It’s not a great show yet, but it can be

The Newsroom has taken a lot of flack in the press for being too similar to what Aaron Sorkin has done before – a workplace drama where characters race through halls and corridors, their words flying at the same breakneck pace as their feet, while sermonizing about everything that’s wrong with the world and about the nobility of trying to fix it.  Well, what can you say, really – the man has his wheelhouse.  We’ll probably never know for certain the exact details of why Sorkin left The West Wing in the hands of John Wells after the fourth season, but I believe that he missed writing it.  On the DVD commentary for the final episode he penned, he hints at having an alternate resolution for the storyline where President Bartlet’s daughter is abducted and Bartlet steps aside to allow the Republican Speaker of the House to serve temporarily as President until she is found – but ultimately chooses to hold his piece and not pass judgement on the version penned by Wells.  When Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip came out, the old West Wing tropes crept back in to a series that was ostensibly about something a light-year removed from Washington politics – a Saturday Night Live-esque comedy show.  But when Matthew Perry’s unapologetic liberal Matt Albie and Sarah Paulson’s sorta-conservative-but-not-really Harriet Hayes got into a debate on the beliefs of their respective political parties, it was almost a flare going up from Sorkin indicating that he’d rather be putting these words in the mouths of Sam Seaborn and Ainsley Hayes.  Cementing this notion, the final four episodes that closed Studio 60’s only season were an extended plot about one of the characters’ brothers going missing in Afghanistan and the rescue operation to find him.  You could tell that the limitations of potential plots about sets breaking down and guest hosts showing up drunk were chafing Sorkin’s desire to tell big, consequential stories, and by the time he knew the show was on the way out he didn’t care to make the distinction anymore.

The Newsroom is a kind of hybrid of these two disparate beasts – a show about television that now has a logical reason for dealing with political stories.  Sorkin’s thesis is that news on both the left and the right has lost its way, that scoring points and sucking up to corporate and political interests has become more important than the reporting of the truth and the willingness to challenge people on their obfuscation and misinformation.  He’s not wrong in this, even though the right is more complicit along these lines (for all the bitching on the right about MSNBC, it is not a blatant propaganda mouthpiece for the Republicans the way Fox News is).  As conflicted anchor Will McAvoy, Jeff Daniels has a great moment in the pilot when he turns to the left-wing talking head (seated, unsubtly, on his left) and tells her that no one likes liberals because they lose all the time.  Again, as a liberal eternally frustrated by our collective inability to explain our message succinctly and stick it to people who don’t agree with us the way conservatives do, this is manna, something that desperately needs to be said, understood and acted upon.

But the show isn’t meant as a wakeup call to the left, inasmuch as it isn’t a strict smackdown of the right either.  It’s a request to both sides to do better.  For liberals to find their balls, and for conservatives to find their sense of decency.  Sorkin wants the debate – he wants both sides to present their ideas in their purest, most robust, intellectual form, bereft of political gamesmanship and the “my dad can beat up your dad” state of current discourse.  As a news anchor, McAvoy is positioned perfectly, in Sorkin’s view, to act as arbiter of this hoped-for grand debate, to call out liars and steer the conversation away from constant appeals to the lowest common denominator.  As the show puts it, to tell truth to stupid.  What frustrates Sorkin most is that the only thing preventing this happening in real life is not the lack of resources, or opportunity, but of will.  As Sam Waterston’s network boss Charlie Skinner puts it in the line that gives the title to the pilot episode, “we just decided to.”  We can just decide to.

Noble ambitions aside, how fares the execution?  Well, The Newsroom is not without its flaws, some of which may be chalked up to first-episode jitters.  The West Wing cast was considerably more seasoned than this starting lineup when they began chewing on the “Sorkinese” in 1999, and while old pros Daniels and Waterston are excellent (and it’s fun to watch Waterston play an old drunk who doesn’t give a rat’s ass after what felt like decades as stalwart integrity warrior Jack McCoy) the younger performers haven’t quite nailed the pacing of the dialogue – fast-paced banter among them feels like they are trying too hard to make sure the lines come out in the proper order, as opposed to sounding like the character thought of them first.

One of the great things about The West Wing’s pilot was how the ensemble entered the story individually, with distinct beats that gave you a great snapshot of who they were and what they might become, before they began to interact with one another and the plot built gradually to the climactic introduction of the President.  Not so here.  We’re thrown into ACN’s news bullpen with little sense of who is who and what their function is – perhaps that matches the chaotic feel of a real newsroom, but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to latch on to types we want to identify with quickly.  And this is a personal preference, but as someone who is not the biggest fan of obvious love triangles, it would have been preferable to see the Don-Maggie-Jim subplot develop gradually a few episodes in, instead of hitting us over the head with it in the first half hour, because now, dramatically, it doesn’t have anywhere to go.  Maggie is with Don and then might end up with Jim and of course Don won’t accept that and so on and so forth.  I’m still not quite sure what Don’s function will be going forward – he is supposed to be moving to another program but is still hanging around McAvoy’s “News Night” for the time being.  Anyway – easily my least favourite character and the greatest potential to be the Mandy Hampton of this series.

As for the other major player, Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale, a few histrionic moments do not provide an adequate counterbalance to Daniels’ McAvoy.  She is, in this episode, as insubstantial as the phantom vision of herself that McAvoy thinks he spots in the back row of the auditorium.  If theirs is to be the pivotal relationship around which the show revolves, I’m hoping that we see more humanizing flaws as the weeks go by, and a little less of the idealized “news goddess” with forced moments of endearment.

