In Fuller Appreciation
My Recommended Education Course
Assuming that noted writer and editor Mark Slouka's assumption about the arts and humanities is correct: his argument essentially being that the humanities have taken a backseat to the hard sciences all in the quest of retaining our competitive advantage in the global marketplace, what can be done if anything to remedy the situation? Is it even important to try and change the current education climate? If we are hell-bent as a nation to produce more engineers, architects, mathematicians, agriculturalists, CEO's, and chemists; shouldn't we try and imbue them with a modicum of cultural/ political awareness and civic virtue? After all it's been said that Mussolini made the trains run on time, but do we as a society want that kind of 'soulless" efficiency? I think not.
I fear the backlash against the activities and actions of the current administration will be strong and severe. Unless you live in a cave in Bumfuck Arkansas, I'm sure you've noticed the latest buzzword and codeword is "socialism". The worst thing you can be called now is a socialist. It used to be a liberal. Before that it was a communist. In a few years democracy itself will become a bad word replaced by a kinder, gentler fascism. Remember those compassionate conservatives? They became Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity groupies telling Rush "ditto" and Sean what a "great American" he is. The inference is chilling, that if we don't believe the same way as Rush or Sean then we are somehow lesser Americans than they are. My antidote to all of this insane rhetoric and demagoguery is to recommend an education course to all of those would be professionals. Call it: In Fuller Appreciation (An Examination of the lives and careers of Pete Seeger, John Henry Faulk, the Smothers Brothers, and Alan Abel among others). Maybe you don't appreciate the arts and humanities, but you damn better appreciate First Amendment concepts of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. Because if we lose those freedoms, we've lost everything. I'll leave you to your kinder, gentler fascism. The men mentioned above have suffered mightily for their beliefs/ associations and for daring to express themselves in a manner that ruffled the feathers of the powers that be. But we are a far greater people for their participation in the public arena and an examination of their lives shouldn't be cloaked in the tedium of a law school class. It should be a class for all of us. But don't make it a mandatory class. Oh no. The Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world will cry out indoctrination – another bad word. Just make it an elective and hope for the best. And now before class begins, let's have a brief look at the personalities under discussion.
Pete Seeger: In his long career as a folksinger, Seeger has been blacklisted, received death threats, called Un-American, sentenced to jail, persecuted and harassed. And what great crime has Mr. Seeger committed to deserve all of this abuse? He simply believed that all men were created equal and shared equal rights. That was a radical concept in the 40's, 50's, and 60's. Seeger marched with Dr. King, gave voice to downtrodden union workers, championed the dispirited and the dispossessed, protested the Vietnam War, and started an environmental movement that helped clean up the polluted Hudson River. Often overshadowed by rough and rowdy travelling companions Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Seeger has nonetheless trod his own path marked by social activism. Toshi, his wife and rock for 66 years has been an instrumental part of his life and work. At age 90, Seeger is still active occasionally performing and introducing a new generation to the power of song. Yes indeed, one man and his banjo can bring about great change.
The Smothers Brothers: It must be nerve wracking and disheartening as a performer to constantly have what you say and do under a microscope. Tom and Dick Smothers know this feeling all too well. As the hosts of their own hugely popular television show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, they were subjected to network censors due to the nature of their political satire and appeal to the youth culture at that time. Now political satire is commonplace. Can you imagine a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert without there first being a Tom and Dick Smothers? The show boasted such writers as Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, and Albert Brooks. The brothers also championed such performers as the aforementioned Mr. Seeger. But as fate would have it, Seeger's performance of Waist Deep In The Big Muddy was initially censored. It was thought the song alluded to the Vietnam War and well you just couldn't do that on CBS television. The show itself was cancelled in 1969, but television and free speech would never be the same.
John Henry Faulk: It's sad that this humorist, folklorist, radio/television personality, storyteller, and civil libertarian has become largely forgotten. A native Texan who first achieved fame as the host of his own radio program in the early 50's, Faulk excelled at political humor and homespun observations about his home state. His show ran for six years until he was branded with the C word. You guessed it – communist. He was blacklisted for years due to a for profit background clearance agency (AWARE) inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. AWARE accused him of communist sympathies and affiliations. Faulk eventually sued AWARE and in 1962 received a 3.5 million judgment. Accumulated debts, legal fees, and an appeals court ruling erased most of that original award. But thanks to the persistence of Faulk, the blacklist period came to an end. While his professional career was never quite the same, Faulk continued to speak out about the injustices and abuses of the McCarthy era until his death in 1990.
Alan Abel: Abel may be a strange and odd choice for inclusion into this illustrious group at first glance; but the examination of his life and work leads to a troubling conclusion. Yes there is freedom of the press but is the press free to be incompetent, lazy, and inaccurate. Some of our older readers may remember the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA). Abel started a campaign to clothe animals which caught the attention of the media and gained a substantial public following. What began as a satire of media censorship turned out to be an elaborate hoax. Some of Abel's other media hoaxes include Omar's School for Beggars, an organization that bans breast feeding, and my favorite – Idi Amin's marriage to a Long Island socialite in order for him to obtain U.S. citizenship. He constantly stayed one step ahead of the media by using disguises and employing a stable of actors. Comedy writer/actor Buck Henry was employed in some of Abel's early pranks. Abel Raises Cain, a documentary by Abel's daughter Jenny, explores his careerand gives voice to those in media who find Abel not only a nuisance but outright dangerous. Abel of course counters that media lapses are not a good thing for society. He was even able to trick the New York Times into believing he was dead. They prematurely printed his obituary.
So let class registration begin. Who will sign up?
Recommended reading list:
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (Alec Wilkinson)
Fear On Trial (John Henry Faulk)
A People's History of the United States(Howard Zinn)
The Confessions of a Hoaxer (Alan Abel)
Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (David Bianculli))