Billy Bragg at the Union Transfer in Philadelphia 9/28/2016 photo 2016 by jpbohannon
As often is the case, my neighbors brought me, convincing me that it would be well worth going out on a “school night,” particularly given our current election season.
And they were right.
There has been a lot of momentous “politics” in the past year. Bragg apologized to the audience for his own country’s “Brexit” vote in June. (I had seen the novelist Ian McEwan the previous week who also apologized to the audience for the Brexit vote.) Bragg told us that few could foresee what would ultimately result–that most voters found the entire Brexit campaign an annoying nuisance which would right itself when the vote was finally counted.
They all were horribly mistaken.
Semi-jokingly, he stated that what Britain also lost with the Brexit vote was its “moral superiority” over the U.S.’s electoral process. However, he warned, they could gain it right back in November. And with that, he began singing his classic “Accident Waiting to Happen.”
The message was clear.
There has been a lot of fun this year at the bizarre nature of the current election campaigns. Comedians are having a ball, and water cooler conversation is more about the latest Bill Maher piece or Steve Colbert rant than anything of substance. And that might be merely because we are simply following the lead of those who want to be our leaders. It has all become performance. (The SNL season premier this week [10/1/2016] was priceless in its political skewering.)
And yet, Bragg was cautiously optimistic.
Billy Bragg, for those who don’t know, is a singer from Britain who throughout his career has taken up a variety of causes ranging from the miner’s strike during the Thatcher reign to the current refugee crisis. He is very firmly planted to the left of the American Left.
He remembered that when he first toured America, it was 1984, the “Reagan years.” No way then, he recalled, could he have anticipated that a man who labels himself a “Democratic Socialist” would be considered a major contender for the presidency in 2016. And for that he is hopeful.
He feels there is a hopeful momentum, but a momentum that can be stopped by “he who shall not be named” as he referred to Donald Trump. His defeat he believes is as important a vote as any the American public has faced.
And he asked us not to make the mistake that the British voters made with Brexit, not to believe that the unthinkable cannot happen.
And then he played some wonderful and thoughtful music.
On Wednesday night I attended a rally to kick off the political campaign of my brother-in law Chris McCabe, who is running for judge in Philadelphia and who has now collected the 1000 names necessary to put his name on the ballot. The campaigning officially began this week.
The rally was held at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, an inconspicuous building on Philadelphia’s ritzy Rittenhouse Square. I had been there before.
Several years ago, I had been awarded a fellowship by The National Endowment for the Humanities to read “Texts of Toleration”–those works that promoted liberty, free will, and understanding. The opening reception was held at the Ethical Society. That both events were held here made sense: the pieces we were to read dealt primarily with the ethics of society and my brother-in-law is one of the most socially conscious people I know.
Deed before Creed
And now, I was here again. I don’t know if I remember seeing the plaque at the front steps the first, but I liked what it said: “DEED BEFORE CREED.” In our modern world, we are too often reminded that belonging to a particular “creed” is no assurance that “goodly deeds” are to follow. Certainly, we can point to most of the major world religions to find evidence of this.
And so, I decided to look into this place that calls itself “The Ethical Society.”
The American Ethical Society was officially started in 1877 in New York (as the New York Society for Ethical Culture) when Felix Adler gave a sermon that focused on the immorality of exploiting the underclasses–which at the time included women and labor. Adler’s European education informed his Kantian belief that morality could exist separate from organized religion.
Within ten years of the founding of New York Society, three other societies were established in the U.S., in Philadelphia, in St. Louis, and in Chicago.
* * * * * *
In 1867, Matthew Arnold wrote:
The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.
The retreating “sea of Faith,” the general Victorian uncertainties of the day, was the impetus for the foundation of the societies in Britain. One can trace the American ethical cultural movement to various ethical movements in early Britain. There was a South Place Ethical Society in London as early as 1793. It became a Unitarian chapel a few years later and is most noted for its strong support of women rights. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Unitarians moved out and the place became the South Place Ethical Society.
A few years after Adler had established the Ethical Culture Movement in the U.S., the Fellowship of New Life was established in Britain, bringing together some of the more innovative and brilliant intellectuals of its time. The fellowship did not last long, but was instrumental in finding the Fabian Society which had a large impact on British intellectual and social thought of the time. Within years, however, there were four Ethical Societies in London and over fifty societies in Great Britain by 1910.
