Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Media Has Put a Finger on the Scale

That the mainstream media has been in the tank for both current front-runners for their respective parties’ presidential nomination can now be taken as a given. The xenophobic Tribble-head was and is an entirely media-driven creation, with nearly $2 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) worth of free media coverage. That’s 46% of the entire field of 17 candidates, two and a half times as much as Hillary Clinton, 75% more than all the Democrats combined, and 64% more than all the other Republicans combined. The despicable Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, sums it all up for us. Speaking of the Trump candidacy, he said “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.” And that’s all that little turd cares about.

On the Democratic side, it was more a matter of timing. As Adam H. Johnson puts it,
Who is and isn’t a “serious” candidate in our modern public relations-driven democracy is largely tautological. Whoever the news media say is important early on typically becomes the most important. This leads to a feedback loop that anoints the “frontrunner” in the “invisible primary” where success is measured by name recognition, money raised, party insider support and a host of “serious” accomplishments, all before the most essential of feedback has been provided: actual voting.
And pre-Iowa numbers are even more staggering than the cumulative totals, which show that roughly 70% of the free media coverage on the Democratic side has gone to Clinton.

The earlier the primary of caucus, the more driven it is by name recognition. So when, a little over a month before Iowa, Hillary Clinton had received 11 times more airtime than Bernie Sanders, that’s significant. (Joe Biden’s decision not to run got six times as much coverage as the entirety of the Sanders campaign as of late last November.) To be fair, the HRC campaign still got less than half the attention of the Drumpf.

The media was also swift to declare—in headlines—Clinton the winner of every debate, even though Sanders gained ground among actual voters after most of them.

The Washington Post did its part by running 16 negative stories about Sanders in 16 hours, oh so coincidentally in the period Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) describes as “includ[ing] the crucial Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, and the next morning’s spin.” A convincing Clinton win in Michigan would probably have ended the Sanders insurgency. But pollsters ended up with considerable egg on their respective faces when Sanders didn’t in fact, lose by 20+ points, but won.

Indeed, because of that victory in Michigan (and subsequent comfortable wins in Idaho and Utah), Sanders remains a potential if unlikely nominee. He’s not the favorite, but it’s not out the question that he might yet get more pledged delegates than Clinton will. Surely even Debbie Wasserman Schultz isn’t so inept or corrupt (or Hillary Clinton so megalomaniacal or narcissistic) as to deny the nomination to a candidate with more actually elected delegates… right? Right?

Of course, the likes of Marcos Moulitsas are dreadfully fearful that voters might actually support someone other than the insider candidate, so he proclaimed on March 4 that if Sanders hadn’t closed the gap on Clinton by March 15, he’d forbid anything negative to be said about Clinton on his site (the Daily Kos) thereafter. Moulitsas is an idiot but not uninformed; he knew full well that the states voting on the 15th favored Clinton, but that Sanders was likely to take the majority of the next eight. Depending on who’s counting, Sanders needs to win about 57 or 58% of the post-March 15 delegates to get a majority (leaving superdelegates out of the mix for the moment). That’s exactly what he did on March 22. Today there are caucuses in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington. Sanders is expected to do well in all three states. Will he win a sufficient majority of the remaining pledged delegates? Barring a major intervening event, probably not. But such events do happen, and it’s not at all unreasonable for him to stick around a while longer. (Remember, it was June when Clinton dropped out of the 2008 race, needing a far higher percentage of remaining delegates than Sanders needs now.)

But the New York Times has had enough of this democracy stuff. They’ve got a coronation to plan. In a piece by Amy Chozick and Trip Gabriel published yesterday, Bernie Sanders might as well never have existed. Clinton, you see, is “turn[ing] her attention to a general election campaign.” Sanders, who has well over 40% of the pledged delegates thus far awarded, is irrelevant. They don’t even entertain the notion that Clinton might not get the nomination. To be fair, they’re equal opportunity incompetents: no Republican candidate other than the former reality TV buffoon is really considered, and only Ted Cruz is even mentioned.

Inevitability and electability have been the twin pillars of the Clinton campaign since the beginning. The former may just succeed as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The oft-repeated mantra, “I like Bernie, but he can’t win,” thus takes on a double meaning, with different responses. A lot of people seem to think that the unlikelihood of a Sanders nomination is a reason to vote for Clinton. Sorry, but that’s just stupid. If you prefer Clinton, by all means vote for her, but “he can’t win” becomes relevant in a primary only if there are more than two candidates in a winner-take-all state (you might prefer Kasich but will vote for Cruz to stop Trump), or if the unelectability extends to the general election (you prefer Sanders, but don’t think he can beat Trump, whereas Clinton can).

