The Many Shades Between Vilification and Admiration

Today’s Times (London) features an article by director Dominic Dromgoole on his production of The Importance of Being Earnest being staged at the Vaudeville Theater.

Wilde has also shown us something beyond the chill of certainties. As he knew, people come to the theatre to escape certainty; it is the place for adventure and questioning and imagination. It has been a pleasure to watch our audiences relishing Wilde’s ability to balance several different points of view in one paradoxical sentence. Not for him the hammer-headed tweet, with its partial point of view. Theatre, as he knew, is in a constant state of searching for more complex moral judgments; it uses interrogation and empathy to reveal the multifaceted nature of human choice and human transaction. In an age when left and right search for new ways to express monochrome absolutes, one can feel the audience relishing a few hours’ holiday in a world of maturity and nuance.

Wilde knew that charity is more likely to be found among sinners than among the pious; and that kindness is more likely to be found in the free of mind than in the closed. He had lived with wolves and had lived out his own wolfishness. Each of his puritans discovers that those they thought of as all bad have reserves of the greatest kindness, and those they idolised as perfect are capable of meanness and clumsiness.

That sense of complexity and nuance is something that has always drawn me to Wilde. He uses paradox to show that opposites are not opposites, he resists polarization and easy judgment.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Matthew Sturgis’ review of Oscar’s Ghost in the latest edition of The Wildean. I mentioned the review earlier, but now that the issue has been out for a while, I think it is safe to quote it a bit more.

The joint review of Oscar’s Ghost and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years begins: “These two books are useful– and enjoyable–additions to the Wildean canon…They are both full of good things, novel insights and interesting asides…”

So you’ve got to like that.

“The intricacies and repetitions of the various court cases initiated by Ross, Douglas, Crosland and others can be fascinating, tedious, dispiriting and incomprehensible– almost all at the same time… There is much impressive research here and [Lee] lays it out with a light, sometimes humorous touch…Lee brings a certain freshness to her project.”

It is a detailed review of both books, thorough and knowledgeable, as one would expect of The Wildean. In all it is a thoughtful and balanced review.

NonameThere is one word of it, however, that has been playing on my mind. The word is “admiration.”

“Both Lee and Frankel are broadly sympathetic to Bosie, emphasising his eduring love and loyalty to Wilde at the time of his incarceration–and afterwards. It is a useful corrective,” Sturgis writes before discussing some of the questions of whether or not Wilde and Douglas only split because they were forced to by circumstances, or whether their romance had run its course.

My view is that they intended to have a future together but found it too difficult to live together given all of the external pressure. I also suspect they had a row over this just before they stopped living together in Naples, with Douglas wanting to keep fighting the world and Wilde not wanting to.

I also suspect, incidentally, that part of Douglas’s anger when Wilde insisted that he should set aside some of his inheritance to support Wilde post-Naples (see my previous post on the film The Happy Prince) derived from the fact that it was Wilde, not Douglas, who had given up on their living together.  Had they still been living together, they would have pooled their resources, and Douglas’s inheritance would have benefited them both. If Wilde did break up with him, then came back insisting that he should be set up financially for life, Douglas’s anger becomes quite a bit more comprehensible.

But given that their relationship was never exclusive, and that they continued to spend time together and to fall back into old habits, I’m not sure it is actually all that clear whether they broke up or not.  Beyond that, whether the relationship formally ended is a separate question from whether their feelings for each other ended. In essence, as with most things Wilde related, I don’t think it is a simple yes or no question.

And now we come to the point in the review where the word “admiration” rears its head: “An authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas, moreover, has to be sustained in the face of much terrible behaviour…”

This comes in a paragraph of the review that does a good job describing the complexities of the battle between Ross and Douglas over Wilde’s legacy.  “Ross for– for all the personal and professional admiration that he enjoyed– could be a touchy and difficult character… not for nothing did Max Beerbohm dub him the ‘botherationist.’ But Douglas was far touchier and far more difficult.”

It is not entirely clear that “authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas” is supposed to refer to my book, but it seems as though it is. So knowing my feelings better than anyone else, I will say for the record that “admiration” is not what I feel about Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a wide swath between “broadly sympathetic” and “admiration.”

Douglas has always been a polarizing character– it is part of his fascination. The polarization tends to create a “with him or against him” mindset where anything short of condemnation can be seen as approval or even admiration.

Here is my point of view on Douglas. I think that he has been too much blamed for some things and not enough blamed for others. I do not believe he deserves to be condemned as much as he has been for wanting to be loved by Oscar Wilde while having a difficult personality. (Wilde was often drawn to people with challenging personalities, judging by many of the other friends in his circle, including Ross.)

On the other hand, the way Douglas treated his good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton was appalling. (After Sutton refused to invest in Douglas’s literary journal The Academy, he dragged him into court to expose his personal secrets, bad behavior that it seems he had, himself, encouraged.) He had no excuse for it, and few have commented much on that aspect of it, focusing instead on what the libel trial revealed about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde. As I wrote in the book, I suspect that some of Douglas’s emotional and behavioral extremes were influenced by what we would today term mental illness, (Manners-Sutton’s correspondence with Olive Douglas suggests that even as he was being abused by Douglas, his former friend viewed him as not being entirely in control of himself and maintained a certain pained sympathy) but that is an explanation, not an excuse.

Facebook status: “it’s complicated.”

The more I dug into the characters of Douglas and Ross, the more I discovered contradictions and episodes that didn’t fit well with the polar views of these characters: Douglas as chaos, Ross as stability. Ross, like Douglas, was litigious. He seems to have been drawn to difficult people and conflict. Ross was probably as promiscuous as Douglas. Douglas, not only Ross, tried to find Wilde work after he got out of prison. Some of Ross’s efforts to help Wilde were as ill-conceived as some of Douglas’s, and so on.

