Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Strange New World

I wonder … what would Gene Roddenberry think?

A little context here:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of “Star Trek”, the television series that went where no man — where no one — had gone before.

Meaning out into the stars, yes … but in the context of the mid-1960s and what was considered okay to put on television, this series went to a few places and did a few things that were just about unheard of, at the time – beyond doing what science fiction does best, namely under-the-radar commentary on current events.

On the bridge of our fair starship Enterprise: well, yes, a white fellow in the commander’s seat, and a white fellow in charge of keeping everybody well and healthy … but look at the folks who are helping them out:

An African-American woman in charge of keeping the Enterprise in touch with the outside world.

A Russian fellow — at the time, you’ll recall, Soviet Russia wasn’t exactly considered your warmest fuzziest neighbor — in charge of figuring out how to navigate the ship from place to place.

An Asian man in charge of steering the darn truck! (And firing the phasers, when sadly necessary.)

Yes, a white fellow in charge of keeping the ship propelled properly, but sporting an accent that was darn near impenetrable.

And a green — green! — alien. Not an illegal alien. And not an alien that is here to menace our heroes. And not a “little green man”, as early science-fiction writers imagined. A tall, dark (greenish) and handsome native of another planet entirely. And, um, friendly. If a bit bemused by the humans surrounding him.

As opposed to hell-bent on conquering our world. Or taking our jobs.

The crew of the starship Enterprise was meant (overtly or not) to be a microcosm of the sort of world that Gene Roddenberry believed was possible, some day in the future. His vision has been derided by some as full of Pollyanna BS in its utopian glee; but honestly, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone was judged by their character and not by what they looked like?

Who, indeed.

Fast-forward fifty years from the first appearance of Captain Kirk and his merry band of genuine friends, and … well, politically, we’re not exactly in a happy-clappy utopian mist of bliss, out here.

This morning, I was listening to a segment of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, an interview with a Florida resident who is likely to vote for Republican Party candidate Donald Trump. He didn’t see himself as a hardcore, rally-attending, rally-protester-punching, campaign-press-corps-threatening Trump supporter. No indeed. Rather, he saw himself as a person who, after much consideration, really did think that voting for Trump was his best option “in a weak [election] field.”

And to wrap up his self-assessment, he said a most curious thing.

This is not one [vote] that I’m gonna be bragging about in the future. This is the first presidential election cycle in my lifetime [in which] I have not had a yard sign, a bumper sticker, a pin, a shirt, a hat … there is nothing on my property that would tell you who I’m going to vote for. I told somebody, you know, I like ‘Star Trek’, but I am not dressing up like a Klingon and going to the convention, okay? I’m going to vote for Donald Trump, but his yard sign is not going in my front yard.”

Setting aside the fact that, well, in this case, as in many others throughout history, at least one voter is glad that American elections are done by secret ballot, so no one has to know that you actually voted for Candidate X … and also setting aside the inescapable impression that he held beliefs for which he really didn’t want to have to stand up and be counted …

Here we have a self-professed fan of “Star Trek”, a program whose underlying point was that the wonderful thing about the people that is going out and exploring the wonders of outer space is that they represent race full of human beings who have figured out how to live peaceably and productively with themselves, and have matured to the point that they have begun to appreciate and value people and things and aliens that are different, rather than continuing to be spooked and scared by “strange new worlds”, and probably to be violent toward “new life and new civilizations”.

And this Florida man is supporting a candidate who has managed to awaken many Americans’ latent hatreds, by way of behavior and policies that espouse exactly the opposite philosophy from that “Star Trek” show.

I wonder what Gene Roddenberry would think.

I can’t speak for him … but as for me, at the very least I think that Florida man fundamentally misunderstands “Star Trek”.

Either that or he just likes it for the phaser guns, and spaceships, and fistfights wherein William Shatner rips his own shirt, again.

What really makes me nervous is that, according to the original Star Trek canon, Earth and its humans had to endure a Third World War before they could come out the other side and start to rebuild their civilization into something that would one day become the Roddenberry vision.

