September 6, 2012

Gold Medal Speaker

Gold Medal Speaker

My fellow Americans (and others who find Americans amusing),

I hear there have been political conventions in the past couple of weeks. Unlike my family and friends, I haven’t been watching or listening, and before that I similarly ignored the Olympics, to the point of avoiding any room with a tuned-in television.

Yet I like sports and care deeply about American politics. Why such deliberate dodging of the media blitz?

  • Empty spectacle offends me with its soullessness, especially high-tech razzle-dazzle created for TV. Probably the Olympics are worse in this respect than the conventions—those increasingly absurd closing ceremonies! As for political candidates, what does it matter whether the stage set behind them offers Greek columns, American flags, Mount Rushmore or naked belly dancers? Why do we need to be dazzled? Isn’t anyone else suspicious of the trend to make everything a glitzy extravaganza?
  • I hate sappy stories. How such and such an athlete trained so hard for so many years, overcoming adversity, setting his or her heart on the one big goal. How such and such a small businessperson/immigrant labored so hard for so many years, overcoming adversity, setting his or her heart on the one big goal. Bleaaah!

And since I work with words daily, there’s the extra pain of hearing the language mangled by sports announcers and politicians. Now, for a few favorite sports, such as baseball, I’ve developed a trained indifference to subject-verb disagreement, mismatched tenses, standardized platitudes and modifiers so dangling that their referent inhabits a different zip code. For some reason, though, I’ve never reached that level of tolerance for political jargon; maybe because it’s more important, it’s more deeply offensive?

It’s not that politicians are clumsy and ungrammatical, though they certainly can be. What I find so painful is the knowledge that every phrase was crafted, reviewed, tweaked, vetted to touch a particular nerve in a certain set of voters. I wish I had Jay Heinrichs’ appreciation for the way politicians use the tricks and tropes of rhetoric (see his Figures of Speech blog for his humorous insights). Instead, political verbiage has the same effect on me as a whiff of rancid tuna. Even Barack Obama, one of the finest political speakers in recent memory, appalls me with stock phrases and applause lines. I’ll vote for him but I won’t listen.

Perhaps there’s some depression at work, too, in my political reactions. For my whole adult life, politicians have managed to trick huge numbers of Americans into voting against their own interests—or convinced them that a trip to the polls isn’t worth the effort. If our citizens are so profoundly stupid or indifferent, is the country worth saving?

I will admit, though, that when a bit of news or imagery sneaks past my media blockade, it can be fascinating. The dress Michelle Obama wore for her speech—I saw it on Facebook—so cooooool! Can we imagine Barbara Bush dressed that way?

Of Cowboys and Comedies

July 31, 2010

1950s TV show by Tom Jackson

As the advance copies of my novel The Shame of What We Are ship to reviewers, I’m appreciating even more the wonderful illustrations done for the book by Tom Jackson. Here’s one of them, a 1950s TV set with weird images of characters from The Danny Thomas Show, or Make Room for Daddy as it was originally known. In the chapter this picture accompanies, the nerdly young hero, Art Dennison, has horrific associations with that program. On the whole, though, he loves the TV shows of the era, and he’s as mesmerized as that inert hand on the armrest implies.

Me, too—I had a real passion for TV in the old days, nothing I can summon up now, and I’m wondering why that’s the case. Is the difference just a child-adult thing, the magic worn off because I’m older? Then why is old-time TV a cult fascination for so many other people, both older and younger than I am?

Video itself was brand-new then, with a freshness we can’t duplicate today. Too, the shows were feel-good concoctions that tapped into a cultural reservoir of notions about right and wrong, good guys versus bad guys. Even though the real world offered the Red Scare, civil rights struggles, and a nuclear arms race, when you trundled off to bed you could be confident that all was right with the world. Comedians like Danny Thomas made it so, along with Superman, Joe Friday on Dragnet, and all the wonderful cowboys who pranced across the screen.

Now our action shows are ambivalent, our comedies uneasy or cringe-worthy. Our reservoir of agreed truths has sprung a BP-sized leak.

Of course, one of the premises of my novel is that the seeds of our bitter, depressed times were there in the supposedly naive postwar era, not just in the political machinations and social injustices but deeper in the American psyche. We killed off our own innocence, pardner. Plugged him dead. I guess that big white hat was just too much to take.