Things I Now Notice About Rockford Files

The Rockford FilesI’ve been revisiting one of my favorite television shows from my youth: The Rockford Files. It is really nice when childhood obsessions turn out to be as good as you remember and that is definitely true of this show. In fact, it is a lot more complex than I was aware of at the time. Some things that were just distractions in my youth resonate very much. Like Rockford’s often questionable finances. Look where he lives: in a trailer on a beach parking lot. That’s where a surf bum would live. Yet I find it all incredibly believable. And it would be more so today.

Another aspect of the show that I appreciate much more now is Rockford’s prison friend Angel. Just like with the White Russian Marya in Hogan’s Heroes, I now think he is one of the best things about the show. Angel’s combination of cowardice and untrustworthiness not only make him an excellent element to spice up or propel plots, but he’s also really likable despite himself. The fact that his machinations always backfire makes him ultimately harmless. And since he is so predictable, Rockford can often use him to good ends despite Angel’s intentions.

But the biggest thing that I appreciate now is the portrayal of old people in the show. At the time, I remember a lot of groups that represented the elderly had nothing but praise for the show—especially concerning the portrayal of Rockford’s father, Rocky. I never especially got that. I saw that Rocky was a well developed and positive character, but I didn’t especially see how it was different from other shows. Now it’s clear. But I largely think it is incidental. The writers of the show (some of the best television writer ever) worked hard to create real characters, and Rocky just happens to be one of them.

After a while, though, I think the producers decided to go with it. In the fourth season, they produced an episode that dealt extensively with the issue of the value of the elderly in society, “The Attractive Nuisance.” Written by series co-creator Stephen J Cannell, the story revolves around a diner for truckers that Rocky has opened up with a new friend, Vince Whitehead. But it turns out that Vince is actually a small time mob boss, Vince Cappobianco, who is kind of undercover. Meanwhile, there is retired FBI agent Eddie LaSalle, who is trying to bring down Vince. And in the end, with Rockford’s help he does.

It isn’t a great episode, but the ending was amazing. Rockford’s difficult life continues on, but then it shows the three older men in succession. Eddie is in what looks like the FBI lunch room, with a bunch of young agents hanging on his every word while he explains how he brought Vince down. Vince is in prison talking to equally eager young inmates about how to launder money. And Rocky is at a truck stop explaining to some young truckers how to avoid brake problems. It was very sweet, especially coming from Cannell who was only 36 when he wrote it.

Is that kind of preachy? Yes it is. That’s something else I notice now that I missed when I was younger. The show is often a bit preachy. But it is usually for a good cause. And sometimes it is prescient. The last episode of that season was “The House on Willis Avenue,” which deals with private companies setting up a system of data collection about private citizens. Today, the overwhelming response to this information is, “So? I have nothing to hide!” But in 1978, The Rockford Files was sounding the alarm. It really was one of the greatest television dramas ever, and it is still relevant.

Update (1 May 2014 8:25 pm)

For the record, when I talked about the great writing, I wasn’t talking about Stephen J Cannell. The real gem of the show was Juanita Bartlett. Cannell’s plots tend to be a bit weak and his dialog could use work. Not that he’s bad.

Short Clear Sentences Please!

Paul KrugmanI was planning on writing about something else, but this issue came up and I feel I must address it. It’s about writing. It is possible to write really long sentences that are both beautiful and clear. But unless we really know what we are doing, long sentences muddle reader understanding. And I believe this is because long sentences are simulacra of our spoken sentences.

This is a problem because a spoken sentence has a huge amount of extra information in it that allows the listener to understand. And even then, I’ve never found it easy to understand anything but the most simple stuff aurally. This is one reason why I think the lecturing model of teaching is ridiculous. But we’ll leave that for another time.

I found a really good example of what I’m talking about in a blog post by Paul Krugman, Hangups of the Heterodox. Try not to get hung up in the jargon:

There’s a long if bizarre tradition among some left-leaning economists that sees the notion that factors of production are paid their marginal products—or even that this is a useful first cut when thinking about the factor distribution of income—as somehow implying an acceptance of the moral right of capitalists to keep their spoils.

