Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Reading

I Missed Woodstock, Too — Michael Winerip and I are the same age, and we both remember not being at Woodstock.

That legendary summer of ’69 I was 17. What a moment in history to be a baby boomer: the Stonewall riots, the moon walk, the Manson murders, Woodstock. A youth movement unlike any before. By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong — although I do want to make it clear, I cannot vouch for that.

I wasn’t there.

I wasn’t at the Stonewall riots, either, and while I can’t be sure, it’s possible that in the summer of ’69 I didn’t know what a homosexual was. (If I did, it was from health class.)

The Manson murders? If it wasn’t on the sports pages, unlikely I was paying attention.

The sexual revolution? I was still a year away from heavy petting.

The drug culture? Did not smoke a joint that summer nor did I know anyone who had.

The Vietnam War? Did not have an opinion that summer.

I did see the moon walk, though it was not a psychedelic experience for me. I watched it at home with my mom.

That summer 40 years ago, the 1960s may have been exploding all around me, but I was not yet ready for the ’60s and would not get to the ’60s until the early ’70s. This made things very different for me than for boomers who were just a few years older and felt the full force of the ’60s in the ’60s.

Continued below the fold.

The Tree of Crazy — Richard Perlstein on how right-wing outrage is spontaneously manufactured.

So the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers — these are “either” the genuine grass roots or evil conspirators staging scenes for YouTube? The quiver on the lips of the man pushing the wheelchair, the crazed risk of carrying a pistol around a president — too heartfelt to be an act. The lockstep strangeness of the mad lies on the protesters’ signs — too uniform to be spontaneous. They are both. If you don’t understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can’t understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

In the early 1950s, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as “20 years of treason” and accused the men who led the fight against fascism of deliberately surrendering the free world to communism. Mainline Protestants published a new translation of the Bible in the 1950s that properly rendered the Greek as connoting a more ambiguous theological status for the Virgin Mary; right-wingers attributed that to, yes, the hand of Soviet agents. And Vice President Richard Nixon claimed that the new Republicans arriving in the White House “found in the files a blueprint for socializing America.”


Liberals are right to be vigilant about manufactured outrage, and particularly about how the mainstream media can too easily become that outrage’s entry into the political debate. For the tactic represented by those fake Nixon letters was a long-term success. Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans and that their duty as tribunes of the people’s voices means they should treat Obama’s creation of “death panels” as just another justiciable political claim. If 1963 were 2009, the woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson would be getting time on cable news to explain herself. That, not the paranoia itself, makes our present moment uniquely disturbing.

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.

The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills — the one hysterics turned into the “death panel” canard — is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of “complaints over the provision.”

Good thing our leaders weren’t so cowardly in 1964, or we would never have passed a civil rights bill — because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.

Shakespeare in a Small Town — Stratford, Ontario, isn’t the only place where a small rural area turns out first class theatre in North America.

If Barack Obama had gone into theater instead of politics, he might have been something like Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Mr. Rauch, who spent the first 20 years of his career doing community-based theater (which is sort of like community organizing, except that it involves costumes and makeup), assumed the reins at this festival in this small town in southwestern Oregon in 2007. Since then he has made significant changes, increasing the number of non-Western plays, bringing in new directors, expanding the use of nontraditional casting and pursuing a connection between Shakespeare and contemporary theatrical forms, including hip-hop and spoken-word poetry.

“The great experiment about me being brought to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” Mr. Rauch said recently, “both on the organization’s part to bring me in and for me to come, was, ‘How much progress can we make in creating a theater that, in its work and in its audience, reflects our country?’ ”

Shortly after graduating from Harvard in 1984, Mr. Rauch and some friends, disenchanted by the small numbers being reached by mainstream theater, founded a group called Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles.

Mr. Rauch said he had been motivated by a statistic he heard in college, that 98 percent of Americans don’t attend the theater regularly.

“It really freaked me out, that I was going to devote my life to a profession and only interact with 2 percent of my fellow citizens,” he said. “That just felt really wrong. So, to me, a lot of Cornerstone’s founding impulse was, ‘Let’s go out and meet the other 98 percent of our fellow citizens and do plays with and for them, to find out if theater can be relevant to their lives.’ ”

The company goes into small communities and puts on plays — often classics adapted to address local issues — with a mix of professional and amateur actors. During the time that Mr. Rauch ran Cornerstone it staged a biracial “Romeo and Juliet” in a largely segregated town in Mississippi and a version of Molière’s “Tartuffe” in a farming community in Kansas, among many other productions.

Now trying to bring his ideals to an established theater with a loyal but opinionated audience, Mr. Rauch faces a challenge. Founded in 1935 as a three-day event, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival today has a budget of almost $25 million and three stages, including a 1,190-seat outdoor theater modeled on those in Elizabethan London. Between February and November it presents 11 plays in repertory, typically 4 of them by Shakespeare. They are performed by a resident company of actors, each playing two or three roles.


The recession has not interfered greatly with Mr. Rauch’s plans. Late last year the company cut $1.65 million from its 2009 budget in anticipation of reduced ticket sales. As of late July, however, sales were holding steady with last season’s. In addition, this year a group of donors contributed slightly more than $2 million to a special “artistic opportunity fund,” meant to allow the festival to avoid slashing costs in areas where it would affect the quality of the work.

Mr. Rauch said he was optimistic about reaching his goals.

“I think you could find people who would tell you that I’m a radical and I’m moving too fast, and you could find people who would say that it’s such a huge battleship and it’s so slow to turn around,” he said of the festival. “I’m very pleased with how it’s going.”

Doonesbury — Red tape optional.