Hot Air: The Constant Alarm Warps Us

Had this COVID-19 pandemic been dropped on the world in, say, 1969 or even 1999, we’d be viewing things a hell of a lot differently. For instance, our social media is awash in jaw-dropping and often infuriating stories about people gathering in large groups sans PPE, stores being opened and filling up with customers not observing social distancing etiquette, and even lunkheads turning to violence — or at least threatening same — in resistance to good, prudent protective guidelines.

You’d think the whole nation has lost its mind, especially when you see posts about armed protesters marching up state capitol steps carrying placards calling for the beheadings of Anthony Fauci and/or Bill Gates.

How common are these incidents of idiocy? How many convenience stores are posting signs like this:

This sign, supposedly, had been posted last week in a Kentucky store. Andy Beshear is the Democratic governor of Kentucky, so there’s that overlap. Resistance to pandemic restrictions seems to be confined to the MAGA cap crowd, Trumpists who view any and all Democrats as conniving arch-villains creating viruses and shutting down stores and making people lose their jobs for…, for…, well, I have no idea what in the hell for and, thus far, they haven’t cited any possible motivations for this vast conspiracy either. Other than, I suppose, Democrats and liberals and blacks and gays and abortionists and Mexican rapists just want to destroy our perfectly holy land just for the fun of it.

Millions of us see pix of this sign and other images of enraged protesters confronting heroic hospital-scrub-clad front line workers and all the other bizarre tableaux of people acting like jackasses. We see the images within minutes of the incidents occurring. The images assault our senses every day.

These people, for chrissakes, are everywhere!

But are they?

The internet has shrunk our view of the world, taking this huge globe, 29,901 miles in diameter, jam-packed with 7.8 billion human souls, and stuffing it into our 13″ laptop screens. It has warped our perception of the world. In 1969 or even 1999, no one was constantly confronted with examples of outlying behaviors. Had COVID-68 been our crisis, we’d get our info from the six o’clock national news on TV and the daily newspaper. Neither would carry on a regular basis stories about simpletons in southeastern Kentucky forbidding mask-wearers from entering their stores. Maybe the newspaper might carry a story like that, but it’d be a tiny filler piece on a deep inside page, the kind of story that’d make readers go, Huh. Imagine that. It takes all kinds.

No one would be alarmed by it because we’d see by the story’s placement and the scant column inches devoted to it that it was not indicative of any large-scale behavior. We’d throw open the Indy Star or Chicago Sun-Times and see headlines about presidents Nixon or Clinton telling us to wear our masks. We’d watch Walter Cronkite of CBS or, thirty years later, CNN’s Bernard Shaw demonstrate how to put the mask on. And that’d be it!

Sure there’d be anencephalics in backwater environs saying, “Hell no, I ain’t gonna wear no sissy mask,” but we wouldn’t have to listen to their spewings or see pix of their bizarrely-inspired signs every goddamned day of the week.

An opinion article in a recent issue of The Atlantic asserts the vast majority of us are four-square in favor of a continuing lockdown and maintaining strict PPE and social distancing protocols. I’d guess the same kind of majority would have held in 1968 or ’98. The author of the piece, David A. Graham, writes:

A poll from the Washington Post and the University of Maryland… finds that eight in 10 Americans oppose reopening movie theaters and gyms; three-quarters don’t support letting sit-down restaurants and nail salons reopen; and a third or less would allow barber shops, gun stores, and retail stores to operate. An NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll last week found similar numbers. Nine in ten Americans don’t think sporting events should have crowds without more testing; 85 percent would keep schools closed, and 80 percent would keep dine-in restaurants shut.

Wow. These are overwhelming figures. This nation rarely in the last 30 years — hell, as far back as I can recall — has been so unified.

Sure there are the lunkheads and the anencephalics within those minorities but the key takeaway here is those minorities are vanishingly small. Just as they would have been in 1969 or ’99.

Maybe we’re not as doomed as many of us — and me — fear, after all.

Counting Grains Of Sand

My pal and two-time guest on Big Talk, Jeff Isaac, has been putting his thoughts down in a blog for the last couple of months. Jeff is about as partisan as a person can be — he’s as slanted in his views as I am, for pity’s sake! — and that’s why I enjoy his stuff. He’s the James H. Rudy professor of political science at Indiana University. He’s been editor-in-chief of Perspectives on Politics and senior editor at Public Seminar, both academic serial publications dealing with how our species’ baffling political relationships work.

As far as I’m concerned, parsing global politics’d be a task comparable to counting the number of grains of sand on a medium-sized beach. Folks like Isaac and his poli sci colleagues around the world dig that kind of Sisyphean toil. And if you, too, dig delving into whys and hows of global politics, you might click on over to Isaac’s blog. His most recent couple of posts deal with IU’s and Purdue’s plans to reopen for in-person classes this coming fall.

Isaac’s blog is entitled Democracy in Dark Times, although googling those four words won’t get you very far. Here’s the link to it.

