Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sunday Reading

Don’t Mince Words — John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

Trump grew up in a wealthy white enclave in Queens, and he first came to public attention in 1973, when the Justice Department sued his father’s real-estate company for refusing to rent apartments to people “because of race and color.” (Trump strongly denied the charges, which eventually led to a consent decree.) In the nineteen-eighties, when Trump owned casinos in Atlantic City, some of his managers got the strong impression that he didn’t like black employees. In a 2015 story about the faded resort town, my colleague Nick Paumgarten quoted a former busboy at the Trump Castle, who said, “When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor.”

In a 1991 book about his experiences running Trump Plaza, in Atlantic City, “Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump—His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall,” John R. O’Donnell, a veteran casino executive, recalled a conversation that he had with his boss about an employee in the Plaza’s finance department who happened to be African-American. I cited the passage last fall, after Trump attacked Myeshia Johnson, the widow of a black soldier in the U.S. Special Forces who was killed in Niger, but it is worth reproducing it now. (The quote below begins with Trump speaking about the black employee. The “I” at the start of the second paragraph is O’Donnell.)

“Yeah, I never liked the guy. I don’t think he knows what the fuck he’s doing. My accountants in New York are always complaining about him. He’s not responsive. And it isn’t funny. I’ve got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else.”

I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. But Donald went on, “Besides that, I’ve got to tell you something else. I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is. I believe that. It’s not anything they can control. . . . Don’t you agree?” He looked at me straight in the eye and waited for my reply.

“Donald, you really shouldn’t say things like that to me or anybody else,” I said. “That is not the kind of image you want to project. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation, even if it’s the way you feel.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “If anybody ever heard me say that . . . holy shit . . . I’d be in a lot of trouble. But I have to tell you, that’s the way I feel.”

Is there any doubt that Trump still holds these kinds of views? Even before his latest racial slur—it was reported on Thursday that he referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and certain nations in Africa as “shithole countries” during a meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office—the answer was clear. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump described Mexican immigrants as “in many cases criminals, rapists, drug dealers, etc.”; questioned the fitness of a U.S.-born federal judge by referring to him as “Mexican”; mocked the mother of a Pakistani-American war hero; and, for a time, refused to condemn David Duke, the former Klansman.

Since taking office, Trump hasn’t changed much, if at all. He has embarked on a public crusade against black football players who kneel during the national anthem, suggested that some of the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, were “good people,” and boasted about calling Don Lemon, the African-American CNN host, “the dumbest man on television.” While some might try (lamely) to argue that Trump took some of these steps to rile up his disaffected white voting base, no such reasoning can be applied to his statements in internal meetings, where, according to a report in the Times, he has said that recent immigrants from Haiti “all have AIDS” and that immigrants from Nigeria, once they had seen the United States, would never “go back to their huts.”

Evidently, the subject of immigration brings out Trump’s inner Archie Bunker. His latest awful utterance—the “shithole” comment—came during a meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are trying to reach a deal to extend legal protections for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. The deal being discussed would grant these protections while also including changes to the immigration system intended to attract conservative votes in Congress.

According to the Times (though it was the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey who first broke the story), the Republican senator Lindsey Graham and the Democratic senator Dick Durbin presented Trump with a plan that would cut the current visa lottery program and reallocate some of those slots to immigrants from troubled places like Haiti, El Salvador, and a number of African nations whose citizens have been granted so-called Temporary Protected Status in the United States. The Administration has in recent months begun cancelling the protected status of several groups of immigrants—most recently, Salvadorans—and it seems that the mention of Haiti irked the President. When the discussion moved on to African countries, he reportedly said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” And he added that the United States should admit more people from places like Norway.

Rather than denying that Trump had made these remarks, the White House press office dispatched Raj Shah, the principal deputy press secretary, who is Indian-American, to try to rationalize them. “The president will only accept an immigration deal that adequately addresses the visa lottery system and chain migration—two programs that hurt our economy and allow terrorists into our country,” Shah’s statement said. “Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.”