Of course, the media have been rather scrupulous about keeping actual numbers about electability out of the headlines. Why? Well, because Sanders currently annihilates Trump by 17.5 points. Clinton wins, too, but by more than six fewer points. Sanders also fares 5.5 points better against Cruz and 7.5 better against Kasich (the difference between a narrow win and a fairly substantial loss for the Democrats).

But what’s really interesting about the Times article is this: “Mr. Trump has shown a particular weakness among female voters, who favored Mrs. Clinton 55 percent to 35 percent in a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week, twice the gender gap of the 2012 presidential election, when President Obama defeated Mitt Romney.” Interesting. Trouble is, Curmie actually bothered to look at the source, the published version of those poll results. There’s not a thing there that separates male and female voters. The polls may have said precisely what Chozik and Gabriel claim, but the documentation they provide doesn’t say so. This would be slipshod journalism at the undergrad level, let alone for someone working for the freaking New York Times.

That poll, unlike the article which uses it as evidence, does recognize that the Senator from Vermont is still alive and well, and his campaign is at least the former if not the latter, as well. Accordingly, Sanders and Clinton are both matched up against their likely GOP opposition. And Sanders beats Trump by 15 vs. 10 for Clinton; interestingly, Sanders/Cruz and Sanders/Kasich were not listed as possibilities, at least in the published data. It does say something about American politics that the two leading candidates have positive/negative ratings of -33 (Trump) and -21 (Clinton). Meanwhile, the two candidates who would stand the best chance of beating the opposition candidate in November, Sanders and Kasich, are ignored. Welcome to American democracy.

But you know who does divide male and female voters? Quinnipiac. In their latest poll, Clinton does beat Trump handily among women voters, 16 points (although only by 2 points among white women). Sanders wins by 29. Yes, 29. Tell me again about how women are all about Clinton and only Clinton. More tellingly, isn’t it interesting that the Times article cites evidence that may or may not exist, but fails to mention even more overwhelming support for Sanders.

It is no secret that Curmie is pro-Sanders and anti-Clinton. Both, independently. Not pro-Sanders because anti-Clinton. Not anti-Clinton because pro-Sanders. So those who disagree will no doubt think this is all sour grapes. Part of it may be. But I prefer both my politicians and my journalists to be at least reasonably honest. That is not happening in this campaign.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Case of the Disappearing Swastikas

Perhaps the easiest way to be roused from my writing torpor is to write a comment that turns into a post of its own. I know it’s been since January that I’ve written anything here, but I always managed to find a reason not to find the time… plus, it’s spring break here in Curmieville, so that’s a good opportunity to get some writing done.

The impetus for this commentary, then, was a post by Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms. (As usual, Curmiphiles are encouraged to check out his page.) Jack has a way of discovering articles I wish I’d gotten to first. Anyway…

This is a scene from the movie.  I’m guessing Tappan Zee High School
doesn’t have choristers that look quite like this.
Bob Pritchard, the superintendent of schools in Orangetown, NY, intervened in the Tappan Zee High production of Mel Brooks’s The Producers this week, caving to pressure from the ubiquitous “concerned parents” and removing the swastikas from the musical’s signature song, “Springtime for Hitler.” Mr. Pritchard is a coward and a fool. Seriously, what legitimate educator would argue that “there is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate”? To cite some examples noted by Jack: how about a history book? a class project? a screening of “Schindler’s List”? a production of The Sound of Music?

Still, Jack ultimately decided that removing the swastikas was the least bad of a host of bad options. Here’s where we disagree. Below, the last 90% or so of my comment on his post:

First, let me confess to ignorance of the stage version of The Producers. I know the film, of course, but being neither a big musical theatre guy nor made of money, I’ve never actually seen the play. Assuming it to be substantially similar to the film, therefore, is for me (but not for those more informed) a risky proposition.

It is not clear whether the school’s administration formally signed off on the choice of play, but de facto they did: the rights and royalties for a musical will cost—depending on a variety of factors such as venue size, number of performances, and ticket prices—hundreds or (more likely) thousands of dollars, and no high school theatre director can just write a check on a school account for that amount of money. Expenditures of that size need approval.

