Reality, Fantasy, and Professional Wrestling

Bret 'Hit Man' HartI live in a no man’s land with regard to professional wrestling. On one hand, I absolutely hate it. It represents everything that is wrong with American entertainment. It is all about good versus evil. There is no subtlety to the characters. Good guys are good because that’s just how they are. And, of course, the same thing goes for the bad guys and those in the middle. It’s more or less like Hogan’s Heroes, but even that displays far more complexity than professional wrestling. Ultimately, this is all a political problem for me, because Americans generally think of the world just as wrestling presents it: black and white.

On the other hand, I admire professional wrestling. I understand that from top to bottom, it is a very professional form of entertainment. Within its constraints, it is wonderfully creative. The writers create interesting conflicts. And the performers are shockingly good at the kind of improvised performance art that they practice. In addition to all this, professional wrestling is ultimately the artistic representation of archetypes. As Roland Barthes put it, “What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks.”

When I was a kid, I hated wrestling. That was simply because I hate boasting. And also because big men scare me. And, of course, it was “fake.” But after I read Barthes, I turned around on it. I was able to understand and appreciate what Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler were up to. Just the same, I would never willingly watch professional wrestling. I’m no more interested in it than I am the newest variation on The Expendables or Sabotage. And I still find it pernicious. We really should have gotten past such simplistic representations of archetypes.

As a result of all this, I have a problem when dealing with others discussing wrestling. Articles about it tend to focus on this stuff that is self-evident once you combine two notions: that wrestling is “fake” and that its being “fake” doesn’t matter. When a corporate executive spends a whole season in shouting matches with Hulk Hogan (Or whomever — I said I don’t watch the stuff!) a few things are clear. First, these performers didn’t just decide to have this argument that will lead up to the season finale where a grudge match takes place. That was scripted. But it wasn’t scripted the way that an Alan Parker film is. It was scripted in the way that a Christopher Guest film is. So the performers are as creative as the writers. And we should respect that!

This all came up to me while listening to the Radio Lab episode, La Mancha Screwjob. I listened to it because it has a discussion of Don Quixote (which I haven’t listened to at this point). But the wrestling story is actually really stupid. It is about this “Montreal Screwjob” where wrestling supposedly got real. But the truth is that professional wrestling has always played with the line of real versus fantasy. The story specifically mentions a case where a woman left one wrestler for another wrestler and the two wrestlers went into the ring over this issue. So it was both not real (it was a performance) and it was real (because the conflict was real). But this kind of postmodern approach to the sport goes back at least to Kaufman-Lawler, and I assume as far back as professional wrestling has existed.

The story does show the power of wrestling in that even these people who cover it are confused about what is going on. Or maybe not. The truth is that the nature of wrestling is that no one will ever fully admit to what is scripted and what is not. So just as the wrestlers won’t admit that what they do is “fake,” it may be that the journalists who cover it are the same way. The current fashion is for people to admit that wrestling is scripted but that there are real aspects of it too. And this brings up perhaps the most important aspect for me: I assume that it is all “fake” regardless.

Consider the Montreal Screwjob itself. It involved the move of wrestler Bret “The Hitman” Hart from WWF to WCW. Supposedly, there was this incident that took place. One thing was supposed to happen in the ring, but in fact another thing happened. According to Wikipedia, it was a real incident. I don’t believe it. I believe it was a double con. I don’t think it was a coincidence that it worked out perfectly for the WWF and for Hart who went on to be the WCW champion and then retired with a boatload of money. Was there some reality in the mix? That’s the wrong question. The right question is: who cares?

Ultimately, great art plays with the same issues of reality and fantasy. But that “reality” is not “what really happened” but rather “what is eternal.” And so professional wrestling or American Idol or any of the countless varieties of “reality television” will never be great art. Or art at all. Because it can’t be deep.

So I’m left in this no man’s land. I don’t dismiss professional wrestling for not being a “real” sport. But the people who cover it as a subject don’t seem to get much past the thinking of those who hate it for this reason. Whether professional wrestling is “real” or “fake” is not what determines whether it is good or bad. But that seems always to be the focus of the coverage. And that means that the coverage of wrestling is as shallow as the sport itself.

Unintended (?!) War on Terror Propaganda

Glenn GreenwaldThis is the toxic tribalism that repeats itself over and over throughout the west. Western victims are mourned and humanized, while victims of western violence are invisible and thus dehumanized. Aside from being repugnant in its own right, this formula, by design, is deeply deceptive as propaganda: it creates the impression among western populations that we are the victims but not the perpetrators of heinous violence, that terrorism is something done to us but that we never commit ourselves, that “primitive, radical and inhumanely violent” describes the enemy tribe but not our own (It’s the same tactic that explains why we hear so much about American journalists imprisoned in adversary nations such as Iran and North Korea, but almost nothing about Muslim journalists imprisoned for years without charges by the U.S. Government: thus deliberately creating the false impression that only those Bad Countries, but not us, do this).

