Monday, September 17, 2012

Depression, Anyone?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Monrovia, California

Okay, nostalgia in politics, as promised. 

One of the most useful rules in political and social analysis, or in life itself for that matter, is always to question the underlying assumption upon which any argument is based.  That includes, for instance, the so-called “birther” question regarding Barack Obama, which proceeds from the premise that if he wasn’t born in the U.S., he can’t be president.  Not true, as I’ve shown in an earlier posting.

Another assumption that underpins the very foundation of our national identity, on which both parties agree fulsomely, is that the United States is “the Greatest Country in the World.”  There are, I’ll wager, at least a hundred other extant countries that would seriously question that one, yet we persist in it.   We are the noisiest, maybe, but not necessarily the greatest, somewhat like Muhammad Ali in his later boxing years.  But after all, such a claim is more bravado than reality, based on military superiority, at least in terms of the ability to obliterate the earth with nuclear weapons and send warships just about anywhere in no time.  In terms of offering social justice, legal stability, and economic protection to our citizens, as opposed to just the ability to make money hand over fist, we don’t measure up to some of our European friends, not to mention our neighbor to the north.  But then, what country doesn’t like to think its own shit is comparatively odorless? It seems to be inherent in the nature of nationhood.

Yet another assumption, just picking them at random, is that we as a country “must maintain a Strong National Defense.”  This one goes back to the days when we were actually in danger of being attacked and occupied by another country, which was a long time ago.  To be exact, the last time our continental borders were penetrated (unless you count Pancho Villa’s brief foray into a southern New Mexico town in 1916) was two centuries ago, during the War of 1812.  Today, beyond having the technology for the assured destruction of most mammalian life and a world-class arsenal of military and naval hardware in order to slap around those who dare to insult us anywhere in the world, what other national defense do we need, exactly?  Do we have serious military rivals, and if we do, what do we have to fear from them?  Does anyone believe soldiers are going to march over here and kill the goose that lays the worldwide golden egg?  Even those who hark back to the Big One, WWII, must know that it wasn’t so much for ourselves we fought as for a stable world order in the areas beyond our own shores.  Does anyone think the Japanese wanted to hobble our navy at Pearl Harbor so they could rule us?  I rather think they wished to control Asia and the Pacific Ocean—their own back yard, in other words—no small ambition, but not exactly tantamount to making the people of Washington speak Nipponese and wear sashes and samurai swords.  More to the point, eleven years ago, when a cadre of suicide hijackers wreaked real and symbolic havoc on the nation in the course of a sunny September morning, were they out to put us all to the sword of Islam and make us pray to Mecca five times a day, or to make a point about U.S. cultural imperialism and show their own fanatical seriousness and insecurity?

I wonder how much a “Strong National Defense” helped us, either before or after 9/11?  Better intelligence gathering might have been useful, but after over a decade of protracted military adventure and bloodshed abroad, in which many tens of thousands of people have been killed in direct or indirect retaliation for this act, it turns out that the best defense against a repeat of the fiasco of 9/11 lies in the analysis of the event itself, not in some far-off Kissingerian global military strategy.  We are safer from suicide bombings today more than anything else—far more, in fact—because of two fairly simple things.  The first is those pain-in-the-ass TSA people who scrutinize our luggage and our bodies at the airport, and about whom we love to complain.  The second is the universal realization, as suddenly and unfortunately as it came upon us, that hijackers will not necessarily take you to the tarmac in Cuba for a couple of hours and then let you go home.  In light of this knowledge and what’s been done in response to it, it’s pretty likely that anyone who attempts to hijack a plane these days will be either shot or pummeled, and that they won’t make it into the cockpit in any event.  The result of these two things is that the number of hijackings in the U.S. since September 11, 2001 has been reduced to exactly zero.  Not bad compared to any other eleven-year period since the dawn of commercial aviation.  Hijacking attempts, even elsewhere in the world, have been scarce.  And precious little of this improvement can be attributed to the dubious activities of “Our Brave Fighting Men and Women, On the Ground, in Harm’s Way, PROTECTING OUR FREEDOM,” etc.  Protecting our freedom?  Seriously???  What freedom is that, our freedom to kick ass in the Middle East and west Asia?

It seems that the right, which is fonder of pointing out our nearly divine greatness as a nation than the left is, paradoxically likes to keep us in fear by assuring us constantly not of our might but of our vulnerability and weakness from a defensive point of view.  Anything unseemly that happens in the world is deemed a threat to our national security, as if such security could be so easily threatened.  That seems like paranoia, which as I understand it is a characteristic not of strength but of an inherent weakness of mind.