That’s 56 words by my count. And that alone doesn’t doom it. But the structure of the sentence is madness: “There is [insert very long ancillary exposition] acceptance of something.” I like Krugman and think he is a good writer. This is just from a blog post, and I put up crap all the time myself. So this isn’t an attack on him. Plus, since people like me look forward to reading his thoughts on matters economic, he can depend upon readers taking the time to parse him.

But his sentence really should be broken down into smaller segments to lead the reader along. I think three sentences ought to do it:

Among some left-leaning economists, there’s a long if bizarre tradition. They don’t like the notion that factors of production are paid their marginal products—or even that this is a useful first cut when thinking about the factor distribution of income. They think this somehow implies an acceptance of the moral right of capitalists to keep their spoils.

Of course, this could be a single sentence, simply with colons connecting these sentences. And it would be three words longer! But what I’ve done is separate the ideas: (1) people think weird thing; (2) what they think; (3) why they think it. Instead we are left with this structure that gives lots of details without any idea of where we are going.

Consider, “He had what many said was red—but others claimed was purple—and made of the finest wood, and he used it all kinds of cold weather to hit small black, although they were sometimes grey, disks that many called pucks, and the ‘it’ that I referred to that he was using and had was a hockey stick.” Extreme, but not far off. “He had a hockey stick. Many said it was red but others said it was purple. It was made of the finest wood. And oh how he would use it in the coldest of weather to hit black and even grey disks many called pucks.”

Not very artistic, you say? I know! And if this were poetry, you’d have a point. But even in a novel, clarity trumps all. Nonfiction and fiction share a purpose: to tell a story. If the reader gets hung up parsing what you’ve written, you’ve failed. As it is, I didn’t finish Krugman’s article. But I will now!

May Day and the Working Class

8 Hour Work Day

It is May Day: the original Labor Day. In fact, it still is International Workers’ Day. It is the day that we celebrate the the working class. Is it any wonder that in America we are anywhere from a bit queasy to hysterically fearful of the term “working class”? Generally, people say this is because Americans don’t think in terms of class. Or as conservatives like to say: the poor are just the future rich. These are nice thoughts and talking points, but I’m afraid that the truth is darker and simpler: the American ethos so devalues work that it is thought to be a terrible thing to be part of the working class as a final destination.

Thus we get the fetishization of the middle class. Because in the United States the middle class is no class. Ask a rich person what class they are in and they will usually say, “Middle class,” but sometimes say, “Upper-middle class.” I remember reading an interview with Bill Gates when he was by far the richest man in the world. He was asked, “Do you consider yourself rich?” And as I recall, he responded, “Well, I’m certainly not middle class.” This was just before he built his $63 million mansion with change he found under the sofa cushions. It used to be the poor would claim they were “lower-middle class,” but times are so bad they (We!) seem to have given up the pretense.

But by not embracing the working class that the vast majority of us are in, we yield a great deal of ideological ground. It has allowed us to go on an almost four decade long adventure to take from the poor and give to the rich. And it doesn’t seem like there is any end in sight. The “liberal” party wants to slightly raise the minimum wage and tax the rich just a tiny bit more. The conservative party wants to abolish the minimum wage and eliminate any form of progressive taxation. This is why things are so screwed up in America: the framing of our thinking is completely skewed.

Here’s an example. A year and a half ago on Labor Day, Eric Cantor tweeted this out:

I have no problem with starting a business. I am involved with three right now that I’m part owner of. But Cantor isn’t really celebrating that. He’s pushing the idea that somehow starting your own business is more valid. And not just that: starting your own successful business. The truth is that the working class is filled with people who have previously had or currently do have their own businesses—successful and not. But Cantor isn’t celebrating them. Actually, he’s not celebrating anyone really. He’s just trying to co-opt the only official recognition we have in this country of the existence of the working class. He is trying to insult the entire working class without being obvious about it.

I think that May Day is a good day to think about our places in the world as workers. I think most of us are dissatisfied with our positions. Part of that—a large part—is the pay and working conditions. But there is also a substantial part that is simply that our society doesn’t seem to value what we do. One of our parties gives us an insincere tip of the hat and the other party can barely stop from disemboweling us. But stay strong, because we do matter. They would be lost without us. And at some point they may learn that.

Happy May Day!

Are Gun Rights More Successful Than Other Conservative Causes?