As a devoted fan, I’m willing to cut Sorkin a lot of slack because I love the rhythm and spirit of his writing so much, and I empathize with his opinion on the excessive devotion major media gives to the stupid and the banal.  But he has to balance his criticism with the demands of drama, and in “We Just Decided To,” I think he’s fallen a wee bit short of the mark.  As I noted earlier, one cannot impugn his main argument about the state of the media.  But if you can’t fire your rebuttal on all cylinders, you open yourself up for accusations of pontificating, and Sorkin would be the first to admit that his ultimate responsibility is to entertain.  (As an aside, I wish he’d stop beating up on bloggers – really Aaron, some of us do like you a lot, and we’re not all the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest chain-smoking Parliaments in our muumuu’s.)

Fundamentally, television is better when it challenges us, instead of regaling us passively with the embarrassing exploits of real-life rich families.  And it’s certainly better when Aaron Sorkin is on it.  When McAvoy is asked, at the beginning of the episode, why America is the greatest country in the world, he sees MacKenzie in the audience holding up a sign that reads “It’s not, but it can be.”  That phrase, I think, is the best judgment on The Newsroom for the time being.  The elements are all there to make a challenging and entertaining show, even if they haven’t quite jelled yet.  Hopefully audiences will have the patience to go along for the ride.  I certainly do.

Even if Sorkin still hates blogs.

Justin Trudeau vs. the Concern Trolls

UrbanDictionary.com defines a “concern troll” as “someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with ‘concerns.’  The idea behind this is that your opponents will take your arguments more seriously if they think you’re an ally.”

There is no better description of the dozens of op-ed writers (and thousands of anonymous commenters) cautioning Liberals against rallying behind Justin Trudeau as their next leader.  The opinions are widely disseminated, but all come back to the same litany of talking points:  it’s not his time, he’s too young, his last name is poison in parts of the country, he hasn’t run a successful business, he hasn’t accomplished anything noteworthy.  If any of these tropes sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same weak sauce flung at up-and-coming Senator Barack Obama in 2008, indicating clearly that none of what the concern trolls are falling over themselves in weepy anguish to preach to the poor, poor Liberals will make any damn bit of difference in Trudeau’s ability to lead his party to victory in a national election.  Instead, these pleas sound like attempts to nudge the Grits towards picking an unexciting candidate who will make Stephen Harper look like George Clooney – so Canadian readers can suffer another few years’ worth of pedantic “Is the Liberal Party Dead?” articles.

Canadian politicians have never been particularly renowned for their charisma.  Ours is a history of electing the safe and the bland, of choosing managers over leaders.  Ironically, the turning point in virtually every Canadian election has come when we’ve seen a flash of personality, a quotable moment that provokes headlines and water cooler discussion.  Brian Mulroney telling John Turner “You had an option, sir.”  Jean Chretien’s speech about his facial paralysis following a cruel attack ad from the other side.  Jack Layton shredding Michael Ignatieff’s election hopes with “If Canadians don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.”  Those are the President Bartlet moments we hunger for and latch onto because they are so rare.  We may claim we want only the seasoned, sensible accountant to watch the public purse, but we need that firebrand to stir our emotions, to get us thinking, and to spur a true and fair debate on who we are as Canadians and what kind of country we want to create for ourselves.   To engage us in the fate of our nation once again.  It’s quite possible we’d experience a collective freak-out were someone like that to emerge on the scene again; our stolid nature simply wouldn’t know how to handle it.

But that would be a good thing.

Justin Trudeau’s reluctance to take on the challenge of restoring the bruised and battered Liberal Party suggests that much unlike the copious evidence pouring out of Stephen Harper’s every extremity, he has not spent his entire life dreaming of power.  Trudeau could have parachuted into a safe seat during the Chretien heyday and squatted on the backbenches, quietly building an organization of loyalists and working towards an eventual leadership coup.  Would this have been considered the more appropriate path to the top by the pundits?  Perhaps, but instead, Trudeau chose to run in a Bloc Quebecois riding in an election where the Liberals had already been mired in opposition an uncomfortable two years under Stephane Dion, who despite good intentions could not connect with a lackadaisical public force-fed with the Conservative “not a leader” meme by a compliant media.  Against odds, Trudeau took the fight to the enemy and won it.  He did not coast in on fame and memories of Liberal glories past, nor did he simply promise to cut taxes and be a puppet for his party.  He won Papineau by going door to door advancing the ideals that government can be a place for good work when the best people are in charge of it.  One does not need to be an exceptional person to keep a corporate balance sheet in the black; the ability to inspire people with deeds, images and words, is a much rarer gift.  In Justin Trudeau, one can see these glimmers of the stuff of leadership.  Where the concern trolls get the idea that this translates to a lack of life accomplishment is a bit bewildering.

In his four years as an MP, Trudeau has been an advocate for youth, the environment and a vigorous democracy, and has done so while raising a young family.  He’s shown passion and an unwillingness to moderate his tone when it comes to speaking about what he believes; advancing the notion that principles are more important than electoral totals.  And famously, earlier this year, he stood his ground against a hulk of a Conservative Senator and trounced him in a boxing match the Sun News crowd were salivating over the prospect of watching him lose.  In the ring, Trudeau gives everything he’s got.  The nobility of the fight, what it truly means to the people watching, and not the aggrandizement of the ego of the man, is what matters to him.  Do you want to follow the leader because he’s leading for your benefit, or for his own?  Contrast this against the guy apparently so insecure he has to use your tax dollars to rename the government after himself.

