Do Ask and Make Them Tell

I used to think it was rude to shut down politicians. I’ve changed my mind. Now I believe it’s our best chance at reviving American democracy. It may be the only way to get our questions answered.

Contemporary politics is suffering from a dearth of public servants. What we too often get these days are the toadies of private interest groups. The latter pay plenty to airbrush their mouthpieces and train them to stay on message like mimicking parrots. Listening to modern politicians is often like being trapped in a room with a five-year-old piano student has just learned “Chopsticks;” after a while the tedium of repeated notes makes you crazy. It doesn’t seem to matter what the real issues are these days, oily pols just slide out from under them and spout well-rehearsed sound bites.

Somebody needs to remind politicians that they have a duty to answer the question that was asked, not the one they practiced in the seminar room. For heaven’s sake, if I ask one of my students to answer a question about the Civil War and she writes an essay about Vietnam, she fails. So let’s hold politicians to that standard. We must do so, because most journalists will not. To put a point on it, they too have been bought and sold by special interest groups that have wined them, dined them, and convinced them that the only way to be a “player” is to be embedded. In “press conferences” these days even NPR lobs more softballs than you’ll see on a summer Sunday in the park.

There are encouraging signs that disgruntled Americans are taking matters into their own hands. In her recent swing through Iowa, Michele Bachman insisted she only wanted to talk about the economy and declined to take questions. Not good enough for seventeen-year-old Gabe Aderhold, who wanted to ask Bachman about the suicide of gay teens in her own Minneapolis suburb. When she ignored him, he shouted out, “I am a second-class citizen because of you, Michele.” Bachman was forced to backpedal--and what else could one who thinks you can “cure” gays by “praying” do but backpedal?--by jumping into her golf cart and speeding away. Rick Perry didn’t fare any better in New Hampshire. When asked by a child how old he thought the earth was. “You know, I don’t have any idea,” said Perry as he tried to move on, but his answers weren’t much better on Social Security, unemployment, or global warming. I live in Massachusetts, where making fun of New Hampshire is an official sport, but let me offer a bold prediction: Rick Perry won’t fare well in the New Hampshire primary. Folks up that way know horseshit when they smell it, and Perry left so many deposits that Granite Staters will remember in February.

While we’re on the subject of all shine, no substance, let’s give the Cowardly Lion Award to Scott Brown. In an “appearance” in Western Massachusetts last week that was shorter than the senator’s list of accomplishments, Brown came, he waved, and he ran away the moment questions were asked. That’s right, a man who thinks he deserves to be a U.S. Senator didn’t take a single question. Apparently he can’t even hit a lobbed softball or two. Brown can win reelection without Western Massachusetts and that’s his only hope; he didn’t have that many fans here before he came, and he exited with even fewer. Let’s get folks in Eastern Massachusetts to force Brown to talk about the Tea Party baggage he hauls in the back of his famed pickup truck.

To this emerging trend I say, good on you Paul and Paula Plebian. Keep on asking those questions and if the pols don’t answer them to your satisfaction, keep on asking until they go away. Let’s ask Mitt Romney why a guy who doesn’t think the rich should pay higher taxes is tearing down his 3,000 square foot oceanfront home in La Jolla, California, to put up an 11,000 square foot replacement mansion. While we’re at it, let’s ask him what a guy who already has homes on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire; a townhouse in Boston; and a 9,500 square foot home at a ski resort in Utah actually knows about the middle class.

Let’s ask all Republicans why they won’t allow rich people to pay another nickel in taxes, but they do support repealing the current 4.2 percent Social Security payroll tax and letting it rise back to 6.2 percent, its level before President Bush temporarily lowered it. That’s a tax hike that impacts only incomes of under $106,000. (For the record, I support raising it. I also support removing the $106k cap.)

By all means become an equal opportunity question asker. Ask Barack Obama why he caved in on extending tax breaks to the rich when he promised that he wouldn’t. Ask him why we’re still in Iraq when we were supposed to be out by last spring. Make him tell you why a dime of federal money goes to Pakistan and why we should care about Afghanistan. Ask him when the hell he’s going to put forth a health reform package that’s worthy of the name.

Ask those questions, folks, and if the pols won’t answer them, shout ‘em down. If they don’t care what we want to know, why should we care what they think about anything else?


Colin Hay Makes Beauty Out of Tragedy


Gathering Mercury

Compass 7-4551-2

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Colin Hay is best known for his work with the Australian pop band Men at Work, though for the past several decades he’s been a solo artist. His latest album contains ten songs that reflect on his father’s death. That may sound maudlin, but the music is not. As the title suggests, Hay has had some trouble coming to grips with his loss; gathering mercury is, of course, a very hard thing to do. But instead of filling his lyrics with gut-wrenching angst, Hay uses gathering mercury as a metaphor for the way in which those who carry on after the death of a loved one seek new directions. The result is a passel of songs that is touching and sometimes sad, but also thoughtful and hopeful.

The album is also musically diverse. Hay mostly plays electric guitar throughout and works with a band, but he carefully crafts each song’s mood. On the opening “Send Somebody” the guitars are soft and ringing, which gives the piece a folk rock feel. He follows with “Family Man,” whose treatment is what you might get if you mashed some string band music with pop-laced music hall, √° la The Beatles’ White album. Later on he gives his “Half a Million Angels” a faint Spanish guitar highlights; on “Far From Home” he pushes the envelope the whole way and plays it reggae tempo. But the cool thing about this recording is that Hay doesn’t dwell too long in any one place. “Where the Sky is Blue” sounds like it was adapted from some old time Appalachian composition; and “A Simple Song” is a folk skiffle blend that lives up to its name.

