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Lessons of the Berlin Wall

This week’s class in my social media course was an assignment for an oral-visual presentation intended to concretize that social media’s success is ultimately achieved in reality, not online.

Judging from the outcome and feedback, the lesson is learned. Stories told and items shown were presented with thought, concision and conviction. Each student told an amazing story with an accompanying physical item that captures some part of what they hold highest and dearest. From tales of a grandmother whose entrepreneurial spirit inspired an online enterprise, with faded black and white prints, to poetry readings and an inspiring story of an encounter on a flight to Omaha with a bill of money ending in Texas decades later with a deal for profit and a tale of taking risks in a haunted fashion show with Elvira, each student cashed in on an ability to communicate in a social context in a way that advanced their goals, growth and development. The students’ presentations were excellent. I told them so.

BurbankAdultSchoolBeing social, which necessitates communication, is part of man’s nature. The 9-week course at Burbank Adult School is predicated on this idea. It aims to enrich the student to learn skills to advance his self-interest. One of the student presentations demonstrated the course’s theme in an especially memorable way. It was created by a student who chose to tell the class about his time in Berlin.

Though he didn’t disclose the year, it was clearly many years ago. He said he had been teaching a skill he’d mastered to a group of students. Some of them, he said, had lived in East Germany, a Communist dictatorship controlled by the Soviet Union. He said he noticed something different about these students. In particular, he told the class that he’d observed something haunted, even vacant, in their eyes. In time, he explained, he realized that the students from Communist Germany were living in terror of making a mistake. He said he sought to help them. He told the class that he made an effort to alleviate their fear so they might begin to live free in the world again.

Then, he said, something extraordinary happened during the teaching of his course.

As he said this, pausing to pull his Show & Tell item from a black athletic bag, he took a moment to compose himself. The year, he explained, was 1989 and, as the Communist regime collapsed in Soviet Russia, the Berlin Wall came down. Reaching into his bag in silence and pulling out a chunk of concrete which was once part of the slave state imprisoning millions of Germans, he told the class in social media that his students had given him this gift for having taught them. He added quietly that he has treasured it ever since.

That day was 25 years ago this Sunday and, in a single display of concrete preceded by a tale of teaching victims of Soviet oppression, he communicated the power of reducing ideas to reality in a course on social media as a means of reducing ideas to reality. In his particular presentation, and in the other students’ presentations, too, he made my course, All About Social Media, searingly, brilliantly, all about his own life, work, liberty, happiness and self. That is the whole ideal.

TV Review: The Nance with Nathan Lane

TheNanceEpMain Nathan Lane (The Birdcage, Modern Family) is the main reason to watch Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony Award-nominated play The Nance, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, in the version airing this Friday night (9-11 pm ET, Oct. 10, check local listings) for the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center.

Lane is as expressive and entertaining as ever when the material permits as flamboyant homosexual Chauncey Miles, a headline nance (a theater term for a parody of a gay man and shortened version of “nancy boy” which was code for homosexual) during New York City’s 1930s burlesque era. Alternating composer Glen Kelly’s songs with sketches and monologues involving a younger man with whom Lane’s character becomes romantically partnered, the 2-hour televised play is, in turns, historically intriguing, enjoyable and maudlin. The depiction of this type of closeted gay performer’s life and work – the nance was typically portrayed by a heterosexual man – who is inherently suppressed and practically forced into dark, shadowy promiscuity is bound to become sobering and The Nance does.

No problem there, though the somber moments stop the show and highlight the play’s weak transitions and naturalistic theme, which amounts to a sad but interesting slice of gay life in Depression-era Manhattan. The Nance Starring Nathan Lane, part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival, is likely to enlighten and entertain, especially with such a talented actor in the demanding title role, as it showcases tacky routines that brought laughter to burlesque houses downtown while Mayor Fiorello La Guardia pledged to clean up the city in anticipation of the World’s Fair by pushing people like the nance (who is, incidentally, a Republican), off stage. Police brutality and other topical issues come to the forefront as half-naked dames and various show people stake a claim and make an exit. But The Nance, driven by Lane and a heartbreaking performance by Jonny Orsini as the man who tries to love him, leaves the audience feeling less empathetic than it should.

