Sunday, January 07, 2007

Forever Young

I’ve noticed when I talk to friends about the state of things politically, a lot of them mention news overload. They’ve followed the news, mostly on progressive web sites and other alternative media, and eventually they get so angry and upset that they have to put limits on how much news to take in.

That’s been true for me at times, and I think it’s a symptom of how bad the situation has become since the Boosh Junta seized power in 2000. To list the successive outrages here would probably be redundant. Each time that Cheney, the Republicans, and the neocon-artists have revealed some new way to wreck our country, it is as if we’re being tested to see how much degradation we can put up with, how far they can go towards their dream of a Chinese-style police state without awakening a sleeping populist giant. Pretty damn far, as it turns out, and they’re still pushing.

Anyway, many people have discovered that if you spend too much time reading about this insanity, you start to get a little unbalanced yourself. If you combine powerlessness with rage and fear you can end up in the metaphorical shitter fairly easily. Many of us who are of a progressive bent have had to learn how to balance our intake of information with a sense of well-being. Doing something—anything from joining a union to writing a letter to the local newspaper—can help relieve the pressure. There’s also the importance of simply being grateful and appreciating the moment. Happiness, I like to say, is a revolutionary act.

One of the best things to happen in ’06 was the emergence of Stephen Colbert as the foremost political satirist of the day. Of course this didn’t come out of nowhere, but from the steadily more impressive comic fold of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. When mainstream media outlets have mentioned that many people get their news primarily from Stewart and Colbert, there’s often a trace of condescension in the remark, but anyone familiar with the shows can tell you that they generally present more information about what’s going on politically than the network evening news shows. But in my case, I often go to Comedy Central first because a satiric attitude seems the only healthy way to deal with the political situation today. Only on Stewart and Colbert can I share the proper sentiments of sarcasm, ridicule, and scorn, while being reminded that I am not alone in regarding our current government as both ludicrous and insane.

Another important refuge is in the work of artists who keep in touch with what is truly important—love, beauty, passion, and all the visions, light and dark, of the human soul. One of the best movies of the past year was Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold. At first glance it is just a concert film, a record of Neil Young’s premiere performance of his Prairie Wind album at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium. But Neil Young is no ordinary artist—with the help of Demme’s impeccable visual sense, Young evokes a sense of gratitude for the American musical tradition through beautiful songs exploring dreams, mortality, the bonds of family, and coming to terms with both our loves and our failings. This is not about idol worship or collective congratulation, as too many concerts tend to be, but about giving back, paying tribute, opening ourselves up. As in all great performances, we come away feeling unexpectedly transformed.

Young is an artist who has always been engaged with social issues as well. His latest album, Living With War, faced the truth about the criminal occupation of Iraq head-on. And he offered it for free download on his website. Some weeks later, I remember running across Saturday Night Live while idly flipping channels. The cast of that show presented a pathetic piece of mockery about Young’s album, with Kevin Spacey imitating Young. The entire point of the flaccid skit could be summarized as, “Oh look at that pathetic old hippie trying to be relevant.” It was poorly written and empty-headed, with similarly impaired viewers nevertheless hailing it as brilliant. Anyway, the idea was that popular musicians who sing about current events are automatically ridiculous. I guess they’re supposed to just sing mindless dance numbers or boy-girl songs. It’s as if Dylan and the 60s never happened. Cynicism and “cool” are the only acceptable things now.

This brings me back to The Daily Show. It is truly the first television show specializing in political satire, which is an amazing thing when you consider that television has been around for over sixty years. Saturday Night Live was never satire, or at least very rarely. They were content with having Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford falling down, or Dana Carvey imitating Poppy Bush’s mannerisms. When it came to talking about anything substantive, the show opted for detached nihilism. Lorne Michaels’ approach to politics has always been superficial and cowardly, and even in the supposed golden age of the show every good skit was balanced by three or four bad ones. That ratio was great compared to how it’s been for the last decade or so. SNL hasn’t been funny for years, and it’s basically amounted to nothing but a launching pad into movies for one overrated performer after another. How it stays on the air I don’t know—I would guess that a crucial drunk frat boy demographic still finds it amusing. You’d have to be drunk to sit through the boring TV show parodies and stupid recurring characters, punctuated by endless commercials.

The Stewart and Colbert shows are true political satire because they attack the powerful over and over again, not just weak, easy targets like SNL, and they’re consistently smart and funny. They help us stay cheerful in the midst of the madness, and great musicians like Neil Young give us reasons to hope.


whig said...

My wife and I actually watched that film in the theater. It was very human, I think is the most important thing I took away. Neil Young doesn't pretend to be anything other than who or what he is, a man who is doing the best he can to live in peace and show others how to do the same.

Also 100% agreed on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They are brilliant, shining stars in the firmament.

Chris Dashiell said...

Thanks. Not one of my more coherent posts, but I was moved by the film, and by memory of seeing Neil Young on the Colbert Report, to make some connections.