I suppose an armchair psychologist might say that Hay’s musical rambling is a reflection of his psychic turmoil. Perhaps. Or maybe he’s just a clever musician who likes to mix things up and is making the best of a tragic loss. Yeah--let’s go with that.


The Help Serves Well, but Inaccurately

The Help (2011)

Directed by Tate Taylor

PG-13, 146 mins.

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The Help was a runaway best seller and the film version has been much anticipated. So how is it? It’s actually quite a lot like Kathryn Stockett’s book in that it’s a terrific story filled with memorable characters. It’s also like the novel, Ms. Stockett’s first, in that it is uneven, prone to tying together loose ends a bit too neatly, and of dubious historical authenticity. Stockett, who co-wrote the script with director Tate Taylor, might have done benefitted from working with a director whose resume wasn’t almost as slight as her own, but give both credit: the film has a big heart, even when it pulls too hard on the strings.

For those unfamiliar with the content, the setting is Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, a time in which Jim Crow was Lord and Master of the Deep South and every white family who could afford it (and lots who couldn’t) employed black servants to cook, clean, garden, and raise their kids. Those servants were, simply, “the help,” and most whites gave no more regard for their lives, dreams, and frustrations than one might to the grocery clerk at the local Piggly Wiggly. Nor did they hesitate to refer to them within earshot as “niggers” and speak of the diseases they supposedly harbored. Enter Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an optimistic white college grad whose education and strong bond with her family’s former maid have led her to question the vacuous world of peers whose lives revolve around Junior League, pursuing husbands, manicuring lawns, lacquering their hair, and keeping black folks in their “proper” place. Skeeter’s also an aspirant journalist with the big idea that just might open the door to the New York publishing world: an expos√© on how black women feel about being “the help.”

The movie is filled with memorable female characters. There’s already early buzz about Oscar nominations for the two lead black actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Davis is terrific as Aibileen Clark, a dignified woman filled with deep sorrow over her son’s death and simmering rage over racism. Just two things keep her going: her love of the children she tends, and the largely unrealized hope that they won’t grow up to be like their biological parents. Spencer is a ball of comedic delight but barely contained anger as Minny Jackson, though her portrayal is also solidly within classical “Mammy” roles, a script weakness and an anachronism that may scare off Oscar voters. The white roles are also strong. Emma Stone is Skeeter and she strikes the right balance between seriousness, insecurity, outrage, and fear. (She knows that if anyone discovers what she’s doing in advance, she’s in deep trouble and the lives of her informants are in jeopardy.) Most viewers probably won’t notice Stone as much as the two characters whose roles are as outsized as Spencer’s: Bryce Dallas Howard as the despicable Hilly Holbrook and Jesscia Chastain as the ditzy Celia Foote. Hilly is the easiest character to hate since Cruella Deville--a shallow, smug, bullying, self-serving little witch oblivious that she’s trashier than Celia, whom she delights in belittling. Chastain is affecting as Foote, though sometimes it looks as if she watched too many Marilyn Monroe movies preparing for the part. Toss in superb performances from the other maids and a few meaty cameos and bit parts--Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Cicely Tyson as the Phelan’s departed maid, and Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters--and you have a strong female cast, a rarity in film these days. (Spacek clearly had a blast chewing scenery like it was one of Minny’s chocolate pies!)

The weaknesses? Readers of the novel will find Emma Stone a poor match for their mental images of gawky and awkward Skeeter. Stone does her best to hide behind gawdawful glasses, but she’s way too pretty for the part. Readers will also miss the details of Jackson’s self-ridiculing white social world. Ditto the deep backgrounds of maids other than Aibilene and Minny; even at 146 minutes the film had to excise most of these. And don’t look for any strong or memorable male characters; they are as AWOL and ill defined as women characters in typical Hollywood fare.

There are three glaring issues inherent in the film because they were inherited from the novel. The elephant in the room is that this is a story about race told from a white perspective. All doors and windows are wide open to the charge that this is revisionism gone wild. Is this civil rights as they actually unfolded, or is Skeeter little more than a projection of what whites wish they had done, but didn’t? Is Hilly’s downfall real hubris, or a curtain that obscures another decade of deadly racism? (Check out Bruce Watson’s superb book Freedom Summer and get back to me about how much changed in Mississippi by the end of 1963.)

This leads to two other issues. The 1960s and civil rights are present in the film, but mainly as scenery and plot devices. The murder of Medgar Evers, for instance, serves to convince other maids to speak with Skeeter, but we don’t really learn much about Evers or the larger context of the civil rights movement. To put a point on it, without the movement, no maid would speak with Skeeter. And then there’s the issue of the “and they all lived happily thereafter” ending. Okay, the film doesn’t really end that way, but it does wrap up on a self-actualizing note that implies that the pluck and grit of all the likable characters ensures that they’ll land on their feet somehow. Un huh. It’s 1963. Looming on the horizon are urban riots, the murder of Dr. King, black power, the Black Panthers, and lynchings conducted with the same cavalier disregard as the firing of a maid.

Enjoy The Help. Savor its characters. Admire its heart. Just don’t confuse it with history.