Friday, January 26, 2018

Feiffer’s Game: Questioning Myths and Selling Fantasies

Put-downs and pathos at Bennington College (1969)

Jules Feiffer didn’t look much like the hunched, self-doubting characters he drew. But his attitude and what he was willing to reveal about himself did make him seem more like Bernard, his introspective cartoon creation, than outward appearances at first indicated.

Greg Guma photos, shot for Jan. 1969 story
The satirist, novelist and playwright was an understated Woody Allen, an impish intellectual who masked his problems in wry humor directed mainly at his own generation and lifestyle. When he visited with a small group of women in the Carriage Barn at Bennington College one Friday afternoon in January 1969, the students who expected him to take their side on the “generation gap” and put down middle-class hypocrisy were treated instead to a mustached David Susskind (then a serious TV panel host) who was more interested in hearing opinions than pushing them.

Feiffer wore a turtle-neck and puffed compulsively on a cigar as he moderated a rambling dialogue that ranged from the women’s movement and psychoanalysis to old movies, American fantasies and drugs. The room’s white backdrop created a neutral space somewhat like the world his cartoon figures inhabited, a stark environment that focuses attention on the speakers. One of the few men in the room, I was there as a reporter for the local daily on one of my early feature assignments. 

Jules Feiffer: “We usually dream what we are supposed to.” 
Pulling his straight-backed chair into the center of the space, away from a young woman who was trying to record the discussion, Feiffer began with a little irony. “The people I spoke with this morning said the talk was so high-minded that they didn’t get to talk about what they wanted - cartoons. Well, maybe we can spread about a minute and half on that.”

The group laughed. Feiffer also laughed, as he usually did when he thought he said something funny. After that the topic of cartoons, for which he had become nationally famous, wasn’t mentioned again for two hours.

He had just returned from an artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, he explained , and had written a play about “the sex lives of people from 1940 to 1969.” The play, although never produced, became the Mike Nichols film Carnal Knowledge. The comment sparked a lively dialogue on women’s rights. 

Feiffer: “The only way to go through life
happily is to be lobotomized.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of reading about women, analysis of women and what the creatures want,” he confided slyly to a room full of them, most waiting for a humorous insight. “And what I’ve found is that there is a slightly patronizing tone in any books that men write on the subject. The things that make sense are by women.” It wasn’t a joke, but made the point. 

From there the conversation moved on to writing, and the status of women in that field. Warming up slightly, Feiffer shared his perception that “because men have always been more free to move around and incorporate this into writing, people used to think of writing as a field not open to women.”

Several students said they still felt this prejudice. But instead of agreeing Feiffer echoed what they had been reading lately in career guides, the idea that writing was a career now accessible to anyone, regardless of gender. Pressed for details, however, he agreed that unequal treatment of women remained a huge problem.

“People have a very important reason usually when they hold onto myths,” he continued. It was a theme in some of his work. “If a guy can’t feel better than his wife, he feels better than nobody,” he said ruefully. “His job is probably degrading to him, so his choices of who to dominate are narrowed to his wife or children. That’s how the game has traditionally been played.”

The discussion next shifted to “woman power” as a movement. “Isn’t it amazing,” he mused, “that you have to organize to do what must be obvious?”

Each time a topic was introduced, usually by a random remark from someone in the audience, Feiffer would quickly deflect the focus from himself and promote discussion among the students, sometimes nodding recognition and calling on others as they signaled interest. Maybe he was collecting material for another play, I thought at the time, or maybe a cartoon series on college attitudes and hang ups. Or possibly he just preferred to remain a bit of an enigma to his fans, who hung on each response and waited patiently for the punchlines.

The few personal details that did emerge included the facts that Feiffer was 40 at the time, married, and living with nagging feelings of inadequacy that had kept him in psychoanalysis for at least 10 years so far. And that experience left him firmly convinced people cannot solve their problems alone.

His general reticence vanished only once, when the conversation turned to a definition of male fantasies. Feiffer began by sharing one of the advantages of working for Playboy — that you could occasionally express your true feelings about the publication directly to the editor.

“One night Hefner was telling me how his magazine has helped liberate women,” he casually name-dropped, “and I said maybe I could believe that if my image of the “Playboy Man” wasn’t someone who walked into a room, elegantly dressed, with a girl on each arm.”

Still, he characterized Hefner’s periodical a “fantasy magazine,” adding that it presented “what every guy is supposed to dream he wants out of life. And we usually dream what we are supposed to. There are lots of those people out there reading it and it’s not for the fiction, I swear to you.”

Continuing on the subject of fantasies as expressed in media, he suggested that Vogue likewise targeted the “female dream, a composed, sophisticated and dominant female, escorted by an effeminate male.”

