown operation compromises Philip and Elizabeth’s operational ability as Soviet agents will be interesting. However, in the snippet seen in the teaser for the next episode it would appear that the show-runners are also setting-up something of an identity crisis – most likely targeted squarely at Philip. In the teaser, we see the Mossad agent, tied-up and bruised saying to Philip, “I hide what I do, I don’t hide who I am,” – a conversation that takes us into a realm of morality and identity that the show has not yet fully considered. And, I maintain, if Philip has any Jewish ancestry, which I’ve shown before is plausible, the identity crisis will be further compounded as another tug on his multiple and conflicting identities – as a father, as a KGB agent, as a husband to Elizabeth (and Martha) and a friend to (and sworn enemy of) Stan the FBI agent.

How long can Philip keep these contradictions in perpetual tension? Waiting for the breaking point is what keeps me watching.

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JewPlay: The Future of Jewish Theater is in the Past

The series of #JewPlay posts that recently ran on HowlRound have had me regretting my relative absence from the Jewish Theater scene for the past decade. There’s been a lot of good work done during that time, and with the exception of what was happening in my backyard at Theater J, I’ve missed most of it. That’s not to say I regret the decisions I’ve made that charted my personal and professional course for the past ten years or so – a time period during which my wife and I had twins and she was able to publish four books (one nonfiction and two novels and another novel coming this spring). I had the opportunity to run a major film festival, program and meet major authors, commission new scores to old silent films – lots of creative and rewarding work, a lot of deep thinking about the roles and uses of Jewish culture, but not much personal theatrical output. But as the old Yiddish saying goes, “You can’t dance at two weddings with one tuches,” and while I was dancing at a special and unique wedding, that doesn’t mean I’m not curious about that which made the other wedding special and unique. We can always wish for an additional tuches.

When I was last on the scene I was making profoundly Jewish theatre. My play Miklat told the story of a ba’al t’shuvah – a newly observant Orthodox Jew – whose parents come to Jerusalem to try and retrieve him on the eve of the first Gulf War. It was a comedy but it also tried to ask serious questions about faith, the depth of identity and whether those of us who reject fundamentalist religion are also brave enough to embrace a principled atheism. It struck a nerve with audiences and had a successful run at Theater J, (where I was the Associate Producer) as well as at theaters in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Palm Beach. Why it never made it to New York, I’ll never know. Something about the new play “pipeline” at the time flowing in one direction from New York?

A dozen years later I’m entering a new phase in my professional life and I’m lucky to be able to return to playwriting in a serious way as a participating artist in Theater J’s Locally Grown Festival. The play I’ll be work-shopping, To Kill a King tells the story of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis, Tennessee where an assassin’s bullet found him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. What attracted me to this story was not its heroes – the sanitation workers, whose story has been well told in other ways, nor its primary martyr, MLK who has been the subject of numerous dramatizations. What interested me, and what makes it a Jewish play are three more ambivalent figures who sit at the center of the drama – Mayor Henry Loeb, a former Jew and recent convert to Christianity, in-league with old-line segregationists who stonewalls the strikers and refuses to negotiate; Jerry Wurf, the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who is representing the strikers and Rabbi James Wax, leader of Memphis’ reform synagogue who at different times during the strike served as a reluctant mediator, a prophet predicting disaster, an opponent of public confrontation with the mayor, and ultimately the moral conscience of Memphis who engages in a profound act of public protest. For each of these characters, how they behave in accordance or in opposition to their perception of their Jewish identity has tremendous consequences, not only for themselves, but also for the outcome of the strike, and the course of American history.

The American Century of prosperity has been accompanied by the rise of the most successful, secure and accepted Jewish community ever. In many ways the history of America over the past 75 years is the history of the Jewish community – and that history, with its myths and misconceptions deserves dramatic re-examination. Just as our brethren in Israel are confronting their foundational narratives to unearth the deeper truths necessary to move forward, so too must Jewish theater seek to examine the past that is not so distant that we cannot bear some responsibility for it. When we do so, we’ll still find much to be proud of, but also ambiguities and hard decisions that may not have been the best, but the best they could do.

Just as it is ridiculous to say that we are living in a post-racial era, similarly it is nonsense to expect that we are in a post-ethnic era – in both instances the racial and ethnic landscape has gotten more complex, more nuanced, less easily stereotyped, but to deny the existence of the geography is folly. How we draw on our history, chauvinistically or with compassion and sober honesty will go a long way to determining our future. That as I see it is one of the great challenges for Jewish theater, one that gives it relevance and one that invites a multiplicity of voices necessary to tell the perpetually unfolding story.

