An actual conversation I had about marriage equality

Yesterday I had he day off, but like every workaholic worth his salt, I still decided to pop in to work, to make sure that all is well at work. Because I didn’t want to bother with public transportation, I hopped in a cab. I love taking cabs in Chicago because every cabdriver in the city seems to listen to NPR.

On my ride, the cab driver and I were listening to the story about the escaped convicts from New York state. The story is pretty incredible – almost like a movie, really. A guard gets seduced by a convict and is convinced to help him and his buddy escape. I’m thinking Lifetime needs to get on this story quick (oh, and I think the part of the guard would be ably played by Meredith Baxter).

The cab driver was fascinated by the story, particularly because the prisoners were convicted murderers. Suddenly, he became very philosophical as he thought about murderers.

“You know, to kill a human being, something must be really wrong with you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Like mentally wrong?”

“Yes, exactly. A chemical imbalance. I think if you can kill a person, then that’s something inherent in you – it’s biological.” He then added, “That is why I’m opposed to capital punishment, because the murderers, they are killing people, but they cannot help themselves. It’s a sickness.”

I mentioned the work of a psychologist who studied serial killers – John Wayne Gacy, in particular. The psychologist theorized that serial killers do seem to have some abnormalities in their brains, that could account for the impulse to kill.

“You see,” he said, with a sweeping hand motion, “They are born that way,” he said, quoting Lady Gaga’s gay right anthem.

My thought about Lady Gaga wasn’t inappropriate, because he then added, “Just like gays and lesbians…we say gays and lesbians are ‘born that way,’ and so we shouldn’t criticize them for being gay or lesbian.”

I’m always careful in cabs whenever my cab driver gets interested in discussing homosexuality. I’m in the guy’s car, so I don’t know if my ass would be handed to me if I got all LGBT activist. But before I could say anything further, he asked, “did you hear about the Supreme Court?”

“You mean gay marriage being legal? Yeah, I did.”

As we drove down Clark street, he beamed over his shoulder, “I think that’s a good thing. I think what the Supreme Court is saying is that here in the United States, everyone is treated fairly and everyone is equal…And I think that’s a good thing.”

“I agree,” I said cautiously, “I think it’s great that if gays want to get married in this country, they can.”

“It is…I’m from Nigeria,” He said, which explained his accent. “And in my country we don’t like homosexuality. We see it as an abnormality, or an anomaly, a deviance, you know. We know that there are gays and lesbians in Nigeria, but we want them to be hidden away so that we don’t have to see them.”

He then sighed, “And you know, that’s not good. We shouldn’t criticize them for being gay and lesbian, because it’s just who they are. You know, I think Nigeria’s a bit backward when it comes to homosexuality, and we should be more like the United States.”

Touched by his candid assessment of his homeland, I felt the need to step in: “Well, I wouldn’t say that a country is backward just because it doesn’t have gay rights. For us, here, in the United States, gay rights works. In other countries, people have to decide their own way.”

He agreed with me. “Of course, but still, I think that there should be more…sympathy for gays and lesbians. Although, I will tell you something, I don’t have a problem with homosexuals, but,” here we go, “I do have a problem when it’s thrust in my face.

“Sometimes, in my cab, I’m driving gays or lesbians and they are kissing in my cab, and I think, ‘what you do at home is your business, but there is decency, too.’ But then the homosexuals will think that I’m criticizing them, and their lifestyle. But I don’t like heterosexuals kissing in my cab.

“You see, I feel as if when they are acting that way, they are trying to provoke a response of some kind – a reaction, like daring me. But I find the act repulsive, I see two lesbians kissing, and I feel repulsed, it’s offensive.

“Still,” he said as he pulled up to my office building, “I believe that they should be allowed to get married and have the equal rights.” As my credit card was being charged, he continued, “I traveled all over the world, and I see gays and lesbians everywhere – England, Denmark, Belgium. They’re everywhere. So they should have the same rights as everyone.”

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The affectionate ‘Live from New York!’ misses some opportunities

Live from New York! (2015) PosterThe 40-year history of Saturday Night Live has been covered by a library of books and documentaries. Most of the stories share a similar narrative: Lorne Michaels assembles a company of comedians and puts on one of the most subversive shows on television, only to have his creation become an institution and establishment itself. Along with tales of talent and creativity, the story of SNL – at least the early years – is also marked by drugs, alcohol, and lots of bruising fights. In his entry in the SNL canon, Bao Nguyen documents the cultural impact SNL had – both politically and socially. He’s not interested in the gossip of drug abuse, clashing tempers, or jealous infighting. What Live from New York! attempts to do is make a case that SNL is a trailblazing show that both influenced and reflected the culture it was lampooning. And though it’s clear that Nguyen loves his subject, much of the film feels like a series of missed opportunities.

To his credit, Nguyen assembles an impressive list of SNL alumni to participate in the film: Chris Rock, Jane Curtin, Molly Shannon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Larraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Jimmy Fallon, are among a few of the glittery people that make appearances. Also included are the show’s legendary hosts including Alec Baldwin, John Goodman, and Candice Bergen. The actors all offer interesting insight to the show as well as personal reflections on what it was like to be part of such an important institution. The only problem is that though their contributions are welcomed, they’re far too brief and the film feels a bit rushed and superficial. And to shore up its credentials as”culturally significant” various talking heads, pundits, and social critics give their two cents – none of it all that illuminating, save for Fran Lebowitz, who is always a welcome presence (and Fred Armisen’s wicked impression of her pops up later in the film).