* * * * * *
So what’s it all about?
As far as I can tell, the Ethical Society basically acknowledges and celebrates the inherent worth of all people. It emphasizes that moral action is not dependent on religious creed and that the betterment of self implies a betterment of society.
That all seems pretty good to me.
* * * * * *
And then one of those weird coincidences. Four days after beginning–though not finishing–this blog post, I read a review of two volumes of work by Bernard Malamud. In the work they mention, that Malamud, the son of Jewish immigrants, wanted to marry the daughter of Italian Catholic immigrants. Malamud’s father was highly against the marriage. (He did not speak to his son for years afterward.) But they married anyway–at the New York Ethical Society. It is a small bit of information, but it highlights the society’s pushing aside of parochial prejudices and celebrating a basic goodness.
They called her the “Iron Maiden” for good reason. She was the toughest politician in a male-dominated world–and perhaps feeling she had to overcompensate as a woman–she felt the need to be tougher than her male counterparts.
Perhaps no one felt the wrath of Margaret Thatcher’s steely resolve (some might say steel-heartedness) more than the the British coal miners and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). After Thatcher’s government announced its immediate plans to close 20 of the nationalized coal mines and its future plans to close 70 more, the miners walked out on strike.
The strike lasted a year, a hard and violent year, with Thatcher’s government not blinking and the miners returning to work, having lost much of their substantial political, social, and economic clout. For many, her dealings with the coal miners defined her.
The film Pride, directed by Matthew Wurchus and written by Stephen Beresford, plays out against the miner’s strike, already nine months in progress. At a Gay Pride march in London, gay-activist Mark Ashton gets the idea that since oppression is oppression no matter what, and if Maggie Thatcher has her steel boot on the necks of the miners’ union, then the LGBT community–which knows something about oppression itself–should step in and lend its support. And so the organization, “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” is born.
Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton in the film Pride
The unions did not want their help.
And so, the London gay community–rebuffed by the officials of the union– brings it support and it funds to a little Welsh mining village instead. There is tension, lines are drawn among the villagers, and there is also some great fun as the the more open-minded villagers get to know their visitors from London.
Pride is a comedy with a social awareness. There is drama with villains and heroes, with domestic and social conflicts, with intolerance and the haunting shadow of AIDS and Thatcherism. But it is, nevertheless, primarily a comedy, the type of comedy that comes about when two incongruous groups come together.
For instance, there is a scene when a dozen of the Welsh villagers come to London to attend a benefit concert–The Pit and Perverts Benefit–which succeeds in collecting a huge sum of money for the miners. After the concert, the villagers accompany their hosts to a variety of gay clubs and discover–and giggle–at much of what they learn. It is comedy straight out of The Full Monty but instead of strippers we have the gay community.
The benefit concert features Bronski Beat, and is indicative to how great–and fun–the soundtrack is. From protest songs to disco numbers, from Billy Bragg to the Communards, from the powerful union song “Bread and Roses” to Sylvester’s “Do You Wanna Funk.” The music is essential, and it captures the excitement, the power and the heartbreak of the times. (The Communards’ poignant song “For a Friend” was actually written for Mark Ashton who died of AIDS shortly after the events of the film took place.)
Miners supporting the LGBT
Pride is a fun and a “feel-good” movie. It opts for lightness rather than heaviness, although there is a heavy cloud blowing in, which we feel the effects of in the final credits. But it is a fine gesture in defiance of Thatcherism. (In my opinion, the film Brassed Off may be the best look at the devastation that Thatcher’s policies wreaked on the coal miners and their families. Peter Postlethwaite’s speech at the end of that film should be shown in every government/history/social science class.)
But Pride doesn’t have to be Brassed Off. It doesn’t need to have a heart-stirring speech. It is what it is–a sweet film that is provocative without being preachy. And it does what it does well. It doesn’t hit you over the head with its message, but we know the message is there all the same. And it’s an important one.
“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country…and we haven’t seen them since.” Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal is perhaps one of the U.S.’s most under-appreciated writers, certainly was one of its most vocal political intellects, and truly one of its most fascinating personalities. Novelist, screenwriter, playwright, essayist, he parlayed his wit and intelligence–and his knowledge of the backrooms of politics– into becoming a favorite choice when looking for a liberal spokesman for televised debate (most famously with William F. Buckley), a panel member, or talk show guest.