David FrumDavid Frum tries to answer an interesting question, Why Gun-Rights Backers Win While Other Conservative Causes Lose. He mentions a very things but basically he comes down to the idea that gun rights are basically the only conservative issue that is populist in the sense of not explicitly helping the rich.[1] I think there’s much to that. And I think this is something that the Democratic Party ought to take note of.

The truth is for the white male contingent that make up the hardcore gun rights folk, the Democrats don’t offer anything that they can get excited about. Democratic social policy doesn’t appeal to them because, being white and male and straight, they are not a minority, even if they whine about “white racism.” And Democratic economic policy is only “not quite as bad as the Republicans!” Republicans offer then not only gun rights but the idea that their issue is important. They aren’t just a bunch of yahoos with guns, they are the modern equivalent of George Washington!

There is perhaps an even more important issue related to the way the Republicans pander to this small and rapidly shrinking slice of the American electorate. The Republican Party is dependent upon a couple of coalitions: single issue voters like the people in the anti-choice movement. By and large, these people are not well served by Republican policy in any other area. So this means that even though the gun-nut coalition may only be 5% of the electorate, the Republican Party desperately needs it. Losing it to the Democrats would be as devastating as losing the much larger anti-choice vote; both would result in the Republicans becoming a permanent minority party.

Of course, it is not even true that “other conservative causes lose.” The conservative movement has been extremely successful in getting what it wants. In the last thirty years, the top marginal tax rate has been cut in half. Abortion rights have been chipped away and in many places effectively eliminated. Welfare has effectively been destroyed. The list goes on and on. But the greatest sign of just how much success conservatives have had is shown by the fact that they think anything less than total victory means that they lost.

And a good example of this is found with the hardcore gun community. Notice how the militia movement only becomes highly visible and noisy when a Democrat is in the White House. Now part of this is the media. When a Republican is in the White House, liberal media organizations do not promote their most extreme members the way conservatives do when a Democrat is president. But it’s also the case that there is a qualitative difference in the rhetoric of the crazies. Armageddon is not just around the corner when a Republican is in the White House.

The question Frum is really trying to answer is why gun rights advocates are so much more successful than other conservative causes. But it may be a mirage. The truth is that we don’t constantly have the Republicans’ success in cutting food stamps thrown onto the nightly news, “Three children were killed today because of lack of food.” But every few days there is some guy with a gun who goes around killing multiple people. Every day (Every hour!) someone is murdered with a gun. So it constantly reminds us, “Conservatives are winning.” And that just isn’t so obvious on other issue, even when the Republicans manage to eliminate the Estate Tax altogether.

[1] Abortion rights is an economic issue. But then, gun rights is too. The NRA is not so much about the rights of individuals to own guns but the rights of gun manufactures to sell them guns.

Portrait Master Cecilia Beaux

Cecilia Beaux - Self Portrait DetailOn this day in 1855, the great American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux was born. It is typical of the vicissitudes of art history that she is not better known. I think this is largely due to simple sexism. She is most often compared to John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. But she didn’t paint the kind of domestic subjects that Cassatt is known for and she wasn’t a male like Sargent. There is also the fact that she lived a very comfortable life painting portraits of the wealthy. But I hardly think we can hold this against her given that artists have always been dependent on the patronage of the wealthy. That’s just as true of Picasso as it was Michelangelo.

With Beaux’s work, my limited knowledge of art fails me. I see her exquisite rendering of light. But she’s an interesting amalgam. In her early thirties, although already established in America, she went to France to study with Tony Robert-Fleury and William Bouguereau. At that time, the Impressionists were ascendant. Supposedly, she didn’t get much from the latter group, but it’s hard to say because I have seen no examples of her art before that period. But it does seem to me that her work very often combines finely finished as well as unfinished elements. I think this would make a stark and interesting contrast if I could see the actual paintings.

I’m very fond of Sargent and Cassatt. And when I was at the Getty Center recently, I was blown away by a painting by the former that I had never before seen. But my life would not be greatly diminished if I never again saw anything from these painters because I’ve seen so much of their work for so long. The great thing about art is that there are so many wonderful practitioners, there are always new ones to discover. And Beaux is a good example of that.

Here is an excellent example of her work, Man with the Cat:

Man with the Cat - Cecilia Beaux

Happy birthday Cecilia Beaux!