The important thing to keep in mind as well when concern trolls spout off about a dearth of executive experience on Trudeau’s shoulders is that Harper’s attitude to the contrary, the Prime Minister is not the President – and even the President delegates.  Even as a rump of its former self the Liberal bench is deep with former cabinet ministers and seasoned professionals who would be well equipped to counsel a potential future Prime Minister Trudeau on any policies where he felt his own expertise wanting – to say nothing of who else might choose to stand for election with Trudeau leading the party.  And you get the sense that Trudeau would not be afraid to ask, either; that he understands the virtue of surrounding himself with smart people and letting them shine.  Again, one must look at this in comparison to Harper’s approach of farming out cabinet posts to party hacks and running everything out of the PMO.  This strategy leads inevitably to taxpayers footing the bill for $16 orange juice.

We’ve had enough managers, we’ve had enough boring old guys droning on about their eighteen-point-plans to reduce the deficit and ensure economic growth to 2050.  What will get Canadians excited, what the Liberals need, and what terrifies the concern trolls, is someone who can appeal to our better angels on a visceral level.  Someone who can get the cynical back to the polls and who can mobilize the divided yet potent, growing energies on the progressive side into a force that overwhelms the cash-heavy Conservative smear machine.  For all his skill as a parliamentarian, I don’t see that quality in the dour Thomas Mulcair, and Bob Rae obviously wasn’t sure he was that man either.  I’ll admit that we don’t know for certain if Justin Trudeau has that in him.  But the volume of ink being expended against his candidacy in the guise of ensuring the long-term future of the Liberals suggests a lot of people on the other side of the spectrum are panicked that he does and are trying, ever so gently, to urge him to stay out of the race, lest a dragon they cannot slay rear its big red head.

That Trudeau is not responding immediately to the media storm about his candidacy (or lack thereof) is encouraging.  He’s considering his options, consulting his family, and hopefully letting the background noise of the concern trolls wash over him.  If he lets any of their feigned worries become the deciding factor, then he wasn’t the guy to begin with.  But if he decides to step up, I suspect he’ll end up doing to the naysayers – metaphorically, at least – what he did to Senator Patrick Brazeau.

Elegy for Lonesome George

He was the last Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, and he looked as sad as his name suggested, as though he knew that this day was inevitable.  Despite several attempts by conservationists to save something of his race by encouraging him to mate with genetically similar females, it was not to be.  Tortoises like George can live up to 200 years – he was estimated to be about 100, turtle middle age, when his light gave out yesterday.  The earth is one species poorer today.

In photographs, George seemed to be possessed of a quiet dignity symbolic of the planet itself – struggling serenely onwards as human malfeasance continues to, essentially, kick the crap out of it.  For all the amazing and wondrous things we have created, the remarkable feats we have achieved, our greatness is undermined at every turn by our continuing almost gleeful abuse of our only home.  The problem is we think there will always be more – more to drill, extract, chop down and scoop up.  The passing of Lonesome George reminds us of how wrong we are about that.  All things end.  One day it will all be gone.

A year or so ago I was sent an email of pictures of people collecting turtle eggs from a beach in South America.  It was an obscene, heartbreaking, rage-inducing display of images.  Turtle mothers watching helplessly as thoughtless, careless human beings snatched up hundreds of their gestating children less than a foot in front of them – so wealthy diners half a world away could eat soup.  And turtles aren’t the only ones who fall victim to this mindless gluttony:  whale, bear, tiger, elephant, rhinoceros; truly majestic creatures who are massacred to become aphrodisiacs, filets, fur coats, and erectile dysfunction remedies, or worse yet, simple trophies.

Those looking to justify this pattern of slaughter come back with “what about all the pigs, cows and chickens”?  It sucks that any creature has to die for another creature’s nourishment, and the sight of the pigs in the truck on their way to the processing plant is as gut-wrenching as the resigned expression on Lonesome George’s little face.  We can accept, grudgingly, that world will likely not stop eating meat anytime soon.  We just don’t have to be dicks about it.  We don’t have to pursue the rarest of species into the depths of their most remote habitat just to discover that they taste like chicken.  If we’re going to continue to eat steak and bacon and wings, we don’t have to cram animals into cells that make the Death Star trash compactor look positively roomy and pump their veins full of tranquilizer, antibiotics and steroids so they’ll be nice and juicy on the barbeque.  Moreover, we don’t have to keep serving them up as super-sized monstrosities that either end up in the garbage wasted or inflating our bellies and thighs to Huttese proportions.  We can choose to take only what we need and be mindful of and grateful for the life that is being sacrificed for the betterment of ours.

The story of the tortoise and the hare would be different now if it was written today.  The tortoise would take his slow and steady time only to find that the hare had not only won the race, but dug out the land around the finish line and salted the earth so nothing would grow there ever again.  The speed and sheer smugness with which we are emptying the planet of its treasures both animate and inanimate is accelerating as our sole motivation for existence now – as much as we claim to be a spiritual people – is greater economic growth.  The trouble is you can’t have infinite growth in a finite system like our earth.  And this isn’t news to anyone, even those who are the strongest advocates for capitalism without limits.  One supposes that the consolation for some of these people (barring utter ignorance on their part) is that like Lonesome George, they won’t live to see the collapse.  The babies being born today will be picking up what few pieces remain of the future.