The infamous of their many debates where Buckley called Vidal a “queer” and Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” They were discussing police brutality in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Nicholas D. Wrathall’s documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of America attempts to capture the wit, the acerbity, the political thought and the literary presence of Vidal, but at last, Vidal is really simply large a figure to truly pin down in little less than two hours. So it focuses on the political.
The film tries to be chronological but it is not really historical, moving ahead and back indiscriminately in chapters set off by one of Vidal’s aphorisms.
“I heard bad news on the way over here: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was just destroyed by fire, and, tragically, both books were a total loss. Worse yet, he wasn’t finished coloring the second one.” Gore Vidal to the National Press Club on Ronald Reagan
The United States of Amnesia is primarily focused on Vidal’s political thought–and his ultimate pessimism about the reality of the United States. The biographical part moves rather quickly. He was raised primarily by his blind grandfather, the U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, Thomas Gore, for whom he acted as page and guide, and for whom he would read out loud the senator’s voluminous reading list of philosophy and political thought. The political ideas and conversations that his grandfather was interested in had to come first through the mouth of his young grandson, and gave the young man an invaluable schooling. Vidal–who was christened Eugene Luther Gore Vidal–took the grandfather’s last name as his own and became Gore Vidal.
Even as a child, Vidal was surrounded by the powerful and famous. Not only did Vidal walk the august halls and back offices of the U.S. Senate with his grandfather, but his father was a close adviser to FDR and was, according to one biographer, the great love affair of Amelia Earhart. His mother married four times, once to Henry Auchincloss, the step-father of Jacqueline Bouvier, the future Mrs. Kennedy. Vidal also reported that she had a long “on-again, off-again” affair with the actor Clark Gable.
After service in the navy during World War II, Vidal published–at the age of twenty-one– the novel, Williwaw. Based on his military experiences, the novel was highly successful. His second novel published two years later The City and the Pillar, caused a furor of controversy because of its matter-of-fact portrayal of homosexuality. So outraged was the mainstream press, that the editor of The New York Times, Orville Prescott, refused to “read or review” any subsequent Vidal novels. (Vidal got around this to a small degree by writing under the pseudonym Edgar Box.)
“What is in question is a kind of book reviewing which seems to be more and more popular: the loose putting down of opinions as though they were facts, and the treating of facts as though they were opinions.“ Gore Vidal
With his books banned from review from the national “papers of record,” Vidal set out to become a screen writer in Hollywood. He wrote several television plays–the most notable being The Best Man–and several feature films, including the rewrite of the script for Ben-Hur.
In the 1960s, Vidal returned to fiction, writing three novels Julian, Washinton, D.C. and Myra Breckinridge. In a way, these three encompass the themes of all his later fiction–ancient history, Washingtonian politics, and broad comedic social commentary. Importantly, also in the 1960s, Vidal moved to the Amalfi coast in Italy. He was not the first writer to believe he can see and comment on his native country better from a distance…and that is what he did.
Vidal’s targets were many: American foreign policy, the militarization of America, the role of big business in American politics, the growth of religion in government. In journals such as The New Statesman, The Nation and The New York Review of Books, Vidal spoke his mind in well-crafted, observant and illuminating essays. Indeed, it is the essays for which Vidal is most celebrated. Always witty, always incisive, and always confident in his beliefs, the tendencies of his political thought still harkened to the populist politics of the grandfather who raised him.
It is difficult to capture all of Vidal in a movie. In Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, we have film clips of the famous debates and talk show appearances, we have photographs of the famous and celebrated who attended his many parties, and we have talking heads reminiscing about Vidal. Perhaps, the most rewarding of the bits is when Vidal himself remembers particular moments. An adept storyteller–often supplying different accents–he tells us of a shooting party with him, JFK and Tennessee Williams, of an encounter between Paul Neuman and William F. Buckley following the legendary “crypto-Nazi” debate, and of the pain of ultimately packing up his beloved home in Italy when he became to feeble to stay there himself.
Poster for Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary on Gore Vidal.
The film begins with Vidal visiting the tombstone where his life long partner Howard Austen was buried and where his name is etched waiting for him to join. It ends there as well, a full circle. It is an enjoyable two hours, filled with insight and humor and not a small bit of nostalgia for a time when non-conformist ideas and opinions were voiced in the mainstream and not lost in a sea of cable channels and internet sites.
“All in all, I would not have missed this century for the world.” Gore Vidal