Which could be because of the length: at about an hour and a half, it’s hard to talk about a TV show that’s lasted 40 years. That’s why a feature-length documentary is an odd and ill-fitting choice to fete SNL. It would really work better as a miniseries, broken up by themes or by decades (which has been done). Because Nguyen is only interested in the show’s cultural footprint, it feels like he’s glossing over a lot of other interesting topics that could be discussed. That SNL was a breeding ground for comedic talent is a given – it’d be nice if there was more about how the show essentially became a graduate school of comedy that gave pop culture some of its brightest stars including Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and Mike Meyers. In fact, the only time Murphy makes a lasting impression in the film is during a brief montage on the diversity problem that plagued SNL, which is unfortunate, because the comic deserved so much more.

Also, the film feels a bit like a valentine to Michaels and the show. It’s no secret that Lorne Michaels is famously controlling and exacting, and many find him to be intimidating. But Live from New York! simply oozes love for the guy without looking critically at his working style or his track record. Yes, he was at the helm for the show’s golden years during the first five seasons, but he was also around during the desperately terrible years in the mid 1990s (the 20th season was particularly brutal for the show and Michaels was forced to clean out after). Instead of fairly assessing just how irrelevant SNL felt, the narrative breezily skips over the mediocre years. This tactic wouldn’t be so noticeable if it wasn’t for the inclusion of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is the epitome of a talented cast member badly used by the show and its writers. Louis-Dreyfus has since gone on to great success in television and as become a comedic institution on par with SNL, yet her contribution to the film seems either heavily edited or extremely guarded. While acknowledging the sexism that was pervasive during her time, she also magnanimously took some of the blame, allowing for her immaturity during her tenure – but what is so strange about the inclusion of Louis-Dreyfus is that a) her time at SNL was pretty bad and b) she was on the show when Michaels wasn’t producing. If the show was looking to seem balanced, it would’ve been much more honest to include performers like Colin Quinn, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, or Chris Elliott, all of whom chafed under Michaels’ time as producer. The only time we get any sense of candor is when Garrett Morris talks about how fruitless and disappointing his experience was (his fellow cast mate Jane Curtin expresses sympathy).

But there’s very little honest introspection in Live from New York! When musing about its diversity issues, writer Anne Beatts admitted that SNL had a diversity problem, but then hid behind the excuse that few shows at the time were truly diverse. “Where’s the black friend?” She groused, referring to the oft-repeated complaint of the lack of black characters on Friends. And while it’s admirable that Nguyen addresses the issue of race and gender (though he’s strangely silent when it comes to the show’s homophobia), he does so with incredibly reductive montages that flatten the contributions of talented performers into a medley of greatest hits. We’re quickly given a shortlist (it’s very short) of all the black performers on SNL, and we’re given an extended sequence with recent cast member Leslie Jones, who had premiered a controversial joke about slavery. Jones is supremely talented, but the film suffers from dating, though, because the it posits Jones as part of a new guard, since the end of filming, the comedienne has proven to be a spotty performer with a slippery grasp on live sketch comedy. And the brief inclusion of Sasheer Zamata comes off as sadly ironic, as the comic is yet another in a too-long list of talented performers who aren’t used to their best ability. So even though the film’s narrative has the show moving toward a brighter, more inclusive future, it comes off as a sour note when in reality, Zamata and Jones are as misused as Ellen Cleghorne and Danitra Vance before them.

But not all of the film is a bust. In fact, it’s a lot of fun most of the time because some of its best sketches are included. And when the film focuses on electoral politics, eschewing the stickier race and gender issues, then the film takes shape. In the sequences that cover SNL‘s skewering of George H.W. Bush,  George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Sarah Palin, Nguyen hits his stride – one wishes he ditched the more ambitious idea of cultural impact and just narrowed his focus to politics, because it’s then that the film works best. When discussing the Bush v. Gore election or Sarah Palin’s ascendance to the national stage, Nguyen’s thesis rings true: SNL does leave a lasting mark. Will Ferrell’s take on George W. Bush is often credited by some as making the former president more likable, while Tina Fey’s vicious spin on Sarah Palin has some wondering if it hurt John McCain’s bid for the White House. With these examples, along with a great examination of political satire at its best, SNL proved that it can be relevant and biting when needed. What was also interesting was Rudy Guiliani’s smart take on why these sketches worked: they weren’t impressions so much as spoofs of public perception. Amy Poehler wasn’t portraying Hillary Clinton to be a perfect facsimile, but to merely highlight and spoof the latter’s wearied and outraged frustration at being perennially undervalued even if she was always the smartest person in the room. It’s those kinds of qualities that get pulled out and reshaped into a character that create a funny and recognizable caricature of a public figure.

When opening the film, Nguyen chose Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to play over images of 1970s New York. The song invokes a subversiveness and sense of urgency that doesn’t truly match with SNL‘s ethos: it was the punk rock equivalent for only five years of its 40-year history, and therefore, it doesn’t deserve the kind of hallowed treatment it gets from Live from New York! It feels a bit forced and false to wrap the show’s image in a cloak of insurgency . As evidenced by the past three decades, the truth is Saturday Night Live is a well-produced mainstream variety show. And though Live from New York! won’t convince too many people about the show’s cultural stamp, it does provide viewers with some very funny sketches.

