Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Reading

The Bard Behind Bars — Shakespeare inspired prisoners at South Africa’s notorious Robben Island.

It doesn’t look like much — just a tattered, 1970 edition of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” But inside, the book bears testament to an era.

Currently on display at the British Museum as part of an exhibition called “Shakespeare: Staging the World,” the book belongs to Sonny Venkatrathnam, who was incarcerated during the 1970s in South Africa’s apartheid-era political prison, Robben Island. Having convinced a warden that the volume was a Hindu religious text, Venkatrathnam was allowed to keep it with him in prison, where it was passed from prisoner to prisoner. At Venkatrathnam’s request, his comrades signed their names beside their favorite passages.

On Dec. 16, 1977, Nelson Mandela signed next to these lines: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Walter Sisulu, another African National Congress leader and close confidant of Mandela, put his name beside a passage in “The Merchant of Venice,” in which Shylock talks about the abuse he has taken as a Jewish money-lender: “Still have I borne it with a patient shrug / For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.”

And Billy Nair, who went on to become a member of Parliament in the new South Africa, chose Caliban’s challenge to Prospero from “The Tempest”: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother / Which thou tak’st from me.”

The Robben Island Shakespeare is the only book from the prison that records an act of personal literary appreciation by the major figures incarcerated at the time, many of whom went on to play major roles in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a kind of “guest book,” bearing the signatures of 34 of the Robben Island prisoners. But is also more than that.

When they signed their names against Shakespeare’s text, each prisoner recognized something of himself and his relation to others in the words of a stranger. The Robben Island Shakespeare records that community of character and signature as an example of Shakespeare’s global reach and as a historically specific witness to a common human identity and shared experience.

Cutting the Cord — What it’s like to go back to Slow TV.

Our options narrowed from a world of entertainment to the whims of the few channels that would deign to come clearly through what are essentially newfangled rabbit ears: a high-definition digital antenna intended to capture the over-the-air signal, which was once how everyone watched TV. Sure, some shows were online, but in the beginning the number of commercials in them seemed prohibitive. We’d just come from a paradise of DVR fast-forwarding. Now we had to sit through the same ad over and over? We also had only one computer; with two writers in the family, it wasn’t available for TV watching.

We quickly learned some lessons. Would “Mad Men” still run if we couldn’t watch it? (Yes.) Would people refrain from spoilers while “Breaking Bad” made its way to streaming? (No, they would not.) What was this “Walking Dead” everyone was talking about? (Still not sure, but apparently it’s a big deal.)

When the weather is right, we get most of the channels. Sometimes. CBS is the only network that shows up consistently and pristinely, and one day I’ll be old enough to enjoy its fare. There is also a channel that doesn’t seem to have a name but broadcasts reruns of “Three’s Company” or “Sanford and Son,” which is not so bad in the beggars/choosers category.

Yet what initially seemed like a torture we’d simply have to endure became a surprising reminder of the simple pleasures of simple TV.

Call it Slow TV. I had never stopped loving TV, but I had stopped appreciating it. Entire seasons of shows had piled up on the DVR, on the theory that they might be interesting someday. TV was everywhere now — on the phone, on the computer. It was on while I wrote, did taxes, folded laundry. It was background noise. When I really had to make choices about what to watch, and then pay attention with no rewind to fall back on, TV became absorbing again, an activity in itself, as it had been when I was younger. And I watched much less, if only for logistical reasons.

As it turns out, I unintentionally had become part of a growing group of Americans giving up wired cable and even televisions. Nielsen recently reported that TV set ownership has dropped to 96.7 percent of American households from 98.9 percent, and it isn’t because we’re reading more. Instead we’re cobbling together new ways of digesting programming. We watch on iPhones, computers, Rokus, other people’s HBO Go accounts, and yes, a digital antenna; one-size-fits-all TV is over.

Still, analog watching isn’t without its inconveniences. Even in the heady days of cable service, the DVR was overwhelmed by the choices on some nights. The answer should have been simple: Watch some shows online when the computer is available. But “Gossip Girl,” for instance, had so many unforwardable commercials on Hulu that it’s clear who the real demographic for those shows are: people who don’t yet believe that they have the right to not be advertised to for 30 minutes of a 60-minute show. When the ads became burdensome, the series had to do some mighty things to stay on the list. Blair’s marrying a prince, then leaving him for Chuck, simply didn’t qualify.

Keeping Hope Alive — How to keep young people engaged in politics and progressivism.

Young voters surprised pundits and Republicans again this year as we turned out in record numbers to vote, joining key constituencies including African Americans, Hispanics, and women to reelect President Obama. Composing 19 percent of the electorate, up from 18 percent in 2008 and 12 percent in 2004, young Americans demonstrated their importance to a growing progressive coalition.

Many question, however, whether our diverse and unprecedented coalition will be able to build on this foundation and sustain the power of our ideas and values throughout our lifetimes. Or, like the Reagan coalition after 1990, are we fated to fracture as a political force by 2016? Some suggest that the strong generational power of today’s 18-30-year-olds will become inconsequential as the hype dies down and we grow up. Our next steps are critical.

Young progressives are a distinct and large population that favors pragmatic problem-solving, opportunity for all, justice and equality, and government’s promotion of such ideals. Identifying more strongly with values than with a political party, we are a significant portion of President Obama’s alliance. Yet given the diversity of the Obama coalition, someone must lead productive grassroots dialogue, finding a broader progressive voice. As members of the largest and most diverse generation in American history, young progressives are the best candidates for the job.

Rather than waiting 30 or 40 years to see how this pans out, let’s write the story ourselves today. Young people are powerful influencers of elections, and we’ve built a strong foundation on which to stand. But it’s up to us to define citizenship for our generation and maintain a unified commitment to progressive values to solidify the political shift.

Doonesbury — Red Rascal returns?