I went to see a production of The Glass Menagerie this evening. It was in the small black box space at the theater where I have done most of my work in musicals – nineteen shows over the seventeen years since I made my debut there in Jekyll and Hyde as the butler. For years the word was out – need a butler, a random aristocrat, or a drunk? Call Andy. I’m generally not a huge Tennessee Williams fan but the scaling down of the piece to fit the intimate space made me really listen to the language and at how beautiful the choice of words are. I’m a reasonable writer but then I see something like that and I realize how inadequate my little scribblings are. I was dwelling on the famous closing speech Tom gives in which he says nowadays the world is lit by lightning. Blow out your candles, Laura. And so, goodbye as I was coming up the hill back to my condo and I thought perhaps there’s something terribly prescient in that sentiment. We are living through a time of great change, a time that is indeed lit by lightning and those who attempt to sit back amid the candles of the past are doomed to a slow fade into oblivion.
The lightning strikes and peals of thunder are, to a certain extent, created by the monster of the twenty-four hour news cycle that’s come to dominate political and social discourse over the last few decades. In the past, you got your news in the form of the daily paper and it was formatted in such a way that you could take it in slowly and digest it with your breakfast or your before dinner cocktail and, if it was a bit assaultive, you could always turn to the comics or the sports section or the arts and entertainment pages. The only available visual news was pretty much limited to a half hour local and a half hour national newscast that stuck to facts and news rather than opinion due to the strictures of the fairness doctrine. Things have changed a bit with the invention of continuous cable news networks, the demise of the daily paper, and the availability of insta-news of dubious quality via various online sources distributed through social media.
There’s something in the American character that just loves competition. Not only just competition but brutal winner take all competition. It’s no wonder that football took off here and not in any other country. The idea of a sort of gladiatorial combat in which men maul at each other to capture territory and which is set up so that only one team can be the champion and get the accolades seems to fit in with the country built on manifest destiny and the rolling over and exploiting of the less fortunate and less powerful. I’ve never been a big football fan. That has not served me particularly well since moving to Alabama where football is a religion. I joke about the sportsball, but I do usually know who’s winning and losing. You can’t avoid it in this part of the country. I attended football games in the student section when I was in college. I brought a book. But it did give me my one and only football claim to fame. I was there in the stands in 1982 for the Stanford – Cal game that included the crazy finale with the infamous band play and saw the trombonist get tackled. It was wild.
We all know that the most interesting sports competitions are those which are the closest. It’s the suspense of not having a foregone conclusion, the last minute field goal, the impossible save, that grab and keep are attention and give us something to talk about for the next week until there’s a new highlight. These sort of edge of the seat moments are great in the sporting world, but in this brave new world of fleeting attention spans, these qualities are invading other areas of our lives in an attempt to capture our eyeballs, however briefly, driven by the news cycle and causing certain areas of our lives to become counterproductive. Take the movies, for instance. Reportage on film used to be about the quality of the product, written by critics of discernment. Now it’s all about who captured the box office and is number one or how many teenagers paid to see the latest MCU opus opening weekend. The language is full of sporting and military metaphor. The result has been a significant decline of lower budget films about adults for adults as they can’t possibly ‘beat’ the competition and ‘win’ the weekend.
Of course, it’s become most corrosive in our politics, especially on a national level. Politics and governance are not inherently exciting subjects. In the past, no one was terribly interested in what went on behind the closed doors of congressional meeting rooms as the sausage was made. People were much more interested in what was presented after the wheeling and dealing was over and policy was voted upon. Congress was there to do the people’s business and to get policies with popular support enacted into legislation. Now most congress people seem to be acting out of a sense of personal aggrandizement. As the old adage goes, politics is show business for the unattractive and draws the same personality types. The media, needing to create the news cycle and excitement to get the clicks and the eyeballs, spins as much as possible into a continuous horse race between R and D – red and blue – where they’re constantly neck and neck, calling first for one side, then the other. The result is a dishonest look at the business of governing and a continued push to pick a team and team colors and to be yelling for your team from your side of the stands.
It’s even spread to what should be apolitical topics such as public health. There have always been people opposed to public health measures for various reasons but they have generally not been given a megaphone to spread their ideas and they have generally gone dormant once the public at large has seen the benefits of vaccination/sanitation/industrial safety/smoking reduction or whatever other issue is at the forefront. With the recent introduction of coronavirus vaccines, the sentiment seems to be everywhere. If you go back through the various streams of information, most of the antivaccine rhetoric comes from a surprisingly few outlets, fewer than twenty in total. It just gets magnified by social media and then the news media as a whole picks up on it and the nature of the news cycle and the need for the close horse race takes over and a small minority opinion seems to have equal weight with a large majority opinion that has all the facts and the science on its side. This is, I suppose, why the media predicted that tens of thousands of NYPD officers would leave their jobs rather than take the vaccine when required. The actual number who have left so far is fewer than fifty. Tying vaccine status to job/salary, whether you agree with it or not, is working to bring the numbers of vaccinated up relatively rapidly and, concomittantly, the hospitalization rates are going down. We’re down to ten Covid inpatients at UAB as of today. To my knowledge, there aren’t any hospitalizations there due to vaccine side effects.
I don’t know what to do about any of this any more than anyone else does. All I can do is recognize the patterns and hopefully continue to read widely and deeply on current affairs from multiple perspectives, avoid television news and click bait, and not put too much stock into the results of any particular partisan race having a whole lot of meaning for the future of the country as a whole. I’ve also had my shots and my booster, keep my hands washed, and I wore my mast in the theater.