 

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What Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t get about “PC”

Jerry Seinfeld is very good at what he does. He’s a storyteller, focusing on “observational” humor – airplane peanuts, the difference between cat and dogs, cellphones. So it’s interesting that the comedian is grousing about political correctness, insisting that he forgoes college tours because young folks are just too damn PC for the guy.

I’m not a fan of Seinfeld’s, but I recognize that the guy’s talented. I love his Web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (though, I watch it for his guests), and his eponymous sitcom does deserve some of the accolades its piled up in its 9-year run.

And because his material, for the most part, is to skewer the kinds of minutia in everyday life (which he spins with whimsy and wit), I am a little flummoxed at his fear of political correctness running amok, because, c’mon, let’s face it – as good as he is, he’s a bit milquetoast when compared to comics like Louis C.K., Richard Pryor, Amy Schumer, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, or Sarah Silverman. Those comics really did/do skate the line between good taste and offensiveness (often slipping into the latter), because the bulk of their material dealt with volatile topics like politics and sexuality. When Joan Rivers was making jokes about 9/11 or abortion to suss out her audiences’ attitudes about the topics, she was working like a medic, trying to cut away at the hypocrisy that often clouds real debate about serious issues.

So again, I was thinking “Well, Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t do abortion jokes.” I could be wrong, but I’m not sure if the guy ever even said the word abortion on television. Why is he feeling the encroaching grip of censorship when his material would never be considered risque, when compared to Louis C.K. (who opened his SNL hosting gig last season by positing what would it be like to be a child molester).

My answer finally came when Seinfeld was on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Seinfeld was still grousing about how hard it is to be a white cis het billionaire comedian, and how the PC groups are cramping his style. The evidence? A silly joke in which he describes how people flick through their contact lists on their phones “like a gay French king.” You get it? Because gays and French dudes are effeminate, and so every gesture they make is marked with a flourish. He reported that the joke didn’t go over as well with his original audience (the Meyers audience liked it).

So, that’s the problem. Jerry Seinfeld pines for the day when comics weren’t hampered by socially progressive movements and so they were free to just rip on people. Please don’t misunderstand: I think Seinfeld’s probably a very nice guy, and not a racist, homophobe, sexist, etc (well, no more so than the next guy). But Seinfeld seems to be frozen in some kind of Johnny Carson-era amber, where dumb jokes about gays (dumb, not offensive – the gay French king joke was silly, but not offensive) were okay – as long as you didn’t go too far, a little teasing is fine.

Jerry Seinfeld wants to make silly, inoffensive gay jokes, but doesn’t know how to in the 21st century. Poor guy is trying to ride his horse and buggy on a highway. It’s not that you can’t tell gay jokes – lots of comics do, like Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari – hell, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, and Kathy Griffin would all be scrambling for new material if they had to leave out their queer material (and these ladies get raw about gay topics). But the problem is Seinfeld is a prisoner of his fame, his privilege, and his age. And it appears as if he’s not a strong enough comedian to transcend those limits. Right now, his gay jokes sound tired and trite – like a schoolyard quip. The comics I mentioned earlier are all millionaires, too – but they avoid being alienating because their comedic personae also has elements of the underdog.

And I’m not really all that clear why Seinfeld wants to become this biting, cutting edge comedian. It’s okay to be the comedic equivalent of comfort food. After all, Ellen DeGeneres is the closest thing to a female Seinfeld. Like he, she avoids controversial issues (funny because back in 1997, she was controversy epitomized), and talks about universal issues. And she makes billions of dollars doing it.

And finally, watching the interview with Seth Meyers, what I found interesting was that when Caitlyn Jenner came up, Seinfeld quizzed Meyers on his pledge not to tease Jenner. Meyers clarified and said he chose not to make a Jenner joke the day she came out because the moment she came out on Vanity Fair “I sorta thought that was a wonderful moment and that wasn’t the time to make a joke.” He reassured Seinfeld that Jenner isn’t off the table, though – which is weird because I guess Jerry Seinfeld’s jonesing for some Caitlyn Jenner jokes…

But what Meyers showed to the veteran comic is that you can push and prod taboos without being a dick. Seinfeld’s caught in this weird new land where he’s still revered for his talents, but he’s also extremely old school (it’s almost shocking to watch his act, and then watch someone like Jenny Slate or Hari Kondabolu). I don’t think he’s incapable of evolving in the 21st century – the fact that he’s doing a Web series shows that he (or at least his manager) has some insight to what’s going on around the world. But because his humor was always based on an alleged timelessness, he can come off as a comedic Rip Van Winkle, stumbling out, blinking wearily at all the new changes in the world. If he wants to thrive as a vital and important comic (as opposed to rest on his laurels as a sitcom legend – which is a valid choice, btw), he’ll have to step outside his little world. Instead of being pissed at a college audience for not being happy that a rich middle-aged white dude is making a really threadbare joke based on assumptions of homosexuals that seem almost cute in their moldiness, figure out why the kids feel standoffish from gay jokes and work with that.

