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Blinky, Smiley Pundits

A few years ago, I got to see and hear Tony Kushner in person. He is a gentle, polite human being offstage, and a ferocious, intelligent persona on stage. He offered an observation that has kept me thinking for these years. He said that art is not activism. In that moment, I agreed and disagreed, and have puzzled over this comment since. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how what he said relates to the presidential campaign process: rhetoric, which is an art, is not action. Writing and speaking can illuminate us to what the writer/speaker wishes to do and wants us to do. It’s not action, but it’s useful.

Candidates tell us what they think they will do, but the campaign process involves pundits telling us what the candidates really mean, what we should really think about them, and–my favorite part–telling us what the future holds if this or that so-and-so is elected. It reminds me a lot of when critics and fans of the American version of The Office insist that it’s amazing and brilliant, and go on to explain why it’s funny, and how it’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest television shows ever. Political and entertainment pundits alike tend to promote too much, and I tend not to buy what they’re selling.

It’s kind of fun to watch the pundits giggle condescendingly at one another in the split screen, eager to explain why they’re right and the others are wrong. Right now I’m watching a particularly blinky, smiley Republican economist shaking her head as one of Obama’s advisers speaks. As soon as she has an opening, she flings two accusations at the “Obama camp,” which the Obama adviser immediately dismisses before offering some accusations herself. The Republican pundit continues to smile through all of this, blinking faster when she’s not speaking. The Obama adviser is stone-faced through it all. Finally, Wolf Blitzer must go to a commercial, and I have learned nothing from this segment, except that I should have trusted my instinct not to waste my time on this trash.

Not that I don’t enjoy a good rhetorical brawl, but I’d really like some follow-through on some issues. To my surprise, this sort of thing happened on The View last week when John McCain was a guest. During the first segment, I felt uncomfortable because Barbara Walters went right after him despite the “let’s sit on the couch and chat” environment. She asked a clear question (Who does he expect Palin to reform?) and demanded a clear answer (Congress? Him? Someone else?), pointing out that he’s been in Washington for two decades and his party has held president’s office for eight years. It was exciting to see her act like a journalist again. She can be impressive when she’s on.

The next segment made me uncomfortable because the tone softened. The hosts settled for McCain’s weak answers. When he said he thought Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, there was an audible note of concern from the audience, but they didn’t grill him. I don’t expect hardcore journalism from The View (that’s why Walters’ performance impressed me), but given that Roe v. Wade is pivotal to a very important issue regarding women’s lives and rights, I would have expected one of them to ask something along the lines of “What the fuck do you mean it was a bad decision?”

By the third segment, Cindy McCain joined them, and I was in excrutiating pain watching all of them sit on that damn couch lobbing softballs. At one point, Walters referred to McCain’s obliviousness about how many houses he owns, but it was a cheap jab that didn’t revive the conversation.

McCain and Obama need to be asked tough questions, and they need to answer them. The same needs to happen with the VP candidates, but Biden seems not very interesting to many people right now, and Palin’s inability to answer tough questions doesn’t seem to bother many people nearly enough. How can she not know what the Bush Doctrine is? I even know what the Bush Doctrine is, even though I’m not vying for national office. Anyone who might be vice president or president within the next year should understand such things. In the interview with Charlie Gibson, she talked too casually about going to war with Russia if that country should invade Georgia again. Her explanation of how NATO works was a little too textbook, like something a non-major in a political science class might say. Has her experience with building an ice rink in Wasilla prepared her to deal with these issues? Just thinking practically, we can’t afford to start another war. She could try selling Air Force Two, but I don’t think she’d make enough to cover it.

I realize my rhetoric reveals my biases, my leanings. That’s fine; I don’t intend to hide them. Do what you will with my opinion, but please don’t lob some bullshit angry comment at me if you disagree or some generic, positive response if you do. Develop your thoughts, include your feelings, and please share. Take a position, develop it with evidence, and consider your audience. Make the effort a useful one. Meanwhile, I’ll promise to keep my opinions here and not to take a job with CNN or to run for public office.

One Response

  1. I agree with you that rhetoric is not action. The problem is, rhetoric can be cathartic for many people, and they mistake catharsis for action. Sitting around a dining room table and griping about the 2004 election, for example, might *feel* like something, but it ain’t action.

    And yet, we need rhetoric of all kinds to prompt and organize action. Words can galvanize crowds, and individuals, too.

    When I was in my early 20s, I read Randy Shilts’s bio of Harvey Milk, about whom I had never heard. Someone recommended the book to me as a good one. Anyway, not only did I find it gripping, it help crystallize some vague ideas and yearnings I was having about helping people and making a difference. That book made me believe that I didn’t need any special training — a law degree, MBA, or MPA — to do something helpful and social-minded. I just had to start doing it.

    “Bullshit angry comments” don’t prompt action; they make people armor themselves. Art that’s imbued with social commentary, like Tony Kushner’s? Well, that can get people doing the kind of thinking that leads to action.

    What, I wonder, connects the art to action. It would be interesting to explore that dynamic.

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