And yet there is still a vestige of hope.  George’s body was found by a man named Fausto Llerena, who had been looking after him since he was first found in 1971.  Forty whole years, a life really, devoted to caring for an animal who could never say thank you – the reward had to have been in watching George enjoy his time as he lived out the last days of his species in solitude.  That sort of commitment proves to me that human beings possess the capacity to act as gardeners on this earth rather than strip miners; indeed, as one who inclines toward the former point of view it makes me wonder what bizarre combination of circumstances lead toward the latter – toward the kind of ass-brained mentality that thinks making fun of Prius owners is a reinforcement of masculinity.  The Pinta Island tortoise is gone now forever because of human shortsightedness, but the lesson of Lonesome George and Fausto Llerena is that it doesn’t have to happen again.  Willpower is a tremendous thing – it built pyramids and sent men to walk on the moon.  Surely it can do the same for our natural world.

Rest in peace Lonesome George.

We need to go darker

Katy Perry in the video for “Wide Awake,” conjuring some musical magic.

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has been on my playlist all week long, an incongruity even sandwiched inside an eclectic playlist that includes Hendrix, Dylan, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Richard Ashcroft, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Mychael Danna and Hans Zimmer.  I cannot stop listening to it.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both catchy and soulful, bruised yet full of hope.  Apart from innocently fancying Ms. Perry herself (which my Alexander Skarsgard-adoring better half assures me she’s totally okay with) I’ve been indifferent toward her music until now.  Her breakout hit “I Kissed a Girl” is the giggle of a nine-year-old too chicken to truly explore questions of confused sexuality lest her parents think badly of her.  “Firework” is a well-meaning song undermined by Perry’s inability to hit and sustain high notes.  The lack of proper rhymes in “California Gurls” and the Brady Bunch-esque misdeeds of “Last Friday Night” are a saran wrap-deep package unwilling to chafe against the very successful mould in which she’s been forged.

Then her marriage to Russell Brand broke apart, and she wrote, recorded and released “Wide Awake” as a meditation on what she’d been through and where she is now.  And it’s a great song.  This isn’t a pig-tailed goofy girl jumping up and down on a beach – it’s the honest testament of an emotionally bruised woman picking herself up off the concrete.  Katy Perry has established such a niche for herself that she didn’t have to record this song – she could have released yet another ode to partying in the sunshine and achieved plenty of accolades and album sales.  But she chose to try to say something profound about who she is and how she’s feeling about the world.

I’m not going to go faux-Lester Bangs and suggest that “Wide Awake” is a watershed moment in music.  But it illuminates a larger question that I think most artists grapple with.  Is introspection by its nature a journey of sadness?  Does something have to be dark to be good?  Is the stuff of genius found only in the minor chords?  There’s an old axiom that says all real comedy is born from pain.  So too does it seem that the best music is that which reflects lessons learned at great cost.  This is not to say that everyone gets it right – it seems that every Kelly Clarkson song is about breaking up with someone and being better off because of it, but unlike Katy Perry in “Wide Awake,” you get the sense that Kelly’s just reading the lines someone else wrote for her instead of feeling them through the notes, and that’s why, at least to my ears, “Wide Awake” will have greater staying power than the grating and empty “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

Bob Dylan told John Lennon when they first met that he needed to get personal in his lyrics.  You begin to witness the transformation through the Beatles middle period as songs like “I’m a Loser” on Beatles for Sale and “Help!” lead to angry kiss-offs like “Norwegian Wood,” the existential exploration of “Nowhere Man” and the psychedelic dream state of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Sgt. Pepper era becomes the truly dark, soul-baring Primal Scream anguish that closed out the Fab Four and realized itself fully in John’s solo career.  Had Lennon and the others chose to rest on their laurels and sing nothing but upbeat generic pop for their entire careers, they might have done very well.  They might still be touring casinos and retirement homes today.  But they wouldn’t be legends.  It was their choice to share their vulnerability, their humanity, that made them so – the gods who dared to admit they were the very same as the mortals who worshipped them.  In the documentary Imagine, there’s a scene where Lennon confronts an obsessed fan who is trespassing on his property, who wants to know how Lennon could have known so much about this fan’s life as to write songs that seemed to be about him.  Lennon responds, frankly, that “I’m singing about meself.”

The stories that have the deepest impact on us are tales of catharsis; of people like us who are tested to the limits of their endurance, who go all the way to the point of breaking and come back changed, improved, and renewed.  To find the brightest light, one must brave the darkness, because it is only in the dark that light can shine.  Every artist who starts out warbling giddily about rainbows and lollipops will face a crossroads at some point, where they will be forced to decide whether to continue skipping along the yellow brick road or stumble off into the gloomy forest – with no guarantee that something better waits on the other side, only faith that it does.  It’s a journey that is always worth taking.  The Dixie Chicks’ music improved immeasurably after their fracas with the American right over their Bush-inspired version of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus moment”, when they got away from karaoke-ready dreck like “Goodbye Earl” and opened up with powerful anthems like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Brian Wilson struggled his entire career against the goofy surfin’ tunes that characterized the Beach Boys and that his record label insisted he continue to produce, and as a result we were blessed with lasting gems like “God Only Knows.”  I have no doubt whatsoever that someday Justin Bieber will grow a goatee and release an acoustic album, and you know what – done with the right intentions, and not just as a sales gimmick, it’ll be terrific.

Until then, play “Wide Awake” again and think to yourself, damn, Katy Perry makes for one fine-looking goth.

Inspiration for a Saturday morning

My better half and I are Disney fiends.  We try to visit at least once every couple of years.  Our favorite ride, bar none, is Soarin’ – for those of you who are unfamiliar, it’s a flight simulator where you and about a hundred other riders are hoisted into the air before a massive screen on which visions of California race toward you.  The ride pivots and dips along with the images to give you the feel of flying over these vistas, accompanied by cool breezes and the scents of pine trees and orange groves.  It’s four and a half minutes of sheer bliss – and a taste of what it must feel like to be Rainbow Dash.