—Glenn Greenwald
The Key War on Terror Propaganda Tool: Only Western Victims Are Acknowledged

Nancy LeTourneau Intentionally Annoys Me

Nancy LeTourneauNancy LeTourneau does every other weekend at Political Animal. I think she does the best job of replicating what Ed Kilgore does during the week. And if we can’t have Sam Knight on the weekends, I’d rather have LeTourneau than the other options (good as they are). But this weekend, she decided to tweak some progressive noses. First, she published, Fast Track Isn’t So Fast. That was basically just a press release from Obama claiming that we shouldn’t fear fast track authority because “they can shut off ‘fast track’ with 60 votes and amend the deal.” That’s a good one! The Republicans control the Senate, and contrary to progressives’ hopes, they don’t seem at all concerned about this “threat to sovereignty.” I guess Ted Cruz heard from the billionaire donors that he wasn’t going to get any money if he got in the way of this. So we do need to fear fast track authority.

Next up, LeTourneau wrote, Who Threatens Our Privacy? This one also comes off like a White House press release. We are supposed to be as outraged that Wikileaks released the Sony hacks as we are that Snowden revealed the kind of things that our government is up to. It seems to be apples and oranges. And more to the point, it doesn’t seem to be about making people more concerned about the Sony release but rather making people less concerned about the Snowden relations. And that’s just nonsense.

But by far, the most annoying thing she published was, A Study in Contrasts. It is a comparison of Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. And it is even intended as trolling, as she started the article, “I’m about to write something that will likely get me in hot water with a lot of my progressive friends.” That’s kind of standard New Democratic — or “centrist” — nonsense where the writer admits to knowing they are going to upset those rigid leftists by speaking The Truth™. But what follows is anything but.

She noted that on Warren’s economic legislation, there are no Republican co-sponsors. But on Booker’s criminal justice sentencing legislation, there are Republican co-sponsors. And… Nothing! That’s the extent of her contrast. So allow me to respond: she has got to be out of her mind! Does she really think that Booker has Republican co-sponsors because he is working in the shadows to form relationships with Republicans? Because that isn’t what’s going on. Booker is simply working in an area where Republicans are already working. So of course he has Republican co-sponsors.

Booker has always been a New Democrat. He’s a Wall Street guy. And LeTourneau was correct when she wrote, “Senator Booker became persona non grata when he criticized Democrats and the Obama campaign for going after Romney over his connections to Bain Capital just prior to the 2012 election.” But that isn’t because he could have hurt the Obama campaign. It was because he said something that went totally counter to what Democrats believe.

So Booker has his nice, safe Senate seat. And what he has chosen to work on is something that many Republicans are working on. So why didn’t the good people of New Jersey just elect one of those Republicans? Because they care about other issues. I have no doubt whatsoever about Warren backing Booker’s criminal justice reform legislation. It isn’t at all clear that he would vote for the kinds of economic policy that Warren is pushing — the kind of policy that Democratic voters are for.

The truth is that we need Democrats who push the existing Overton Window. And we need Democrats who can get things done. But there is nothing in what LeTourneau wrote to indicate that Booker can actually get things done. We will see. Getting Republicans to support ideas they’ve long supported means nothing. Meanwhile, Warren actually is changing the conversation. Check back with me after Booker gets one of those laws passed.

Bad Rep Economic Policy and Media Ignorance

Paul RosenbergPaul Rosenberg wrote a great article over at Salon last week, Scott Walker, Forever Tarnished: Republican Governors Have Tanked the GOP Brand. It is about how the 2010 election allowed a bunch of true-believer conservatives to get hold of a number of states, causing them to put into practice the kind of economic policy that they are always claiming will create jobs and grow the economy. And the result has been just what readers of this site would expect: disaster. Instead of improving their economies, they’ve harmed them. And in exchange, they have slashed government services and still managed to destroy their budgets.

What Rosenberg focuses on is the fact that all these decades right wing think tanks have developed policy ideas. But these ideas have not been based on good economics, but rather ideology. So rather than the states being those fabled “laboratories of democracy,” they have been the opposite: they’ve all done the same things. And they’ve all managed to get the same bad results. Of course, I wouldn’t get too excited about that. The worst case is Kansas, were Sam Brownback was just re-elected. Rather than admitting that his policies have failed, he just keeps claiming that his policies will take time to work. There is no teaching an ideologue. The question is where it is possible to teach the American media.

