Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Cautionary Tale about Anger

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"   

            Howard Beale’s immortal words from “Network” comprise one of the most memorable lines in cinema history.   And Network is definitely must-see cinema.   It’s about a veteran anchorman who is so sick of the soulless business known as network television that he implores everyone in his audience to open their windows and scream that they are fed up and will no longer play society’s games – which most of us never win anyway.   Moviegoers may not share the full extent of Beale’s anger, but his message cannot help but resonate.  On Main Street, we viscerally appreciate how dehumanizing contemporary society can be.   And we respect the guy who has the guts to speak truth to power and proclaim, on behalf of us all, “No Mas.”   

            Paddy Cheyefsky received an Academy Award for penning the Network screenplay.  He is the only person in history to have won three solo Oscars in that category.   A Jew from the Bronx, Cheyefsky was born in 1923 – two years after the birth of my mother, another Bronx Jew.  He came from a lower-middle class background, which means that he grew up much more affluently than my mother, who comes from arguably the poorest urban neighborhood in the United States, but I get the impression that Cheyefsky shared my mother’s propensity for in-your-face politics.   Purportedly, he was one of those guys who never shied away from a political or philosophical argument, and I have no doubt that many of his positions were anything but moderate.    As for his art, critic Tim Teeman describes it as follows:  “Chayefsky’s best-known characters were ‘thwarted people who feared nothing so much as unfulfillment.’ Their struggle ‘for a minimal amount of autonomy’ mirrored Chayefsky’s refusal to cede control in his life and work.”  As an artiste interacting with mercenary producers, he was frequently mad as hell, and as the most decorated screenwriter in the history of film, he didn’t have to take it from anyone.   Most of us don’t have that much power, however.  Sometimes, all we can do to express our anger is vote.

            And that brings me to Brexit.   When I think about the Brexit vote this morning, I keep thinking  of it as the product of Howard Beale – or more specifically, all of those people in Beale’s audience who are opening their windows and screaming the thoughts of “thwarted people who [fear] nothing so much as unfulfillment.”   I have no trouble looking at those people – those characters – and seeing them as fundamentally sane.  After all, when Thoreau told us that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation; what is called resignation is confirmed desperation,” wasn’t he really implying that a primal scream out the window might actually be rather healthy, and strangely liberating?

            As a fan of Cheyesky and Thoreau, I appreciate the Brexit vote, or at least part of the impetus behind it.   But that is the perspective of a consumer of literature and film, a fan of writers and artists who are often critical about the status quo.   I’m also exposed to a very different perspective – that of the Washington Post, New York Times, and such center-left TV networks as CNN or MSNBC.  There, the mavens don’t tend to come from the Bronx in the 1920s.  More typically, they hail from Westchester County, or the Mainline, or Winnetka, or from my own hometown of Bethesda, MD, where the median house value is more than $800,000. These people aren’t mad as hell – except at anyone else who is.  As a general matter, they’re happy with their bankbooks, their careers, and their prospects for the future.   At this point, I’d guess that if you are an Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, a frequent guest on a CNN show, or just another 35 year-old lawyer who lives in a million dollar home in West Bethesda, the world is your oyster.

So, if Cheyefsky was going to make a movie about Bethesda, MD, how might his characters react to Brexit?  (And I mean how would they react in the privacy of their own homes, not when they go into polite society and hide their elitism.)   I suspect it would go something like this:

“So, my friends, how is your 401(k) doing today?  How’s your stock market portfolio?  Personally, I’ve lost a fair amount of money yesterday and expect to lose even more in the upcoming weeks, thanks to the Brexit vote.   Oh, that angry mob in England – how dare they do this to my assets?  Well, I shouldn’t blame all of England.   The Londoners didn’t vote to leave the EU.  They’re too well educated and cosmopolitan to vote against stability and for chaos.   Here, a few miles from Washington D.C., we knew we could count on the Londoners to vote sanely yesterday.  It’s just those bigoted, uneducated fools in the hinterlands.   We had hoped they would put on their thinking caps and do the right thing, but I guess that’s not what people from the countryside do.   And that makes you wonder about what might happen here, in the mother ship, in November.   Is it possible?   Might the Red Americans actually elect ... him?   God help us.”

OK.  Cheyefksy probably wouldn’t have his Bethesdian character invoke “God.”  He would surely know if he were alive today that people hardly ever mention that word here in Bethesda.   But they do talk about 401(k)s, globalization, Red States and Blue States, bigotry, and the stock market.   Or about how our society might not be perfect, but it sure beats most of the alternatives.  Or about how the only kind of positive change that’s possible is incremental change.  Or about the fact that if Americans who live outside of the largest metropolitan areas had their way, we’d see societal changes that are absolutely horrible – just like what happened yesterday in Britain.  

My friends, I’m not going to tell you that the Brexit vote was fine and dandy.   I’m not going to say that it won’t have a lasting detrimental effect on global economics or even the freedoms and security that people enjoy.   But this much I can say:  yesterday’s electoral outcome was a shot that had better be heard across the bow and throughout the ship.   Yesterday reveals that there are two Englands – the London area, and everyplace else – and that the record wealth that is being enjoyed in London isn’t being spread very widely across that little island.   But need I add that there are also, as the huckster John Edwards correctly stated, two Americas – the one that has been getting richer and richer and richer in the past twenty years, and everyplace else.   

The talking heads, Op-Ed writers, and well-heeled Yuppies certainly have the prerogative to look at the Brexit or Trump voters and dismiss them as bigoted, uneducated fools.  But I suggest that they look in the mirror instead.  What are they doing to ensure that the wealth and power in our society is being spread widely and compassionately?   What are they doing to ensure that the humanism of a Paddy Cheyefksy is seeping beyond the world of literature and art, and entering as well into public policy.

Here in Bethesda we love our liberal politics and our liberal politicians.   But you will forgive the people in the hinterland if they look at, say, Bill Clinton, and have trouble relating to a guy who between 2001 and 2013 parlayed his career in “public service” into a reported $105 million in speaking fees.   Howard Beale’s audience is constantly making sacrifices – they work hard day after day, but can’t afford vacations in London.  Many can barely afford to take vacations at all.   In fact, it will take them five or six years of toil to make as much money as Bill or Hillary Clinton could make in a single hour of pontificating.    

I’m not asking for my fellow Bethesdians to pity the Brexit voter who lives in Leeds, Birmingham or Manchester – or the Trump voter who lives in Ft. Wayne, Ft. Smith, or Ft. Hood.   What I am saying is that we who come from affluence and privilege have responsibilities to those who don’t.  And if we don’t want to share our wealth or our power, at least we can grant our fellow-citizens their primal screams.  

In short, unless and until we’re willing to make sacrifices for our fellow human beings, we’ll be in no position to criticize our political opponents.    In the meantime, we can just count our money in the privacy of our own McMansions and wait for the next Howard Beale to wake his audience up and vote our heroes out.

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