Here’s hoping Mr. Roddenberry was wrong, at least in this one detail.

Twenty days.

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October 19, 2016 Posted by | current events, Famous Persons, news, npr, politics, radio, science fiction, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Are No Morals. There Is Only Money.

You’ve heard the news by now.

“A white gunman killed nine people Wednesday night, after opening fire on a Bible study group gathered at the historically-black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.”

There are topics to be addressed here.  Obviously, access-to-guns is one; and if you’ve heard the eyewitness reports of what the gunman said as he was shooting, it’s frankly foolish to suggest that racism isn’t a topic to be addressed. There is, though, one other overarching issue that I’m thinking about, one which actively impedes efforts to address any relevant topics.

Many times, this issue is characterized by the use of premeditatively reckless speech for the purpose of backstopping the interests of one particular segment of the American corporate world. And this reckless speech arguably violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the law where the First Amendment to the US Constitution is concerned.

In theory, speech is free and protected – give or take a moment of slander, libel, or intent to use certain forms of speech to directly place people other than the speaker in danger.

Beyond that, this speech reveals its sources as anywhere from amoral to inhumane, or inhuman.

 

Bryan Fischer, the host of an American Family Association-sponsored radio program [Ed. note: he regularly is identified as a “Christian conservative radio host”; but in this space, I refuse to associate my church-going self with him in this way, because in comparison to the Christianity that I was taught in Sunday School, his expressions of so-called Christianity sound a lot different to me.], tweeted this:

Misguided bans on guns in houses of worship turned this black church in SC into a shooting gallery. Nobody could shoot back.”

Really?

These people.

Because adding one or two or five more guns to this scenario would obviously have resulted in less gunfire, and less chaos, and less death. Obviously.

These people.

Nearly at the same moment (over on a cable TV channel overseen for the moment by an Australian media-empire patriarch), a TV morning-chat on-air personality was saying the very same thing as Mr. Fischer. Boy, it was almost as if he’d been in a football huddle with Mr. Fischer before they went and ran that play.

Steve Doocy, who daily is locked in combat with two other on-air personalities for the title of “Dimmest Bulb in the Fox & Friends Chandelier” (sorry for the personal abuse, but it only takes listening to about sixty seconds of this guy to detect that they hired him more for his chiseled jaw than for his journalistic chops), drawled:

Had somebody in that church had a gun, they probably would have been able to stop [the shooter]. If somebody was there, they would have had the opportunity to pull out their weapon and take him out.”

 

So, packaged inside these quotes (and probably some others out there, but these caught my attention especially, distributed as they were by various forms of mass-media to a non-insignificant number of Americans) come at least two issues.

First, they actively advocated for carrying weaponry in houses of worship – and for the readiness to use that weaponry at a moment’s notice.

Well, after all, what would Jesus have done? Shot first and asked questions later. Resorted to violence inside a sacred space. Obviously.

(Yes, he turned a few tables over in a temple at least once. That’s got nothing to do with this whatsoever. Nice try, but swing and a miss. Back to the dugout with you.)

Second, they advocated for the free and open application of wild-West, “frontier justice”. Sheriff ain’t gonna get here in time t’ help us. Gotta step up ‘n’ help our own selves. Hafta see who’s the quicker draw, y’all.

Probably a bit legally riskier in states without “Stand Your Ground” laws in place, but a feller’s gotta do what a feller’s gotta do.

[Insert spittoon sound effect here.]

Again, speech is free and protected – with notable libel/slander and public-safety exceptions. How does encouraging people who are not employed as actual law enforcement officers to “pull out their weapon and take [someone] out” – for people to feel free to become flailing, zero-formal-public-safety-training-laden, armed vigilantes – fit into this First Amendment concept?

I won’t give the feller on the Fox & Friends couch, Mr. Doocy, a complete pass by suggesting that he’s a completely mindless drone who has no idea what it is he’s reading off the teleprompter, or what it is he’s improvising as he merges his standing talking points with what his producers are telling him is the issue of the day.

