Category Archives: Facts as we see them

The 2016 Election and the Threat to American Exceptionalism – It’s Not What You Think

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Photo via Flickr by IoSonoUnaFotoCamera

The term, “American Exceptionalism” is one that has been notably fluid throughout its history. It has at times referred to the unique character of the settlement and founding of the United States as the “first new nation.” At other times it has served as a justification for a “benevolent” American hegemony in the post-World War II era to the present with Hillary Clinton embracing the meaning recently:

“When we say America is exceptional, it means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.”

I’m not going to dwell on those meanings here because the danger I believe is not a threat to our founding values (since those values though perhaps exceptional also included slavery, limited franchise and ethnic cleansing) or a turning inward, away from a role in international conflicts (which is wishful thinking in a global economy). Though both those outcomes are to varying degrees possible, the concept of American Exceptionalism that I think is truly under siege in the current election is the original meaning.

This original definition, which in some places has been credited to Joseph Stalin, argues that the United States somehow stands outside the laws of Marxism that requires Capitalism inevitably result in violent class warfare. In The Language Log Mark Liberman has a great history of the development of the term and what captured me particularly was an explanation it cited from Ronald Reagan, The Movie and and Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin:

The doctrine of American exceptionalism developed within a wing of American Communism in the 1930s to explain the failure of Marxian socialism to take root in the United States. American exceptionalists contrasted the limited and superficial conflicts in America to the more tenacious social and political divisions that had generated revolution and dictatorship.

Whether or not Donald Trump wins the election (he won’t), we can be certain that the “tenacious social and political divisions” that this campaign has both revealed and encouraged will remain on November 9. For perhaps the first time since the American Civil War, the possibility exists that a significant portion of the country will not accept the legitimacy of the result. We’ve been moving toward this moment for a long time, with offenders from both ends of the political system chipping away at the foundations both from within and without. But it took a demagogue the size of Donald Trump to weaponize the social, economic, racial and political rifts in American society to place us at real risk of revolution or — and as absurd as I feel typing it — dictatorship.

The emergence of Trumpism (because there is no other single ideology that contains the man and his channeling of grievances, antipathies and retrograde masculinity) and its adherents has produced an environment not of competing ideas in the intellectual marketplace, but irreconcilable realities which can only be validated by the utter destruction of its opposite. It is a political movement which rejects compromise or moderation and regards with scorn the disapproval of institutional elites from politics and the media. It parades its anti-intellectual, xenophobic, misogynist bona fides with pride as badges of authenticity. It transforms white fragility into an anticipated and eagerly expected electoral martyrdom which itself will serve as validation of its psychotic critique of an admittedly flawed society. It has unleashed forces that may not be quietly contained or mainstreamed in a concession speech — indeed, concession itself will be seen by many as betrayal. Perhaps even more dire, the mechanisms of a budding surveillance state which many of us already fear, stands at the ready either to serve or put down an insurrection. Either scenario would undermine the constitutional rule of law in ways 9/11 didn’t even approach.

This could very well blow over. The fever could break and the American Exception might very well remain in-place (even if the exception in the end isn’t uniquely American). But it has not been so severely tested since the time of secession and for the first time in many of our lives, the concept can feel fragile. My fear is that while the arc of history does bend towards justice, the arc of empire tends towards entropy. Like the certain but abstract knowledge that some distant day the sun will swell and swallow the Earth whole, I can’t help but feel that the originators of American Exceptionalism were working on too small a historical scale for such a concept to prove endurable. Perhaps I am overly-afflicted by the triumph of dystopian fiction in popular culture and susceptible to such catastrophic imaginings. But equally possible is that American Exceptionalism is a mirage of remarkable but not permanent duration.

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I Won’t Be Watching Super Bowl XLIX

I’m coming to the end of my second football-less season. Since I made the decision to withhold my viewership at the beginning of the 2013 NFL season, I have not watched football in my home. I’ve not gone out of my way to avoid football necessarily. I’ve seen the odd quarter while at a friend’s house where watching the game was the main social activity and I’ve seen parts of games out of the corner of my eye at a restaurant or sports bar. The only game I saw multiple quarters of was on Thanksgiving when I was visiting family. It would be kind of jerky to demand that football broadcasts be extinguished whenever I’m around. I didn’t give up watching to make other people uncomfortable. I gave up watching because I was uncomfortable.

But I won’t be going to a Super Bowl party. Again.

And I have to be honest. I feel like maybe I’m spitting into the wind or screaming into the void or whatever metaphor appropriately illustrates the utter futility of my “protest.” Despite the long-standing coverup by the NFL of chronic traumatic brain injuries suffered by players and the evidence that players faced with the pressure to perform continue to return to action without being properly screened for concussion, millions continue to watch. Despite policies that until recently punished smoking marijuana more severely than domestic abuse, viewership rises. Despite the sturm und drang earlier in the year that had people calling for the commissioner of the league to be fired, all seems forgiven and forgotten as revenues reach ever higher into the billions of dollars. Football is our national Id and it will not be denied.

A life without football is weird. Especially when you still consider yourself a sports fan — it is simply unavoidable. I haven’t watched a game this year, but mainly thanks to heavy social media consumption, I can tell you about any number of story lines from the season: blown calls, amazing catches and dramatic comebacks. The narrative of the NFL season is so easy to absorb, seemingly by cultural osmosis, that I can pretty easily fake my end of a conversation about whatever game-of-the-week is on peoples’ minds. It’s like that character from Whit Stillman’s great movie Metropolitan, who doesn’t read books, only book reviews, “You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it. I haven’t read the Bible either.” But unlike that character, I know I’m being a complete phony when I do it. But it seems the lesser evil compared to thrusting my queasy righteousness into an innocent conversation about the failures of the Green Bay secondary. Imagine, “Yeah, the prevent defense is totally useless, but you know what was preventable? Junior Seau’s suicide.” No one likes that guy.

I was at a friend’s house, and he had a playoff game on his television. And I sat down with him and some other guys on the sofa and we were talking while watching the game, and I briefly thought about coming back. Because it was fun to sit there. A bunch of guys mixing talk about the game with talk about our lives. The strange dance of distance and intimacy, posturing and confessing that is the complex choreography of male friendship. And it has its natural soundtrack in the strategy and deception, violence and skill of an NFL game. It shouldn’t be impossible to achieve that without the prop of the game on in the background, but for whatever reason it too often is.

And then I saw a guy absolutely flattened on a kickoff return. The collision was brutal. The player was slow to rise and staggered off the field in their best imitation of a “I’m not hurt” trot to the sidelines. And I remembered. He did that for my entertainment. And I just couldn’t continue. I got up to get myself a drink and never wandered back to the sofa.

I miss the NFL. I miss watching the games with friends. I miss being in Fantasy Leagues. I miss throwing in $5 for an office pool. But I can’t come back. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

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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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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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