Innocent Bystanders — Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.
You knew it was coming.
You felt it with a sickening certainty the instant news of a mass shooting flashed out from Alexandria, Virginia. So it was disheartening, but hardly surprising, to hear certain conservatives reflexively blame Democrats and their so-called “hate speech” for the carnage.
It happened Wednesday morning. The quiet camaraderie of Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game against their Democratic colleagues was shattered by rifle shots from one James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois. Police officers providing security returned fire.
When the shooting was done, five people were wounded, including two officers and Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, whose injuries were critical. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old left winger and former supporter of Bernie Sanders who was apparently motivated by hatred for Donald Trump and the GOP, was mortally wounded.
There was still blood on the ground when conservatives began laying the shooting at liberals’ feet. Republican Rep. Chris Collins blamed “outrageous” Democratic rhetoric. (He later expressed regret for that comment.) The InfoWars website cited a “hysterical anti-Trump narrative.” Radio host Michael Savage spoke of a “constant drumbeat of hatred.”
It was predictable because it’s what we always do. Jerry Falwell blamed the ACLU for 9/11. Jane Fonda blamed Sarah Palin for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
At some point, you’d think we’d learn that rhetoric — excluding that which explicitly or implicitly calls for violence — does not “cause” people to shoot, stab, or bomb. By that logic, you’d have to blame Fox “News” and other organs of the right for the Planned Parenthood shooting and the Atlanta Olympics bombing.
It makes about as much sense. You know who’s to blame for this shooting? James Hodgkinson is.
Frankly, this sudden concern for the tenor of political discourse feels precious, even sanctimonious, given conservatives’ history of invective and lies. Where was all this fretting last year when Donald Trump said “Second Amendment people” might stop Hillary Clinton? Where was it week before last, when Eric Trump said Democrats are “not even people” to him?
The bottom line is that a president of unprecedented incompetence is being enabled by a Congress of criminal complicity in an agenda of frightful destructiveness. To see that and not say it loudly and emphatically would be an act of journalistic, political or civic malpractice. It would be un-American.
Not that liberals have any reason to feel smug about this. Taken in conjunction with a recent string of attacks on police officers, Wednesday’s shooting suggests something as startling as it is troubling. Namely, that left-wing terrorism might be making a comeback.
It has been 40 years since the likes of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weathermen disappeared from view, and in those years domestic terrorism has been exclusively a phenomenon of the political right. That may be changing now. It’s a deeply disturbing idea, suggesting as it does a nation ever faster pulling itself apart, a people riven by irreconcilable differences, a country that isn’t even sure it wants to be a country anymore.
These tired games of political one-upsmanship are too small for such a moment. This moment is for soul-searching, for considering who and what and even if we are, as Americans. It is for wondering what it means when baseball is not safe and being a Republican gets you shot. Nothing less than our national identity and ideals are at stake here.
A maniac shot up a ball field Wednesday morning. Five people were hit.
Three hundred and twenty-five million were wounded.
Propaganda Pros — Terry Heaton in Huffington Post on how the Religious Right pioneered right-wing propaganda.
So-called “fake news” took center stage on several occasions during former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. More than once, Comey pointed to specific articles by the New York Times as not true or completely false. However, he did validate others, including one in which he himself had been the Times’ source. The fake news meme has become one of the most troubling arguments in the history of contemporary journalism, ever since Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN at his first press conference as president.
Americans find themselves drowning in this unseemly and childish battle for the soul of news and information purveyance, and the undiscussed problem is that the entire mess is built on the false narrative of “the liberal (elite) press.” I know, because I was among the people who advanced the concept and shaped the discussion in the early ‘80s, as senior and executive producer of Pat Robertson’s flagship television program The 700 Club.
Before Fox News, there was The 700 Club with CBN News and “TV Journalism With A Different Spirit.” We knew what we were doing in the exploitation of the word “liberal,” and truth-telling demands its deconstruction today. The all-or-nothing split between conflicting political narratives has reached its pinnacle with the election of Donald Trump, and it needs to be hacked into a million pieces.
William F. Buckley was among the first to give the word “liberal” a pejorative interpretation, but it was the wordsmith William Safire writing for Spiro Agnew who in 1969 elevated it to a political talking point in his famous speech that opened the war against the press during Richard Nixon’s secret battles in Vietnam. The word became the central weapon in a strategy that involved attacking the messenger instead of changing the message.
That political strategy has been so effective to date that it has given birth to the idea that mainstream news is actually “fake news” and not to be believed in the administration of President Donald Trump. The number of people who now believe this falsehood is staggering, and it poses a real threat to our democracy.
At The 700 Club, we exploited attacking the press in order to insert ourselves to the right of everybody else in presenting a Biblical, a.k.a. Republican perspective on current events. We offered a daily news program that expressed Republican party talking points that we marketed as a Christian worldview. Thus began the shifting of evangelicals to the GOP and the shifting of the GOP to the right. We served as the intellectual wing of the Moral Majority, although there was no theological love lost between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
So let’s look at these events closely, because it has a direct bearing on the conflict today. Let me be very clear: the right-wing “news” that we created was a political response to the progressive nature of news and information. It’s important to understand this, because “right-wing news” is oxymoronic. There is no such thing, because the right represents olds, not news. By definition, news is new, and new is progressive. That conservatives view this as a bias is fine, but elevating that to some evil command-and-control mechanism for political liberals is a false narrative. Rush Limbaugh has made a living off of this phony hegemony, as well as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and whole host of mostly broadcasting personalities. Why? Because it sells and has been selling for almost 50 years.