In appearing to suggest that immigrants from places like El Salvador, Haiti, Liberia, and Sierra Leone couldn’t become productive and assimilated American citizens, the press-office statement demonstrated that deep racial prejudices extend beyond the Oval Office to other parts of the White House. For now, though, the focus should remain on the principal offender rather than his apologists.

On Friday morning, Trump tweeted, “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.” In a subsequent tweet, he said, “Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country . . . Made up by Dems.” Neither of these tweets specifically addressed the reported use of the phrase “shithole countries.” Later in the morning, Senator Durbin told reporters that Trump said “things which were hate-filled, vile, and racist … You’ve seen the comments in the press; I’ve not read one of them that’s inaccurate.”

For the past year, Republicans, senior Democrats, and many media commentators have held back from applying the R-word to Trump. In some circumstances, there are good reasons for exercising such caution. Calling someone a bigot is not a step to take lightly. Often, it can shut down discourse and fuel animosity. With Trump, there is the added consideration that, as long as he’s the President, other politicians in Washington have little choice but to deal with him. Also, he runs his mouth so much that a lot of what comes out of it doesn’t merit serious consideration. After this latest outburst, however, the arguments for being reticent seem absurd. The obvious truth can no longer be avoided or sugarcoated: we have a racist in the Oval Office.

Good People Don’t Defend a Bad Man — John Pavlovitz.

At times in this life it can be a challenge to figure out who the bad people are, but sometimes they help you.

Sometimes they do the work for you.

Sometimes with their every vulgar, bitter word from their mouth, they testify to their personal malignancy and they make it easy to identify them.

Generally speaking, there are things that good people do and things good people don’t do.

Good people don’t refer to entire countries as “shitholes”—most notably countries that have given birth to our very humanity; ones that for hundreds of years have been colonized and poached and mined of their riches by powerful white men; countries whose people have been enslaved and sold and forced to come and build your country.

Good people by any measurement we might use—simply don’t say such things.

Of course good people also don’t say they could grab women by the genitalia, either.
They don’t defend racists and nazis and call them “fine people,” days after murdering a young girl and terrorizing an American city.
They don’t brag about their penis size during debates, or suggest protestors at campaign rallies should be roughed up, or crack jokes about captured war heroes, or make fun of the physically disabled.
They don’t.

Good people don’t tweet anti-Muslim rhetoric in the moments immediately following a bombing in order to bolster a position.
They don’t leave American territories filled with brown skinned people without power for months upon months, after publicly ridiculing their public servants and questioning their people’s resolve.
They don’t erase protections for the water and the air, for the elderly, the terminally ill, the LGBTQ.
They don’t take away healthcare from the sick and the poor without an alternative.
They don’t gouge the working poor and shelter the wealthy.
They don’t abuse their unrivaled platform to Twitter-bait world leaders and to taunt private citizens.
Good people don’t prey upon the vulnerable, they don’t leverage their power to bully dissenters, and they don’t campaign for sexual predators.

But this President is simply not a good human being, and there’s simply no way around this truth.

He is the ugliest personification of the Ugly American, which is why, as long as he is here and as long as he represents this nation, we will be a fractured mess and a global embarrassment. He will be the ever lowering bar of our legacy in the world.

And what is painfully obvious in these moments, isn’t simply that the person alleging to lead this country is a terrible human being—it is that anyone left still defending him, applauding him, justifying him, amening him, probably is too.

At this point, the only reason left to support this President, is that he reflects your hateful heart;he shares your contempt of people of color, your hostility toward outsiders, your ignorant bigotry, your feeling of supremacy.

A white President calling countries filled with people of color shitholes, is so far beyond the pale, so beneath decency, and so blatantly racist that it shouldn’t merit conversation. It should be universally condemned. Humanity should be in agreement in abhorring it.