Glen Campbell’s ‘A Better Place’

GOTC/GCThe quiet, introspective song “A Better Place” from Glen Campbell’s 2011 album, Ghost on the Canvas, is the subject of this post. The tune, written by Campbell with Julian Raymond, is both prayer and poem.

This is the type of song that lingers depending on one’s context. I’ve listened to it many times and I think it strikes me now because, in the middle of life, I have less time than I used to. I was reminded of this when I recently drove to Las Vegas to see a friend who’d had a major stroke and I had a car accident on the way, luckily without injury. Such traumatic events leave an impression and, from this, one may invoke a thought which may yield an insight. The thought I’ve had, which is not new but is newly relevant, is that making one’s soul means looking within and actively thinking about oneself and what one’s life ought to be. My sick friend, who wordlessly looked into my eyes from a hospital bed, teaches me this lesson. This is my context for “A Better Place”.

Listen to the tune for yourself and watch the video (its own reward) here.

I like that the song is simple and concise. I like that, while it’s in a certain sense outwardly religious, the place to which it refers can also and unambiguously be here on earth. I also like that its economy allows for some sweetness, in the subtle but marked vocal difference between the first “you’ll see”, which ends on a romantic lilt, and the second “you’ll see,” an affirmation which is more refined. It’s a farewell song, but it’s a sacred vow to those from whom one departs. Anyone who reads this blog already knows that I think that what ails the world is the contempt for ideals in a rampant cynicism that redounds to nihilism. It can be tempting to let what matters go. It can be hard to hold on. Glen Campbell’s song exudes the spirit of holding on, beginning with a plain, unadorned admission of failure in the first line, which appreciates how failure seeds success.

Southerner Campbell, a country and western singer who broke through in New Mexico and came to L.A. who is losing his mind from disease, concludes his video with an acknowledgement of “…the people around me that cared enough to help me do my best.” Striving to realize the best in a world without acceptance of a philosophy fit for man often seems damned impossible. Glen Campbell‘s “A Better Place”, like the Serenity Prayer, gently offers the wisdom that being one’s best is, in spite of the horrors of the world, still possible.

 

O.J. Simpson and Murder in Brentwood

bobrentwoodsimpsonmugshotToward the end of the bloodiest century in history, a trial about one of the bloodiest crimes consumed the nation.

The accused murderer, a former professional football player and actor, was a handsome, rich, black celebrity, all of which I think are factors in his getting away with murder. His name, which nearly everyone knows, is less important than the story of his crime and escape from punishment. To me, he ought to be remembered as the Butcher of Brentwood.

He was arrested for lying in wait to murder his pretty white, blonde ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, a handsome waiter at a nearby restaurant where she had dined who was doing her a favor by returning a pair of sunglasses. Most people know the details of the brutal double homicide and the trial that followed, which were covered in the book Outrage by former Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who had prosecuted hippie mass murderer Charles Manson and obtained the death penalty.

Police detectives, lawyers, judge, jury, witnesses and reporters were mediocre, incompetent, self-centered, racist and, above all, subjective, not objective, about examining the crime. Even on the terms of the trial, as bungled a case as the prosecution made – an observation which Bugliosi rightly pointed out – the jury should have convicted the accused of murder.

Instead, the verdict was Not Guilty.

Why is a matter of speculation. Twenty years later, the guilt of the accused is widely accepted as a fact. It is not controversial. Most think he’s guilty of murder.

One possible explanation – and this is a cultural, not a legal, conjecture – is that blacks on the jury sought to counterbalance decades of real or perceived bias by whites in the judicial system. In a fundamental sense, whites accepted this retributive injustice. The notion that the jury did not understand genetic evidence, such as blood testing and DNA, may be true. But I think that the fix, as the saying goes, may have already been in. The trial took place shortly after the 1992 L.A. riots, a bloodbath and the worst U.S. riot of the century, and the city’s blacks felt wrongly maligned for the riots which many blamed on another controversial racially themed trial’s verdict. The conviction of police officers in that trial over the beating of convicted felon Rodney King was not satisfactory to L.A.’s black community. Letting the accused get away with murder was considered a potential form of payback.

