Saturday, June 29, 2019

Friday, June 28, 2019

Zack Beauchamp: ‘The Supreme Court, Gerrymandering, and the Republican Turn Against Democracy’

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

 From Vox:

The Supreme Court’s Thursday morning [June 27, 2019] ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause amounts to a blank check for partisan gerrymandering. Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion holds that federal courts should not have the power to declare particular maps unconstitutional, as doing so would be “unprecedented expansion of judicial power ... into one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life.” 

What this means, in practice, is that local authorities get to decide on the shape of House and state legislative districts. Parties that control statehouses will be freer to not only cement their own hold on power but ensure that their party sends more representatives to Washington as well.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

‘The War Widow’: U.S. TV’s First Lesbian Love Story

Frances Lee McCain (left) and Pamela Bellwood in ‘The War Widow’ (1976)

As long as we’re celebrating Gay Pride Month...

Quite a few LGBT+ characters populate prime-time network television these days.  Where gay and lesbian characters were virtually banished from the small screen in previous decades, sitcoms like Ellen and Will and Grace in the 1990s gradually established room for a gay presence in TV comedy.  By today, TV audiences now have a few prime-time network dramas with openly LGBT+ leads and supporting characters shown in relatable romantic situations.  This marks a great sea change from when the female buddy-cop show Cagney & Lacey (1981-88) replaced one of its lead cast members because the network executives thought the actress, Meg Foster, was giving off too much of a lesbian vibe.  Prime-time network television — the kind you can see without a cable subscription — stands as a modest microcosm of how we see ourselves as a society.  And the fact that microcosm now includes LGBT+ lead characters confirms that it has grown to be more inclusive. 

Still, given this relatively newfound presence of romantic LGBT+ lead characters on our living-room screens, not much acknowledgement is made of the first network broadcast to push that particular envelope; not much acknowledgement is made of the teleplay that Wikipedia calls the “first lesbian love story on mainstream American television,” which initially appeared all the way back in 1976.  I’m referring to the shot-on-video drama The War Widow, which was first presented as part of PBS’s dramatic anthology series Visions (1976-80).  Directed by Paul Bogart and written by playwright Harvey Perr, The War Widow appeared in a TV environment that made clear its hostility to non-heterosexual expressions of desire.  As the New York Times TV critic said in the paper’s review of The War Widow:

There probably isn’t a group in the nation that, at one time or another, couldn’t complain about being portrayed offensively, but the award for most battered must belong to lesbians.  On [the TV series] Policewoman [1974-78], they have been seen ripping off and murdering the helpless residents of an old-age home.  In [the TV movie] Born Innocent [1974], they brutally raped hapless Linda Blair in a shower room.  They puff cigars.  They snarl.  They are outrageously distorted. 

Onto this unwelcoming terrain ambled The War Widow, the story of an upper-middle-class American woman, in the closing months of World War One, stagnating in her stultifying life in a large house with her mother and daughter, while her absent husband is in Europe.  On an errand, the woman meets a free-spirited female photographer, and they gradually fall in love.  Given the production’s setting — and anticipating TV clich├ęs to come — one might expect The War Widow to have a tragic ending, but while bittersweet, the two women finish the story alive and together, a progressive narrative ending that other network shows would be slow to emulate.  However, after its broadcast on PBS, the teleplay has only been revived once (as far as I know) at a gay film festival a couple decades later and has never had an official video release.  The War Widow remains fondly remembered by the lesbian viewers who saw the broadcast, but one is hard-pressed to find much mention of the drama in writings about the history of LGBT+ films and TV.

Bellwood and McCain in ‘The War Widow’

To some degree, the teleplay’s paucity of acknowledgement is understandable: today’s LGBT+ audiences want to see gay characters who openly display affection for their partners, visible proof that these characters are indeed attracted to the same gender.  But The War Widow is very much a product of its time: the lesbian leads barely touch each other, and their “romantic” scenes together come across as rather chaste, reflecting PBS’s apparent fear of alienating an audience unused to seeing unreviled same-sex attraction on TV (or virtually anywhere else, for that matter).  One can easily imagine a present-day lesbian audience losing patience with The War Widow’s reticence in showing two women in love with each other.  

However, The War Widow’s story is set in a repressive environment — the American upper-middle-class during World War One — where most of the characters are hesitant about expressing any kind of emotion, so the absence of more ardent romantic scenes between the two women encourages the viewer to question what other expressions of passion are being veiled by the conventions of polite society.  In short, I think The War Widow is due for reappraisal as both a trailblazing depiction of alternative sexuality on TV, and as an affirmative but understated view of lesbian romance, especially in contrast to TV’s more recent and more frank portrayals.