And yet today (like so many other seemingly rock bottom days in the past twelve months) they will be out there: white people claiming to be good people and Christian people, who will make excuses for him or debate his motives or diminish the damage.

They will dig their heels in to explain away or to defend, what at the end of the day is simply a bad human being saying the things that bad human beings say because their hearts harbor very bad things.

No, good people don’t call countries filled with beautiful, creative, loving men and women shitholes.

And good people don’t defend people who do.

You’re going to have to make a choice here.

Echoes of a Soundtrack — Kristen Marguerite Doidge on Simon and Garfunkel’s tunes in “The Graduate” fifty years later.

When Mike Nichols’s low-budget comedy-drama The Graduate premiered in December 1967, it arrived during a time of national unrest. Many Baby Boomers were pushing back against the status quo: The military draft and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, combined with movements calling for civil rights and women’s liberation, prompted students and activists to protest the political and social establishment of the time. For those Boomers feeling alienated from their parents’ generation, The Graduate mirrored their disillusionment via a more personal, rather than ideologically charged, story.Adapted from what was then a little-known novel of the same name by Charles Webb, the coming-of-age film follows 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as he finishes college and struggles to find purpose in a world of meaningless consumption. Uncertain about his future, Benjamin embarks on an empty affair with an older woman—Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)—while desperately pursuing her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). The Graduate quickly became a hit after its release (grossing $104.9 million on a $3 million budget) and garnered several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

Though its storyline was certainly provocative, The Graduate stood out for another reason: Nichols’s groundbreaking decision to use previously released songs for the soundtrack, which came out 50 years ago this month. Previously, traditional orchestral film scores were used simply to provide background music for onscreen action. So The Graduate’s heavy reliance on the folk-rock songs of the popular duo Simon and Garfunkel was unprecedented: By the time the film was released, many of the major tunes were already well known. “The Sound of Silence,” now indelibly associated with the movie, had already reached No. 1 on Billboard’s charts in January 1966. The Graduate’s musical innovations are all the more notable for how the soundtrack meaningfully commented on the plot, the characters, and, by extension, the viewers themselves.The folk-rock sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s most beloved records both defined and belonged to the youth of the period, a notion driven home by how Nichols uses the songs in the film: No scene in which older generations are the focus contains the group’s music. “Young people at the time may have had idiosyncratic or subjective relationships, or intimate bonds with Simon and Garfunkel’s music,” David Shumway, a professor of English who studies American culture and popular music at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. “But many of them also would have understood it as a way they shared the world with other people their own age.” Where other directors may have seen these preexisting associations as a burden, or at least a possible distraction from the story, Nichols embraced the songs’ meaning.

When the movie opens, the haunting tune “The Sound of Silence” plays as Benjamin arrives at the Los Angeles International Airport from college. The first somber notes and lyrics—“Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again”—immediately suggest the character’s persistent loneliness. Benjamin rides a moving sidewalk like a piece of luggage on a conveyer belt; the lost look in his eyes as other travelers pass by him hints at his lack of agency in the face of his parents’, and society’s, expectations for him. The lyrics double down on his alienation as the instrumentals grow more energetic: “And in the naked light I saw / Ten thousand people, maybe more / People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening.” Though Benjamin himself hasn’t said a word, the tone and sense of where the plot is headed have been established by the music alone.Simon and Garfunkel’s music frequently serves a Greek Chorus–type function throughout The Graduate, as the author H. Wayne Schuth notes in his 1978 book, Mike Nichols. The songs’ lyrics not only comment on the onscreen action, but also give insight into the way a character feels, and perhaps even articulate what the characters cannot say. Nichols uses songs for wordless montage sequences or scenes with only voiceover narration, allowing the viewer to more easily become swept up in the melodies and lyrics, Shumway said.