But I also won’t accuse him of being Doctor Evil, with subtle and convoluted plans for bringing about his evil schemes for world domination. He’s just makin’ a living. It’s his career. And I suspect that he and Mr. Fischer the radio host represent a cautionary tale about what happens when average human’s contribution to the world is controlled by more powerful forces.

 

Mr. Doocy and Mr. Fischer, to name just a pair of examples, are paid to place words into the public discourse which (regardless of their recklessness and irresponsibility in the context of public safety) are what their bosses tell them to say. If they refuse to say those words, they may lose their places as media figures, because their bosses need them to say those words. Their bosses need them to say those words because they, the bosses, are being bankrolled by people whose job it is – in this case – to make sure that one particular industry makes its money. And is assured of continuing to make its money, no matter what.

There are no morals. There is only money.

Now, Mr. Doocy and Mr. Fischer could take a closer look at the copy that they’re being asked to read, or at the tweets they send, or at transcripts of their on-air improvisations, and decide that in order to feel like decent human beings, they can’t in good conscience keep on saying those words, and don’t want to have their names associated with those words anymore. And they could submit letters of resignation to News Corp. or the American Family Association, and wash their hands of the whole thing.

But then they’d not be making the kind of six-figure salaries that national on-air TV and radio personalities pull down, thanks to the largesse of the corporations that bankroll America’s nationally-distributed media. And those salaries support them in the manner to which they enjoy being accustomed.

So instead, they could assuage their consciences by saying, in effect, I was only following orders.

There are no morals. There is only money.

 

And the people in the gun-manufacturing industry, who wish to acquire that money, and wish to continue to make that money … are doing so by bankrolling media companies. And since money talks, those media companies are compelled to retain that bankrolling by saying those words that the industry insists they say: that guns are good, that more guns are better, that good guys with guns can save us from bad guys with guns, that guns in churches will keep us safe, that more guns anywhere will keep us safe, that more guns will help us deal with our fear, that fear is a part of life and we can best protect ourselves from what we fear with more guns, that guns guns guns guns guns! Because more guns.

Sorry. That sounded a little hysterical there, didn’t it. How can I possibly assert that?

Turns out I don’t have to.

In a post on gun activist website TexasCHLForum.com, National Rifle Association board member Charles L. Cotton argued that [South Carolina State Senator and pastor of the AME church, Rev. Clementa] Pinckney was responsible for the deaths of the eight church members who died alongside him because he did not support legislative proposals that would have allowed concealed carry in churches. Cotton wrote that the victims ‘might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns.’

As a state senator, Pinckney had opposed a 2011 that would have legalized concealed carry in churches. The bill ultimately failed in the legislature.”

A board member of the gun-manufacturing industry’s chief lobbying arm, the NRA, asserted that.

The people in the gun-manufacturing industry and their lobbyists, who conscript people and companies to aid and abet their quest to continue to acquire of all that money … and who effectively BUY legislators (thank you, Citizens United) who then feel obligated to enact laws that take away hindrances to the ever more widespread distribution of guns … do all of that without concern for public safety; without care for human suffering; without interest in the maintenance of a civilized society; and without empathy for anyone but themselves and their own greed.

I got mine, and I’m going to continue to get mine, is what they’re saying … and to hell with the rest of you.

 

THESE PEOPLE.

June 20, 2015 Posted by | current events, media, news, politics, radio, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hard Act to Follow

I’ve been lucky enough to know a few folks who would be filed quite readily under the heading “a hard act to follow”.

For a couple of weekends this month, Garrison Keillor took the opportunity to yield the host duties of his “Prairie Home Companion” radio program to someone else. I don’t know whether he sat and listened to the shows along with the rest of us … but there was such spectacular subtext every time his guest host, Punch Brothers lead singer Chris Thile, opened his mouth that I actually found hard to listen. And it’s not even my show! Can’t imagine what the creator of Lake Wobegon was feeling, no matter how much he may have brushed off the idea.

