Sunday, August 9, 2009
I reviewed Milk, in that way that I have, a couple of months ago. This was before Glenn Beck said Obama "hates white people" and then did a sketch, I'd guess you'd call it, where he attempted to kill Nancy Pelosi. I now call Beck Simple Jack. It's also a football blog, and that allows me to keep moving my football stuff over here. Reading it again, this is really what I'd like to be doing now. I'm not saying it's the very best thing I've written, there's lots of stuff (most of it destined to remain behind a firewall) that I think is more vibrant, but this is where I am today, the mixture of sports/not sports is where I'd like to live for awhile. Here's that piece:
I saw Milk this weekend; it's good - it's caricatures people and issues and traffics in myth making in that way that movies do, but it did so in an exhilarating way; we like to personify the groundswell, ideas are more conducive to a narrative structure when placed in the mouths of one lone man. Popular movements, be they political or economic, are better understood as a patchwork quilt sewn across cultures and generations than sprung from the hands of one seamstress, but those are harder stories to tell.
It's a minor complaint really; there's a pretty steep curve to educate American filmgoers about the footsoldiers of any human rights movement outside of the highest profile African-Americans. If the takeaway from this film is that Harvey Milk was American hero, martyred for the freedom to love and be loved, that's perfectly fine.
I didn't need the Milk primer; I was 7 years old and living in the San Francisco Bay Area when he and George Moscone were assassinated, I recall the events in a way similar to the Reagan shooting or Challenger explosion. But that puts me in small company; I don't recall ever taking or teaching a history course that ever referred to Harvey Milk; that the mayor of a major US city could have his killer do only five years and really have the only cultural takeaway be the Twinkie Defense is sort of shocking when you roll it around.
As a San Francisco sports fan, the phrase "east coast bias" flows maybe a little too easily from my lips, but there's a little less attention to the political goings on in the west from establishment media than the population would support. And it was thirty years ago - if Gavin Newsom gets shot today, there's enough wall to wall media that his name will be burned in the memories of 7 year old boys around the globe. I like to tell students that George Washington didn't know he had been elected President for a couple of weeks after it was so, but the informational distance between the late 1700s and the late 1900s is smaller than the distance between my 3 UHF channels in 1978 and the Tweet I just got from Sierra Leone.
There might be some homophobia in the mix too. Milk=MLK wasn't an equation mainstream Americans were going to allow in 1978; hell, it's still not today, as it's impossible not to note that the legal position of gays thirty years ago isn't much different than it stands in 2009, but if you don't recognize that the wheel of justice will inevitably turn toward full equality you're not paying attention, and I don't think most would have recognized that even a decade ago.
How little cultural currency the killings of Milk and Moscone have is brought up when you consider what has always been one of the most interesting quirks of history of our time - that the name of the killer was Dan White.
Here's where this becomes a sports blog. One could construct an overly broad narrative that would go something like this - a sports figure - an athlete, maybe a whole team - can meld with a city in such a way that, as opposed to just being a pleasant diversion - that figure can provide a psychic uplift in ways difficult to quantify.
It requires excellence, but more than excellence, it requires a convergence of the identities of citizenry and sports figure. The Steelers are embraced in Pittsburgh not just for the 6 titles, but for the perception of being hard nosed, for example. If Hollywood is the great myth making machine, the Sports Industrial Complex is a close second - and we frame athletic achievements or failures to fit our civic needs.
The 49ers are my football team; they were fully embraced, as closely as I've ever seen, by the people of San Francisco because they were excellent (I'll take my dynasty over any other in football history; I don't have a metric to point to, but if you give me first pick among 60s Packers, 70s Steelers, 90s Cowboys, and 00s Pats, I'm taking my guys and it's not that hard a call) but more than that - because they were excellent in a way that fed into the civic identity of the City.
If you were to do a random sampling of adjectives used to describe the Walsh era Niners, you know exactly what you'd find - cerebral, finesse, classy, sophisticated - sometimes said with respect, "The 49ers play an intellectual brand of football that the rest of the league can't match - the entire organization has the personna of the smartest kid in class" and sometimes it was said with scorn, "They're soft - that's not football - finesse ass 49ers, goddamn Bill Walsh thinking he's a genius - don't be afraid to just hit somebody."
Which is, of course, the civic identity of San Francisco. It's not seen as tough - it's seen as urbane. A Harris Poll, I'm guessing, if it listed a couple of dozen adjectives and a couple of dozen cities - would attach words like intellectual, effete, urbane to San Francisco and not gritty, gutty, scrappy - which would more be associated with Pittsburgh.
The 49ers became the greatest team in football - the greatest organization in sports - and did it in exactly the way privileged by the city.
And did it at the right time. I don't know what level of psychic toll the killing of the mayor and gay activist hero has on a people - but if I were mythmaking, it would go something like this - San Francisco was the epicenter of the American counterculture movement of the 1960s - the effective end of that was the assassination of Moscone and Milk - and as the country began to reject the egalitarian notions of the activist 60s, turn its back on the War on Poverty and the uplift of all peoples into a Big American Boat with the huge conservative turn to the Reagan 80s - it leaves the City of San Francisco without identity, rudderless - adrift in a Red Republican sea.
