Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Skinning the cat

The host/editor of a blog I participate in started a discussion recently, premised on arguable "Facts" and I tried to introduce something of this thread into the discussion there, but I've decided it really should be another entirely different discussion — as it's not about facts at all.

Back in my college days I had a good friend, a house mate of mine for a while, who was a film major. Our friendship first took root in the rich soil of Freshman year commiseration. We each of us were wrestling hard to wrap our heads around the thinking, as it was being taught to us at the time, that underpinned the work we wanted to take up. For me it was listening to lectures on 'Deconstructivism' from an Architecture faculty that seemed to have not a single native English speaker. Dense theory is particularly hard to absorb when it's being delivered in a crowded hall with terrible acoustics by someone with the kind of accent Sid Ceasar used to imitate. For my friend, the would be filmmaker, the scourge was Semiotics, and the source of so much pain was the writing of the then most prominent theorist on the subject, Umberto Eco. My friend would mutter to himself and then to me about what he called 'semi-antics' —and postmodern meaning — signs and signifiers.

I'm not sure I ever fully grasped the importance of Semiotics to good film making, but at the time it sure was central to that particular school's curriculum, and my good friend did his damnedest to figure it out for himself —and to explain it to me. I remember he had this deck of flash cards. There was a card with the word "cat" ...and a picture of a cat ...and some circles and arrows. My friend used to try to point out how this card with the cat was hilarious ...if you thought about it.

It was a couple years later that Eco went mainstream, publishing "The Name of The Rose" —heck, they even made a movie of it. My sense from my friend at the time was that he was disappointed. By then he'd developed some command of the Italian academic's theories and now it was as if an artist he admired was selling out. Dylan hadn't yet begun to market lingerie.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stolen Bases

The Grand Old Party is trying to put a brand new face on (and who could blame them). Towards that end they have unveiled a new feature on their party website called "Heroes" —and no, it doesn't claim that Republians are actually a secreted race of mutant superheroes careening through an unhinged space-time continuum and seeking the rescue of mankind's future.

Actually the implicit claims are a bit more off base.

The website page means to point to a number of noteworthy Republicans of bygone times —so as to celebrate a worthwhile legacy —and that's where the strangeness comes in. The feature highlights 16 historical figures that it counts as "Patriots: American Heroes & Famous Republicans" —and as you might expect you got your Eisenhower, your Reagan and Lincoln (even though the prevailing platform would seem to deplore that insidious invasive Federalism Old Abe represented) —but from there the list gets surprising. It goes on to include seven African-Americans, one Hispanic-American, and four women —and only one more white guy —Everett Dirkson.

Nobody who watched the last Republican National Convention would confuse the G.O.P. with the Rainbow Coalition. Minority participation set record lows. 36 of the 2,380 seated delegates at the 2008 RNC were Black. So perhaps it's a positive step, this new attempt at re-branding the party. It would be nice if the last vestiges of "The Southern Strategy" backlash against Civil Rights progress collapsed in on themselves and Republicans did indeed call on the "better angels" of their prouder history. But the whole of history isn't so easily put aside with a new marketing campaign. It just might be that history is most instructive when it's read in detail —not tokenized and glossed over.

That might actually involve coming to terms with what our "heroes" actually had to say. One such Hero—and supposed Republican Patriot— was Jackie Robinson, the ballplayer who broke the color barrier in baseball. His picture is up there on the website. A nice blurb points out that he campaigned for Nixon in 1960 and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964. What it does not choose to highlight was the way Robinson described his experiences at the nominating convention of '64, when his candidate lost out to Goldwater —and he saw first hand the seeds of a sad and more sordid Republican politics beginning to take root.

In his 2003 autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," Robinson writes: "Early in 1964 I wrote a Speaking Out piece for The Saturday Evening Post. A Barry Goldwater victory would insure that the GOP would be completely the white man's party. What happened at San Francisco when Senator Goldwater became the Republican standard-bearer confirmed my prediction.

I wasn't altogether caught off guard by the victory of the reactionary forces in the Republican party, but I was appalled by the tactics they used to stifle their liberal opposition," Robinson wrote of that year's G.O.P. gathering. "I was a special delegate to the convention through an arrangement made by the Rockefeller office. That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life. The hatred I saw was unique to me because it was hatred directed against a white man. It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for, including his enlightened attitude toward black people."

What he observed, Robinson said, gave him "a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany."

As Sam Stein writing for Huffpost points out, in his lifetime Robinson "went so far as to insist that he be called an independent, "since I've never identified myself with one party or another in politics." In 1968 he campaigned for Hubert Humphrey."

I don't mean to suggest Republicans are so wrong to list Jackie Robinson as a Hero —even as their Hero. I can believe Nelson Rockefeller —and even Richard Nixon— had done things to earn Robinson's support. When it comes to the history of Civil Rights advocacy that party does have some things to be proud of —and I know Democrats have their share of sad skeletons. But I do mean to ask that we all consider what the hero said —what he observed and shared before simply using him and some selective part of his story as an exculpating symbol.

That new old Republican Party their website seeks to imply —the party that identifies with its better history —and moves beyond its lesser past— would be a welcome thing. But that won't come with pretty pictures and telling only part of the story. It might come of telling the whole of it —and learning.