Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Kudos to Tony Adams

There is a fascinating discussion of "Content" going on over at Tony's blog. I would venture to say it is the theatrosphere at its finest, a real revelation of what dialogue (dare I say civil discourse?) could be here in blogworld.

Go and read and contribute. Then after you do, come back here.

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You're back? Good. So here's my question: why is that conversation so good, and how do we make it happen
more often?
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On Complexity and Civil Discourse

Over at Flyover, there is a great article from the Charleston City Paper entitled "The Partisan Imagination: Does Being an Artist Make You a Liberal?" What I appreciate most about the article, in addition to its quoting from Martha Nussbaums' inspiring book Cultivating Humanity, is that it at least somewhat respects the complexity of the question. It doesn't answer yes or no, either-or, but rather maybe-and. he author weighs different viewpoints, and gives credence to those ideas that resist the desire to simplify the issue to melodramatic poles. The last line points to another facet of the subject, another viewpoint yet to be considered.  Would there were more such thoughtful articles in newspapers or here in the theatrosphere.

Much of my dissertation involved studying the writings of Lionel Trilling, an important literary critic who wrote for The Partisan Review from the 1930s through the 1960s. It is from him that I learned to appreciate complexity. Complexity does not mean obscurity, but rather an appreciation of the fact that most questions worth discussing are multi-faceted.

Our society has become addicted to simple-minded melodrama. From our entertainment to our political discourse, we regularly choose the extreme over the measured, the fight over the discussion, the war over diplomacy. Throughout the presidential campaign, the media continually cried out that it was necessary for Obama to take a few swings at McCain, to deliver a "knockout punch," to get more aggressive. To his credit, Obama resisted those calls, because his vision for America is based not only on bi-partisanship, but on a recognition that issues are complex, and demand a thoughtful, measured process and response. Even now, as Obama prepares his transition to the Presidency, websites like Daily Kos (which I read compulsively throughout the campaign) is claiming that it wasn't Obama's stated values that won the campaign, but rather the Kossacks who went after McCain and Palin whenever they threw garbage his way. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is as Wallace Shawn said in Aunt Dan and Lemon, that our kindness and empathy relies on someone like Henry Kissinger to do the dirty work for us.

But now that the challenger has been vanquished, it is time to put aside our weapons and help Obama in his attempt to create a different society, one that focuses on points of commonality not points of conflict, one that focuses on civil dialogue not polarized shouting matches, one that recognizes complexity rather than pretends to a simplicity that doesn't exist. This requires restraint. It requires us to give up the buzz afforded by killing dragons.  For there are very few dragons, but there are many, many complex problems that require the insights and considerations of multiple perspectives.

I am a lifelong Democrat, and during my 32 years of voting I have seen my candidates win and I've seen them lose. But never have I felt such a sense of personal hope as when Obama won. And that hope is based not just in a changing of the guard, an unseating of the Republican leadership that has taken us down so many despicable pathways -- I would not have felt the same way had Hilary Clinton been elected instead of Obama, although I would have felt some measure of relief nonetheless. Rather, the intensity of my hope, which seems to be shared by so many people worldwide, is based on something in Obama's character, something is his way of being, something in his grace, his civility, his discipline, his passionate open-mindedness. The President can set a tone, can call on our better angels, can remind us of what we are in our best moments rather than our worst. And he does that not only by what he does, but just as importantly by how he does it.

As a society, we are hooked on the political crack that is partisan conflict.  It is my fervent hope that Obama can take us through rehab, break our adrenaline addiction, and restore us to calm, thoughtful, civil thinking and discourse.
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Monday, November 10, 2008

Poor Player on Intolerant Liberalism

Tom Loughlin posts a warning for all of us who might be inclined to turn Barack Obama's much-appreciated election into a cudgel with which to beat (or drum out) alternative viewpoints. Tom describes the arrival on his campus of a preacher who preached conservative, anti-gay sermon, and how many of his students and faculty felt it was acceptable to take action to drown out his speech. Like Tom, I have had such preachers on my campus as well, and like Tom I have defended the right to voice ideas that I find despicable and wrong-headed. What goes around comes around, and if we feel the right to silence others with whom we disagree, we should not be surprised to find ourselves silenced when the ideological worm turns.

Isaac gets upset at Tom's post, because Tom presents no evidence that this is more than an isolated incident. I don't think that was the point of Tom's post.  The point was to sound a warning. As someone who has spent the past twenty years on college campuses, I have seen the intolerance of the left firsthand, and it is very unsettling. Tom rightly points out that what made Obama such an inspiring candidate was his insistence that his campaign maintain at all times a civil demeanor. His election night speech, as Tom also points out, was focused on the same theme of one America working together.

Polarization works both ways, and our love of melodramatic good-vs-evil structure is something from which we need to free ourselves. Democracy thrives when there is a rich dialogue represented by many viewpoints. The work of Sojourn Theatre or Cornerstone Theatre, for instance, are exemplary in that they make explicit this commitment to a multiplicity of voices. The description of the conflicts and negotiations involved in Cornerstone's massive Faith-Based Theater Cycle, brilliantly described by Mark Valdez in the Americans for the Arts publication Dialogue in Artistic Practice, shows how the willingness to inclusively integrate multiple viewpoints leads to incredibly rich theatre. Bill Rauch, former artistic director of Cornerstone, said in an interview: "The company's aesthetic is to include the community's dialogue with itself in the script, which calls for opposing voices and layers of meaning and a vital richness. Multiplicity of viewpoints: It's essential to our mission….I think a lot of people stop at the "multiplicity of voices" thing, and interpret it as "Can't we all get along?" – a kind of superficial multiculturalism. But including the voice of the oppressor along with the voice of the oppressed is a very strong political stance." Rob Kendt, in an article on Cornerstone, writes about the discomfort that many feel in actually listening to ideas with which they disagree, while at the same time claiming tolerance as a creed: ”that’s how tolerance works in many circles of public life: Don’t ask, don’t tell. We can all just get along if we stick to sports and the weather – or, in the theatre, to the script and the lighting plot.”

Democracy demands diversity, and that means accepting that there are people in the world whose opinions are objectionable. But a society unable to openly and respectfully engage all viewpoints, a society that swings wildly from pole to pole as ideological winds shift, is a society that has lost its mind, its heart, and its sense of community. I am old enough to remember when the Nazis wanted to march in Skokie Illinois. As the cover of the book When the Nazis Came to Skokie describes: "
In the Chicago suburb of Skokie, one out of every six Jewish citizens in the late 1970s was a survivor--or was directly related to a survivor--of the Holocaust. These victims of terror had resettled in America expecting to lead peaceful lives free from persecution. But their safe haven was shattered when a neo-Nazi group announced its intention to parade there in 1977....The debate was clear-cut: American Nazis claimed the right of free speech while their Jewish "targets" claimed the right to live without intimidation. The town, arguing that the march would assault the sensibilities of its citizens and spark violence, managed to win a court injunction against the marchers. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union took the case and successfully defended the Nazis' right to free speech." The book description concludes: "Forcefully argued, Strum's book shows that freedom of speech must be defended even when the beneficiaries of that defense are far from admirable individuals. It raises both constitutional and moral issues critical to our understanding of free speech and carries important lessons for current controversies over hate speech on college campuses, inviting readers to think more carefully about what the First Amendment really means."

We need to reclaim the basic understanding of democracy's foundational ideas, especially the idea of civic discourse and the importance of dialogue. If anyone should understand that necessity, it should be theatre people, whose very art form lives and dies on dialogic conflict between opposing viewpoints, from which comes a rich and complex synthesis.

Thanks, Tom, for the warning.
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