Sunday, August 9, 2015

Beware Intelligent Men Bearing Caustic Wits

While some people continue to think of Ronald Reagan as the man who could do no wrong, those who remember his administration's participation in arms trading and union busting have a less favorable image of the 40th President of the United States. Few, however, will deny that under Reagan's watch, Americans began to experience a steady and calculated dumbing down of the educational system which resulted in surging waves of anti-intellectualism. While it may not be fair to equate brains with beauty, the sorry results speak for themselves.

Those of us who read Jonathan Swift's legendary 1726 satire entitled Gulliver's Travels may recall a tribe of creatures named the Yahoos. According to Wikipedia:
"Swift describes them as being filthy and with unpleasant habits, resembling human beings far too closely for the liking of protagonist Lemuel Gulliver... The Yahoos are primitive creatures obsessed with 'pretty stones' they find by digging in mud, thus representing the distasteful materialism and ignorant elitism Swift encountered in Britain. Hence the term 'yahoo' has come to mean 'a crude, brutish or obscenely coarse person.'"
Joanne B. Freeman recently published an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times entitled The Long History of Political Idiocy. In a post entitled Willfully Ignorant Howler Monkeys on Daily Kos, diarist Sninkypoo wrote:
"There's no political will on the right to act with intellectual honesty and take immediate, urgent, war effort-style action on climate change. All the vast majority of politicians (left and right) want to do is get along to go along, appeal to their base, take Big Daddy Oil's money, and get reelected."
Today's American politics are crippled by a combination of media-induced fear, appalling ignorance, self-hating anti-intellectualism, and a strategy of aiming to please an audience that represents the lowest common denominator. As a result, our society thrives on idiotic campaign stunts like these pathetic attempts to create a viral video.

A curious by-product of these "shit-for-brains" shenanigans is that when genuinely smart people who possess fierce and formidable intellects (Barney Frank, Bill NyeElizabeth Warren, Barack Obama) speak rationally, some listeners can't help but feel intimidated, insecure, irate, and impotent. Why?  Because when a person with a large and precise vocabulary can explain complex issues in reasonably simple terms, the ease and grace with which they do so makes the knuckle draggers quake in their designer shoes. It also tends to let the hot air out of pompous buffoons like Chris "the national teachers union deserves a punch in the face" Christie, Rick "Oops" Perry, and Rick (the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex) Santorum.

John Scalzi's stunning article, Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, offers a brilliant and beautifully written perspective on a problem currently plaguing American society. Just listen to what everyone's favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, had to say during a recent appearance in Sydney, Australia as he discussed racism and scientific illiteracy!

With Republican debates filling the stage with stooges who equate their preening narcissism with wisdom, it seems as if intelligent discourse has become an endangered phenomenon. Thankfully, two new documentaries do a smashing job of reminding viewers what it's like when fearless, impassioned intellectuals not only have the courage of their convictions, but don't hesitate to speak their minds.

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Larry Kramer has been called many things (abrasive, loudmouthed, fear-mongering, obnoxious, divisive, hysterical, and dangerous) over the course of his long and prolific career as a writer and activist, but no one has ever dared to call him dull or stupid. Born on June 25, 1935 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 2015 has been a banner year for one of the LGBT community's most lauded elders.
Larry Kramer at his 80th birthday celebration

Considering his long history of health problems (an AIDS diagnosis, a liver transplant), turning 80 was a milestone Kramer couldn't always be confident that he would reach. There has never been any doubt, however, about his achievements as a writer and public scold.
  • Kramer received an Academy Award nomination for his work on the screenplay for 1969's Women in Love
  • In 1978, his outrageously and deeply controversial novel, Faggots, was published by Random House. A satire on gay promiscuity in the 1970s, it featured a description of a notorious gay sex club named The Toilet Bowl which, among its themed rooms, included a bar known as The Lusitania Lounge ("all fitted out most smartly with the gleanings from a sunken Cunard liner" that had "a porthole-backed crush bar"); the Jackie O (a room that had "50 urinals standing up along with all those men in front of them" and its sister suite, the Radziwill Annex ("where there were 50 urinals lying down, along with all those men in front of them").
David Webster and Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer: In Love & Anger opens with its protagonist's famous "Plague" speech. From there on, its powerful sweep offers a crash course in how Kramer's response to the AIDS crisis helped to change the way new medical treatments were made available to the public by the National Institutes of Health. It also shows how ACT-UP's infamous "die-ins" (including a protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral) succeeded in drawing media attention to a spurned segment of the population who, as they faced death, had nothing left to lose.