That tension - between the rise of the conservative movement and a progressive, wounded city is inverted on the gridiron - the rising young 49ers, progressive in approach, running into the dying Corporate America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas, with Landry's porkpie hat and the military man Staubach and the ridiculous hole in the top of the stadium "So god can watch the Cowboys" and that infuriating little hop their lineman took before the ball was snapped was the opposite of everything good to me. Their 70s positioning as the epitome of moral uprightness (while concealing massive drug problems) would clearly be the football team of choice for the Anita Bryants of the world - the same marketing messages that drove anti-gay, anti-choice, establishment over equality groups in 1978 were wholly embraced by the Dallas Cowboys.
But in 1981 - their dynasty was dying - Staubach was gone - and in a world where corporate values were re-emerging, where profits were re-establishing their primacy over people, it was in the NFL where a lefty city could hold its ground against the onslaught.
The alternative team, the 49ers, beat America's Team with Dwight Clark's Catch in January of '82, cementing the changing of the NFL guard - and just a little over 3 years after the killings of Milk and Moscone, as you all know - the Cowboy quarterback who left the field in defeat that day, who fumbled away Dallas's last chance at game's end - was Danny White.
It's not as if a decade had passed. Dan White killed Moscone and Milk in San Francisco in November of '78 - and Danny White fumbled at midfield in San Francisco in January of '82. It's a curious quirk of history that, if not endowed with the type of narrative mythmaking that one could conjure (if I ever write a screenplay called The Catch - that's my story outline, right there) is just darn peculiar enough that it should have more cultural currency than it does.
But what people know about Dan White is the twinkie defense - a mitigation defense based on White's diet. This wasn't important to the film - Milk takes the posture that White's capacity wasn't diminished, that he wasn't unbalanced due to an excess of transfats - that he killed Milk and Moscone because (metaphorically) he was the Dallas Cowboys.
Dan White is portrayed as a piece of white bread, with his brown suits and bad haircut and 2.2 kids - he sees the ground unsteady beneath him - he looks around the halls of power and sees fewer faces that look like his than he's comfortable with. He's the prototype of the Angry White Male (his name was even White - did he know he was a literary technique?) the early 90s meme (Rush Limbaugh, the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, eventually the NASCAR dad) who saw the levels of power held by women, Blacks, maybe gays, or those with accents and polysyllabic names and odd religious rituals and felt he was being shorted somehow. They're the type of people who hear "happy holidays" and angrily denounce the "War on Christmas." How dare some uppity gay come to San Francisco and get this type of press, command this type of following - his job should be my job - why can't I just call him a dirty queer and drink my scotch and make all the decisions? Who does he think he is hitting all those home runs - being all cocky like he is. And in my city! My city! Goddamn swaggering around, being big and black and hitting all those home runs. I'm a federal agent and I'm gonna make him pay if it costs 55 million taxpayer dollars to do it!
I may have moved to a different thing there for a moment.
Gotta love white guys. Born on third base and think they hit a triple. Then when they're picked off they quit, they say the game is rigged against them. They shout "kill the umpire."
Which brings us to Glenn Beck.
Glenn Beck's one of these guys - a troll, really - full on 2009 Angry White Male (hard to imagine what might have happened in very, very recent political history to bring a full on resurgence of the Angry White Male - even Rush Limbaugh, crazed pill junkie gets to sit at the head of the table again) and he's used his pulpit at CNN (next time someone calls CNN liberal, point them to the thousands of hours it gave Beck) and now Fox News to:
1. Say Obama is building concentration camps to turn the US into a totalitarian state
2. To red bait, and then to link Obama with, wait for it - Hitler -
And to say that the recent Alabama massacre, where a man named Michael McLendon killed 10 people, may have been motivated by a response to "political correctness"
You don't watch Beck, or any of these guys, I'm guessing - you try to ignore the crazy - but things are tough out in the world - and there is a pretty constant barrage of right wing voices like Beck who use the most incendiary language (google "Glenn Beck" + revolution) to discuss what the appropriate response should be.
And here's a man in Alamaba who kills 10 people - he won't have a trial, he turned the gun on himself - but Beck's offered him the 2009 version of the twinkie defense - all those angry white guys - losing their country to the communist, nazi (and don't forget terrorist, Manchurian Candidate, not a real American, middle name is Hussein, hey - where's his flag pin, where's his Bible - terrorist fist jab) Obama - they are pushed to the wall by political correctness. All those black people going to vote - all those gays marching in the Castro - What's a regular white guy supposed to do! I just got tagged out at third base! No fair! Come on!
Like McClendon, Dan White killed himself too - he should have hung on a few years, he could have gotten a gig at Fox News. That might have been a fitting 21st century epilogue the story. The 49ers dynasty died, and the current attempt to revive the franchise is through retrograde smash mouth football. The American corporate empire appears dead, a quarter century of deregulation has run us into the ground and now we're nationalizing the banks. Sean Penn's got an Academy Award for playing Harvey Milk, and gays are still getting drummed out of the military.
The wheel keeps turning.