The score for this experience was composed by the late film legend Jerry Goldsmith, who is alleged to have done so for free after being literally moved to tears by his first ride.  The music captures, as sublimely as any piece I’ve ever heard, the exhilaration of wandering above the clouds on gossamer wings.  I can’t hear it without being lifted, and it’s my gift to you on what promises to be a beautiful day.

Take flight.

Remember that snarky douchebag who made the world a better place? Me neither.

Image credit: Peace Love & Photography.

Last fall I wrote for The Toronto Star during the Ontario provincial election.  Their Speak Your Mind program invited two bloggers from each riding to act as “local reporters” focusing on the issues that mattered most to their individual communities.  In addition, each registered blogger was invited to participate in a members-only forum where we could bounce ideas off each other and chat about how it was going.  For the most part it was a positive, encouraging group, except for one angry young prat, let’s call him “Frank,” who had nothing but bile for anyone who didn’t agree with his political views.  The only article Frank ever posted during the course of the campaign contained libellous accusations against members of the government, alleging criminal activity without a shred of proof.  Less than 24 hours after it was posted, the article was deleted and Frank was given the boot from the community (not that his contributions were missed very much).  By coincidence I happened to see this same guy’s name pop up in my Twitter feed recently and it seems he’s still at it.  He looks to be about 20 and for whatever reason has a pathological hate-on for everything and everyone to the left of Mussolini.  I talked the other day about the dichotomy between how we are in person and how we choose to act online, but I suspect Frank isn’t any different when you meet him on the street, and it would probably be difficult to restrain yourself from delivering him a Pete Campbell-esque punch in the face.

Less extreme perhaps, but cut from the same cloth are a majority of op-ed writers in today’s news climate.  You know the ones, you can probably name a few off the top of your head – they have a regular feature in your favourite weekly where they snipe, cajole, mock and otherwise belittle everything that doesn’t fit their deeply jaded worldview, then in the same paragraph congratulate themselves for their singular, incisive, insightful wit, as if they are the wise shaman gazing down from the mountain of enlightenment at the foolish mortals below.  It’s schadenfreude taken to its most extreme, the perpetual cries of the never-weres choking on their sour grapes, nourishing a weakened ego on the scraps of the achievements of others.  Political columnists are some of the worst offenders in this regard.  As those of you who read me regularly are aware, I have no love for conservatives, particularly those in elected office, but I can acknowledge that at least those people had the balls to get out there and run, to put their names up for consideration and accept the responsibility of serving their communities, regardless of how competent they may or may not be to execute that duty.  Everyone knows it’s much easier to be the overeager parent on the sidelines screaming at the ref because Junior was called offside.  Monday morning quarterbacking has no consequences.  It also has no lasting impact on anyone or anything.  Think about those same sarcastic op-ed writers and try to recall the last time they penned something that really resonated with you, that you can’t stop thinking about and which continues to inspire you.  I’ll wait.

::crickets::

Figured as much.

We can be honest – it’s difficult to be an idealist in a cynical age, when we watch democracy being trampled on the news each night.  There’s also a tendency among a large percentage of the aforementioned media wisenheimers to dismiss optimism as tragically naïve.  But if idealism were easy, it wouldn’t be idealism, just like principles are only principles if you stand by them when they’re inconvenient.  But to sit back smugly and join in the chorus of misanthropy is the coward’s way out.  It also ensures beyond doubt that things won’t get better.  The main reason public debate languishes in an all-time abyss is because we’re choosing to approach it from the gutter, figuring that it’s better to be a smartass commenter than a genuine contributor.  So we can wallow in our sheer, unfathomable awesomeness as we watch the world burn.  What unbelievable, face-punch-worthy arrogance.  I don’t know about you, but I have no time for that sort of thing.  Life is just too goddamn short.

Some friends of my sister’s are engaged in a charity venture for Africa and asked if I could help promote them.  Happy to, said I.  These are two people who see what is happening in the world and instead of sipping bellinis and wearily moaning about their ennui have decided to get involved – and not just by absent-mindedly cutting a cheque or tweeting about it.  The reaction to their work proves, again, that there is a hunger out there for light and hope, and every downbeat op-ed wasting trees and gigawatts is missing the point (and a potentially huge audience to boot).  More to that same point, I’m unable to find an example of where ceaselessly carping about how things suck and will never get better has succeeded in actually making those things better.  The same goes for how we choose to approach life.  What do we look back on at the end if we spend our limited time on this earth the way “Frank” and I’m ashamed to say some of my fellow HuffPosters do – have we made the most of our lives?  Have we touched anyone else’s?

Listen for those same crickets.

I’m reminded of that famous Jean Sibelius quote that “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”  To me, it comes down to this – if everyone goes around crapping on everything all the time, are we that surprised at what our world is covered in?

Putting your best click forward

The quote kind of says it all, doesn’t it?  There are days when the sheer mass of dumb zipping gap-mouthed through cyberspace makes one long for the days when the reach of a person’s stupidity could be contained to his immediate family and circle of friends (or, if he was a politician, to his discouraged constituency).  For a sobering majority, Internet access has emboldened us to act like the digital equivalent of a chimpanzee flinging his diaper against the wall.  I suppose certain individuals can be so incredibly lonely and frustrated that negative attention can provide a temporary relief from the emptiness – that someone acknowledged their existence, even if it was solely with four-letter words.  Trying to picture oneself in that position, one tends to wonder why it wouldn’t be more productive and ultimately satisfying to seek positive reinforcement?  Wiccans believe in the principle that whatever you put out into the world you get back threefold – accepting that as a starting point, does the aforementioned chimpanzee relish the prospect of three times the volume of excrement flying back at him?