While the documentary shows Kramer in robust health and, later in life, as a frail senior citizen, it teaches viewers what can happen when one fiercely intelligent man (who is not willing to take "no" for an answer) speaks truth to power. Here's the trailer:

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If one ventures into the political wars that now dominate cable television, it often seems as if the level of discourse has sunk to that of a professional wrestling match. People (especially when the screen is divided up among various pundits) are so busy talking over each other's voices that they can't be bothered to listen to what's actually being said.

From the morally reprehensible Mike Huckabee to the perverse insanity of Ann Coulter; from the preening narcissism of Donald Trump to the clumsy cluelessness of Jeb! Bush, today's political news scene has deteriorated into a toxic sideshow in which the most reliable truth tellers have been comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, and John Fugelsang.

A fascinating new documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville looks back at how the personal and political rancor shared by two intellectuals snobs helped to develop the antagonistic formats that have become so familiar to today's television viewers.

Poster art for Best of Enemies

Back in 1968, when there were only three major networks (no cable), ABC's ratings were in the toilet. Faced with the challenges of covering that year's Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (which was ruled with an iron fist by Mayor Richard J. Daley), ABC's corporate executives hit on a novel idea. Why not get two political commentators to debate each other on air during the conventions? Their final choice was bound to be an incendiary pairing.

William F. Buckley, Jr. initially grabbed the public's attention in 1951 with the publication of his first book (God and Man at Yale) when he was only 25 years old. Having founded National Review magazine in 1955, Buckley would eventually write more than 50 books (including several espionage novels). A conservative Christian with a monstrous ego, his sneering condescension was impossible to ignore.

In 1948, Gore Vidal's depiction of a homosexual relationship between characters in his third novel (The City and the Pillar) shocked many readers. His love of history and politics led to the creation of such plays as The Best Man (1960), Romulus (1962), and An Evening With Richard Nixon and.... (1972).  His historical novels (including Julian, Burr, 1876, The Golden Age, and Lincoln) stand in sharp contrast to his wildly imaginative 1968 satire, Myra Breckenridge.

As filmmaker Robert Gordon notes:
"I was a kid during their 1968 tête-à-tête offensives. Bill Buckley’s Firing Line was broadcast on Sunday mornings, what we watched when there were no cartoons and only preachers. A master of the medium,  he engaged children with his mannerisms and adults with his ideas. Vidal was a man of the left, his historical novels lining all modern home libraries; apart from the movement but also a part of it, he was the nation’s historian, and also its augur. Decades later, in 2010, my friend Tom Graves obtained a bootlegged copy of their 1968 debates and he screened them at a museum. The audience stayed long after the last image, parsing the performances and the issues." 
Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. get made up for a
television appearance in a scene from The Best of Enemies
"No one today speaks like these men, but their confrontations ring so contemporary. In the focused light of the 1968 national television camera, the seeds are planted for our present media landscape, when the spectacle trumps the content of argument. Each side today, like these two men, sees the other as malignant, promulgating views catastrophic for America; strident partisanship is virile patriotism and compromise is castration. These Vidal-Buckley debates forecast the present state of civic discourse, when heated and abbreviated by camera lights and corporate sponsors."
William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal
in a scene from The Best of Enemies
"I was intimidated to enter the world of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. A great part of this film’s initial attraction was the depth and breadth of these two huge characters, and of their luxurious language. Their sense of theater makes their knowledge entertaining, and their enmity sizzles like a fireworks fuse. Their East Coast WASP confidence, their easy command of the classics, the masterful rhetoric -- it makes a southern boy feel so unschooled."

No matter what a viewer's age may be, watching Best of Enemies is a fascinating display of two tart-tongued elitists debating each other with fangs bared and no love lost between them. Think of it as a cage match in which each contestant must rely on his cultural literacy, searing wit, and huge vocabulary in order to win.

By an odd coincidence, this documentary about the Buckley-Gore debates has been released at the same time as Jen Lancaster's fourth novel (The Best of Enemies). Only one of them has a trailer:

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