Each of the major songs in the film is associated with one of the main characters. While the somber and complex “The Sound of Silence” often plays during scenes centered on Benjamin, the sensual and seemingly wistful “April Come She Will” is about Mrs. Robinson and the duo’s ill-fated affair. Meanwhile, the romantic tune “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” is about Elaine, with most verses ending, “Then she’ll be a true love of mine,” reminding viewers that Benjamin sees her as the ultimate object of his affections. The song that became most associated with the film is “Mrs. Robinson,” which existed in a rough form before Nichols and the duo developed it to be part of the soundtrack. Its upbeat melody and empathetic lyrics (“God bless you, please”) stand in sharp contrast to the gloomy “Sound of Silence.” When it plays during the climactic scenes of The Graduate, “Mrs. Robinson” seems to function as a farewell to the murkiness of the past, amplifying Benjamin’s sense of hopefulness that he might be able to create a new future for himself.The Graduate’s radical approach to film music happened almost by accident. Both Nichols and the producer Lawrence Turman were fans of Simon and Garfunkel, and knew they wanted to use the duo’s songs for the film’s soundtrack. Turman negotiated a deal for Paul Simon to write three new songs for the project, but the group’s tour schedule got so busy, Simon never got around to it. “Most directors and editors lay in temporary music to get an emotional feeling and a rhythm while they’re editing,” Turman told me. “Sam O’Steen, the editor, had laid in ‘The Sound of Silence,’ and ‘Scarborough Fair,’ and Mike [Nichols] turned to me and said, ‘We’ll be so used to these old songs, we won’t like the new ones,’ and I said … ‘Well, we’ll use the old songs!’ And that’s exactly what we did.”

Once the film was completed, Nichols and Turman showed the final cut to Joseph Levine, the movie’s financier, who said, ‘‘‘It’s the best ever, and once you get the new songs in, it’ll be fantastic!’” Turman told me. “We said, ‘But, Joe, those are the songs we’re using.’ And he just turned [ashen]. He said, ‘But every kid in the country knows those songs! They’ll laugh you off the screens!’” Turman and Nichols debated what to do, but ultimately decided to go with their instincts and keep the music as it was.In a 1967 New York Times movie review, Bosley Crowther praised the film’s score, noting the “dandy modern folk music, sung (offscreen, of course) by the team of Simon and Garfunkel, has the sound of today’s moody youngsters.” Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, John Mahoney called “The Sound of Silence” in particular “an inspired selection for underscoring and a significant component of the film.” Roger Ebert initially called the duo’s songs “instantly forgettable,” but 30 years later acknowledged he had been wrong (he did lament in 1997, though, that “the liberating power of rock and roll is shut out of the soundtrack … the S&G songs are melodic, sophisticated, safe”).

The Graduate’s original soundtrack went on to become huge hit: It rose to No. 1 on the Billboard charts following its release and spent as much time in the top spot as the Beatles’ White Album, which came out later that year. The record featured two versions of the Grammy Award–winning song “Mrs. Robinson,” which won Record of the Year in 1969 (though the full version didn’t appear until Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends album was released in April).

It is, of course, difficult to reflect on The Graduate’s success without also recalling how it helped begin the long and fruitful career of Hoffman, who allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted multiple women on the sets of his projects in the ’70s and ’80s. (Hoffman’s attorney dismissed the claims against the performer as “defamatory falsehoods.”) Decades ago, The Graduate’s music spoke to viewers disenchanted with the establishment of the time; today, the backlash against men like Hoffman who stand accused of abusing positions of privilege suggests that there will always be people willing to challenge entrenched systems of power.

While the unique cultural milieu in the late 1960s means the narrower set of associations between film and popular music probably won’t be re-created again, it’s the sound of resistance and resilience—not silence—that perhaps resonates the most as The Graduate turns 50. Today, a newer generation might push back against the status quo with a decidedly different and more fragmented soundtrack. But Nichols’s contributions to cinema are worth remembering as Hollywood continues to evolve, bringing an even wider range of stories and musical innovations to the big screen.

 Doonesbury — In the clear.
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