Toward the end of the afternoon, Feiffer did acknowledge that dominant fantasies were changing, and that people were beginning to “have fantasies they aren’t supposed to have.” Two examples he offered were Lenny Bruce, the controversial comedian who had become a martyr for free speech and the young upon his death a few years earlier, and Phillip Roth, author of the sexually-explicit Portnoy’s Complaint. Both had given voice to formerly taboo fantasies, he argued.

Speaking of taboos, he pivoted, “the only thing that bothers me about the drug culture is the use of drugs for escape rather than as a force moving forward.” He clarified by suggesting that both drugs and alcohol could potentially be valuable as therapy, then clarified further by noting that this was not usually how they were used. 

Personally, Feiffer admitted, he preferred “the therapeutic value of booze.” So much so, in fact, that he believed his drinking helped him to clear his mind when he became confused or upset about his work or life. Talk about a fantasy. 

Fielding each question or comment with respect and keen attention, he often seemed much too serious and mainstream that day to be the same artist whose sharp perceptions — an original mixture of put-on, put-down and pathos — had made him a pop philosopher and one of the leading illustrators in the country.

After two hours, however, it became quite clear why Jules Feiffer was able to capture the insecurity of middle-aged men. He was one of the gang, another captive sending out desperate messages, and possibly a few personal confessions along the way. 

Only once did Feiffer’s dark streak fully break through. Asked about happiness in life, he puffed on his cigar, scratched his forehead with a single finger, and then replied: “The only way to go through life happily is to be lobotomized.” 

The audience laughed. Feiffer smiled. Success.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The World & the Presidency: Renegotiating the Deal

Two-hundred and thirty years after the US system of government was created in Philadelphia, it is slowly unraveling. A recent sign is the growing talk about invoking the 25th Amendment, a “constitutional coup” provision for replacing the president in cases of death, resignation or incapacity. But even removal won’t counter the long-term drift toward executive supremacy. The country may need another Constitutional Convention.

While speaking to California’s Public Interest Research Group in 1980, Ralph Nader put the presidency in an ironic, yet global perspective. At the time, President Jimmy Carter was struggling with a hostage crisis in Iran. Meanwhile, with the Republican nomination wrapped up, Ronald Reagan promised to win a renewed arms race with the USSR while simultaneously cutting taxes and implementing the conservative nostrum known as “supply-side economics.”

Noting that the race could have drastic global implications, Nader suggested a radical solution. “Ronald Reagan is such a threat to humanity,” he quipped, “that the whole world should be allowed to vote for US president.” 

Well, that didn’t happen. But Nader’s basic point seems more valid than ever. Power without accountability is unfair and dangerous.
The election of a US president is a global event. Leading candidates shape worldwide perceptions of critical issues, drawing media and public attention to whatever helps their poll numbers, while providing convenient excuses to ignore topics that discomfit the political establishment. And that’s before someone wins.

In 2000, for example, Al Gore wanted the nation, the media, and the world to focus on the “wonders” of US prosperity and the risks of change. George W. Bush, despite his “compassionate conservative” rhetoric, ultimately ran on moral outrage and resurgent nationalism. With John McCain and Bill Bradley in the race at first, there was a chance that the need for real change, or at least reform, might become the nexus of debate. But campaign talk soon shifted back to safer ground. Perhaps more important, issues that could raise doubts about basic priorities and challenge corporate power were taken off the table.

Neither candidate chose to discuss the growing poverty, inequality and insecurity that accompanied the push for deregulation, privatization, and reducing the scope of government. The benefits of what had become known around the world as “structural adjustment” were considered a given, with the costs written off as aberrations or failure to embrace the magic of capitalist democracy. 

An equally potent “non-issue” was resurgent US militarism and the prospect of a new arms build up. Bush and Gore had little to say about recent or potential military adventures — from Yugoslavia, Iraq, the Sudan, and Afghanistan to Columbia and North Korea. Their basic agreement on the use of unilateral force, as well as plans to militarize space, meant that war and peace were only discussed in terms of US strategic advantage. Have most Republican and Democratic presidential candidates since 2000 been so different?

And where candidates go, most media follow. As a result, the ongoing bombing of Iraq and devastation caused by sanctions were no longer a news focus by 2000. Ditto the “drug war” — primarily a war on indigenous cultures in the quest for strategic resources. Trade was defined as the key to liberation, despite a track record of neocolonial exploitation. Corporate globalization was considered either inevitable or a done deal. And reform of a corrupt political system — well, any real discussion just would not be prudent.

Yet the impacts of such censored debate are profound and long-lasting. Around the world, the message received is that, whoever wins, expect only more of the same — national narcissism disguised as altruism, corporate appeasement, and the arbitrary use of US military and economic might. That fails to inspire much confidence or hope among the billions who don’t get to vote for the world’s most powerful leader, yet feel the effects of US policies every day. 