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I Can’t Watch Football Anymore

I’m not watching football anymore. I just can’t. Let me explain.

I didn’t play organized football for very long. I started a new school in 8th grade and for some reason I thought playing on the football team would be a good way to meet people and make friends. Never mind that I was rail thin and maybe 100 pounds sopping wet in a wool sweater. Never mind that the only football I had played up to that point were touch games in the backyard with my friends and the occasional semi-organized game of flag football at summer camp. Never mind that constitutionally I was a better fit for the drama club than the poseur-macho culture of the middle school locker room. I played because I was a football fan – a NY Giants fan to be specific. I had posters of Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks and Joe Morris on the walls of my bedroom. Bill Parcells was the smartest man alive as far as I could tell. Those guys were my heroes. I lived and died every Sunday watching them play on TV and those rare occasions when I was able to go to a game at the Meadowlands were like religious pilgrimages. So, I played football.

by Archman8

photo by archman8

I remember the first time I really got hit – got my “bell rung” as they say. It was at a practice where the coach had us get in two lines with the front of one line facing opposite of the other. The drill was that the two people at the front of each line would run and hit each other – no one was the defender or ball carrier – just straight-up collide in the middle and see who “wins.” I’m not sure if it was a physics experiment or if it had some instructional value about how to hit someone. I don’t remember whom I was up against, and I don’t even remember how ferociously or not I tried to hit them. What I do remember is not only getting knocked on my ass, but the force of the collision slamming into my head and as I got up off the ground slowly, my ears were ringing and the laughing and hooting of the coaches and players was coming through only dimly. I was confused. I was a little disoriented. Did I have a minor concussion? Maybe. Maybe not. People didn’t really seem too concerned about that in-general back then.

I didn’t play football when we started high school the next year. But I was every bit as much a football fan and remained so for many, many years. Some of my favorite father-son moments with my dad occurred around the New York Giants. I was able to instantly bond with my father-in-law over the New York Giants. Even though we live in Washington with its Football Team With a Racist Name, I made sure my son was a Giants fan. I can’t count how many male friendships over the years have been solidified over football talk in-general and the G-men specifically. But throughout that time while I was dimly aware of the violent nature of the game, its reality and consequences were out of view. Sure, there were guys whose knees were shot and tragic stories like Lyle Alzado’s whose health was ruined by steroids, but they were aberrations.

But over the past decade the revelations about the lingering impact of multiple concussions on the physical and mental health of professional football players has changed something for me. These men are doing permanent harm to themselves for my entertainment, harm that persists long after the season is over, long after their career is done, long after we’ve all moved on to the newest crop of faster, stronger players who repeat the same story with exponential violence.

People say, “But certainly these men knew football is a dangerous sport? No one forced them to play. They’re well compensated and with that kind of compensation sometimes comes consequences.” This ignores the fact that fan dollars and gargantuan television contracts feed the system that creates that kind of cruel logic. It ignores the fact that the NFL has gone to extreme lengths to keep the truth of the situation from both players and fans.

That’s why I won’t watch anymore.

William C. Rhoden put it bluntly in this weekend’s Times when writing about the recent settlement of a lawsuit between the NFL and a group of 4,500 former players who claimed to suffer lingering health effects from concussions.

The settlement has put all of us who watch pro football on a moral hot seat. Former players have taken the money, leaving the fans three ways to rationalize their addictive zeal for these weekly spectacles:
■ You love the product and don’t really care about its costs.
■ You are troubled by football but will continue to watch.
■ You will walk away.

Rhoden says he is going to continue to watch “as a cultural critic who thinks that football is merely evidence of erosion in the American soul.” When you’re a New York Times columnist I guess you can get away with that.

But I’m walking away. And not without regrets.

I love the game – the strategy, the execution, the disciplined aggression and the intense rivalries. Football teams are our modern American tribes and this decision leaves me tribe-less, which is a lonely way to be.

I haven’t watched a game these past two weeks. I haven’t watched highlights on SportsCenter or listened to the chatter about the Washington Football Team With The Racist Name on talk radio. I’ve avoided even reading about the games on the news websites I frequent.

And I’ve had several awkward conversations with friends that went something like this:

“Did you watch the game?”
“No, I’m not watching anymore. I just can’t bear it with everything we know about concussions. I feel dirty.”
“Oh.”
“But I heard it was a pretty awful game.”
“Yeah. We got creamed. I gotta go.”

I can tell people don’t want to hear it.
I don’t want to hear it.
Does it really matter if one Giants fan doesn’t watch? Ratings are higher than they’ve ever been, so I guess not.

But I can’t be a part of this anymore.

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