But it’s entirely false, for the press is not the purveyor of fake news. That title belongs with those who create stories for political gain and clickthroughs. It may be politically expedient to label the mainstream as fake, but in order to do so, one’s source must be propaganda and nothing else. To us in the early ‘80s, it was easy to stake our claim in the world of journalism without complaint, because the press thought us outside Hallin’s Sphere of Legitimate Controversy and therefore unnecessary to cover. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, Daniel C. Hallin identified three spheres of coverage by the Washington press corps.
Ron Powers once said of us on CBS Sunday Morning that we were “so slanted as to be vertical,” but for the most part, we operated without notice, which gave us the time to write our playbook, the one borrowed in order to create Fox News.
The editorial commentators of media companies determine their political leanings, not the content of the news itself. To behave otherwise is a violation of journalistic ethics and tenets, and no self-respecting news outlet would deliberately compromise its relationship with viewers or readers for political gain. It’s just not their cultural role. Only political propagandists are permitted such luxury, and where that is disguised as news, it cannot be trusted. And yet many people do, because their ears have been trained by people such as myself to identify clever social engineering as information they need in order to get back what they feel has been taken from them or get what feel they deserve from life.
We need to grow out of childish ranting that “Billy started it” or “everybody is doing it too” and let our inner adults take over. Democracy doesn’t stand a chance without an independent Fourth Estate.
Class Act — Ben Brantley in the New York Times with an appreciation of playwright A.R. Gurney.
There have been many tributes to A. R. Gurney, a prolific playwright whose worldly elegance of style was matched by his ingenuous enthusiasm for his craft. But Mr. Gurney, who died on Tuesday at 86, wrote what was surely the most exultant of these eulogies himself, in a play performed in New York more than 10 years ago.
The play is appropriately named “Post Mortem.” Staged at the tiny Flea Theater in 2006, it is set in a very near future in which Mr. Gurney is now dead (assassinated — rumor has it — at the behest of Dick Cheney), and an ideologically oppressive, technology-dominated United States is hostile to the antiquated art form known as theater. (The American government, bankrupted by the war in Iraq, has turned all Broadway houses into casinos.)
But a graduate student and his professor at a “faith based” American university unearth a manuscript of an incendiary play that they are determined to bring to light. And though the all-seeing eyes of the surveillance state discover the work’s existence and have it destroyed, our determined academic heroes recreate it from memory.
And what a profoundly influential play it turns out to be, as its performances spark rebellion against reactionary governments throughout the world. Its title? Also “Post Mortem.” Its author? One A.R. Gurney, described dismissively as a “minor late-20th-, early-21st-century” writer of the “middle-class comedy of manners,” who it now emerges had not only secretly written an earthshaking drama but also had affairs with Cameron Diaz and both Audrey and Katharine Hepburn.
Mr. Gurney’s writing never brought him the fame and wealth of contemporaries like Edward Albee and Neil Simon. His only plays seen on Broadway in recent years were short-lived revivals of his charming “Sylvia” (1995), about a divisive family dog, and the lyrical two-hander “Love Letters” (1989), an epistolary work that charts the course of a relationship over many decades.
Yet Mr. Gurney adored the theater with a passion that spilled over the edges of even his most decorous comedies, and he feared for its survival. He was his generation’s greatest practitioner of that gentle paradox, the elegiac comedy, which considered the passing of the civilization he grew up in.
This sensibility is most pointed in the works that made his reputation, starting in the early 1980s with “The Dining Room.” The leading characters in these plays were members of an upper middle class of Anglo-Saxon descent and dwindling affluence and influence. Mr. Gurney regarded such folk, his spiritual and genetic kin, with a critical fondness that was too cleareyed to be nostalgic.
Some reviewers still felt that Mr. Gurney was terminally limited by the gentility that shaped his characters. But as he grew older, he increasingly chafed against such perceptions. He began to experiment with new subject matter — retelling the story of Shakespeare’s Shylock in “Overtime” (1996), probing the Middle East conflict in “O Jerusalem” (2003) and crossing the ocean to set his diffident alter ego to roam (and get lost) in Japan in his poignant, autobiographical “Far East” (1999).
Unlike many of his social stratum, Mr. Gurney’s political sympathies skewed left, and he was enraged by what he saw as the failings of the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the experimental Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan, overseen by his friend Jim Simpson, Mr. Gurney found an unlikely forum for expressing his grievances.
Writing in his 70s and 80s, he produced for the Flea a series of vigorous and fanciful satires about the state of his nation, which were written and produced quickly enough to feel as topical as the headlines on the days of their performances. They included “Screen Play” (2005), a prescient variation on the film “Casablanca,” in which American freedom fighters are smuggled into Canada.
My enduring favorite, though, is the wonderful “Mrs. Farnsworth” (2004), in which Sigourney Weaver played a socialite with a secret (it involved the sitting president) and John Lithgow her William F. Buckley-esque husband. Ms. Weaver’s character was ultimately too, well, well mannered to detonate the metaphorical bomb that might have brought down the Bush administration.
Mr. Gurney, though, had by that time shed many of his own inhibitions as a playwright. And he waged his own small but determined battle for the theater as a tool of resistance and enlightenment.
I can think of few artists who were reincarnated as angry young men in their old age as unexpectedly and vitally as Mr. Gurney was. And young is the right adjective. The last new work I saw by him, at the Flea last fall, was a double bill of short works that pondered the boundaries of classic theater (in the first) and gender (in the second) with an infectious excitement you associate with writers in their 20s.
Its title was “Two Class Acts,” referring to subversive intellectual exploration, theatrical performance and honorable behavior under siege. Those who would pigeonhole its creator should remember that all the meanings of “class act” apply to Mr. Gurney.
Doonesbury — Who’s minding the kids?