What You Should Think About Mount Rushmore

June 3, 2011

“Monuments are the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another.”

–Joseph Joubert

This nation, since the final months of George Washington’s Presidency, has been troubled by a partisan divide.  It is in the nature of any self-governing people to take sides as disagreements about policy give rise to factions in politics.  Unlike most other authentic democracies, ours seems afflicted with a craving for simplicity in these disagreements.  Even journalists are often inclined to dumb things down so that, in presenting “both sides of the story,” they prop up the false narrative that a complex issue can be understood from only two perspectives.

Thoughtful people know better than to embrace false dichotomies.  Because so many Americans assume the duty to actually cast a vote is much more important than the duty that ought be its prerequisite — to form a rational fact-based opinion that would make such voting well-informed — false dichotomies have become the norm in our political life.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, the divide was crystallized.  It was Republicans who championed progressive values, social justice, and modern thinking; while the Democratic Party took its strength from supporters of traditional values, racial segregation, and fundamentalist religion.  The bipartisan oligarchy offered a neat and simple way for the political process to address a reality that was rarely ever neat or simple.

In a dance that could hardly be described as delicate, these two parties traded places during the 20th century.  Little by little, the Democrats who once opposed emancipation and largely withdrew from Congress during secession were transformed.  Today they are aligned with positions that support bettering the plight of minorities and broad exercise of the powers of the federal government.  Little by little, the Republicans who once preserved the Union and promoted emancipation as a matter of principle were transformed.  Today they are aligned with positions that oppose efforts to alleviate hardships experienced disproportionately by minorities.  They so vigorously oppose the exercise of federal powers that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some actually suggested that the timely deployment of emergency relief assets was an abridgement of states’ rights!

In 1927, this dance was already well underway.  President Calvin Coolidge was among the first of our national leaders to promote the absurd belief that the private sector is innately and consistently more efficient than the public sector.  He earned public support in part through arguments like, “government ought to be run more like a business.”  He firmly believed, to the extent there was any concern about Wall Street speculation at all, that this was a matter to be settled at the state level.  His unwillingness to act in this realm was clearly a key factor in the severity and duration of the Great Depression.  Even so, it was through his rhetoric that the very institutions established to create space for Americans to enjoy liberty became branded as impediments to that exercise.

Yet Calvin Coolidge was still a very different man from the sort of anarchocapitalist ideologues the Republican party embraces in the 21st century.  He understood that what differentiates partisan zealots from one another is far less important than what unites as all as Americans.  He understood that working together as a whole would propel this nation forward far better than working against one another across a political divide.  Even in the midst of unprecedented poverty and unemployment, he was not in complete denial about the value of taking action to uplift public morale and renew pride in what greatness could rightly be attributed to our nation.  It was with this in mind that he worked with Congress to approve funding for the sculpting of Mount Rushmore into a national monument.

Of course, President Coolidge was not entirely above the partisan divide.  For his part in the negotiations, he insisted that the monument feature two Republicans and one Democrat along with George Washington.  In this way he showed partisan favoritism without taking the project so far into that realm as to make it unpopular with people outside the Republican base.  Thomas Jefferson was an obvious choice, for he was both the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and a prominent supporter of so many other measures crucial to the establishment of liberty as an American value.  Abraham Lincoln was also an easy pick, since he alone had served and died as a President determined to keep these states united in the face of a real threat to that unity.  The original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, selected Theodore Roosevelt for the fourth figure — a perhaps not-so-subtle dig at the cozy relationship between government and big business that Roosevelt once so boldly opposed.

Gutzon Borglum would not live to see his great vision completed.  Work on the mountain began in 1927 and continued through the fall of 1941.  The man who conceived and planned this project would die in the spring of that year, leaving it to his son to continue the work.  Originally, Mount Rushmore was intended to depict the four former Presidents from the waist up, alongside a panel commemorating the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and a variety of our nation’s territorial acquisitions.  Due to funding constraints imposed by acts of Congress subsequent to the original authorization, young Lincoln Borglum was only able to apply some finishing touches before concluding work on the monument as a carving of the four faces in place there today.

In spite of all this time and effort, the final cost of Mount Rushmore’s sculpting was less just under $1 million.  Even adjusted for inflation, this is less than the cost of three hours of funding for the war in Iraq.  A site that has inspired millions of Americans, a marvel that is known throughout the world, was less expensive than 1/20,000th of the effort made to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with something else.  Even more remarkable, in spite of the obvious dangers of sculpting the face of a mountain, not a single worker died during the construction of Mount Rushmore.  There is simply no way to compare that with the cost in human lives lost in pursuit of eliminating the non-threat Saddam Hussein’s government posed to American national security.

There is no doubt that the United States of America can achieve great things.  We once enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world, all measures of quality of life in constant ascent, while we helped to vanquish the Nazis, subdue Japanese imperialists, and even sent explorers to the surface of the Moon.  Yet there can be no doubt that something changed in our national character during the final stage of the Cold War and the years to follow.  Some of us no longer seem to want rising standards of living.  Some of us no longer seem to care about exploitation by the elite nor suffering among the downtrodden.  The “square deal” and the “fair deal” have given way to the “raw deal.”

This has coincided with a shift in national priorities.  Today funding for artistic pursuits is routinely criticized as “government waste.”  The small-minded among us attack scientific grants as “pork barrel spending” and receive approbation for what any honorable American would instantly recognize as shameful conduct.  We allow ourselves to be limited by the words of the petty and the deeds of the ignorant.  Yet it was not always so.  Given sound national priorities, the United States is a nation that will prosper like none other.  Fiction tells tales of people from a future dark age, gazing up at Mount Rushmore and asking, “how did human beings ever do that?”  I sit in the present, knowing full well what we as a people can accomplish, and ask, “why did we ever stop doing that?”

