Monday, August 9, 2004

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The Missing Plays

Last summer, I spent two weeks in Edinburgh with one of my best friends, a scarily talented writer and director who happens to be a king among men. I crashed (moochingly) with his similarly rad theater company in this gorgeous apartment (or “flat,” for the boobish Anglophiles) at the top of a handsome Georgian building in the middle of town. The location was choice through the lens of convenience, but the beleaguered actors, who, typically, smoked too much and slept too little, had to endure (a) the likes of me stinking up the joint, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and (b) the near-constant caterwauling of these truly dreadful bush-league songstresses, who, in a fitting homage to the similarly appalling bubblegum chanteuses who’ve come to dominate US youth culture as the dinosaurs once dominated the earth (I say in the hope that a miniature heat-seeking asteroid will “disparately impact” the memory of these hip-shaking hellions out of existence, leaving the rest of us unscathed), kept singing, over and over, mind-numbingly, the words, “I want it all / I want it now / I want it all” while doing this primitive “sexy” jig, which was about as sexy as red ants eating your eyes. “Good grief,” I thought to myself, “Don’t these people have parents, or, failing that, shame?”

Right. Moving right along, I spent many evenings sitting with friends who make me feel cool and cerebral by osmosis, chatting at considerable length about the state of the Fringe (this big theater festival) and theater more broadly, topics on which, as with most topics apart from the tastiness of Chips Ahoy! and Big Pun (R.I.P.), I had nothing to say apart from, “Yeah, man,” or, occasionally, “word, word.” And the thing that year (as far as I could tell), as in years past, were these agitprop pieces blasting a certain narrow idea of what America represents. When the subject was raised, I piped up.

This comes to mind in light of Richard Bernstein’s insightful little essay in the NYT “Week in Review” on Europe’s morbid fixation on the US—suffice to say, Bernstein put it more diplomatically in “Does Europe Need to Get a Life?” First, he briefly catalogues a set of bizarre misperceptions held by people who ought to know better (because years of schooling, often of very high quality, has given them the ability to read). Bernstein attributes said misperceptions to, inter alia, Michael Moore, the Iraq war, the Bush administration, but also to what Josef Joffe (Germany’s Stakhanovite Atlanticist intellectual, or “SAI”) characterizes as an irrational fear of American culture’s corrosive influence:

"The irrational part is as old as anti-Americanism," he says. "America is the steamroller of modernity, and its forcing the Europeans to adapt."

There’s certainly that. But there’s also—and here I’ll put on my callow, uninformed hat specially designed for trafficking in gross generalizations (wait, it was already on! Since birth!)—Europe’s failure to reckon comprehensively with issues surrounding immigration, cultural difference, and the exclusion of visible minorities from positions of power and influence. America’s dirty laundry on this score is there for all the world to see, and I frankly think we have less of it than is widely believed overseas (which is not to say we don’t have a lot). The US is undergoing a quite dramatic shift in the composition of its population, and, amazingly, assimilation has, in fits and starts and with considerable difficulties and frequent reversals, worked.

“So where were the dozens of plays at the Fringe on the Oldham riots, or the East End?” This is roughly what I said to my friends at the dinner table, but, you know, saltier.

Yeah, this is faintly preposterous: I’m talking about political theater, a fairly high-falutin’ universe, but I think it’s indicative of something weighty. I assume the British and the French and the Germans care about the seething anger and hopelessness of their most vulnerable citizens (and yes, many of the people I’m talking about are in fact citizens). In lieu of disquisitions on Columbine, President Bush, and the ugliness of the American soul, it might be a suitable subject for serious dramatic writing.

P.S.- I’ve come up with a few ideas for songs.

The first is called “Can’t Judge This,” and it’s to the tune of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” but, in contrast to Hammer’s original, it’s a series of reflections on cultural relativism, i.e., some statement concerning a cultural practice widely viewed as abhorrent in the modern West, followed by the statement that one “can’t judge this.” Keep in mind that I find this sentiment trivial and silly and objectionable on its face, but I still think it would make for a great song. (Pester me for lyrics and I'll see what I can do.)

The second is to the tune of “Simply the Best,” but goes, “You’re simply the bomb / all the others make me want to vom.” (“Vom,” a term introduced to me by the delightful and exceedingly sharp Matt Quirk, is short for “vomit.” It’s not the most tasteful choice, but it does the trick.) This is, to my mind, a quite strong sentiment—much stronger than merely pointing out that one is the best. At the same time, I suppose it suggests that one is the best solely because all the others are so wretched. It’s a thorny question.