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How Elinor Burkett got Caitlyn Jenner and trans rights all wrong…

Once Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans on the cover of Vanity Fair, I girded myself for the onslaught of transphobic comments that would greet her announcement. Because her picture ended up being beautiful, there were lots of positive comments, celebrating Jenner – now, I know that celebrating a trans woman for her looks and her ability to embrace heteronormative standards of beauty and femininity is problematic, but I took a quick break from being a feminist, so that I could rejoice in Jenner’s big FU to all the asshats who tortured her over the past few years.

Because I was expected the nastiness (and there were buttloads), I wasn’t surprised that folks took Jenner’s experience to slam trans folks. But I was caught off guard by Elinor Burkett’s ridiculous piece “What Makes a Woman?” that ran in the New York Times. In the op-ed piece, Burkett seems to argue that Jenner’s transition is somehow an affront on womanhood, and that in her quest to be herself, she somehow is dictating the way women everywhere will define or identity themselves.

I’ll first say that Burkett does make some valid points in highlighting that male privilege sucks, and women suffer countless indignities from rape to the income gap. Women have also been forced to shoulder identities assigned to them by patriarchal societies for generations – and it still happens. Women are expected to be so many things to so many people with little regard to what they want.

But none of these truths take away Burkett’s inherent bigotry when approaching trans issues. Burkett is rightly arguing against reducing women to breasts or genitalia, and she correctly slams ancient stereotypes that plague women. The problem, then is she’s doing a lot of that in her article against Jenner – and yes, this article feels like not only an attack on the trans community as a whole (as well as its allies), but against Jenner, personally.

During her interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner expressed herself in ways that Burkett found objectionable. When asked when she knew she was trans, she said ““My brain is much more female than it is male,” to which Burkett responded by comparing Jenner’s comments to the idiotic comments former Harvard president, Lawrence Summers made suggesting that men and women had different aptitudes which explained the paucity of women in the hard sciences. So yeah, we were pissed at the mere suggestion that the lack of women in sciences is anything but misogyny and patriarchy. Yet, somehow, we’re supposed to take Summers’ comments and compare them to Jenner, who wasn’t speaking as a university president or an expert, but merely trying to articulate how it was for her – she was talking about her experience (a sentiment shared by many trans folks, btw).

Then Burkett follows with a lament on how Jenner chose to present herself: “a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.” She dismisses the look as “Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman.” She then shared that she winced. And you know what? I think it’s fine that Burkett winced. Just as lots of women wince when another woman appears on a magazine cover, dolled up and tarted up to look like a showgirl. But Again, not to belabor this point, but Caitlyn Jenner can present herself any old way she wants to – if Sofia Vergara, Madonna, Britney Spears, and Jennifer Lopez all like to show off their impressive (and also manufactured, btw) assets, then why do we stop at Jenner? The male gaze is gross, and I don’t like it, but I’m not Caitlyn Jenner – if that’s her vision of womanhood, good for her. I don’t agree with it – but it’s not my place to dictate how a woman should express her femininity.

Burkett then complains that progressive folks – those of us who choose to be trans allies – are ” buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.” Yeah, no, that’s not what’s happening. Progressives – and I mean cis allies of trans folks in particular – are saying, “hey, I’m not trans. I don’t know what that’s like, and it’s not something that I can comment on with any kind of authority. But because I’m an ally, I’ll listen to what trans folks are telling me, and believe them. To argue against a trans person’s reasons for being trans is like telling a gay person she chose to be gay, even if she already explained to me that she was born that way.

But what gets me is that Burkett is chasing after some notion that somehow trans rights will infringe on women’s self-identification. She insists that “People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women…shouldn’t get to define us.” She cites male privilege and goes on to say “as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.” And this is where Burkett’s wheels seem to start spin, because she’s voicing this threat that Jenner poses to womankind, ignoring the fact that Jenner isn’t defining womanhood. Hell, she doesn’t even get to define trans womanhood much less womanhood as a whole, nor is she trying. Jenner’s story is pretty atypical of most trans women’s stories, and I’m sure they’d chafe at the suggestion that it fully and correctly represents their journeys. When Burkett writes “Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identities,” I wanted to get up and shout, “You’re right! It’s not your truth. That’s the point!” But it’s a ridiculously obvious point to make, because there is no one universal truth and no one universal female identity. Cis, trans, gay, straight, queer, gender conforming, gender nonconforming, and everything in between all prevent there from being ever one truth that is applicable to all women.”

But Burkett isn’t done, yet. She then indulges in the fiction that trans women have it really easy. Let me make it clear, we’ve built a society that makes it often shit to be a woman. And the crap women go through is very specific toward women. But the trans community suffers from high levels of depression, unemployment, job discrimination, AIDS/HIV infection – trans women (and trans men) are victims of violence and rape. And the homicide rate of Trans women of color is astronomic. Burkett’s point that “being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.” And that is also true of trans women, who endure more than their share of certain indignities.

Burkett then switches back to Jenner, highlighting the privilege she enjoyed when she publicly presented as Bruce Jenner. Again, not going to disagree – Caitlyn Jenner is the epitome of white privilege and wealth. But that’s not specific to trans women – white privilege benefits lots of people – including cis women. And Burkett makes the mistake of assuming that the trans community and its all see Jenner’s story as representative of the trans experience. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be sold as such. Jenner’s fame, plus that of her family, has afforded her access to some of the best healthcare in the country. She is privileged and not the typical story of trans life, in much the same way Oprah Winfrey’s story isn’t the reality for most black women in America.