It’s been observed that in the 21st Century we are all living two lives:  our “real” life and our digital one.  Employers are keen to evaluate the online activity of potential hires as an equal measure of a person’s character (if a promising, experienced and brilliantly-credentialed candidate interviews well but spends his nights harassing celebrities on Twitter, is that someone you want as a representative of your company?)  I don’t see the distinction in how we should act in one or the other.  We are both – why do we want to be a jackass in one of them?  The digital life gives you the chance to create a strong identity for yourself, particularly since we are all much wittier when we have the chance to think about what we’re typing before we post it.  The digital life must be lived consciously, and as a result lets you simply be, free of the hesitations, embarrassments, second-guessing and split-second gaffes that can accompany real-life interactions.  You can be clearer, more erudite, more thoughtful and more engaging.  You have a clean slate, especially when you choose to be anonymous.  My blogging friend East Bay Writer doesn’t post her name or any details of who she is, and tales of her workplace are related with clever pseudonyms.  You’d think that without the burden of identity, she has license to be as brutally snarky as she wants, cutting enemies down left and right and railing against the world with little fear of consequence.  But she doesn’t.  She still crafts a thoughtful, engaging and positive persona, and readers respond to this positivity in kind.  Blogging pals Tele, Samir, Pat and Evan use their real names like I do but still, like EBW, remain true to the goal of creating a positive online identity.  Contrast this approach to that of any number of anonymous Internet trolls who opt for the darker path and then think about who you’d rather spend time with – I guarantee it won’t take longer than a second to decide.

Our society has come to measure success in decibels, resulting in a level of discourse that makes Beavis and Butt-head look like Rhodes scholars in comparison.  The example being set by many of those in the spotlight is that you need not be correct, learned or even particularly interesting, so long as you can yell insults at just the right moment.  Naturally, people who don’t have nationally syndicated television shows want a piece of this action too, even if it’s as “trollguy69” on an obscure message board devoted to the third season of Stargate: Atlantis.  The trouble is, a flurry of “LOL” responses are the most fleeting of acclaim, forgotten the instant they are posted, and certainly not anything you can build on.  Ideas resonate and linger; background noise is just that.  Given the option I’d rather try to put something out there that raises the bar, even if it’s to a limited audience, and even if I’m occasionally just wrong.  If people are going to hate my guts for what I have to say, I’d rather they hate me for a reasonable point I articulated with intelligence instead of being able to dismiss me because my grammar was all over the map or I mistook a basic fact of existence (otherwise known as the “OMG Lord of the Rings is a total rip-off of Harry Potter!!!” fail).

The world simply would not function if the level of idiocy represented in the digital space was an accurate measure of the intellectual capacity of our entire species.  Somehow the trains still manage to run on time and people still live healthy, productive lives.  The only conclusion one can draw is that what we see online is certain people acting out of character, indulging their id for some unfathomable sense of gratification.  What is somewhat reassuring is that in the grand scheme the Internet is still a technological baby, and accordingly, we tend to act like babies on it.  Eventually what amused us as babies is embarrassing to us as teens and positively unthinkable as adults.  We will grow, and graduate, and get better at using it to advance our collective humanity.  Isn’t it preferable to be one of the ones leading the way?  Nothing to LMAO about that.

With a great audience comes great responsibility

Herrick Memorial Library at Alfred University.

The one-year anniversary of Graham’s Crackers is fast approaching and it’s been quite the ride.  As you’ll have noticed I also thought that in honor of this momentous occasion a new look might be in order.  Sorry if things aren’t quite where you left them; I’m still working out the kinks in this new theme.  Patience, Daniel-san, it’ll right itself in due time.  Anyway, I find myself in reflective mode, ruminating over the last year; posts that I’m really proud of, others that probably could have stood a good solid re-edit before they went up, some I wish I’d never written at all (and you’d be surprised at some of my choices, not that I’m going to reveal them to you.  U2 always pisses me off when they introduce a new album by saying their last one wasn’t any good – well what does that mean to the people who really connected with that stuff?  Are they then meant to feel stupid for liking it – and spending money on it – in the first place?)

As much as I enjoy being able to write this blog, in many ways it is just as restrictive as it is liberating, for the singular reason that it’s public and people read it.  When you’re writing a new post, you can’t put anything on here you wouldn’t be okay with your worst enemy knowing about, because posting to a public Internet forum is the equivalent of draping a banner on your house announcing your thoughts to the world.  You’d best be able to stand behind what you say, even if hundreds of people are throwing tomatoes at you.  More simply, you must be able to accept the consequences of your free speech – even if those consequences aren’t necessarily negative; often they’re not.  But in an age where privacy is fast becoming an outdated concept, how much of ourselves are we truly comfortable with sharing?  Many things we go through might benefit from literary self-analysis through a similar forum – how we feel about work, our families, our partners.  Experiences our readers will relate to and empathize with.  But should we lay them out boldly for all to see?  It’s often safer to try and explore those issues allegorically, in the context of reviewing some celebrity’s latest mediocre album.