So here’s where I agree with your point that cultural illiteracy was very much at play from the beginning of this saga. I’m not suggesting that every high school administrator should have seen the movie or the play, but certainly the “Springtime for Hitler” schtik has long since passed into the public consciousness. I was too young (in junior high, perhaps?) to have seen the film on its first run, but I knew about the campy production number long before I actually saw the film when I was in high school or college. Similarly, I know that “I will take what is mine with fire and blood” is a ”Game of Thrones” reference without ever having picked up one of the books or tuned in to the television show. A competent administrator would at the very least have known what s/he was signing off on. Or… you know… asked: that’s an option, apparently.

There are, as you say, many legitimate reasons why this is not a good choice for a high school production, plus one you didn’t mention: it’s very male-heavy, especially in the leads, and most high schools (or universities, for that matter) have a lot more good women than good men in the talent pool.

But the show was approved, implicitly if not explicitly, and, having done so, the administration is to my mind, ethically bound to stand behind the production except in cases of utter outrageousness that are not mandated or at the very least supported by the script. Actually, this one is a tough call in some ways: unless there’s something in the stage version that isn’t in the film, there’s nothing that demands swastikas. And I suspect that whereas the design concept might be compromised by the administration’s intervention, removing the offending objects could be done with relatively little disruption to the rehearsal process in purely pragmatic terms (i.e., outside the realm of aesthetics, ethics, or copyright law). On the other hand, using them is a completely appropriate choice.

Should the director simply have acquiesced? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’ve been in academic theatre (admittedly at a different level) as a student or a faculty member (or, during grad school, as both at once) for over four decades, and that’s long enough to recognize the thin edge of the wedge. This time it’s swastikas. Next time it will be the word “skank”, or a little authenticity in the choreography in an Elvis-inspired musical, or a very funny, sweet and thoroughly asexual “gay scene,”or—Allah forbid!—a totally innocuous musical in which the central characters happen to be Muslims.

As a practicing theatre artist, I am well aware of the power of symbols, and I do not wish to dismiss the concerns of those who are offended by the image. But the problem with The Producers is not, cannot be, swastikas. The entire scene is intended to be a farce, an idea so inane that no sentient spectator of the play-within-a-play could think it worthy of staging. Our heroes are trying to produce a flop, after all. As you point out, Jack, context matters, and reducing the symbol of the Third Reich to a kitschy backdrop goes a long way to deflating its power. And there is no way any rational person could view the use of Nazi iconography in this play as in any way endorsing Hitler. Does the scene make fun of the Holocaust? No. No, it does not. I kinda think Mel Brooks wouldn’t be the guy to do that.

We can make a case that the play should never have been approved to begin with. We can stipulate that the changes being demanded are probably not that difficult to make. But I still think it’s a bad call, born of cowardice rather than principle.

At its best, theatre, like any other art form, challenges the spectators, incites responses, asks more questions than it answers. I am fond of reminding my students that, linguistically, “aesthetic” is the opposite of “anaesthetic.” Even at the high school level, theatre provides the possibility of engaging in actual dialogue about things that matter, such as, for example, the symbology associated with one of the most repressive and unhuman regimes in history.

The superintendent, though well-intentioned, is ultimately saying, in effect: “You can do this play, but I forbid you to do it correctly.” His decision also capitulates to what amounts to a heckler’s veto. How much better would it be to stage the play the way the director and students choose, and then to have a post-show discussion about the decision to include swastikas: why did you decide to go ahead? would you have the same objections to swastikas if we were doing The Sound of Music or The Moon Is Down? the play isn’t really about Nazis at all (it is not, in fact, “a satirical musical about Adolf Hitler,” even if the idiot on Channel 2 says otherwise), so a). why get so upset, or b). why not just tone it down? (And so on.)

Recognizing and respecting the perspectives of others is central to pedagogy, to a democratic society, and to adulthood. This is a tougher call than most, but in the end, I’m going to side with more speech rather than less, even if some people are upset. As you say, Jack, we live in a time in which “foes of humor, satire, controversy, and even free speech itself are causing Americans to self-censor and be hesitant to utter anything but bland sentiments and consensus opinions.” To me, that’s a rallying cry to create art fearlessly. Of course, I’m not the one taking the angry phonecalls.