When working at an LGBT nonprofit, I ran across trans youth who didn’t have the privilege  of wealth and race that Jenner enjoys. Many of Burkett’s concerns directly affected the young trans women – largely trans women of color – who I came across. They didn’t worry about birth control, but they worried about how they’d get their hands on hormones. And like cis women, they dealt with the danger of rape. Some were sex workers and also worried about AIDS/HIV. All of them were rejected by their families and communities, and were forced to create new families and support networks. Male privilege is a thing, but it is often situational – and depending on when, where, and how trans women transition, it often doesn’t operate in the same way it did for Jenner. None of the kids I worked with were Olympic athletes with their picture on a Wheeties box.

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‘Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ by Johann Hari – a review

I first heard about Johann Hari, and his book, Chasing the Scream when watching Bill Maher’s Real Time with Bill Maher. On the program, Hari talked about the War on Drugs, and sought, in the limited time he had, to debunk with both factions on the left and right thought about drug addiction: essentially, drug addiction isn’t a moral failing, nor is it solely a chemical issue, it’s more environmental. He also went further, talking about a famous study done to a rat addicted to drugs, explaining that if rats are given the choice of drugs or a fulfilling life with other rats, then they would choose the later. Maher, a known opponent of the War on Drugs, impishly suggested then that people could take heroin and not be addicted, as long as their environment was ideal. Of course, this brought laughter from the audience, but then Hari pointed out that when people leave the hospital after surgery, they are often prescribed drugs that are essentially heroin in its pure form, and few will develop addictions.

All of this was intriguing, which is why I found Chasing the Scream such a fascinating book. Admittedly, I went into this book with my sympathies and bias in Hari’s favor, but even I have to admit that some of Hari’s findings stunned me. And though I’m also critical of the War on Drugs, I didn’t know much of its history, outside the Reagan Administrations’ championing of it, and I didn’t understand the extend of its ruinous effects on society.

To build his case, Hari lays down an historical context to the War on Drugs, going back to the racketeering days of Prohibition. And while there are no villains in this story, Harry J. Anslinger would inspire boos and hisses for his pioneering work in the criminalization and prohibition of drugs. He sought to restrict marijuana, tapping into racist fears of the 1930s, exploiting race panic, including the image of sexually predatory black male, who will rape and murder white women if high. One of his victims included jazz legend Billie Holliday, who suffered through years of drug addiction as well as grueling punishment from the government. Ruthless gangster Arnold Rothstein is also profiled to highlight the danger of drug prohibition and its creation of gang warfare.

Ansligner and Rothstein are relatively obscure figures and Holliday is a musical icon – neither comes to mind when thinking about the War on Drugs, which is what draws the reader in initially. But Hari doesn’t just focus on historical figures. Through countless interviews, he profiles a diverse group of individuals, all scarred somehow by the War on Drugs. Some of the tales are heartbreaking and poignant, as a few of his subjects die before the book’s publication. Some like Chino – a trans man who struggles through a disastrous childhood of abuse, rape, drug addiction, and gang violence, emerges as an activist for change and social justice – are inspirational.

Hari’s research highlights major holes in the War on Drugs – namely that the prohibition of drugs encourages addiction. For most readers, such a claim would feel counter intuitive. But his findings support much of what he’s suggesting: because drug prohibition creates an grossly inflated profit on the sale of drugs, unscrupulous, violent, and dangerous gangs try to control the trade. And because the justice system views drug addiction in a punitive manner, addicts are often severely punished, jailed, and often tortured in such ways that relapse or death seems inevitable  Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio and his infamous tent city is a particularly disturbing and ghoulish example of the abusive methods in which states and counties in this country deal with drug problems – Hari shares a story of a prisoner who is essentially cooked in a cage in the hot Arizona desert.

Though not a travelogue, Hari’s work takes him to different parts of the world where drug addiction is a problem, and he interviews a diverse group of people, each of whom is looking at the War on Drugs as a failed disaster. In Sweden and Portugal, he witnesses new laws that work toward decriminalization, and he goes to Vancouver and writes about an addict who mobilizes his peers into demanding rights and treatment from their government. These stories place human faces on the War on Drugs and highlight was a catastrophic failure it turned out to be.  And in Colorado and Washington, he talks to two activists, both working hard toward the legalization of marijuana, but both coming from vastly different ideological backgrounds. It’s the diversity of the subjects of the book – conservatives, liberals, activists, doctors, politicians that really emphasizes just how wide-reaching the problem of drug addiction is.

Though Hari claims that his book is targeted toward the moderates – those who don’t fall too far left or too far right, Chasing Screams is a hard sell for those who take a conservative view of drug addiction. Some will claim that Hari and his subjects favor a touchy-feely approach that is doomed to fail. Some also will claim that Hari is essentially arguing for government-sanctioned crack houses. But Hari acknowledges that this discussion is far more complex than merely, “drugs should be legal, full stop.” As someone whose life has been marked by addiction, Hari knows first hand its consequences, and as a devoted uncle to young children, he fears for his nephews’ and niece’s safety. As a result, he does an admirable job in sharing his own prejudices about drug addicts as well as his preconceived ideas of drug addiction. Even if Chasing the Scream feels a bit like the proverbial preaching to the choir, those sympathetic toward Hari’s cause should still read the book, because it does highlight many unknown, yet tragic consequences of the failed War on Drugs. In light of ongoing discussions of our cracked justice system – particularly in light of the recent deaths of black men at the hands of the police – Chasing the Scream will be one of the most important books you’ll read.