The televised courtroom coverage acquired a frenzied atmosphere. The trial became a spectacle. From the Tonight Show host’s absurdist skits to the media’s sensationalistic approach, both crime and punishment were incessantly trivialized. Americans were gripped by the trial and verdict, though they were not moved to outrage, not really. A few intellectuals, such as Bugliosi, Dominick Dunne and Leonard Peikoff, were outraged and said so. Most people, from the roadside cheering of the accused murderer’s flight from arrest to the ignorant verdict, may have been caught up in the spectacle with no active interest in making a call for justice. After the trial, I participated in candlelight vigils, marches and protests at the Brentwood murder scene. Demonstrators spoke out against wife-beating. The accused had previously and admittedly done that, too. But talk of outrage at the verdict was discouraged.

The trial was fertile ground for collectivist tendencies.

The criminal justice system has disproportionately convicted blacks and Los Angeles Police have a track record of institutionalized prejudice against blacks, so when the issue of white detective Mark Fuhrman using a racist term for blacks was raised during the trial, it infused other, unrelated injustice into the proceedings. Ultimately, I think the prospect of letting one of America’s most successful high profile blacks go free for murder may have been too tempting for the mostly black jury. Racism, an offshoot of collectivism, festers in people that to varying degrees choose to be irrational, regardless of blood. Being black does not mean one cannot also be racist. Add racial, cultural and economic stereotypes and tensions and the childishly coded dismissal of facts in evidence in the legal hustler’s line that “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” and the jury’s verdict came through as a willful redress for past grievances which everyone seemed more or less resigned to accept. There was no white backlash. There were no riots. There were no race wars. There was celebration among blacks.

In a sense, black militants had won. They had triumphed without even having to bother making explicit what idea drove the unjust verdict and the celebrations that followed: that one’s identity is based on race. If the thesis of black power was invoked – I think it was and has, in the 20 years since, been accepted as dogma – the civil rights movement’s vision of judging a person as an individual, not based on one’s race, had been discredited if not defeated. Not long after the verdict, Americans would elect a biracial president whose wedding was officiated by an advocate of black liberation theology. But accepted, too, on an underlying level was the idea that the ends justify the means; that rendering an unjust verdict in the name of past wrongs is OK and in any case the show must go on. Indeed, the race-themed spectacle did go on, and the culture is crawling with Kardashians and those with whom they multiply such as the hip hop artist known for verbally assaulting a white artist for defeating a black artist at an awards ceremony.

Life, too, goes on, but not for those who were murdered. In the 20 years since the injustice was delivered, the exonerated lost the civil court battle brought by the murdered Ron Goldman’s father, real-life avenger Fred Goldman. The one I call the butcher of Brentwood, a phrase which is earned with one look at the crime scene photographs, is in jail for other crimes. His 1994 lawyers scattered like cockroaches into other lines of work or they passed away, with not a single practicing attorney, whether Legal Zoom founder Robert Shapiro or Israel defender Alan Dershowitz, acknowledging let alone admitting or atoning for complicity in the bloodied butcher getting away with murder. Vigilantism at the expense of justice did not result in progress for blacks. Whatever cultural impact of O.J. Simpson, his foremost legacy is the death of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson and Americans resigning themselves to going along with injustice as they have gone along with every other injustice since 1994. Then and 20 years later, the facts show that Orenthal James Simpson ended two lives in an act of pure evil. That he got away with murder is beyond dispute. That the injustice is so blithely mocked and maligned (yet accepted) taints the nation and foreshadows its decline.

Tiananmen’s Individualist

Tiananmen individualistWhatever his identity, the lone individual who stood against the state 25 years ago this Thursday (June 5) remains a man of inspiration.

The sight of one man standing alone against the tyranny of dictatorship – in this case Communist China – came to symbolize the crusade for freedom in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall would come down and millions of people would be liberated from slavery.

Sadly, as I suspected at the time, it was an interlude before new forms of totalitarianism would rise, spread and strike and destroy civilization across the globe. But this image of a single act of heroism, which took place during an uprising at Tiananmen Square in Beijing and to some extent took root in China, moves me still. Such heroes who stand alone against the state march on. Edward Snowden comes to mind. Though the West is, in its impending collapse, choosing to punish heroes as traitors, and celebrate, create (and, yesterday, release) anti-heroes instead, men like the one pictured here are exactly what the world needs now.