On Learning Cynicism

Maybe the idea is to have as many experiences as possible – we’re all here for a relatively short time and you don’t want to miss anything. The winter rain in Paris each year is fine, or so Hemingway would say. Arles is much as it was when Van Gogh was there, and a bit of Samuel Johnson’s London is still there. And those two years in rural Canada were calming, and grad school in North Carolina was a reasonable taste of the South, along with that odd weekend in New Orleans, the year before Katrina. The air in Denver really is clean, but El Paso was just odd. Texas is an acquired taste. Cape Cod is always good, and visiting family in Cincinnati is always a bit of the core of America – and of course life here in Hollywood is appropriately surreal. But this is home now. Rio and Tokyo and many other places are as yet unexplored – and now – barring a lottery win – impossible. But there was no point in staying in Pittsburgh. Hometowns are meant to be left behind. Yes, hanging around with the generals at the Pentagon is overrated, but hanging around Manhattan can never be. Keep moving. Keep your eyes open. Life is a limited-time offer.

And the same applies to music. In high school it was concert band and chamber groups and marching band, which may or may not have anything to do with music per se. But being the drum major, with the big fuzzy hat, was a hoot, as were the small groups – wannabe jazz combos, rather awful rock cover-bands, and dance bands playing ethnic weddings around the city. It was a little bit of everything, as was college – playing in a jug band next to John Denver and that summer in the Caribbean playing in a Puerto Rican salsa band – nothing written down, all by ear. Such things keep you on your toes. So does playing cocktail-piano in bars. You can do a lot with Cole Porter and Gershwin. And teaching in the seventies, running student chamber and jazz groups, would of course keep you fresh. Writing arrangements for what’s available to you is a challenge. Weekends, playing in a polka band, in lederhosen, was a relief. And you only go around once. Keep moving.

But there are limits. Playing in the pit-band for elaborate amateur productions of musicals can make you a cynic. Bye-Bye Birdie was fun – straightforward and quite happy pop-rock nonsense – and Fiddler on the Roof gives you a chance to stretch your Klezmer chops. On the other hand, West Side Story was a bitch – odd Latin and jazz riffs, mixed with a lot of Puccini-played-sideways shifting harmonies in impossible keys. Leonard Bernstein was not a nice man, even if it all worked. It was fine. But we all hated The Sound of Music – it was badly written childishly simple sentimental claptrap, emotionally manipulative like a bad Hallmark greeting card or a Thomas Kinkade painting of a cozy cottage. It was all too calculating – you just push the right buttons for the desired effect. In the pit we used to joke that high on a hill sits a lonely goat turd. And how do you solve a problem like Maria? Shoot her. The whole thing left a bad taste in your mouth. After each performance you felt dirty, like you were a sleazy salesman who’d been selling fake life insurance all evening.

At least that’s all in the past now. The nun is no longer singing Climb Every Mountain. But, as all experiences are transferable, informing how you see other things, it’s easy enough to transfer your cynicism to politicians, as maybe every political speech is a version of Climb Every Mountain, until your reach your dream and all that. Martin Luther King did that sort of thing right, in a good cause, but most of what you hear now is badly-written childishly-simple sentimental claptrap, about motherhood and apple pie – and the good old days or the shining future. And it too is emotionally manipulative – Hallmark greeting card stuff or that Thomas Kinkade cottage. And of course it’s calculating – you just push the right buttons for the desired effect, the motivated voter. It’s pitched to the rubes, and it’s easy enough to be cynical about politics.

And the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd hits on something here:

Shaken Democrats dived for cover and threw Rosen under the campaign bus. The media, worried about being perceived as favoring President Obama, jumped in on the side of the maligned Ann.

She pressed her advantage, scolding Rosen on Fox News. “She should have come to my house when those five boys were causing so much trouble,” Ann said. She alluded to her brave battles against breast cancer and multiple sclerosis: “Look, I know what it’s like to struggle.”