No wonder that endless waves of protest, strikes, rallies, guerrilla wars, and mass resistance continue to roll across the world — mainly off camera.

Two centuries after the US constitutional system was created, it is slowly unraveling under the explosive force of the imperial presidency. The framers, although they could not anticipate everything, were certainly aware of the dangers of a drift toward monarchy and empire. Unfortunately, their 18th Century vision no longer meets the test. Even though the president technically needs congressional approval for expenditures and declarations of war, almost anything is possible if the appropriate “national security” rationale can be manufactured.

Even removal won’t counter the long-term drift toward executive supremacy. A president can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” but only if Congress chooses to act. And the truth is, many of the arguably illegal actions inspired, condoned or actively promoted by presidents are actually tried-and-true tactics that most members of Congress dare not publicly condemn, questionable as they may be. Too many are complicit. 
Lately, there has even been talk of invoking the 25th Amendment, which deals with replacement of the president or vice president in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacity. One of the most recent additions to the Constitution, it was proposed by Congress and ratified by the states after the assassination of President Kennedy, and was first applied during the Watergate scandal, when Gerald Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president, then replaced Richard Nixon as president. Nelson Rockefeller filled the new vacancy as appointed vice president. It looked a lot like a quiet constitutional coup.

So, how would it work this time? Under Section 4, the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet would have to write the Senate President (currently Orrin Hatch) and House Speaker (the obsequious Paul Ryan), explaining that the President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." Mike Pence would then become “Acting President.” But Trump could respond by sending Ryan and Hatch his own "written declaration that no inability exists." He could also threaten to retake control unless -- within four days -- Pence and a majority of either (a) the cabinet that Trump appointed, or (b) another body established by Congress says he is unable to do his job. 

This in turn would force Congress to assemble within 48 hours, and to vote less that 21 days later. If two-thirds of both Houses decided that Trump simply couldn’t do the job, Pence would continue as Acting President. If they failed to decide, however, Trump would regain control of the presidency and we'd be in bigger trouble than ever. There must be a better way to run a government, especially since a “successful” transition in this case would mean handing the presidency to an evangelical extremist, backed by the Koch Brothers, who actually thinks he is on a mission from God.
According to historian Barbara Tuchman, the office of president “has become too complex and its reach too extended to be trusted to the fallible judgment of one individual.” Thus, she and others have suggested restructuring; one example is a directorate or Council of State to which the president would be accountable. Ironically, such ideas were discussed but ultimately dropped at the original Constitutional Convention.

While embracing limits on executive power like “advice and consent” on treaties and appointments, the 1787 Convention narrowly rejected having the president operate in conjunction with a Council, specifically to serve as a check on executive power. Benjamin Franklin said at the time that a Council of State “would not only be a check on a bad president but be a relief to a good one.” 

Delegates to the Convention struggled with how to give a president sufficient authority, free from dependence on the legislative branch, without allowing him to become an “elective monarch.” As a result, Article II does not clearly define the term “executive power” or any specific presidential authority in times of war. Congress was given control of military appropriations and rule-making for the regulation of land and naval forces, suggesting that the delegates wanted the two branches to share decision-making power over war. But their general confusion and vagueness about the relationship between the president and Congress left the door open for a gradual expansion of executive power, especially over foreign policy.

Fundamental changes are clearly needed. Even if the US constitutional system survives Trump, presidents will still seek more power until clear limits are imposed and public pressure reverses the trend. In the end, the country may need another Constitutional Convention. Even then, the rest of the world probably won’t get to vote for president. But Trump’s brazen abuse of the office certainly invites some rethinking. 

As happened during America’s original Convention, the stated purpose could be eclipsed (or even hijacked) by a “revolutionary” move to revamp the entire system. Still, it does take the approval of two-thirds of state legislatures just to call a Constitutional Convention, and three-fourths of them to ratify its results. That’s a pretty high bar. As a result, the US Constitution has only been amended when an overwhelming majority of the public views the change as extremely important — and sometimes not even then. 

There is nevertheless a risk that something inadequate or worse might emerge, along with new restrictions of basic rights. After all, autocratic leaders and policies have been gaining ground lately around the world. But that makes the risks of renegotiating some of the terms struck 230 years ago in creating the US government even more preferable to the current drift toward royalism and tyranny.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789, reflecting on whether their new national government would endure, “no society can make a perpetual constitution or perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please.” 