Shifting gears, here’s another national assumption, bandied about freely by both political parties.  It is said we are in the grip of “the Worst Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression.”  Pretty much all of us have accepted this one without questioning it.  Just looking at the unemployment numbers does seem to sort of bear it out at first blush.  In 1933, after four years of the government of Herbert Hoover allowing capitalism to repair its own mess, unemployment peaked in the U.S. at about 24%.  Throughout the remainder of the decade of the 1930s it never went below about 17%, and in 1938 it was back up to 19%, only beginning to break, like a long fever, by 1940 as the government began putting people to work manufacturing war materiel for the Allies.  In 2009 and 2010 nationwide unemployment flirted with 10% for the first and only time since the early 1980s.  That’s a far cry from the situation in the 1930s.  (Note, however, that all these numbers are somewhat suspect, since the way of calculating unemployment during the past 70 years has changed almost as frequently as presidential administrations have.) 

Still, an economic crisis is a Crisis, or will become a Crisis, when people tell us long enough and often enough that it is, by God, a Crisis.  People have become so fond of using the phrase “in this economy” that it has lost its meaning, if it ever had one, except as a catchphrase employed by hucksters.  To be sure, many people did lose their shirts, or at least their retirement golf shirts, because of the increasing reliance on the stock market as the ultimate touchstone of our economy, and because of the market-linked privatization of both public and private pensions over the years since Reagan, cheered on by the Republicans and their Wall Street masters.  The crisis, folks, wasn’t so much due to the mini-crash of 2008 (no greater than the crash of 2000 or a handful of others between 1929 and now), but to the kind of unregulated crap large brokerage houses were selling and pension funds were investing in, and because ordinary people had been lured by unscrupulous bankers (is that repetitious?) into accepting credit they didn’t deserve in the first place and couldn’t have afforded to pay back even if there had been no crisis. 

So are we in the midst of the Worst Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression?  And what does that mean, in context?  One thing about this idea is that it makes us somehow feel as if what’s happening now is nearly as bad as the Great Depression was, when it’s simply not.  In reality, it’s more like saying, “I just broke my toe, and that’s the worst injury I’ve had since I broke both my legs at once.”  True enough, perhaps, and painful enough, but ….  Let’s look at the country at the beginning of the Great Depression and compare life then, in 1929, to ours.  No unemployment compensation, no Social Security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no legal aid, no student aid.  No civil rights, no women’s rights, no Miranda rights, no worker’s rights.  No interstate highways, no civil aviation, no rural electrification, no refrigeration.  No antibiotics, no open heart surgery, no DNA testing, no effective treatments for cancer.  No TV, no cell phones, no internet, no cheap fast food.  In fact, very few of the things we take for granted today, even when we’re laid off and laid up. 

Most of the protections we take for granted—government-based pensions and government-enforced protections, in particular—were the result of progressivism fostered by the political left, and not because of trickle-down market-based economics.  What few people ever bother to point out is that after eight years—two full terms—Franklin Roosevelt hadn’t brought down unemployment by more than a few points from that 24% high.  Shit was still bad, and people didn’t have any money.  In part that was because FDR faced, as Obama does, an obstructionist Congress and a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, both of which fought him.  But he still managed to secure for us rudimentary government pensions and a few other things, like legal collective bargaining (that one, sadly, has fallen by the wayside a bit).  Part of the lack of economic progress was because problems which are slow to develop are often slow to be remediated.  This is not something people like to hear.  We want instant gratification, and if we don’t get it, we’re willing to turn things over to the other party and see what happens, even if that other party was primarily responsible for creating the problem.  Fortunately for this country and for all of us today, we did not give ourselves back to the Republicans in 1936.

The claim about this being the Worst Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression does serve to make the president’s job look really tough, but that cuts both ways.  On the one hand, if he doesn’t make much headway against the relentless forces of capitalism, he gets to talk about how nearly impossible his job is and to beg for four more years.  But the other side gets to blame him for not turning things around quickly enough, and if they get into office they’ll take credit for the inevitable upturn things will eventually take.

This is the life we have chosen by hitching our wagon to the star of free enterprise, or a market economy, or whatever euphemism you wish to use for capitalism.  By its nature it is not nice, nor does it care about your job or your welfare or your medical care or your future.  You are simply a commodity whose usefulness will one day come to an end and when that happens, capitalism does not care what becomes of you.  Our national schizophrenia is based on our belief that this essentially heartless economic system can somehow be made kinder and gentler.  Both parties are wrong about this.  With the Republicans it will be unleashed to roam the streets and devour whatever it can.  With the Democrats it will get brought in the house and whipped once in a while but still be allowed outside most of the time.