One of the things that has traditionally been nice about state level politics is that it was relatively pragmatic because it had to be. Unlike the federal government, state governments actually do have to balance their budgets. So normally, we wouldn’t expect to see states pass up free money like they get with the Medicaid expansion. But refuse many of them did. But it is hard to evaluate that behavior. Sure: it is needlessly cruel and fiscally stupid. But these Republicans never said they were doing it because it made humanitarian and economic sense. When it comes to the tax cuts, the services cuts, the infrastructure cuts — these were all done because it was going to make their economies boom. And just the opposite has happened.

The main idea that is behind all of this slash and burn economics is that tax cuts will stimulate the economy so much that the government will actually bring in more revenue. This is supply side economics. And since it was first tried in the early 1980s, it has literally never worked. Not once! Yet this is still the guiding light of Republican economic policy. When the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business polled prominent (mostly conservative) economists, it “couldn’t find a single economist who believed that cutting taxes today will lead to higher government revenue — even if we lower only the top tax rate.” But that’s why we have Arthur Laffer around: an official “economist” that Republicans can hire to tell them that they can cut taxes and everything will be great.

Rosenberg put it well:

The Booth expert polling results aren’t monolithic, nor are they necessarily infallible — orthodox economists were blindsided by the financial collapse in 2008, after all. But the degree to which key articles of GOP economic faith clash with overwhelming expert judgment is staggering — and there’s nary a hint of it in most of the media. It’s a disconnect reminiscent of global warming, but much less widely recognized.

Indeed, pundits as a class have internalized the notion of the GOP as the “daddy party,” the one that does best at all manner of male-stereotyped roles: fighting wars, running the economy, understanding how things work. The Democrats are supposedly the “mommy party,” the one that takes care of you when you hurt.

Rosenberg went on to discuss two different studies that showed that Republican economic policy in the states actually harm their economies. But the truth is, even if they worked, it would only be by helping a given state at the expense of other states. When Art Laffer was pushing his plan to the Kansas legislature, he said there was a war among states over tax policy. The idea was to lower taxes so that companies would move to the low tax state. This is, obviously, a race to the bottom — which states stupidly participate in all the time. But even on this level, the Republicans can’t seem to make their economic policy work.

The question remains whether the mainstream media will wake up and start covering this. Rosenberg seems at least a bit optimistic. I’m not. We didn’t need this new crop of Republicans loons to prove that conservative economic policy doesn’t work as advertised. The truth is that the media really do see the Republicans as the “daddy party.” And it is just easier to continue to push the same old narrative. (Look at the issue of fighting wars: can any reasonable person really think Republicans are good at that anymore?) But if there is a chance to get the truth out, it will be through the people. That’s pretty sad: we need the people to educate the journalists. But luckily, with the internet, we are in a much better position to do that now than we were before.

Morning Music: Yusef Lateef

Cry! -- Tender - Yusef LateefIn the early 1970s, the great jazz musician Yusef Lateef produced a number of wonderful albums with the equally great jazz pianist Kenny Barron. Like all of Lateef’s career, it defies easy categorization. But his special interest in eastern music with its modal melodies give a lot of his work a classical feel. It’s the same thing that you hear in Bill Evans’ later work. The connection, of course, is Debussy — who was interested in a lot of the same music.

So I was interested to come upon the following video from 1972. They are playing with Bob Cunningham (bass) and Albert Heath (drums). And they are doing the Jerome Kern song, “Yesterdays” — from the Broadway musical Roberta (starring Bob Hope in the original cast). Lateef did it originally (On oboe!) back in 1959 on his album, Cry! — Tender. It’s a good song to do, because harmonically, it is fairly simple — perfect for the kind of music he does. And he begins and ends the song with an improvisation based on Debussy’s solo flute piece, Syrinx. It’s lovely:

Anniversary Post: George Petty

George PettyOn this day in 1894, the great pin-up artist George Petty was born. You certainly know his art, because it copies of it were used to decorate planes used in World War II — most notably the Memphis Belle. His father was a successful photographer of women — so maybe it was in the blood. Or maybe seeing dad’s nudes had an environmental impact on the young man.

He is known for having created a kind of iconic figure: the Petty Girl. It sounds sexist: the women in the images have smaller than normal heads and longer and normal legs. I don’t especially see the smaller head. But the ridiculously long legs are hard to miss. These were created for Esquire magazine when it had centerfolds — the predecessors of those later found in Playboy. I assume they were thought rather racy in their day. Today, they look downright homey.

All right, not quite:

Petty Girl

Happy birthday George Petty!