Not that Thile did poorly; he did fine, considering the task set before him. But for forty years, the voice that has spoken words like “coming to you live from the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul” and “heavens! They’re tasty, and expeditious” has been Keillor’s, and if anyone else tries it, it is simply Not. The. Same.

When NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” news quiz program begins each week, I admire the baritone of “legendary anchorman Bill Curtis” doing the introductions … but it’s just not Carl Kasell.

Re-boots have that innate challenge. We love the folks who are “our first”. Shatner is Captain Kirk. Dirk Benedict is Lieutenant Starbuck. Don Adams is Agent Maxwell Smart. Lou Ferrigno is the Hulk. Good luck to Chris Pine, Katee Sackhoff, Steve Carell, and the CGI version of Mark Ruffalo. Your results may vary.

And heaven knows, in the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to bid farewell to a number of performers for whom there will be no re-boots. They played their roles in such a way that any attempt to recreate those roles precisely … would be seen as cheap imitation. My Dad, as my primary example, will never be duplicated, which is a shame; but at the same time, doing a Dad impression is of less use than carrying on in such a way that the good works he left behind are what continue.

It’s a balancing act. Even in the Drum Major Academy world, we’ve brought both George Parks’ guiding principles and many of his bits of schtick along with us, in the four summers following his passing … but the curriculum and presentations are evolving. Wisely, the people who were charged with the task of presenting the “beware the drum major attitude” lecture session (which were shot through with Mr. Parks’ personal anecdotes) have been encouraged to bring their own additions and elements to it.

When Garrison Keillor retires, will “Prairie Home” even continue? His voice, his writing, his “old-time radio” approach, and without doubt the fictional Lake Wobegon community that existed only in his head, are so individual to him that it might be anywhere from wild and blind optimism to hubris for someone else to try to reproduce his act.

Assuredly, if it continues, it won’t be the same; but will that turn out to be okay? Depends upon whom you ask. Some will refuse to listen to a changed “PHC”. Some will keep on tuning in, to listen to Rich Dworsky at the piano, to Tim Russell and Sue Scott and Fred Newman’s able radio acting voices … but someone else will be writing the Ketchup Advisory Board and “Guy Noir, Private Eye” sketches – if they even survive the transition. And, if this month’s guest-hosted shows are any indication, no one will even try to reproduce the “News from Lake Wobegon”. At which point, some will say that it’s not really “PHC” anymore, and others will appreciate the “Moth Radio Hour” storytellers that may be brought in to fill that show segment. I don’t even know which direction I’ll go.

Last week, the radio world – and New England’s more local radio world – lost someone who will be a hard act to follow.

Richard Sher, the host of the public radio word-and-wit panel quiz show “Says You!”, passed away on Monday, February 16, after a battle with colon cancer.

I’ve been regular listener of the show for the majority of its eighteen and a half seasons. Happily, I live in a part of the country that plays host to live tapings of “Says You!” at least once a year; so once a year since 2009, I’ve taken my mother (also a big fan) to an afternoon or evening session wherein a couple of episodes of the show are recorded. (I even bumped into one of my former students in the audience on one occasion; I was both thrilled and totally unsurprised.) It’s as close to old-time radio as it gets anymore, with the possible exception of, yes, “A Prairie Home Companion”.

Part of the fun of “Says You!” has been its refusal to take itself too seriously. One of its philosophies is: “it’s not important to know the answers … it’s important to like the answers.” A larger part of the fun is the panelists who are asked to wrestle with the ferocious trivia quizzes, word puzzles, and brain-teaser questions that Richard Sher created for each week’s broadcast. Six New England-based writers, radio journalists, television personalities and other performers, in teams of three, tussle with the intellectual challenges and also interact with each other – with equal helpings of brilliance and silliness.

These masters of out-loud problem solving and on-the-spot joke-making were assembled into this verbal gymnastics team primarily because they all were long-time friends of Richard Sher. As the moderator and ringmaster of this flying circus of word and wit since its inception in 1997, by turns Sher guided the proceedings and sometimes seemed to hang on for dear life.