Black Was The Week That Was

I’m fascinated by the year 1968. I turned 12 that year and was starting to become a news junkie. Believe me, ’68 was a year for news like no other. Unless the year was 1969 or even 2020…, but we can quibble about that another time.

One of the things that was going on in ’68 was the continued emergence of black faces on the nation’s television screens. Things had started rolling in 1965 when the NBC espionage comedy/drama, I Spy premiered. It featured a couple of United States secret agents posing as world-traveling tennis bums, Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson. The two were played by Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, respectively.

Culp (L) and Cosby in I Spy.

The big takeaway was Scott/Cosby was a black man. Never before had a black man played a lead role in a television series, except for the cartoonish stereotypes Amos ‘n’ Andy in the early 1950s. Cosby in I Spy played a talented, engaging, three-dimensional, adult, dark-skinned man — as revolutionary a concept as TV had ever offered to that point. Nevertheless, I always had the impression that the white Robinson was really the boss of the duo. Remember, this was not terribly long after movie mogul Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures had issued his edict that no black person should appear in one of his movies unless s/he was in a subservient position. And Cohn’s attitude certainly was not unique in the TV and film industries.

When, in ’68, the TV detective series Mannix intro’d a black character, the two leads — Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) and his secretary Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher) — gave hints that they might be sweet on each other but, even as late as 1975 when the series was cancelled, they’d never cashed in on those feelings. The very idea that a white man and a black woman could kiss or fall in love was as anathema to TV as portraying a child molester at work. And were their positions switched — say Mannix were black and Peggy white — a putative coupling between them was simply out of the question.

Fifty-two years ago, there were no black anchors on national TV news. No black men ran businesses on our TV screens (that’d come later, in 1972 with the premier of Sanford and Son — and Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) was a comedic junkman, not a three-piece suit CEO. The few blacks that got TV work by ’68 were exclusively servile. They were secretaries or nurses (back when nurses were not as independent and esteemed as they are today). They were elevator operators and taxi drivers. That is if they appeared at all in our living rooms.

Nevertheless, whatever inroads blacks characters made on TV by 1968 were eye-opening, earth-shattering even.

For a week in February, 1968, Johnny Carson handed the reins of his Tonight Show to Harry Belafonte. Back then, The Tonight Show was a staple in American homes. A huge percentage of Americans tuned in to the NBC-TV program each night before going to bed — that is, those who didn’t have the set in the bedroom already. My old man concluded every weekday of his life with the closing theme of The Tonight Show, the ashtray on the side table next to his recliner filled with Tareyton butts.

The Tonight Show, February 1968

My Daddy-o was no virulent racist in 1968 (I should add, yet; family events over the next few years would change all that) but he wasn’t going out marching in the streets for integration either. He was, probably, as average as can be for a white working man regarding race in America. My father never opined about the week Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show. For all I know, my father might have refused to watch the show; I have no recollection the event. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised because Belafonte, rather than welcoming the likes of Henny Youngman or or some plate-spinning circus act on the show, hosted an all-star cast of activists, politicians, cultural icons, rebels, quasi-revolutionaries, and esthetes, all of whom were revered for their broad-mindedness. And, yes, that was the term used in those days for white people who thought black people ought to get a fair shake.

Take a look at this lineup of some of Belafonte’s guests:

  • Robert F. Kennedy
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Bil Cosby
  • Lena Horne
  • Melina Mercouri
  • Nipsey Russell
  • Leon Bibb
  • Paul Newman
  • Wilt Chamberlain
  • Zero Mostel
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie
  • Petula Clark
  • Dinonne Warwick
  • Robert Goulet
  • Tom and Dick Smothers
  • Sidney Poitier
  • Marianne Moore (Poet Laureate of the United States)
  • Thomas Hoving (Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Mostel and Bibb (a Broadway singer and civil rights activist) both had been blacklisted by the obsessively anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. The white people listed above, by and large, had been out-front civil rights supporters, most of whom even appearing at the 1963 March on Washington. Some 15 of the 25 guests who appeared with Belafonte were black.

Suffice it to say, that lineup would be the equivalent of, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Noam Chomski, and The Dixie Chicks appearing as judges on American Idol today.

Belafonte (L) and Bobby Kennedy

Belfonte was the only black man who could be asked to host The Tonight Show because he was urbane, educated, sophisticated, articulate, white-sounding, and — most important — safe. Stokely Carmichael, to be sure, would not have been asked to fill in for Carson.

I wish I could say I saw any of the Belafonte episodes. I don’t even remember reading about it at the time. That’s a damned shame. I learned about it because there’s a new documentary out now called “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show,” directed by Yoruba Richen, who produced and directed for 20/20 and Independent Lens and directed the 2013 doc, “The New Black.” Even more of a damned shame, it was common practice back in those days for TV stations and networks to reuse the videotapes of shows; much of the footage of the Belafonte week has been lost forever.

Nevertheless, Richen has cobbled together a doc and it was scheduled to have been shown at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival. That event, of course, was cxl’d due to the COVID crisis. I don’t know if any of the streaming services or cable channels will pick up the documentary but I’ll be keeping an eye open for it and as soon as I find something out, I’ll let you know.

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