Swans Commentary » swans.com September 22, 2008  



En Passant


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - September 22, 2008)   After Apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, a Truth & Reconciliation Commission was convened to examine and correct the abuses that those years of brutal exclusion imposed on the nation. Villains were brought to justice and compelled both to explain and expiate their crimes. The Nuremberg trials, in pronouncing guilt, subtly helped define good and evil; so, in a lesser way, did the Watergate Hearings. Once the 2008 American election is over, a similar tribunal should be convened and Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, David Addington, and John Yoo should be hauled before their judges and forced to confront the constitutional crimes that they committed. Unless the transgressions of the Bush administration are openly confessed and publicly censured, there will be a wound on the nation that will fester for years to come. It isn't enough to say we were deceived into going to war and flouting civil and human rights. The high crimes and malicious misdemeanors that characterized the two terms of the Bush presidency need to be morally expunged and the nature of those crimes publicly revealed -- lest we forget.


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The consequence of being dangerously in debt to China and trying to "Westernize" Putin's dictatorial regime in Russia (let's brush aside the yes-man Medvedev and call things as they are) is that we lack the moral suasion to combat the Chinese on civil rights or the Russians on their incursions into sovereign states, recreating the Soviet-styled totalitarianism of old. One of the disadvantages of practicing torture, succumbing to media manipulation, and allowing a handful of corporations to control our politics, our troubled economy, and our psychic deterioration is that we are forced to recognize the similarities we share with those nations that we regularly disparage. It puts the negative aspects of our democracy into a cruel light and forces us to look long and hard at the patriotic shibboleths that are being ceremoniously trotted out in the lead-up to the '08 election.


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Michael Bloomberg's attempt to overturn term limits in order to protract his mayoral rule in New York, like Robert Mugabe's refusal to step aside despite the political victory of Morgan Tsvagirai in Zimbabwe, Hugo Chavez's attempt to force through legislation, which would allow a sitting president to seek unlimited re-election, and Vladimir Putin's selection of a proxy president, which allows him to retain the right to rule Russia, are striking confirmations of Lord Acton's observation that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It is an impulse to be found just as readily among corporate CEOs and benighted presidential candidates as it is Rotary Clubs and Boy Scout troops. It is the inverse of what we refer to as "the democratic spirit" but seems to be an inescapable outgrowth of democracy as much as it is totalitarianism.


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I would like to suggest a new category to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. My suggestion is that an annual award be given to a contemporary film that doesn't possess one deadly explosion, horrific bomb blast, or spectacle of bloody mayhem, but instead explores the subtleties of human relationships in commonplace, non-violent surroundings. I believe it would be a category in which no contenders would ever be nominated.


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Have you noticed, despite strong feelings of protest and indignation, how few demonstrations occur in America nowadays? The blogs may bloviate and complain, rock groups and television comedians may dispense acrid criticisms, and occasionally a Tibetan monk may immolate himself, but the spectacle of a great sweep of Americans of all types and ages protesting what they ostensibly seem to abhor about their country almost never takes place; certainly not in numbers that upset our imperturbable, quotidian lives. Has the blanket complacency that has settled over our roiled population consumed the old-fashioned American impulse to seek public redress for rights trampled and personal freedoms violated? Or is it simply that economic woes and "just getting by" have subsumed our national grievances? Nineteen sixty-eight was deafening and dangerous; 2008 is frighteningly placid. If Tom Paine were alive today, he would probably be on Rupert Murdoch's payroll!


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Is it just me who discerns a connection between the fact that as newspapers flounder, film, music, theatre, and book critics are rapidly disappearing? Is the diminution of criticism in the arts allied, in some nebulous way, to the disappearance of protest, which, let's face it, is in mild or raucous forms what the critic lives to express? The whittling-down of arts criticism must bring with it a diminishment of values; less opportunities to distinguish good from bad, the valuable from the expendable. Does that not also mean that advertising will fill the void and, instead of analyzing the virtues or vices of art, paid tipsters will more vigorously force artifacts down our throat? As this trend continues, does that not mean we will forego the opinions of experts and discerning pundits and respond more and more to slogans, buzzwords, and hype? And does that not mean that as one value-system disappears (esthetic discrimination) another (commercial hucksterism) will take its place; that financially well-heeled "marketeers" will fill the void vacated by connoisseurs? We tend to recoil from the obvious attempts of advertisers to force shoddy products down our throats. We go for a drink or to relieve ourselves when their commercials appear on our TV-screens. Silently or obstreperously, we express our disdain for those gauche attempts to extol virtues of goods that we know are rubbish. If the same sort of tactics is applied to books, plays, paintings, and DVDs, will we not long for the voices that objectively discriminated between these products? And will that not be the moment that we begin to mourn the passing of that much maligned, under-appreciated, and misunderstood helpmate, the critic?


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People keep saying there is "something wrong with Washington" and candidates claim that if you vote for them, they will guarantee to fix it. But if what is "wrong with Washington" is the electoral system itself, which enables money to buy power and nonentities to outpace men of principle, if it is the congressional system itself, which enables malefactions to continue from one administration to another, doesn't that suggest a problem so endemic it behooves us to seriously reassess the democratic process itself? If that is the case, should we not be looking for new paradigms rather new leaders? Or is it simply that too many people benefit from the status quo for any group seriously to consider changing the system? Virtually every election is fought on the basis of change with a number of dramatic titles such as "New Deal," "New Frontier," New-this, New-that -- but when the smoke clears, petty corruption, partisan deadlock, and swingeing inefficiency still prevail. If the government were a car, one would have dumped it into an automobile graveyard long ago. If it were a marriage, it would have been dragged through the divorce courts three hundred years ago. If it were a religion, its worshippers would have decisively abandoned it shortly after the atrocities of the Civil War, or almost certainly after Teapot Dome. But because it is sustained by patriotic hype and self-generating fictions, it is allowed to blunder on -- always with the hope that the next administration is going to remedy what forty-three administrations before it have consistently turned into a social fiasco.



[ed. Charles Marowitz's latest book, The Sounds of Music: Early Recording Artists, has just been published by World Audience, Inc., New York (ISBN: 978-0-9820540-4-8). According to the publisher, "The book provides sharp and concise profiles of legendary artists such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Billy Murray, Ada Jones, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice, Eva Tanguay, Nora Bayes, Rudy Vallee, The Boswell Sisters and dozens of other outstanding recording artists of the period. It also fills in the social milieu in which these artists rose to prominence reflecting the spirit of both the roaring Twenties and the turbulent Thirties. It is a book for anyone who has ever fallen in love with a ballad, blues, torch-song or novelty number out of the great American Song Book." You can read part of the book online at worldaudience.org.]


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Published September 22, 2008