He would shamble onstage before a taping started, usually clad in tan corduroy jacket with brown elbow patches (necktie optional), and grab hold of each side of a small speaker’s podium, slightly hunch-shouldered … looking for all the world like a cross between an amiable English professor and Gru, the evil mastermind of the “Despicable Me” movies.

And always, he came off as the kind of person that his friends described him as, in the various obituaries that have appeared in the last fortnight: affable … creative … quirky … a mensch … warm and funny … “cynical but zany” … gentle and humane … eminently lovable.

Sher could make audiences laugh explosively at his gently acerbic emceeing (“That is a brilliant answer. Totally wrong, but brilliant even so.”). But he would not have been above literally falling over laughing at one of his panelist friends’ ad-libbed jokes. This happened during a number of the tapings that I attended; when it took him a few minutes to recover his composure afterward, the audience learned what an “edit point” in radio was. (“You’ll be amazed at how seamless this all will sound when it hits the radio.”)

When my mother handed me the Boston Globe‘s obituary page and said, “read this,” I read the headline: “Richard Sher, 66; created and hosted radio quiz show ‘Says You’”. I’ll admit that my first thought, following the initial sinking feeling that always accompanies such a realization, was: “aw, Ben.”

Benjamin Sher was Richard Sher’s beloved son, whom the obituary described as “part of the show, serving occasionally as scorekeeper and doing voice-overs”. At the end of each broadcast, the show’s credits finish with Richard saying, “Benjamin, give ’em the skinny!” and his son replying, “Says You! is produced by Pipit & Finch, Boston!” They’ve had to re-record Ben’s reply at least twice. I think there’s a four-year-old version, an eight-year-old version, and a thirteen-year-old version. He’s just as much a vet of the show as any of the panelists.

Mr. Sher was devoted to his son,” continued the obituary, “driving him to school and attending every event possible. When work took him out of town, his wife said, he would pause the taping to take phone calls with results of his son’s sports contests.” There’s no good time to lose your father, but I can appreciate that I got most of forty years to enjoy my dad’s company. Benjamin Sher got something like fifteen of them.

My next thought was: “Richard Sher is a hard act to follow.” I wouldn’t want to. There are just some acts, whether big and bombastic or subtle as a raised eyebrow, that are unique. My mother and I agreed that it would be next to impossible.

In January, when I attended the taping of two shows at Regis College, not far from Boston, I obviously didn’t realize that I was watching Richard Sher’s radio swan song. It’s not often in life that one consciously realizes they’re seeing something happen for the last time. And I wonder if anyone in that audience knew that Sher was suffering from colon cancer, that he had just six weeks left. He wasn’t lettin’ on, that’s for sure. It must have been one of the great moments of “the show must go on” that I’ve seen, at least live and in-person and in the fifth row.

Sure enough, Richard Sher (along with the extended family he’s left behind) appears to have defied expectations once again. Who might have predicted that a wordplay radio quiz show would thrive for most of two decades, in our current short-attention-span entertainment world – even if it was public radio and not commercial? And the website pronounced, not long after he passed away:

It was Richard’s wish that the show continues – the laughter it generates from you, our loyal listeners, will be the greatest gift that could possibly be hoped for …”

According to the Globe obituary, “’Says You!’ will continue its broadcasts. … [T]here is a reservoir of nearly 500 taped shows that can play at any time. Part of Richard’s genius was his foresight in editing out all topical references, so each program is freestanding.” “This truly is an ensemble,” said Sher’s wife, Laura, a program producer for the show. “While Richard has been the lead in that, this is an ensemble strong enough to go on.”

As in, not just in reruns. I’m beyond pleased to read that; I’ll be curious to see how they do carry on. I hope, and suspect, that Richard Sher has laid a foundation that really can endure. He was the literal voice of the show; but he emphasized and showcased the contributions of his team in such a way that the transition may actually not be nearly as jarring as it could have been.

Perhaps this past January wasn’t the last time I’ll get to a taping, after all. The show will go on.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | arts, entertainment, Famous Persons, media, npr, radio | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment