MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2020
A remarkable learning experience: Last evening, we thought of The Plague (La Peste)—of the way Camus' denizens of Oran struggle to comprehend the change taking place around them.
That part of Camus' novel is a discerning, though affectionate, portrait of human discernment.
We also been thinking of the old TV show, That Was The Week That Was.
We recall it as a breakthrough show during our late high school years. Oddly, we can't say that we specifically recall ever having watched it, although we assume we did.
What was That Was The Week That Was? The leading authority on the program begins its account as shown:
That Was the Week That Was, informally TWTWTW or TW3, was a satirical television comedy program on BBC Television in 1962 and 1963. It was devised, produced, and directed by Ned Sherrin and presented by David Frost.
The program is considered a significant element of the satire boom in the UK in the early 1960s, as it broke ground in comedy by lampooning political figures...An American version under the same title aired on NBC from 1964 to 1965, also featuring Frost.
That Was The Week That Was displayed a new attitude.
For a certain demographic, the most significant TV event of the era was the Dr. Kildare two-part drama, Tyger, Tyger, which gave the world Yvette Mimieux plus an important new message.
In college, we learned that everyone remembered a particular Superman episode from grade school years. It was the episode which ended with Superman explaining how he knew which of two identical clowns to save from certain death.
("I knew the real Chuckles the Clown would never let a man fall to his death," Superman explains to Lois Lane at the end of the program. We still regard it as one of the most succinct moral lessons ever published or aired.)
Those were transformative TV events. But That Was The Week That Was introduced a new attitude, as a few other major figures were doing at that time. The leading authority fleshes out its portrait of the show:
An American version was on NBC from 10 November 1963 to May 1965. The pilot featured Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan, with Mike Nichols and Elaine May as guests, and supporting performers including Gene Hackman. The recurring cast included Frost, Morgan, Buck Henry, and Alan Alda...; regular contributors included Gloria Steinem, William F. Brown, Tom Lehrer, and Calvin Trillin...
The American version is largely a lost program, although the pilot survives and was donated to the Library of Congress by a collector. Amateur audio recordings of most episodes also survive.
We graduated from high school in June 1965. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, audio recordings survive.
"In any man [sic] who dies there dies with him his first snow and kiss and fight, " Yevtushenko wrote in his human being-affirming poem, People.
"There are left books and bridges and painted canvas and machinery," he wrote. "Whose fate is to survive."
Thus spake Yevtushenko. "But what has gone is also not nothing: by the rule of the game something has gone," the poet opines as he continues
"Not people die but worlds die in them. Whom we knew as faulty, the earth’s creatures."
Audio recordings of the old TV program survive. So has the sound of that program's title as we contemplate our current era, which very much qualifies as An Era Which Was.
The era of which we speak didn't begin with Trump. It was already underway with the relentless work of Ceci Connolly, and with the forbearance of her editors at the Washington Post.
It was underway with the transparent lunacy, and the deranged name-calling, of TV's Chris Matthews. That started in 1999, then continued, as mainstream and liberal reporters and pundits agreed to avert their gaze.
The era had been underway long before that—for example, in the story Joe Klein told about the way New York Times honchos first spotted the brilliance of Maureen Dowd. (In 1984, Walter Mondale didn't know which woman he should hug first!)
The era was well underway when Jerry Falwell peddled his Clinton Chronicles videotape about the Clintons' many murders, once again with the mainstream and elite almost wholly looking away.
The era has always been with us! From way back in our college years, we remember this episode as it occurred in real time:
BIEHLER (2017): In the summer of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress for $40 million to support rat control in communities engaged with his Model Cities program. Model Cities and the Rat Extermination Act were part of Johnson’s agenda to invest in black neighborhoods long deprived of resources for housing, infrastructure and economic development by segregationist policies.
Black leaders like Whitney Young and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged a multi-billion dollar program of urban redevelopment, but Congress even refused many of Johnson’s more modest requests. The Rat Extermination Act was one small example of this: When it came up for debate, Congressmen from rural districts laughed it off the floor. Rep. James Broyhill of North Carolina drawled, “the rat smart thing to do is to vote down this civil rats bill, rat now.”