The futile recall attempt in Wisconsin on Tuesday made me want to put my fist through the wall – I know, it’s not my country, but I hate seeing liberals fail and douchebag conservatives triumph no matter where they live, especially since what happens south of the border invariably trickles north.  (Also worthy of punching drywall was an idiot MP here screaming that we should drop out of the UN, and his government abolishing the section of our Human Rights Act that bans Internet hate speech.)  When stuff like that happens I want to vent with a vindictive fury in a blistering torrent of profanity that would embarrass David Mamet.  But then I take a moment, and a breath, and remember that you wonderful people don’t deserve to hear me in my worst moments.  The question is, however, is not letting you see me at my worst somehow dishonest?  Should Graham go utterly crackers and spew what he really thinks across these digital pages?

The obvious answer is of course not.  People I love read me.  People I work with read me.  Friends old and new read me.  Even people I can’t stand and wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire probably read me.  And I am responsible, as Aaron Sorkin says, to captivate you, whoever you are, for as long as I have asked for your attention.  Consideration of the demands of our audience is what makes us better writers – even if it arguably makes us less truthful.  There is a tremendous difference in how I write versus how I speak – I am much better at organizing my thoughts on paper, but that also means I’ve censored myself at times and rearranged arguments for a more logical flow, so I come off like an erudite scholar with all his literary ducks lined up.  When I speak without prepared material, I can occasionally sound like I could benefit from Lionel Logue’s help.  But is that more who I really am?  And am I lying to you by not letting that guy post here?

Maybe, but I’m also saving you some irritation.  A writing class I took once included an exercise where you were forced to write continuously for a pre-determined period of time without thinking about the words or stopping to edit them.  You basically let go and let the words take you wherever they were headed – it was raw, unshaped, unfiltered creativity.  What resulted was honest, pure and truthful.  The trouble was it wasn’t terribly readable, or even particularly interesting.  And I think we can agree that the Internet is saturated with that sort of material already.

Self-expression is freest when no one is listening.  As soon as a monologue becomes a dialogue, the dynamic changes into something else entirely – a conversational game of Pong, with words and feelings evolving and morphing into new ideas and concepts with each volley and return.  I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the idea of publishing the diaries of noted individuals after they’ve passed on – while the insights we garner into their eras are valuable from a strictly historical perspective, for the most part these were never intended to be seen by anyone else.  They were intimate confessions with the sole purpose of giving the writer the opportunity to heal their wounded soul in private, away from the judgment of others.  To that end I wonder if perhaps it’s better to accept blogging for what it is, and continue to explore the truth within its limitations, the yin and yang, give and take with the audience.  Ironically, I find something liberating in that.

Stealing from the best

This is a bit of old news, but I felt it worth discussing for two reasons – one, I just found it, and two, it involves one of my favorite writers.  The gist of the matter is that Aaron Sorkin, in delivering the commencement address to Syracuse University several weeks ago, (horrors!) re-used some familiar material.  Namely, he cribbed from an address he’d given to the same school fifteen years earlier, and threw in a few lines from The West Wing for good measure.  This isn’t the first time he’s been singled out for recycling his best lines; astute fans of his work can recognize singular phrases lifted almost verbatim one from the other, or even a particular rhythm to chunks of dialogue.  (As you know, I’ve had a little fun here mimicking it.)  Occasionally, and unfairly, it’s been used by critics to undermine his arguments, as in the case of his acid-tongued rebuttal to Sarah Palin following an episode of her reality show in which she shot a moose on camera – detractors fixated on the fact that the phrase “bringing the right together with the far right” was a lift from the fourth season West Wing episode “Game On,” and missed Sorkin’s overall point.  In a way, it’s somewhat symbolic of how ideas get lost in a sea of nitpicking over minutiae; in the same way that some feel a person’s past mistakes, no matter how trivial, can utterly disqualify them from ever holding higher office.

No one can dispute that Aaron Sorkin’s is a unique voice.  He has been able to tap into the power of words to create stories and characters that have inspired millions of people.  In an environment where posting a video of yourself throwing up on YouTube can lead to a reality show and a book deal, Sorkin is that rarest of creatures – a man who has achieved fame not for his looks or indeed anything particular about his personality, but for how he strings words together.  The ranks of true celebrity writers are thin (that is, celebrities who weren’t famous for something else before their book), and apart from Stephen King there are few whose celebrity endures.  Most aren’t comfortable with the spotlight, and those out there who are writing solely because they want to end up on magazine covers soon discover they’d have better luck getting there with the aforementioned YouTube projectile vomiting.  Sorkin’s fame comes entirely from the quality of his body of work, and his conscious choice throughout his career to raise the bar instead of lowering it for cheap ratings and quick cash.  People respond to that.

Guilty pleasures aside, there is indeed a substantial element of the population that enjoys being challenged, being asked to think about things differently, to question their assumptions and debate issues without descending into name-calling.  The West Wing ran for seven years in the toxic political climate of the second Bush era, and was a lasting tribute to the virtue of public service in a time when cynicism about government’s ability to do anything was spiking (and sadly, continues to rise long after the show has ended).  People latched on to the words coming out of Sorkin’s characters’ mouths; they wanted to speak with the kind of conviction and intelligence found in idealized creations like Sam Seaborn and Josiah Bartlet, and with the well-informed smartassery of Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman.  In person, Aaron Sorkin probably isn’t as quick and sharp-witted as he is with the benefit of a keyboard and a delete key.  But what comes out of that keyboard is as much his personality as the walking-and-talking version of the man.  It’s his style.  It’s what people expect of him, and what every single person in that audience at Syracuse who knew who Aaron Sorkin was was expecting to hear.