Yes, Hilary Rosen had said that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life, so she might be the wrong person to explain women’s issues to Mitt, as in the real world not everyone is so lucky. And the world jumped on Rosen, singing the praises of motherhood, which is real work, and generally doing the Sound of Music thing – substitute apple pie and motherhood for edelweiss. But NBC’s Garrett Haake was in the pit-band:

At a fund-raiser at a private home in Palm Beach, Fla., on Sunday, the night before her 63rd birthday, Ann made it clear that she wasn’t really aggrieved. She was feigning aggrievement to milk the moment.

“It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it,” a gleeful Ann told the backyard full of Florida fat cats, sounding “like a political tactician,” as Garrett Haake, the NBC reporter on the scene, put it.

Dowd says you’re not supposed to let the audience in on your cynical button-pushing calculations:

It’s important when you act the martyr not to overplay your hand. If you admit out loud to a bunch of people – including Haake, who was on the sidewalk enterprisingly eavesdropping – that you’re just pretending to be offended, you risk looking phony, like your husband. (It also doesn’t fly to tell Diane Sawyer that your dog “loved” 12 hours in a crate on top of the car or that it’s “our turn” to be in the White House.)

And Ed Kilgore carries this forward, discussing theatrical artifice:

The broader issue is that politicians – and I’d put Ann Romney in that category given her prominent role in the campaign – need to be careful not to “break character” the minute the cameras are turned off, at least if anyone outside the inner circle is within listening range. If you are paying experts many millions of dollars to shape your public image, and you are pursuing a strategy in which every public utterance contributes to that “message,” you can do double damage by more or less admitting it’s all just another day’s work on the bamboozlement trail.

That’s particularly true if, like Ann Romney, you have been cast in the role of the humanizing spouse who keeps the future Leader of the Free World in touch with the experiences and perspectives of the 99.9% of the electorate who have not shared the Romney lifestyle.

And Kilgore adds this:

I’ve always found the unwritten rule that the spouses and children of presidential candidates have to campaign as though auditioning for the Royal Family a distasteful quirk of American politics, and probably an Oedipal legacy of our beginnings as a British Colony. But once you accept that role, it’s a good idea to stay right in it to the bitter end.

You do have to play it straight, and stay in character. You don’t let the audience know that it’s all cynical claptrap, to manipulate them.

But Dowd also says this:

When the Romneys got married and moved to Boston in 1971 so Mitt could attend Harvard, they set up house in a suburb, befriended other young Mormon couples and kept to their cloistered, conservative, privileged, traditional, white, heterosexual circle.

Campuses were roiling with change – feminism, civil rights, antiwar demonstrations – but the Romneys were not part of that. They were throwbacks.

Dowd seems to be arguing that these two have always been out of touch, but Bryan Preston argues back:

Or, they were the responsible majority. Outside the Hippiedom that too many liberals of MoDo’s generation just can’t let go of, millions of Americans got educations, established careers, raised families and built communities. They stuck to tradition and passed it on their children. While the self-righteous hippies indulged and did their best to tear America apart, the Romneys and Americans like them kept the country going. Mitt Romney worked hard and was spectacularly successful. Apparently that’s not cool enough for Maureen.

He no doubt loved The Sound of Music too, as does S. E. Cupp:

While liberal women may praise Ann for (at least) getting herself an education, where is the praise for Ann’s best decision of all – to marry well?

Progressives like Hilary Rosen, who lambasted Ann Romney on economic issues for being a stay-at-home mom, would presumably prefer women to be dependent on the state for health care and housing.

But by marrying wealthy, Ann made a truly empowering decision that allowed her the freedom to do whatever she wanted. And she did it, by all accounts, without sacrificing the really important stuff, marrying someone she loved.

And what a catch she found in Mitt Romney, a good, churchgoing guy who worked hard to achieve huge success.

And Maria married the baron of course, and everyone lived happily ever after. And Cupp is angry some folks just don’t get it:

Don’t hold your breath for the choruses of “You go, girl!” from the feminists. Apparently, picking a good provider is only okay in political mates, not domestic ones.

But why is that? Women want safety and dependability, especially today, with such a volatile economy.

You see where this is going:

Because of whom she married, Ann was able to stay at home and raise her family the way she wanted. She was able to support her husband’s ambitions. She was able to afford lifesaving care when she was diagnosed with both multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. And she was able to devote her time to charity. In fact, her excellent choice of a mate makes her uniquely qualified to talk about the most important economic issue that real women confront: How am I going to support myself and my future family?