Some concepts and sections of this article were originally developed for reports and editorials written as editor of Toward Freedom, an international affairs periodical. Greg Guma is a journalist, historian, and author of Dons of Time, Spirits of Desire, Uneasy Empire, Big Lies, and The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. His latest book is Green Mountain Politics

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Another Realignment in the People's Republic

FLASHBACK: When Progressives Lost Control of City Hall

It was Burlington's first mayoral race since the repeal of instant run-off voting. But there was no need for a second round. Miro Weinberger won handily in March 2012 with more than 5,800 votes. The turnout was above 10,000, up from 2009, when incumbent Progressive Bob Kiss won a second term in a close, controversial race with Kurt Wright that led to the end of IRV.
Miro Weinberger and Tim Ashe at the Epic Caucus; 
Below, Mayor Bob Kiss and Kurt Wright 
     Under-estimated from the start, Weinberger delivered on a campaign plan to make inroads in the more conservative North End, but also polled above expectations in poor neighborhoods. In Ward 3, where Gordon Paquette – the last Democratic mayor — won his earliest victories, also the neighborhood from which Terry Bouricius introduced “third party” politics to the City Council in 1981, Weinberger was the top vote-getter with 65 percent.
     When Mayor Bernie Sanders ran for re-election the first time in 1983, he won 52 percent of the vote and spent about $30,000. Weinberger’s victory was bigger, but it also cost him four times as much.
     In 1987, Sanders defeated Democrat Paul Lafayette in five out of six wards. Then the new, local Progressive Party was close to having a majority. In 2012, however, after electing three mayors over 31 years and being the largest faction on the City Council, it chose not to field a candidate for mayor, dissociated itself from the incumbent it had put in office, and recruited only two candidates. The party chose not to endorse Weinberger, Wright or independent Wanda Hines. But Progressive Councilor Vince Brennan did back Wright, who also won the support of Independent Sharon Bushor and Sandra Baird, a former Democratic legislator and Progressive critic.
     During the run-up to the Democratic Party caucus, state Sen. Tim Ashe, once a Progressive city councilor, looked like a more polished player with the necessary cross-party appeal. Others thought that Bram Kranichfeld, the 31-year-old council newcomer from Ward 2, had some crucial backing from party stalwarts. Both of them, along with state Rep. Jason Lorber, were defeated in the course of an epic Democratic caucus that had to be reconvened in December after Weinberger and Ashe tied in the third round.
     At Weinberger’s campaign announcement the previous September, held next door to City Hall in a former firehouse managed by Burlington City Arts, the first-time candidate charged that Mayor Kiss had put the city in “an exceptionally poor negotiating position.” Reluctance to discuss the details of Burlington Telecom finances had “left a mood of anger and anxiety about our future,” he charged. The 41-year-old housing developer also criticized the administration’s failure to secure funding before starting on a $14 million airport parking lot expansion.
     He looked like the underdog to Republican Kurt Wright throughout most of the general election. Although Weinberger raised more than twice the money and had the Democratic establishment in his corner, Wright appeared to have an inherent edge. He had waged two previous mayoral battles, had a working knowledge of city policies and operations gained over 20 years as a councilor and state lawmaker, and was creating a nonpartisan coalition that looked a little like the one that had worked well for Bernie Sanders. None of it was enough.
     Afterward, Progressive Party Vice Chair Elijah Bergman argued that the Democrat’s victory wouldn’t have happened without Progressive support. If so, the assistance for Weinberger was capped by the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, issued one week before the vote.
     On the same Town Meeting Day, across the state more than 60 communities, including most of Vermont's largest, passed resolutions recommending a constitutional amendment to make sure that corporations do not continue to have First Amendment rights as people. In Burlington, the call passed with almost 80 percent. A separate advisory resolution inspired by the Occupy protests also did well. In a tradition that dates back to the 1980s, voters urged the state and federal governments to adopt revenue and investment policies that reduce the growing disparity of wealth and ask the largest corporations to pay a fair share of taxes.
     Max Tracy won easily as a Progressive in Ward 2, an area situated between the university and the waterfront in the Old North End. This was also where Hines had her best turnout, 15 percent. But the groundswell she predicted didn't materialize. In North and South End wards she attracted between 2 percent and 4 percent. The overall results also represented a setback for the GOP, which lost both a council seat and the immediate presence of Wright, the party’s most visible leader. Hines turned out to be a weaker candidate than expected, while Wright reached an apparent ceiling on his appeal.
     Three decades of executive power had ended for the progressive movement. But Weinberger promised not to “clean house” and offered to provide continuity. In a sign of the political realignment to come, his initial budget advisory team featured former Progressive official Carina Driscoll, Sanders' step-daughter and future mayoral candidate; longtime business leader Pat Robins; former independent candidate Dan Smith, son of Republican Peter Smith, whom Sanders defeated to enter Congress; and Doug Hoffer, once a CEDO staffer in the Progressive era and soon-to-become Progressive/Democrat State Auditor.