Click here to buy Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs on amazon.com.

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Classic TV – ‘Roseanne’ recap: “The Memory Game”

Everyone has a past, and for many couples, it’s better that the past stays the past. But what if one half of the couple is pastless? In “The Memory Game” (directed by Ellen Falcon and written by Grace McKeaney), Roseanne and Dan have to confront the past when Dan’s dalliance with Roseanne’s high school rival comes up at their 15th anniversary. Roseanne’s perception of her history with Dan is markedly different than his. All of this comes out when Dan gussies up the family for a family portrait.

As with “Radio Days,” in “The Memory Game,” we get further glimpses of what Dan and Roseanne were like in high school. It also establishes that the Connors are high school sweethearts – an interesting, if somewhat old fashioned, detail that gives us an insight to the dynamics of their marriage: both Dan and Roseanne never had serious relationships before each other, and for all intents and purposes, they were the only people in each others lives.

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That’s not to say that they were angels. In fact, the episode’s main conflict lies in Dan’s brief moment of infidelity when Dan and Roseanne broke  up for a bit. In his grief, he hooked up with Phyllis Zimmer, Roseanne’s high school rival. Roseanne’s idealized vision of her marriage with Dan is immediately disturbed: McKeaney and Falcon risk a lot with this episode because as much as John Goodman carries the emotional scenes, Roseanne Barr has to match him. And for the most part, she does. By shrewdly allowed Roseanne’s reaction to be stunned resentment, instead of a large blowout (those would come later when Barr gets a stronger handle on her thespian abilities), McKeaney and Falcon allow Barr to explore her character’s mixed feelings of shame, anger, and betrayal without having to tax her limited resources. As a result, Barr’s performance is stronger because she downplays Roseanne’s feelings of outrage into muted hurt.

This episode also highlights a somewhat dated aspect of female vs. male sexuality. When Dan admits to having sex with Phyllis, Roseanne cannot fathom how he could make love to a woman and not feel anything. The essentialist idea that somehow sex is more meaningful and is attached to great emotional involvement for women is something that should be explored more – but instead, we’re given just a cursory glance – a shame because in later episodes, female sexuality, particularly, liberated female sexuality is given a voice. But in this early season, when Barr’s input was arguably at its lowest, women were still seen as being more sentimental about sex than their male counterparts.

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But because of this disconnect between the Dan and Roseanne we get the first major  fight between the two since the pilot in which Dan and Roseanne quarreled over household duties. This fight, though, has higher stakes because raw emotions are involved. Up to this point, much of Roseanne is still pretty superficial when it comes to the ugly of relationships. The show is still trying to find its voice, and as a result, at times it does play like a looser, poorer version of The Cosby Show.

Because the show was still working out its kinks, it looked like the writers thought of making Roseanne partly a family comedy, and partly a workplace comedy a la The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s a shame that the later seasons would abandon this premise because the scenes at the Wellman Plastics are some of the best in the early episodes, and that is also true in “The Memory Game.” Because Lanford is the kind of town where everyone knows ev    eryone and no one leaves, all the women pretty much know each from high school. Now, if that’s not depressing, I don’t know what is. But again, we get a great scene in which Roseanne gets to spar with the other women at the factory – all of whom are equally witty and funny.

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It’s also in these work scenes, that Barr’s political ideology becomes more pronounced. Always a voice of the working class, Barr informs these scenes (along with the writers and directors) with some great populism. It’s not just feminism, but class differences as well. When the ladies grouse about the lack of paper towels in the ladies’ restroom, Crystal comes up with a very astute answer:  “This has got nothing to do with paper towels. This is just a sneaky old ploy by management to get us all worked up in a huff about small stuff so we never think about the things that are important like benefits, and pay raises, and fresher vending items.”

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Crystal’s brilliant summation of upper management’s petty slights against its workers is exactly why Roseanne is a brilliant show. It brings up the very true notion that poor and working class people aren’t sheep, unknowingly participating in their own oppression: they know very well what’s happening, but aren’t always sure what to do about it.

In “The Memory Game,” we get another episode that works almost as a stand alone. We aren’t given large story arcs, yet. Still, it’s solid episode in a series that is finding its strength as it chugs along.