What does all this have to do with nostalgia?  Nostalgia is the sentimental longing for the past.  When we say we’re the Greatest Country in the World, we long for the three or four years after World War II when we imposed the Pax Americana on much of the world and no one seriously challenged us.  When we say we need a Strong National Defense, we long for the half dozen years of glory that came two centuries ago after we finally rid the British of the notion that they could reclaim us as a colony.  When we invoke the Great Depression we aren’t wishing for the return of its wretched poverty caused by twelve years of runaway Republicanism, but for one of the only two decades in living memory, together with the 1960s, when the government was actively dedicated to using its power to improve the lot of its citizens rather than merely to allow the wealthy to become more so.

The combination of the adjective “Great” with the word “Depression” isn’t really meant to convey the magnitude of the economic crisis, in the sense that “great” means large; it is to suggest that two rather good things took place during that period, in spite of the undeniable privations so many endured.  First, we had a duly elected leader that the majority of people loved and trusted and even revered, in a way we haven’t felt about a president since.  And the guy came through for us in a number of ways.  Second, during this time we acted, out of desperation or good sense or both, in a collective manner as a people, and not as greedy, bitching self-serving individuals.  In spite of the relentless propaganda to the contrary from the right, this country has always has been at its best when we have acted together for our common welfare and for the betterment of those less fortunate than most of us are--when we are under the influence, as Lincoln said, of "the better angels of our nature."   What we may be secretly hoping for is that we’re in the midst of the Best Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression, not the worst.  It will not be, however.  And that’s a little depressing.     

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Monrovia, California

Television, like life, is a fast-moving target, and only the young really have the mental flexibility to move along with it without balking a little and wishing, like Lot’s wife, to take a peek backwards.  (Some shows, like Lucy, are lauded for their durability and near-universality when the truth is that, like the clock on the old town hall, they’ve simply never stopped running long enough for anyone to decide whether or not they should be replaced.)  I haven’t yet completely digested the idea of the “reality” show, and the concept is already twenty years old or more, and in its third or fourth avatar, having picked up, since the days of the lost-on-a-desert-island concept, things as disparate as dysfunctional Hollywood families, deep-sea fishing, auctioning the contents of storage units, dealing with deeply neurotic hoarders, and creating elegant meals out of a variety of absurd ingredients.  Every time I turn around they’re riffing on this idea in a new way.  I’m convinced that it will come full circle, turning around on itself until the subject of a reality show is a bunch of people engaged in the creation of a fictional one, after which the creative process will drop from view and only the show will air.  Voila.   

On the subject of television, I read in the local paper a week or two ago an obituary for a guy named Steve Franken, the actor who played Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. on the Dobie Gillis show back in the late 50s and early 60s.  I must pay my respects to him, as much because of the show as because of his part in it.

One of the advantages of living in this area is that the Los Angeles Times has a tendency to feature the obituaries of such comparatively minor TV and movie actors as Steve Franken in detail, partly because out here entertainment is the major local industry.  I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m sure the half page on the guy who played Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. and supporting characters in a bunch of other schlock movies and TV shows is somewhat akin to the kind of coverage the Detroit Free Press might give to the dying of a lesser light in the automotive industry.  Maybe, anyway, if anyone in Detroit cares about that.  And for all I know the Cleveland Plain Dealer gave old Steve Franken a big write-up, too.  I use the term “old” advisedly, as one of my favorite professors at U of M used to say, since Steve Franken had attained the age of 80, something to give all of us pause when we remember how short a time ago it was that we were school kids sitting on the floor in front of our TV sets watching the likes of Dobie and Chatsworth and the bearded Maynard G. Krebs.  It’s a little bit of a comfort to remember that they were using actors in their twenties and thirties to play high school students in that and other programs, as they still often do (I mean, look at the photo of the guy--he's already going bald), and that Tuesday Weld, the teenage dish in that show, was indeed only 16 during the single season she was on it.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, as it was officially titled, was probably my favorite TV show of all time until Seinfeld appeared years later.   It ran for four seasons, from 1959 to 1963, and then no doubt in reruns.  I say it was my favorite knowing it’s in competition, for me, with Leave It To Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and several others.  But no other show brought me so regularly to the set as did the Dobie Gillis show, or intrigued me so much.  Part of that was the good writing of its creator, Max Schulman, and the dependable characters in it, silly sometimes, but not possessing the complete buffoonery of many of the stars in the sitcom galaxy.  They were writ rather large, but weren’t completely absurd, and were, most importantly, never downright stupid.  It was a completely dialogue-driven show, lacking for the most part the signature physical comedic touches of, say, Lucille Ball or Jackie Gleason, or the situational twists and turns that beset poor Beaver Cleaver and his pals.  The central theme was always the same—Dobie was in love with some girl he couldn’t quite obtain, and was pursuing her.  The lines were almost always delivered, by whichever character, in a sort of rapid-fire rote way, emphasizing the prettiness of the words rather than of the people themselves.

