Tuesday, August 26, 2008

All Rights Reserved: Reviews and Reflections

So I've been avoiding the DNC coverage as much as possible. But I do a weekly trivia night at my local bar, and I plunked myself down in front of a television broadcasting the Olympics. After about five minutes, the bartender stepped in front of me and switched the channel to CNN. So, uh, there I was.

I've talked about Obama's campaign before. In terms of policy, he's not fundamentally different from most other Democrats; I wasn't really interested in the product in the many other forms in which it was offered to me, and I'm not really interested in it now. But the aspect that I've always struggled with, regarding his campaign, isn't policy, but rhetoric. It's easy to grasp why he's been so fervently embraced: he's managed to seize hold of the language of liberalism, and make it soar. If the philosophy is one that you love, then his speeches must be electrifying. But if you struggle with the underlying assumptions, the linguistic hoops he leaps are rough going.

Former Virginia governor Mark Warner was the first to speak. He expressed the usual shame and outrage, that so much is being invested in our military that could be spent on domestic programs. Erm. What about those of us who regard investment in a vast state-controlled infrastructure to be more monstrous and irresponsible than investment in national defense? For those of us who disapprove of centralizing authority within a Federal government, there isn't a place in either party. It's a game of false opposites: you can choose *where* you want that power to be centralized, but *decentralizing* power simply isn't on the menu. Laying out arguments in this format *creates* the positions that are socially acceptable to adopt.

He closed out by quoting Thomas Jefferson: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." And I'm grinding my teeth, wondering what Jefferson would have made of this whole campaign. This is the same Jefferson who claimed that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," right? A claim that it's very hard to imagine this campaign making. Simply quoting a statement by one of the founding fathers (the author of the Declaration of Independence, no less!), outside of the context of his entire ideology, may not be actively deceptive -- but it's certainly misleading.

The next speaker goes on to state words to the effect of "I'm not going to mention how John McCain is simply carrying on the policies of the Bush administration" -- you just fucking did! The hell? It's one of the most absurd permutations of politically correct speech -- hearing people say things like "I'm not a racist, but there's something I just don't trust about black people." Yes! Yes you are a racist! Throwing a polite caveat in front of the statement doesn't alter that fact! And claiming that you're not going to stoop to the level of saying something, while in the process of saying it -- gah.

Hillary Clinton assumes the stage, and the camera spends half of its reaction shots on her husband. She wields the same gut-wrenching, manipulative human-interest stories about those suffering under our current health care system -- channeling it into applause for a system of universal health care, without any examination of either the underlying problems of our system or any of the countless alternative solutions -- then draws further applause for championing the nineteenth amendment(!).

I don't mean to single out Democrats here (although they're an easier target for me lately) -- the Republicans are, if anything, far *worse* in the language they use. Even alternative parties have been struggling to ape them, consciously or otherwise, under the unspoken assumption that by imitating their most repulsive qualities they can achieve their success.

I can't even blame the politicians making these utterances, either. They say what they need to in order to generate the response they require. They're fundamentally no different from so many of my colleagues, self-styled political comics who use the same words and phrases to trigger the appropriate response, regardless of whether or not they have a script with anything churning beneath that. We're all in the same business, after all -- show business -- and we use *exactly* the same collection of tools to survive.


I've been putting off posting my thoughts about the Minnesota Fringe run of the show -- I have, well, too many, and too many that it's going to take me a while to sort through. I will say that we achieved a very mixed response, and that I received more hostility in response to this script than any show that I've produced since 2005 ("Camelot is Crumbling").

I've had several people corner me, arguing about the use of language in the script -- whether or not it's responsible or irresponsible, and laying out careful arguments about why or why not. That's fantastic, and exactly the kind of dialogue I was hoping the script would produce. On the other hand, the vast bulk of responses I've received has been along the lines of the following:

"Some sketches hit the mark and others just seemed offensive -- and I am not easily offended. Since I think that is part of the intent of the show, they succeed."

"The gratuitous use of racial and anti-gay epithets added nothing to the show."

"My father and I went into this show with high hopes. This would be a show that would inform us, that would give us a new point of view of the world. All though we did leave with a new point of view then the one we had when we entered. The way we were brought there left little to be desired.

Rudeness. Not understanding that we live in a day where words are more then words."

Putting aside for the moment the question of whether or not it's appropriate to use a comedy show as an introduction to the entire philosophy of libertarianism -- I don't know that I accept "rudeness" as a legitimate complaint, in a show whose primary thesis is that all kinds of monstrosities can be couched within polite language.

These reviews aren't upsetting so much as frustrating -- because I simply have no idea what I could have done differently; I don't know how I could have written this script in a way that would have made them happier. I don't know what the phrase "Words are more than words" means. The "use of racial and anti-gay epithets" was -- discussed. At extreme length. Within the text itself! Irresponsible? Perhaps. Hurtful? Possibly. But gratuitous? I don't accept -- the use of language is absolutely essential to the point being made by the text.

What could I have done? To not use the language -- in a show that is devoted, specifically, to examining the use of language in a political arena -- seems profoundly hypocritical to me. I worried that the script was too preachy, too obvious, wearing its agenda on its sleeve. And what troubles me about these reviews isn't that they disliked the show, or that they disagreed with the underlying points -- it's that they don't seem to be aware of what the underlying points are. And as a writer, I have to regard that as my failure: but I'm at a loss as to what I could have done differently.


And as a writer, watching the DNC -- it's exactly the same arguments being played out, exactly the same rhetoric that I can't stand, exactly the same rhetoric that the script is trying to pull to pieces.

I dunno. A lot of this script emerged from the frustration of sitting through so many Bush-bashing political comedies, and feeling so intensely isolated; of looking around me at all of the people laughing, and wishing that I could join in. So I wrote a script that I was hoping could be an olive branch between us -- "See? We're not so different after all! We all want the same things! We all have the same enemies! All we're fighting over is language!"

But I suspect now that I was wrong. Maybe we don't have so much in common. And we are different. Maybe I just plain don't have anything to say to the left, and maybe they just don't have anything to say to me.

But I'll confess -- working on political comedy always leaves me in a pretty bleak place. And watching yet another election process leaves me in a bleaker one.