Random thoughts: Despite the depth of Roseanne’s hurt, this episode had a lot of great one-liners and some funny visuals:

  • “I lost it on prom night with everything else,” Roseanne on her idealism.
  • Dan on Roseanne’s pic for the anniversary yearbook: “Rosey, we’re mooning Old Faithful in that one.” Roseanne’s response: “Looking back at 15 years.”
  • When Roseanne wants to sit down on the sofa, she grabs D.J. and flings him like a sack of laundry onto another couch.
  • When Roseanne marches into the men’s rooms to get paper towels and is caught by Booker he chastises her by saying “What did I tell you about going in there?” So she’s done this before…Aaaand she referred to urinals as drinking fountains.
  • Dressed up, Roseanne looks gorgeous for the family portrait.
  • “Black Sunday.” Roseanne’s nickname for her wedding.
  • Roseanne had a flip hair do in high school: “I was going through my Marlo Thomas’ That Girl phase, I was gonna go to New York and become a writer slash spokes model.”
  • Becky: “Dad, when did you fall in love with mom?” Dan: “As soon as she told me to, honey.”
  • “Back in the good old days when I had a waistline and estrogen.” Roseanne
  • As usual, Dan and Roseanne make up on the couch, canoodling and cuddling, and it’s adorable.

 

 

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Classic TV – ‘Roseanne’ recap: “Lovers Lane”

I complained that “Radio Days” was a nothing episode, and some could say “Lovers Lane” (written by Danny Jacobson, directed by Ellen Falcon) is also a light episode – almost slice of life. But what makes it a better episode is that it expertly blends in three mini-stories: Dan and Roseanne bowling with their pals, Jackie and Booker continuing with their flirting, and Becky dealing with puppy love. It’s rare this early into the show’s life that every performer has a solid turn in a single episode, but “Lovers Lane” achieves that feat. The episode also gives the child actors a little bit more to do – especially Lecy Goranson, who plays Becky with an expert blend of coltish trepidation and teenaged snottiness.

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The episode opens with Roseanne and Jackie nattering with their friends at Wellman Plastics. I love these scenes because as great as Roseanne is at home with her family, she’s even better surrounded by her peers. What Jacobson does so well is that he writes Roseanne’s pals to be just as witty, interesting and funny as Roseanne. The best of the bunch is the eccentric, yet loving Crystal (Natalie West), who would later graduate to full cast member. Unlike Roseanne, she doesn’t approach the world with balls-to-the-wall attitude. Because she’s so easily cowed by Roseanne, she comes off at times as a bit of a doormat, but she’s very sympathetic. Her life reads at times like a Southern Gothic novel, and she’s often played off as a tragically funny character. But I love her sisterly rapport with Jackie and Roseanne.

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So during break, Roseanne and her gal pals discuss how they should spend their Friday night and agree on a night of bowling. This comes after some hesitation from Crystal, who feels Roseanne will simply goof on the game the entire evening, and not take anything seriously. I love that Crystal can be so uptight that even a night out on a Friday evening is cause for angst. George Clooney makes another early appearance as Booker, and the show has him flirting with Jackie. Laurie Metcalf and Clooney play off each other well – and Clooney already is exhibiting the kind of multi-watt charisma that would later make him into a bonafide movie star. Jacobson writes the flirting as being flinty, with Jackie often outwitting her handsome boss. He agrees to go to the bowling outing, which gives Clooney probably his best episode on the show.

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At home, Roseanne and Dan prep the kids. It’s in the moments at home that the show approaches naturalism. The clothing is especially truthful. None of the characters wears anything particularly trendy, but when Becky descends the stairs, she’s well-dressed – but not in a TV way, in which a costumer raided a high end boutique. Instead, it’s believable that Becky’s outfit is a relatively expensive outfit bought off the rack at the local department store (I imagine Dan and Roseanne saving up so that they could buy her the pretty purple sweater or her modest jewelry). What gives away the outfit as being realistic – and as a Midwestern guy who braved cold autumn and winter nights I can vouch for the authenticity – is Becky’s coat. It’s a down coat, not terribly pretty – in fact it’s solely utilitarian: it’s meant to keep her warm. Often as a kid growing up, we spent some money to get nice clothes, but when it came to coats, we hardly ever had an eye on fashion – we just wanted to keep warm.

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It feels like I’m writing a lot about Becky – maybe it’s because in Roseanne lore she gets a bit of a raw deal. The writers don’t make her the sarcastic cutup like Darlene, and she doesn’t get to be cute like D.J. Instead, she’s pretty ordinary – but I think that’s okay. There’s a strength to her brattiness, and it’s clear that even though Darlene and Roseanne are closer in temperment, Becky’s inherited some of that will power and moxie, too. Because “Lovers Lane” is a rather Becky-heavy episode, Jacobson and Falcon rely on Goranson to do some heavy lifting. She plays Becky often with an embarrassed squirm that feels almost visceral (and the appalled way she says “mother” makes me wince). She’s at the age where her parents can’t do anything right: she’s going with the family on the bowling outing because her crush, Chip is working the counter at the concession stand. She likes the guy and hopes that seeing him outside of school will get them to be closer. When she begs her parents to stay away and not humiliate her, viewers are simultaneously sympathetic to this awkward adolescent, but also put off because the Connors are pretty awesome parents. Of course Dan and Roseanne know better than to be offended by Becky’s entreaties, and instead of promising to behave they slip into Deliverance-style hillbilly vaudeville, with John Goodman particularly adept at mocking a caricature of a redneck.

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Once the Connors are at the bowling alley, Roseanne makes good on Crystal’s fears, and spends the night cracking jokes and misbehaving. Crystal’s a stickler for rules, even chiding Roseanne for not stowing her shoes in an orderly fashion under their bench – instead Roseanne just throws them to the side (I also like that Crystal has a bowling shirt with her name on it). She warns Dan of proper foot hygiene when using rented bowling shoes and treats the evening like quite an undertaking. Meanwhile, Jackie and Booker have a silly bet that if he wins, she has to spend the night at his place.