The feminists may wish otherwise, but little girls want stability and security, not state-sponsored welfare. For choosing a life partner who could give her that, Ann Romney is a great role model.

And Digby comments:

Somebody’s been watching too much Mad Men, I’m afraid. Seriously, it’s been a while since I read such retrograde drivel even from a right winger. She’s literally saying that if women want stability and security they should marry rich. Which is, I think we can all agree, nice work if you can get it. But the 1% is only 1% and unless we are going to require wealthy men to marry more than one wife (which I’m sure ole Mitt wouldn’t be averse to either – his grandfather wasn’t anyway) we have a little math problem here.

And she adds this:

I have to say that I’m depressed by the notion that the only valid choices for a woman to gain security and stability are to be dependent on welfare or marriage is still in circulation anywhere. Presumably, Cupp is aware that the vast majority of women don’t depend on anyone for those things. Not even the conservative married ones. They work at jobs, just like she does. Are they irresponsible gadabouts for failing to properly secure a millionaire?

Evidently Cupp is looking for a wealthy, patriarchal throwback to take her away from all this and there are probably a few available.

Damn! That’s the plot of The Sound of Music.

But at least someone had a sense of humor about all this, as Ryan Grim reports in the Huffington Post that Pete Stark, a congressman from here in California and a top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, is suggesting this:

Under current law, raising children does not count toward the required “work activity” that must be performed by recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the federal program that emerged from the 1996 welfare reform. Some states make an exception for mothers with children less than a year old.

The Woman’s Option to Raise Kids (WORK) Act, a copy of which was provided to HuffPost in advance of its introduction, would allow mothers with children ages three and under to stay at home with their children and continue receiving benefits.

Stark told Grim this:

Mitt Romney was for forcing mothers into the workforce before he decided that “all moms are working moms.” I think we should take Mr. Romney at his most recent word and change our federal laws to recognize the importance and legitimacy of raising young children. That’s why I’m introducing the WORK Act to provide low-income parents the option of staying home to raise young children without fear of being pushed into poverty.

Cool – you like that emotional claptrap about motherhood? Live with it.

Of course this will go nowhere. It’s just a stunt. And Andrew Sullivan steps back for some perspective:

The reality set in. It’s Romney versus Obama and no amount of my Santorum scenarios, Palin panics, Gingrich giggles or Paul swoons can now disguise the fact. The dread I feel is partly knowing that Romney is not even excruciating enough to be amusing. We cling to Seamus as tightly as he clung to his car roof penthouse. Even the Togg, Tagg and Tigg sons, or whatever bland all-American name is affixed to each, cannot compete with Alaskan wonder of Tripp and Trig and Levi. And on top of this, a very boring man is nonetheless prepared to tell outrageous lies, repeat them proudly, and intensify the polarization of the country even further. So we have another red-blue war, led on one side by a total cynic.

And so the promise of Obama – an end to this pattern – was delusional, not so much because he didn’t try or have the ability, but because the other side immediately decided that this epochal moment for the country, the first black president, was not a time to compromise and resolve some deep long-standing issues, specifically on taxation and spending. What might have been an integrating, reforming moment evaporated with zero Republican House votes on a desperately needed stimulus in the worst recession since the 1930s.

And so my heart sinks as I see Obama drifting to the left, offering the silly Buffett Rule instead of serious tax reform, and Romney tacks to the W-Cheney right, promising tax cuts, defense increases and drastic debt reduction, without providing any clue as to how this can be afforded.

So we are left with Hilary Rosen versus Ann Romney, on which MoDo has the best summary.

Heave. Retch. Repeat.

That matches what the late film critic Pauline Kael said of The Sound of Music:

This is a tribute to freshness that is so mechanically engineered and so shrewdly calculated that the background music rises, the already soft focus blurs and melts, and, upon the instant, you can hear all those noses blowing in the theatre. Whom could this operetta offend?

Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel.

We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.

Ah, Pauline Kael should have written about politics. And it was far worse playing in the pit-band, night after night after night. But it least such experiences give you some perspective on American politics – and the whole idea is to have as many experiences as possible. They keep you off the bamboozlement trail.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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