Fortunately, all one hour and eighteen minutes of The War Widow have been posted on YouTube, so viewers can see for themselves if
the teleplay’s oblique view of same-sex romance antiquates the drama beyond all use, or survives as a coy but compelling narrative strategy that can still engage LGBT+ audiences. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Shakespeare Authorship: Elizabeth Winkler’s Combative Reply

Elizabeth Winkler

Elizabeth Winkler has replied to the critics who severely — and correctly — panned her Atlantic  piece putting forward the idea that the Elizabethan poet Emilia Bassano Lanier was the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare.  It’s a reply that doubles-down on the defensibility of the Shakespeare authorship “question” and challenges the integrity of those Shakespeare specialists who took issue with the premise of her article: namely, that there’s legitimate uncertainty about the identity of the author of the plays and poems credited to Shakespeare.  (Spoiler alert: There isn’t.)  The people who hold this historical-denialist view are known collectively as anti-Stratfordians, after Shakespeare’s native town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Winkler’s original article restates several anti-Stratfordian arguments, barely acknowledging the long-standing rebuttals to them by credentialed Shakespeare scholars.  By doing so, Winkler argues for her belief in an anti-Stratfordian alternative to Shakespeare’s authorship, her belief that Emilia Bassano Lanier may have been the actual writer of Shakespeare’s works but had to hide her identity because of her gender.  Winkler’s article is not a clearly imaginary reverie on the status of women in Renaissance England, in the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s meditation on a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare.  Nor does Winkler expound on mainstream scholarship that speculates — and acknowledges itself as mere speculation — that perhaps Lanier (of Jewish Venetian ancestry) was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets or was involved in helping to create the Jewish Venetian characters in The Merchant of Venice

Instead, Winkler posits a problem regarding the authorship of the works credited to Shakespeare, and while she doesn’t conclude that Lanier absolutely must have been the writer, Winkler at least offers the female Renaissance poet as a supposedly realistic contender to fill the purported vacuum that Shakespeare’s elimination as the author has created.  In her reply to her critics, Winkler describes and defends the premise of her article as a “provocative inquiry,” but it’s more than that because her article is premised on a tendentious idea: that mainstream Shakespeare scholars have got it all wrong — and are struggling to keep it that way.

Winkler goes on:

Following the traditions of The Atlantic, I questioned uncritically held assumptions instead of treating pronouncements by authorities as truth. Consistent with journalistic duty, I distinguished academic opinion and received wisdom from fact as I explored terrain on which evidence has proved open to varying interpretation.

So, she presents the views of mainstream Shakespeare scholars as mere “pronouncements,” “academic opinion,” and “received wisdom,” as though these mainstream views had no evidence to back them up.  But the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (official title: Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies) is universally recognized and accepted as a powerful piece of proof.  In this sizable book, six of his contemporaries — people who, outside documents strongly show, knew him in life — specifically identify “Mr. William Shakespeare,” the “sweet swan of Avon” with a “Stratford monument,” as the author of the dramatic works that bear his name. 

None of the anti-Stratfordian claimants — the other personalities proposed by the Shakespeare deniers as the “real” authors of the works — have anything by their contemporaries so explicitly linking them to the Shakespeare canon.  However, Winkler’s earlier article dismisses the First Folio as evidence.  In this passage from that article, Winkler references the Folio’s introductory poems by playwright and Shakespeare friend Ben Jonson:

The Folio’s introductory effusions, [anti-Stratfordians] argue, contain double meanings. Jonson tells readers, for example, to find Shakespeare not in his portrait “but his Booke,” seeming to undercut the relation between the man and the work. And near the start of his over-the-top tribute, Jonson riffs on the unreliability of extravagant praise, “which doth ne’er advance/The truth.”

Winkler goes on to repeat anti-Stratfordian writer Diana Price’s oft-refuted canard that William Shakespeare of Stratford is missing the kind of literary paper trail that all of his contemporary poets can boast.  Price says that there’s no evidence in the Stratford man’s lifetime of him being a writer, but this isn’t true.  William Camden, one of the foremost antiquarians of the time, defended in private correspondence in 1602 the coat of arms for
John Shakespeare (William’s father), the same coat of arms that the poet would inherit, noting that the elder Shakespeare was “a magistrate in Stratford-upon-Avon”; and later, in his book Remaines Concerning Britain (1605), Camden referred to “William Shakespeare” as a “poet” and as one of the “most pregnant wits of these our times.”  Logically, Camden knew Shakespeare both as a writer and as a denizen of Stratford.  