These characters included Dobie, a lovesick high school swain played by Dwayne Hickman; Maynard G. Krebs, his beatnik friend, played by Bob Denver (a better and wittier character than Gilligan by far); Dobie’s harried and exasperated grocer father Herbert T. Gillis, portrayed by the veteran B movie actor Frank Faylen; and several others, including Dobie’s longsuffering mom Winnie (Florida Friebus); his schoolmate and pursuer Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James); and Dobie’s femme fatale Thalia Menninger, always slightly beyond his reach because she was the original material girl, played as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Lolita by Tuesday Weld.  Dobie’s nemesis was this rich, polo-playing cad named Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., who was always winning Thalia and other girls away from him by virtue of his wealthy insouciance.  That was the late Steve Franken, who replaced, after the first few episodes, another rich guy character named Milton Armitage, played by none other than Warren Beatty, who decided he could do better than TV, and indeed did.  Beatty’s departure from the show was a blessing in disguise for the Dobie Gillis people, since as between him and Steve Franken, the latter was by far the better choice to play a completely vapid spoiled millionaire, whose mother (whom he called “Mumsy”), a busty, dignified matron, was fond of frequently saying of her son that he was “a nasty boy,” just like his father, the late Chatsworth, Sr.

In asserting the quality of these characters compared to some of their dopey comedic successors and predecessors, I do not mean to say they were necessarily more realistic or entertaining to the majority of viewers.  Rather, they were endowed by their creator with a certain literateness singularly lacking in such personages as Jethro Bodine or Darren Stevens or Archie Bunker.  This was due largely to the writing, but also reflected the times, when television was coming out of a period during which it had to some extent been envisioned as the successor to the movies, and many of its writers—Rod Serling and Dobie’s own Max Schulman, for instance—came from a James Jones and Nelson Algren-influenced era when hard biting social commentary was prized, and when comedy was thought to be better when it contained a little witty repartee, rather than just slapstick.  That was before it became overwhelmingly obvious that as a medium television’s dramatic and comedic scope, like its screen, was to be much smaller.  Max Schulman as a writer/creator was sort of slumming here, and was later superseded by the somewhat more hacky but durable likes of Sidney Sheldon and Sol Saks, and later (unfortunately) Norman Lear, none of whom had Schulman’s flair for writing.

At any rate, I became a devotee of Dobie Gillis and his friends, family, and many loves.  To this day I have a two-foot bronze-colored plaster version of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker, which isn’t in homage to the great French sculptor but rather to the replica of that work in the fictional park where, under its shadow, Dobie began and ended each episode with a little monologue directed at the camera and the viewers.  (This bit of self-conscious narration was, arguably, the predecessor of the voiceover breaking-of-character line, “Now, I know what you’re thinking,” employed frequently some years later by Tom Selleck’s character in Magnum P.I.)  It was also from watching Dobie Gillis that I learned the word “propinquity,” which Zelda Gilroy said was the reason she and Dobie were destined to be together, since her last name followed his alphabetically, and thus ensured that they would always sit near each other in school.  Now you tell me, did you ever learn a word like that from another situation comedy?

But I wish to take pains to assure the reader that I’m not wallowing in nostalgia here, like some Republican, pining for the good old days of television.  Back then, as now, there were lots of repetitious cop and doctor shows, as well as “professional” wrestling.  In addition, there were endless cowboy programs and absurd variety shows featuring people juggling Indian clubs and balancing multiple pie plates on the ends of multiple bamboo sticks.  Not to mention Topo Gigio, the puppet mouse, which for some reason (maybe a secret deal with the Vatican?) Ed Sullivan featured practically every other week.  Scratch the surface of any diatribe against modernity and what you’ll invariably find is that the golden age of whatever is being inveighed against was when the inveigher was about 12 years old, which tells you not that things were better then, but simply that the person wishes to be 12 again.  And that’s about the age I was when The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis aired.  And I’m aware that if I were to watch the show today I might be disappointed—that its greatness is in my head somewhere, not on the celluloid.

Which brings us to nostalgia as it applies to politics.  But that’s for another posting.