Archive | March, 2011

Public Discourse

19 Mar

Two-people-talking-logo

Today’s episode of Ira Glass’ “This American Life” contained two fabulous acts.

The first is a very good piece. I highly recommend that you listen. It’s a rescue story full of second thoughts and bizarre coincidences.

And the second act is even better. It’s about public discourse and why it’s important. In the story, professors at a liberal arts college must make public arguments about why their disciplines are preferable to others, and most worthwhile to have with you if you get stuck on a life raft. These public presentations have been going on for years, and it’s become a contest. The student audience votes for the winner. And at every contest, there’s a naysayer — one speaker who argues that the audience vote for no one.

Every year, one of the professors has won. And every year, much like our political races, the players become more performance than substance, more attention-getting than true to themselves. They use stunts, props, comedy, sexual innuendo and any number of distractions and off-point tactics to gain popularity and win the audience vote. Sound familiar?

In the episode, this year the naysayer wins — for the first time — because he encourages the students to vote for no one. None of the performers get the vote.

A man at the gas station yesterday told me he liked my American flag bumper sticker. Besides just being a flag, it says, “THINK,” across the top of the flag. To me, this bumper sticker is the epitome of being American. It’s why we are all here in the first place. Freedom of speech, religion, press. The ability to make up our own minds and voice our thoughts. A chance to vote and be active participants in a democracy.

Empty rhetoric has become so important in American life. It’s not a good thing. Most of what we hear from our leaders is crap. Most of what the people around us say about public policy — our coworkers, friends and family, and even ourselves — is not based on a lot of thought process. It resonates from pure opinion — usually someone else’s — loudly spewed opinion that we heard on whatever talk radio or supposedly news program. We’re good at mouthing back someone else’s words. Where are ours?

It is overly simplified and sound bite-ish. It’s oratorical, it’s designed — and maybe scientifically tested through polling — to leave an impression, a very specific impression. There’s very little substance behind it. In a word, it’s fake and it’s manipulative. It’s stupid.

What would happen if we only voted for those candidates who actually make cogent and substantive arguments? Not just the ones who convince us through persuasion and emotion. The ones who really say something. Ignore the political parties and just vote for the people who are thinking.

Beyond our failure to create an environment where candidates actually prove a point, we are reticent to get into conversations with one another about politics and policy matters. There’s no discourse in our discourse. It’s one-way. A friend was recently lamenting about this on Facebook.

Why won’t we have conversations with friends, family co-workers, about things that are controversial, about topics that are difficult?

We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to disagree with people that we have daily relationships with. We don’t want to make our lives more difficult.

I think that another reason for this fear is that we don’t know much about what we say. We don’t know enough, and we need to know more. And we need to be less afraid. And we need to have less of a need to be entertained and more of a need to know.

We are Americans, living in a country where our ancestors came here because this was supposed to be a place where you can think and speak your mind. Where you can engage in public discourse that has meaning and impact. Will you? Will I?

Why I Love Modern Family

12 Mar

I watch very little television and am predictable in the programs I watch.

Project Runway,” “Glee” and “Modern Family” normally get my attention. I rarely watch when they air and either DVR or catch them on Hulu.

Lately I’ve found myself being fascinated with the characters on “Modern Family” and have even watched a couple of episodes multiple times. The writing, acting and general family dynamics have captured me. I have a crush on “Modern Family” and readily admit it.

Why is this? I’ve been asking myself why I spend 20 or 40 minutes a week so engrossed in network programming. Why bother? There are probably things I could to that would better feed my brain, or make more efficient use of time.

Sure, it’s entertaining. It’s funny. And the convuluted circumstances cooked up by the writers and played out by the genius of Ed O’Neill as Jay Pritchett or Julie Bowen as Claire Dunphy are pure perfection. But here’s the thing I’ve figured out:

The storylines, character nuances and complex interplay are all achingly familiar to me. I can see myself and my own family in several of the characters. This is why I love it so much. It’s poignant and true in a “you can’t make this sh*t up” way.

As they say, true life is always more interesting than fiction. The great thing about “Modern Family” is that in its fiction, it manages to strike a chord that’s true in me. And in so many of us.

Take for example the latest episode, “Two Monkeys and a Panda.” Jay and Gloria have an interesting disagreement about how to handle burial arrangements. She wants to be buried in the ground, “where God can find [her],” and Jay would rather be buried in a mausoleum “drawer,” where the bugs and worms can’t get to him. I won’t give away how they solve this dilemma. But the solution has more to do with the delicate balance of well-meaning manipulation that is present in the most healthy marriages.

Gloria and Jay are opposites in more ways than age. There’s a tension in their marriage that works. Like in most good marriages. It made me think a lot about the give and take in my own marriage. I can be the fluffy ditz in the same way that Gloria is sometimes, and Ben can be the sane one, the one who makes the steady and rational choices. Case in point: He is WAY better at dealing with money than I am, and we’ve figured out ways to compensate for all of that with our family finances.

But there are times when I reset him and “win” — similar to what Gloria did to Jay — lovingly — in the recent Valentine’s Day episode. Or the way¬†that Jay worked through all of the what-if’s of Gloria’s future after his death, so that he didn’t end up being “The Putz” husband. His solution is something that I would have done.

Phil Dunphy’s cluelessness with his wife Claire is another thing that makes me both laugh and cry. All of us, including me, have a bit of Phil Dunphy in us. I’ve done things that I know have hurt my husband’s feelings — completely unintentionally. It’s a bad feeling to recognize these things in retrospect, like what happens to Phil in the “Two Monkeys and a Panda” episode when he gets some much-needed guidance from the ladies at the spa after they overhear his conversation with his wife Claire. At times when he just needs to listen and support, he tries to solve Claire’s problems. I do this ALL THE TIME with Ben.

Claire is tightly wound and at times righteous in ways similar to me. The episode when she stands outside the house with the bullhorn yelling at the unsafe driver…I have done this very thing (without the bullhorn) in front of my own house.

And I’ve seen bits of myself in Mitchell, trying to control the situation in “Two Monkeys and a Panda,” in the situation with Lily’s birth certificate. And withholding information from Cam under the pretext of protecting him, only to find in the end that it was not a good decision. We’ve all been there, in some respect. Thinking that we know best and discovering in the end that it’s bettter just to have tough discussions up-front rather than cleaning up the mess after the fact.

So there you have it. In the big scheme of things, TV doesn’t matter. But the little details in “Modern Family” have big meaning for me, and I assume or a lot of other people, especially since it’s become so popular. It gets us right at the heart of things. Where it really makes a difference.