Two Guys Walked Into a Movie Theater

One day in the spring of 2020, two men paid their money and stepped into a darkened movie theater, just as the trailers were rolling. TC sat in right-about the same spot where he always sat when he went to the movies, because it was familiar, and easy, and comforting to always know where he was going to sit without having to think too much about it. SB, after looking around carefully to see which seats were available, picked the one where he thought he’d get the best view of the screen, and the best-balanced sound…

That scene came to mind as I thought back on two recent reads. Ship of Fools, is by Tucker Carlson, who worked for CNN and MSNBC before joining the Fox network in 2009, where he is now far more opinion-entertainer than newsman, and is said to be one of the three or four most listened-to Trump whisperers. Tailspin – the People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-year Fall, is by Stephen Brill, whom Wikipedia describes as a lawyer, journalist and entrepreneur, founder of The American Lawyer magazine and cable channel Court TV. Seeing the two volumes on the local library’s New Arrivals shelf I was struck by how similar their pitches were, both claiming to illuminate the reasons behind the present economic stagnation of middle and lower-middle class incomes, the persistence of poverty, decline of manufacturing, slow death of rural communities, tragic rates of incarceration (particularly among minorities) and frighteningly-high unemployment among high-school-educated men of all races, etc., etc. Despite the superficial similarity of focus, the books could hardly be more different, thanks to their authors’ individual approaches.

Where Brill’s writing is thoughtful, Carlson’s shouts. Where Brill cites data and quotes specific articles and documents, Carlson cites anecdotes. Where Brill criticizes both sides of the political aisle, Carlson exclusively blames ‘liberals,’ on the basis that they are no longer ‘liberal enough’ to counteract unnamed other forces (he cannot bring himself to admit those forces may claim to be ‘conservatives’) against whom they should be more effective. Nor is Carlson willing or wise enough to point out the role of corporations’ single-minded pursuit of short term profits in all this.

Both authors do note the role of ‘elites’ in all this decline, but again with differing critiques. Carlson wags the scolidng finger and derides the lack of success which so-called experts and academics have had in making things better, without offering any credible alternative.  Brill drills deeper and highlights how well-intentioned efforts to end discrimination and hereditary advantage have allowed – even driven – the brightest and most self-centered among us to work the systems and levers of commerce and government to their own advantage, thus empowering the 1% (or thereabouts, the blame is not nearly so centralized) to entrench their own wealth and power to the detriment of all other forces and factions.

Most tellingly, after each section addressing one of these maladies, and after thoroughly analyzing the problem and its origins, Brill cites at least one specific example of individuals or programs who are working with at least some degree of effectiveness, to address the issue. None of these efforts are big enough to make a ton of difference, but each of them is a signpost, suggesting what might work if applied at a larger scale. As an entrepreneur, he is well aware of the power of markets, when they are properly motivated (when there is profit to be had, that is). As an observer though, he is also wise enough to recognize that some problems (availability of health care to the poor or elderly, for example, or useful job-training for inner city and deeply-rural residents) will never motivate a pure free-market. Some issues will not be improved without communal action driven by other motives, which historically has only been mobilized at large scale through government action, or at least leadership.

Carlson makes little or no effort to suggest solutions except to demonize liberals, experts, academics and, it seems, just about everyone but bloviators, reality TV figures, radio talk show hosts and avid fans of the above.

As the current period of self-isolation tapers down, Americans (and those in other countries too) need to decide how to address its impacts. In so doing, we can treat the immediate symptoms and in the process perpetuate the problems that predate Covid 19, or we can see solutions that address both the short and the long term. It is that challenge which sent me back to thinking about these two very different ways to illuminate the same issues.

Halfway through the movie, TC and SB both smelled smoke, and watched in horror as a thick dark cloud quickly rose up to block out the screen image. Before they could react, the film stopped running and the house lights came up for just a moment, then immediately went black, revealing that, for some reason, the exit signs were not working either. In the darkness the audience started to panic.

Sitting in his familiar spot, TC began talking excitedly to those around him, reminding them that back in the good old days theaters used to have ushers who carried flashlights with lovely little red shields over the lenses. “If this theater still had ushers like that,” he emphasized, voice rising with indignation, “we could follow them out.” Standing full height in the choking darkness, he shouted to the entire theater, presumably out there listening for his leadership. “I want to talk to the manger,” he screamed several times, before falling into a fit of coughing and wheezing.

Meanwhile, SB, seeing the darkness around him, had whipped out his cell phone and powered up its flashlight app.  Crawling to stay below the worst of the smoke, he used his light to find others and encourage them to follow his example as he made his way to one of the exits. Others who had lit up their own phones made paths to the other exits, and out through the lobby to daylight and safety.

“Where the hell is the manager?” TC screamed, between coughing fits loud enough to be heard throughout the unseen, and now nearly empty, theater.  “I’m gonna rip him a new one,” cough, cough, “to make sure he brings back those ushers. If… “ cough, cough, “we ever,” cough, cough, “get out of here, that is,” cough, cough, cough.

And the rest, as they paraphrase, is silence.

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