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What You Should Think About The Wire

November 9, 2007

“. . . until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence in the news, there is no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.”

–Alicia Silverstone in Clueless

I remember being disappointed with NBC when they pulled the plug on Homicide: Life on the Street. Whether I was a college student or a yuppie working 60+ hour weeks or a hippie hardly working at all, it was the one series I always made time to follow. It took television to a place the medium hadn’t really been in the past, and it continued to generate top quality dramatic entertainment right up to the very end.

Frontline did a nice piece on the struggle to keep the show going even though Homicide was neck in neck in the ratings with Nash Bridges. In a less consequential but similarly gloomy way, I felt this made the kind of negative statement about our culture the world saw more clearly in the 2004 Presidential election. Still, right up to the end, Homicide managed to keep its integrity and turn out television that was rich with dramatic intensity and technical artistry.

Nowadays when people think of those virtues in television content, the tendency is to look at premium channels, with HBO leading the charge. The Sopranos was a cultural phenomenon that rightly deserved nearly unversal praise of the highest order. Yet HBO has proven in the past decade that it is capable of supporting many bold efforts to produce television content that realizes the potential for artistry in the medium. Lurking in obscurity relative to its cousin from New Jersey, The Wire capitalizes on the creative freedom premium channels encourage while carrying on with some of the best traditions established with Homicide.

In fact, both programs are centered on law enforcement operations in Baltimore. However, with The Wire we see even more of an effort to remove the filters between harsh realities of life in an urban environment plagued by crime and the experience of viewing the program. Tremendous effort has been made to give each character an authentic voice. It may be that most of the gangsters in the show are portrayed by educated professional actors, but it is easy to forget that fact as they set aside the lessons of voice coaches and stage experiences in favor of a profoundly natural mode of human interaction.

Likewise, law enforcement characters are portrayed with their own occupational quirks and colorful language. In the fourth episode of the first season, there is an amazing scene in which two homicide detectives do a significant amount of investigative work while engaging in richly detailed dialog that is confined to a single word. Variations in tone and context make it possible for both characters to express a wealth of information without venturing beyond the vocabulary of that particular expletive. Gems like that provide a generous payout of entertainment value for viewers willing to stare directly into the show’s stark depictions of drug addiction and street violence.

Perhaps a fair touchstone for the whole thing would be the teaser at the start of it all. The first episode begins with a detective questioning a minor gang associate about a dead body on the street. As the reluctant witness is coaxed into providing some background on the decedent, it turns out the man had a habit of robbing back-alley dice games. He would show up and make small wagers of his own, but as soon as a large amount of cash was put into play, he would swipe it and run from the group. When asked why the thief was allowed into the games again and again in spite of his conduct, the uneducated gangster displayed his understanding of Constitutional law by replying, “you got to let the man play — it’s America!”

The series rarely becomes so bogged down as to lack a mix of intrigue and action. Yet even in its slowest moments a mix of wit and philosophy is there to keep viewers engaged. Both levity and profundity tend to emerge naturally from the story as it unfolds. The biggest laughs and the deepest thoughts come to viewers from unexpected angles, rather than being presented as heavy-handed contrivances.

Each season offers up a relatively self-contained story arc, though it all begins as a detective sits in court watching yet another murder acquittal resulting from a street gang’s capacity to neutralize witnesses. With rampant apathy in a criminal justice system overmatched by the resources of drug-funded criminal organizations, a policeman intent on observing a trial for a case that was not even his own work draws attention. A judge also more motivated than most public servants in the show solicits the detective’s advice on how to deal with these seemingly indomitable gangs. The end result is a police task force that gradually manages to collect insight into the inner workings of a substantial criminal empire.

The show is fraught with events that repudiate the notion of karma. Then again, life itself has been known to exhibit just the same sort of injustice. For example, the apparent protagonist of the series, having created extra work for his associates by conversing with that judge and pushing for a thorough investigation from the task force, finds himself starting the second season with a new assignment specifically selected to make him miserable.

In the third season, a supervisory officer on the brink of retirement displays an uncommon level of thoughtfulness about the relationship between narcotics commerce and violence. While concealing his activities from other police commanders, he orchestrates a “no enforcement zone” where drug peddlers have been assured they can ply their trade without being arrested for it.

Though the project is slow to get traction, when gangsters in the area start to trust that the whole proposal is not a setup, it produces impressive results. Social services are more easily administered with drug commerce openly occurring in a small area rather than taking place covertly on street corners all around the district. The opportunity for easy money provides a strong incentive for the gangs to avoid violence. In the end, the project known on the street as “Amsterdam” unravels because of its own success — other police commanders become curious as to why crime has fallen so remarkably in that area, and the end of the secret becomes inevitable.

Now the days of The Wire are also numbered. The fifth and final season has already been completely filmed. Presently HBO on Demand is rolling through the previous seasons to give newcomers a chance to dial in to the story so far. Also, DVD collections of the first four seasons are widely available. Even if television writers had not decided to strike for a better share of the proceeds from direct media sales of content, this series would be an excellent way for anyone who enjoys good crime drama to spend some time. With the rest of the medium facing a form of artistic paralysis, all the more reason exists to take a look at this amazing confluence of Homicide‘s tradition of grit with HBO’s capacity for supporting artistic freedom.