I guess that’s two, not a few. Everyone, go buy the EP titled “I Like The Like,” by The Like. Amazingly, they’re teens who rock as hard as Joan Jett, if you can believe it. Got the heads up from the inimitable Uncle Grambo, my guru. The new 8Ball and MJG album is also a hoot. To quote the "Living Legends" themselves, and I direct this to all who would cap on the Mohandas-Salam axis, "You don't ... want ... dramaaa." Or perhaps you do. I hope not.

P.P.S.- Any sharp lefties reading this? Check out Chris Hayes. I first encountered him via a piece he wrote on Obama for The New Republic Online (which I think of as home, though the good folks there deserve better than an un-housetrained Bangloamerican polecat) and found it really insightful. Amazingly, when he's not working himself to the bone on excellent reported pieces covering nitty-gritty labor politicking, Chicago, and the national scene, he's blogging for In These Times, which had been the home of John Judis years ago. I'll bet Hayes is a lot like the young Judis: cerebral, unpredictable, crisp, and engaging. He sounds a lot like a highly advanced snack treat. (Uh, he also plugged this blog. "Kuruption," anyone?)

posted by Suzanne Nossel on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM


I propose a new play -- "Lock Step In Anger", examining the dead-end lives of a group of angry lefties living in a working-class neighborhood in Oxford. Although all the characters are said to be laid-off auto workers, the high-falutin dialogue suggests that they might actually have middle or upper-middle class jobs.

The locus of the anger is a settlement of American Rhodes scholars, who have taken over a house on the row where one of the laid off auto workers has gone on sabbatical in Detroit. ("I don't think it's Detroit, mates. The minute the blighter decamps, BMW starts makin Minis...")

By the end of the play, everyone is still angry, and the Americans have gone off to six-figure salaries. And all the Brits have to look forward to is the academic deconstruction of their existing social structures.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]

Hayes seems like a sharp dude, but I don't think his blog is adding any unique value at the moment.

posted by: praktike on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]

Wow! Reihan, apart from having an insanely frenetic prose tempo, you seem to be rap-literate. 8Ball and MJG, Kurupt...I'm feelin this guestbloging. Don't Stop/ Don't Stop...

posted by: Carleton on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]


Reading you is like reading some right-wing Derrida...I mean you seem to have taken those Critical Theory classes a lot more seriously than most right-wingers would. Is this the rise of Right-Wing Critical Theory? Postmodern Conservativism? Neo-Deconstructionist?

posted by: NeoDude on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]

Ok, read through that Bernstein article. Interesting. I just love the German professor quoted as saying that he doesn't remember another American president being as hated as President Bush.

Uh, does anyone remember the eighties? The stuff (some of) the European press said about Reagan, was, well, kinda like the stuff they say about Bush now. Why such short memories? Why this re-writing history, eh?

As for the hip-hop stuff, as a Gen Xer and a thirtysomething I am completely lost. I became clueless about music sometime after the Replacements called it quits.

posted by: MD on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]


Nice work, welcome to DWD land. I'm in Edinburgh now and the sampling of course is not much different than last year. Frankly I can't wait to leave; Edinburgh is a fabulous city, but I think I like it better in November, when there's no hint of the Festival around, and the weather, although bitch-cold, is at least predictable. And the crowds...I spent the day at the National Archive, got out at 5:00PM, and it took me 47 minutes to get a bus back home! (It usually takes 3).

Liked the Hayes piece, thanks for the link.


posted by: EGC on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]

Is Europe better than America?" asks Mr. Ash, who directs the European Studies Center at Oxford. He offers two possible answers: (a) Europe and America are two "strongly contrasting civilizations," and each thinks it is better; or (b) America and most of Europe belong to a wider family of liberal democracies, and one is better in some ways, the other in other ways.

"Statement b is less interesting, less galvanizing," Mr. Ash concludes, "but it has the boring old merit of being true."

Are there really people who seriously disagree with this? Honestly. Also, I don't think everytime, someone says Europe does X right, we should too -- it neccessarily means Europe is better than America. There is nothing bad about stealing good ideas that work, from others. I hear it happens in the market all the time.

posted by: Jor on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]


did Reagan launch a false overt war, that had a roughly unanimous dissaproval rating in Europe?

posted by: Jor on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]

This is the kind of writing that could get kids reading again.

posted by: Jeff on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]

Oh, Jor.

posted by: MD on 08.09.04 at 02:38 PM [permalink]

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