The expectations in seeing a star like Aaron Sorkin speak – and he is a star, make no mistake – are no different than going to your favorite band’s latest concert tour.  You know they’re going to devote the lion’s share of the setlist to the new album they’re trying to promote, but you’ll be damn well disappointed if you don’t hear a couple of their biggest hits.  Richard Ashcroft continues to close every one of his concerts with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” even though The Verve have been broken up now for several years.  You’d feel cheated if you went to see Paul McCartney and didn’t hear a single Beatles song.  Hell, you’d probably feel cheated if you paid to see Justin Bieber and didn’t hear “Baby.”  Why shouldn’t Aaron Sorkin play to his audience in the same way?  Indeed, a few of the familiar lines in the commencement speech are clearly sentiments he believes in very strongly – decisions are made by those who show up, and never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.  These are good and important things to remind graduates about to step into a world that claims to value hard work and responsibility but instead lauds instant fame, achievement without effort, the fleeting, the hollow, the apathetic and the utterly vapid.

Sam Seaborn once quipped, “good writers borrow, great writers steal outright.”  I suppose if you do have to steal from someone, that someone might as well be you – you’re less likely to get sued for it.

The last good fight

“Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” – Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’  I agree with the second part.” – William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Seven

“Nothing baffles the schemes of evil people so much as the calm composure of great souls”Comte de Mirabeau

Warren Kinsella is a former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and continues to assist the Liberal Party of Ontario during its election campaigns – to put him in West Wing terms, he’s a wartime consigliere.  I read his blog frequently and don’t always agree with him (not to sound like the Dos Equis guy here) but respect him for several reasons:  one of which is that he says liberals should always be full-throated go-for-the-gut liberals, and another is that he believes in the nobility of always fighting for what is important.  (He is the lone liberal voice on Canada’s pathetic Fox News clone Sun News Network, which gives you a sense of his willingness to take the fight to the enemy’s turf.)  The other day he posited that he thought the human race was evil and beyond redemption.  He cited the examples of the Syrian massacre and a particular website which offers video of disturbing violent acts (which I’m not going to link to for obvious reasons).  Clearly, if you want to go down that route, there are thousands of examples more.  It’s one of those arguments that you’ll always find more evidence to support if you need it – like “politicians are corrupt,” “democracy doesn’t work” or “Jersey Shore is a blight on society.”

I don’t subscribe to this thinking, because it’s the easy way out.  (And in fairness to the usually spunky Warren, he could have just been having a bad day or been thinking about the world his kids are growing up in.)  To me, it’s throwing up your hands and surrendering before you even strap on the first shin pad.  It’s saying that principles do not matter, values are not important and attempting to live a civilized, moral life is futile.  It’s looking at the world’s douchebags living high off the hog and wondering why the hell we’re trying so hard not to be them, with the idea that our way is better for the soul, when we’re getting screwed by the universe anyway while they reap the rewards.  Like the worker ant who dutifully and nobly carries food back to the colony day after day only to be scorched to death one sunny afternoon by a smirking brat with a magnifying glass.  But it’s ground that I don’t believe the human race as a whole can afford to concede.  It’s not a world I want to live in.  Indeed, it’s not a world that would live very long.

On Star Trek and its successors, you’d often find the crew visiting planets where everyone wore the same outfit and shared the same opinion.  Absent was the dichotomy that defines humanity – the extremes of light and dark and good and evil that share contradictory space inside the soul.  The same heart that loves one hates another; the same species that cherishes beauty creates ugliness.  But it’s important not to forget that despite the increasing societal obsession with what is worst about us (fostered by media companies trying to scare you into buying things you don’t need), we have truly done some remarkable things in our relatively short time in the cosmos.  We have forged incredible works of art, literature, music.  We have crafted a society of laws and good governance.  We have cured devastating illnesses and been able to shift the focus of our existence from mere survival to the enrichment of our spirit and of our collective consciousness.  We have even taken the tiniest of baby steps away from our world into the endless realm of possibility that lies beyond.  Why, when looking at this evidence, should we continue to base our opinion of ourselves on the abysses rather than the apexes?  Are we really no better than the very worst of us?  Are we all hovering forever on a tipping point of evil, just one fragile breath away from unleashing our inner Hitler?

No goddamn way.  Call it what you will – even dare to call it faith.  But to say humanity is evil and beyond redemption is to admit I am evil and beyond redemption.  And I am better than that.  I know I am.  I know we all are.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece criticizing the conservative moguls funding attack ads against the President of the United States.  I submitted it to The Huffington Post and was surprised that they liked it enough to feature it prominently on their Politics page.  The response was quite staggering, with what I’d say was probably a 3 to 1 ratio of comments supporting what I had to say versus condemning it.  And the ones who condemned it certainly didn’t mince words.  But I don’t regret writing the piece.  It was something that I felt needed to be said, and a lot of people agreed with me.  (Interestingly enough, not that I can claim any responsibility, an article subsequently appeared in Politico where these right-wing sugar daddies are now complaining that they are being picked on, apparently forgetting that one of the tenets of free speech is the right of everyone else to tell you you’re being a dick when you say something they don’t like.)  I’ve accepted that I’ll never be a billionaire or wield the kind of influence over the masses that some really awful people do.  But my voice will always be my own, and that is something that cannot be purchased from anybody else.  And I will continue to use it to advocate the world I want to see, the world I know we can attain, with every single breath, until I can no longer speak.  It’s like that wonderful poem from The Grey:  “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know.”

The bastards will not grind me down.