We recall that congressman's witty use of regional humor, though we wouldn't have remembered his name. If memory serves, and we think it does, we saw his witty performance on the day it occurred, right there on our TV machine.
That was The Summer of 67. In this country, That Was The Week That Was had stopped airing two years before.
Nichols and May were a superb, intelligent comedy team. William F. Brown went on to write The Wiz (1974), but also the semi-prophetic How To Steal An Election (1968).
Today, his authorship of The Wiz would be seen for the manifestation of systemic racism and white male privilege it now dogmatically is. Brown also wrote episodes of Love American Style, suggesting the possibility that things were already in headlong decline shortly after The Week That Was disappeared from the air.
Last night, we thought about Camus' portrait of the citizens of Oran as they try to comprehend (to see) what is happening around them. That (affectionate) part of Camus' novel is a study of human discernment, an entity which has always been in limited supply.
Over the weekend, we were struck by the New York Times' decision to publish a catalogue of all the times anyone ever used blackface, or currently seems to have done so, on American TV during the "21st century," which is now twenty years old.
As we always do at such moments, we thought about this:
We've never seen the New York Times attempt to speak in a serious way about the experiences of black kids in our low-income public schools. Instead, they obsess about who can get into Stuyvesant High, then possibly get into Yale.
Also, they scold Jimmy Kimmel for what he did when he performed an impression of Karl Malone, a major NBA star. It's human discernment in action!
We also spent some time this weekend reviewing the news reports about the death last month of Cannon Hinnant. He was (deliberately) shot and killed, at the age of 5, as he rode his bike in front of his home accompanied by his sisters, ages 7 and 8.
The event turned into a brief second-order hubbub. One part of this report in Forbes qualifies as "journalistically dumb beyond all belief." This defensive report in the Washington Post was almost as transparently faux.
(Our advice: See paragraph 13 in the Post report, but then perform some checking. When Forbes lists the news orgs which did in fact report the shooting, click the various links it provides. Prepare to marvel at the limits to human discernment or honesty, even at high journalistic levels.)
We're living in the dangerous days of This Era Which Was. In the backwash of the rise of 1) talk radio, 2) "cable news," 3) the Internet and 4) social media, the era has given us an unusual chance to observe the remarkable limits of human discernment.
We humans! Our discernment is very limited—although, as Camus gently suggests, that doesn't make us bad people. It does suggest this possibility:
Nothing even a tiny bit gold can be expected to stay.
We've decided to cast ourselves in the role of Don Corleone in the garden. In a certain well-known film, the gentleman retires there to drink a bit more wine, to offer advice to his son when asked, and to play an affectionate game with a 3-year-old child in the moments before he dies.
Relieved of the burden of control of the family, he's free to ruminate more widely. As viewers, we're left to ponder the mystery of the film in question:
We're left to wonder how a person who viciously murders other people all through the course of a film can be a sympathetic figure all through and in the end. The answer, of course, is supplied early on, when we see Corleone say this:
"I refused to be a fool."
We humans! We rarely take so clear a stand on that particular issue! Instead, as Cummings notes, we "unflinchingly applaud all songs containing the words country home and mother when sung at the old howard," or whatever words are currently found in the songs our tribe is singing.
The godfather refused to be a fool. We humans may be inclined to respect such defiance, though he almost surely could have found a better way to do it.
This has very strongly been An Era Which Was! Thanks to the rise of those new technologies, it's been an amazing time for people-watching, for seeing the way members of our species—"faulty, the earth's creatures"—are actually inclined to reason, to puzzle things out.
At this site, we've receive consultation from highly-credentialed, major top figures from the world of anthropology. We'll continue to offer random observations from our spot in the garden we've chosen, though generally while continuing to channel these unnamed top major experts.
As it turns out, our human discernment is very limited. This era is giving us a chance to see this surprising state of affairs as it's acted out in real time, and no, this trademark lack of discernment isn't all found Over There.
Tomorrow: Whatever comes to mind!