The passage in William Camden’s book ‘Remaines Concerning Britain’ (1605) mentioning William Shakespeare as a poet.  Camden had elsewhere defended the coat of arms for Shakespeare’s Stratford-dwelling father.

There is also documentation of payment for an impresa “to Mr. Shakespeare.”  James Shapiro describes an impresa as “a painted and ceremonial pasteboard shield on which an enigmatic saying, usually in Latin, was written” (Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, pp. 230-31).   Further payment was made to Richard Burbage, the actor and associate of William Shakespeare, for the same impresa’s visual design.  Anti-Stratfordians dismiss this evidence as referring to another “Mr. Shakespeare,” but they haven’t proven the existence of such a person or why he too would be associated with William Shakespeare’s star actor.

In her reply, Winkler quarrelsomely continues:

In their often vitriolic zeal to condemn me for non­adherence to their position, some critics have misconstrued my careful formulations and denounced my endeavor as “conspiracism.” More troubling still, they’ve missed my very point of departure — that a woman writing under another’s name isn’t conspiracism; it’s a literary practice that we know has gone on for much of history.

She locates the Shakespeare scholars’ charge of “conspiracism” in her article’s premise regarding women writers of eras past.  This is an argument made in bad faith.  The charge of conspiracism comes elsewhere: in her dismissal of the evidence supporting Shakespeare.  If the First Folio, for example, is not to be trusted as proof of Shakespeare’s authorship, then its introductory writings ostensibly attributing the plays to William of Stratford must not be telling the truth.  Why would these writings not tell the truth?  Winkler doesn’t explicitly say, but her strong implication is that the Folio’s first pages are a cover-up of Lanier’s (or some other anti-Stratfordian claimant’s) authorship.  But hardly any mainstream Shakespearean scholar would agree with Winkler’s interpretation of the Folio’s texts as deceptive.  In Jonson’s personal documents, unpublished during his lifetime, he wrote: “I loved the man [i.e., William Shakespeare] and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any.”  Why Jonson would want to continue the cover-up in his private, personal writings has never been convincingly explained by any anti-Stratfordians. 

As I said before, Winkler in her earlier Atlantic article presented herself as a open-minded journalist, but she has now been discovered to be a categorical anti-Stratfordian who has spoken at anti-Stratfordian events.  As if to confirm this, Winkler’s reply to the criticisms of her article show the hallmarks of Shakespeare denialism: a distrust of mainstream Shakespeare scholarship, a belief that mainstream Shakespeare scholars (her first article accused them of having “a dogmatism of their own”) have nothing to support their views, and a belief (however tacitly expressed) that the documents supporting Shakespeare’s authorship are fraudulent.  The fact that her article sees the First Folio primarily as evidence against William of Stratford’s authorship, rather than as a confirmation of it, tips her hand. 

If Winkler were truly an open-minded journalist, she would have asked an obvious question: Exactly how were the works of a ghost writer passed off as Shakespeare’s, and what is the hard evidence for this?  All anti-Stratfordian scenarios hinge on a clandestine conspiracy to substitute the Stratford man for the claimant, but few anti-Stratfordians seem intent on proving the subterfuge’s existence.  To quote James Shapiro again:

There’s little agreement and less detail about this conspiracy, despite how much depends on it, so it’s not an easy argument to challenge.  Some suppose that only Shakespeare and the author were in the know.  At the other extreme are those who believe it was an open secret, so widely shared that it wasn’t worth mentioning.  (Contested Will, p. 225, emphasis added)

A true journalist would have risen to the challenge and set about examining the evidence for the conspiracy — if any — before adding the name of another anti-Stratfordian claimant to join the 86 others.  The fact that Winkler just assumed the conspiracy’s existence, rather than questioning the problematic concept, is another dead giveaway of her anti-Stratfordian leanings.

To their credit, the editors of The Atlantic have published five articles in response to Winkler’s, including one by Shapiro who plainly and accurately says that Winkler was indulging in a conspiracy theory.  The editors also link to an especially severe critique by Times of London critic Oliver Kamm, who writes: “Winkler’s article…is a farrago that should never have been conceived, pitched, commissioned or published.”  (Winkler’s reply, portraying herself as the scrappy underdog, takes none of Kamm’s valid criticisms into account.) 

However, the editors’ response to the blowback has additionally been to semi-defend Winkler’s article as merely part of a “discussion” that needs “broadening”; they say that “her goal was to highlight rich new perspectives on the plays and the female voices within them.”  This is a praiseworthy objective, but she could have done that without raising the discredited Shakespeare authorship question and spuriously portraying it as a well-founded field of study.  I wonder if The Atlantic’s editors are anti-Stratfordians themselves. 

Winkler speaking at an anti-Stratfordian event in 2018