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Predictably, Dan’s a great bowler – though, I think the audience is more enthusiastic about his swagger than his bowling prowess as bowling scenes in sitcoms aren’t actually filmed in bowling alleys. Roseanne loves being with her friends, but she bowls terribly and is bored when it’s her turn. Again, I hate to make this about me, but I totally sympathize with her – the few times that I go bowling, I enjoy the camaraderie of the company I keep (and I enjoy the fattening food and pitchers of warm beer), but I don’t enjoy the actual bowling. So when Roseanne whines, “”I just bowled twenty minutes ago” I know exactly how she feels. I also understand her motivation of simply tossing the bowl down the lane, completely indifferent to her game.

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Though Roseanne doesn’t care about bowling she does care about Becky and Chip. It’s in these mini moments that I find Roseanne really excels – instead of simply having Roseanne interact with Chip and Becky, we’re gifted with a great scene in which Roseanne pumps Darlene for information at the bowling alley’s arcade. Though Darlene and Becky have a typically contentious relationship with each other, they’re sisters, so there is a bond, so it’s understandable that Darlene initially refuses to rat Becky out and point out the dreamy dreamboat that is Chip. After a nifty bit of terrible dancing to Darlene’s arcade game music, Roseanne manages to break Darlene down, and Chip’s identity is revealed: he’s probably the most 80s-looking concession stand worker on the planet (his hair is gelled to a consistency that I’d coin, crinkly).

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Roseanne bides her time, though and returns to see Dan, victorious, scoring another strike, and doing a victory dance. To gloat and rub it in, he does his winning strike and dance in slow motion, and Goodman gets to show off his great skill at physical comedy. Roseanne rarely indulges in physical comedy or prat falls. It’s a smart, mostly verbal comedy, but there are solitary moments when we get to enjoy larger, broader gags, like Goodman recreating his victory shuffle all in slow motion. It’s also revelatory to see the hulking Goodman display an almost ballet-like talent at this sort of slapstick.

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Back at the arcade, after a nice exchange between Darlene and Becky, in which the tomboy younger sister gives good advice on talking with boys to her more traditionally-feminine sister, Becky screws up the courage and makes it to the counter. After some stilted awkward chatter, in which Becky lies and tells Chip that she’s at the bowling alley on her own – which, I’m not sure why he’d believe because if she’s not bowling, then what the hell is Becky doing loitering at a bowling alley arcade by herself – Roseanne pops up to buy some snacks. Becky’s practically neon red with shame as her mom starts to chat up Chip. But instead of being herself, Roseanne adapts an exaggerated Midwestern twang, and pretends she isn’t Becky’s mom. We get to see how great of a mom she really is: she satisfies her curiosity about this boy, and yet she maintains her daughter’s dignity and doesn’t humiliate her. Before she goes, she leaves Chip a tip, which he appreciates, calling this nice lady, “cool.” Becky, equally grateful, but for other reasons, agrees.

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Though Becky and Chip are headed for romance, Jackie and Booker aren’t. At least not yet. Though Booker wins the bet, he realizes that bedding Jackie because he won her in a bet is gross and demeaning to women, and it would doom any chance of a real relationship between the two. When he susses out that she’s sincerely interested in him, and not just willing to have sex with him to satisfy a wager, he gallantly refuses saying, “Not tonight, and not on a bet.” The great thing about Roseanne is that as pro-woman as it is, it doesn’t forget that feminism doesn’t exclude men. The women in the Roseanne universe are often victimized by sexism and misogyny, but there are some great, decent guys, like Dan. And Booker, though problematic because of his Casanova persona, is too decent to go through with his smarmy bet.

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“Lovers Lane” continues the mini-streak of episodes that leave aside the more serious issues that often dominate the show. Later on, the program would take on topics like domestic violence, abuse, sexual assault, homosexuality, racism, abortion, mental illness, unemployment, and sexism. As Roseanne Barr become more powerful, the show became a stronger, more explicit mouthpiece for her social and political view points (to the show’s credit). It’s still fascinating to watch Roseanne in its first season, when Roseanne Connor wasn’t the avenging feminist superhero, yet. Anger and rage colored a lot of Roseanne’s interactions later on, yet in the first season we get the almost-cuddly Rosie, who lives a day-to-day existence without adhering to a larger, context.

Random notes: There were a lot of great one liners in this episode, most of them by Roseanne. Some gems include:

  • Fed up with Darlene and D.J. fighting in the car, Roseanne shouts, “Alright that’s it – in the trunk with the both of you.”
  • After Crystal’s particularly yucky sermon on foot fungus, Roseanne asks, “”Crystal, would you stop flirting with my old man?”
  • As she’s about to bowl, Dan promises that if she even hits one pin, he’ll be her sex slave for life. Her response: “”Yeah, but what do I win?”
  • Roseanne’s trick to hitting a strike: “I pretend like the pins are the kids and the ball is your head.”
  • Jacobson saved his best jokes for Barr, but Goranson had a great line to Dan and Roseanne: “Please, if you really love me, you’ll pretend you’re not my parents.”

 

 

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