But, indeed, Douglas was more extreme in his feud with Ross. He was more extreme in everything. He was a man who was hardwired with poor emotional control (call it bipolar disorder or something else) who was also pushed by extreme circumstances and the combination was combustible.

My view of Douglas is best summed up in the epilogue of Oscar’s Ghost: “Douglas was a class snob, capable of great selfishness, petulant self-pity and outbursts of irrational rage, but… [he] was a more complex, multifaceted individual than he is often given credit for.”

I do find Douglas (and Ross) fascinating, but I did not intend for this to read as admiration.

In any case, I am grateful for the thorough and thoughtful review in The Wildean, and if you have any interest in Wilde, I recommend subscribing.





This is Wrong

When I was in elementary school, I forget now which grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and that led me to read more about World War II and Hitler. I can’t imagine what I read– a girl in school– but I do remember that I wrote a little essay or a book report on the subject. It concluded with the line, “But that could not happen here.”

When I got my paper back, my teacher had written only one comment in red pen in the margin. “Why not?”

Why not?

Everything else about that time is fuzzy. I don’t remember the teacher’s face, what classroom I was in, or what the assignment had been. I do remember the comment. It shook my childhood sense of certainty because I didn’t have an answer.

It might be the first time in my life that I was startled out of a lazy way of thinking. It was easy enough, in school, to assume that bad things that happened in other places and times happened because of flaws that we–in our great democracy– had overcome.

“Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge as representatives for all mankind.” -Frances Fitzgerald, American Myth, American Reality

The moral of the story of World War II was that we had been on the right side. The moral was that we were not like them. If someone tried to stir up such deadly passions we would see it. We would stop it. Our system would not allow it to happen.

Why not?

I grew up in the north, in a suburban school, where the children of Detroit’s “white flight” were raised. We learned about slavery and the civil war, and the moral of the story was that we had been on the right side. We were not like the people who held slaves. We fought against it. If something like that happened in our midst, we would recognize it. We would be the ones to stand up against it.

It all seemed easy.

We each want to believe that had we been in Germany as the Nazis came to power, that we would be among those who stood against it, not those who joined, cheered it on or in a time of great peril said nothing. In The Sound of Music, we would be like Captain von Trapp, who is willing to give up everything for his principles, and not like young Rolf, who feels manly and important in his new role as Nazi soldier.

Why not?

I do not mean to focus my argument on Hitler. There have been episodes throughout history and around the world of fear being stoked, and blame being placed on the outsiders or the enemy within, with violent consequences. Before the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called “cockroaches.”

In our own country we remember the Salem witch trials as an example of hysteria and injustice. Even though it happened here, we feel far from it. We usually go away thinking, “How wonderful that we are no longer superstitious like that.”

Us vs. Them. Humans vs. Witches, People vs. Animals. The ones who need to be protected, and the monsters among us who need to be destroyed.

Are we to believe that we are so well-governed, so good, so moral, so rational, that we are singularly immune to these forces?

It should not be controversial to say that seeing an American leader standing in front of a crowd, leading them to chant that a group of people are “animals” is frightening. We’ve seen where this sort of thing can lead.

It should not be controversial.

We’ve been desensitized by degrees. Birtherism’s racism was subtext. The Wall was symbolic.  People can be blind to subtext, it can be denied.

Do you remember when members of the GOP were shocked and stunned by candidate Trump’s suggestion of a Muslim ban, and how forcefully people like Paul Ryan spoke against it?


That was when he was confident that Republicans agreed with him. He did not think this stance was controversial. And then the Muslim-ban-candidate became the party’s nominee and the assertive speeches about how this was not what we stand for evaporated.

Once we accepted that the Muslim ban was not beyond the pale, it opened the door to accept more and more. “Good people on both sides of the Nazi rally” comes and goes.

And so it hardly raises an eyebrow when President of the United States stands at a rally and paints a picture of dangerous monsters turning our cities into “Blood-stained killing fields. Savagely burning, raping, and mutilating.” Nor does the suggestion that anyone who questions his rhetoric is on the side of chaotic, marauding evil, an enemy to be defeated too.

We’re all in this together? Humbug.

Eventually it seems unremarkable to see the Attorney General announcing a policy of separating children from their parents at the border, even though somewhere in the back of your mind, there may be a vague sense that things like this have happened before. What are you thinking of? That scene from Rabbit Proof Fence?

In Australia the indigenous children taken from their parents were called “the Stolen Generations.” But we don’t need to look so far away. Indigenous children were taken from their families right here in United States.

Is there a similar logic at work today?

In his speech announcing his run for president, Trump said Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”  The recording of that quote is so familiar now that you can hear its cadence, like a familiar song. “Some, I assume, are good people.” Whether you oppose or agree, there it is, an earworm. It frames the debate.

Under these terms, taking babies from their mothers makes sense, doesn’t it? Aren’t we just protecting the innocents from the criminals? Aren’t they better off? Why should they stay with the drug dealers and rapists just because, as a friend of mine put it, the children’s mother happens to have “popped them out.”

There is only one way to say it:  This way of thinking is wrong.

Jack Holmes, in Esquire wrote:

But perhaps the most unnerving portion [of Trump’s recent rally] was the call and response, where the president’s supporters dutifully followed him down the road of calling other human beings “animals.” They did so gleefully, as they once engaged in back-and-forths about The Wall and how Mexico Is Going to Pay For It…It was a sign that the faithful are taking to the new tactics with a dark enthusiasm…

It is painfully obvious that this president has no problem singling out the very worst among undocumented immigrants and holding them up as representative of the group. He wants MS-13, and Kate Steinle’s killer, and all the other worst elements to be the face of the undocumented population. It’s all he talks about, until the only image that appears in his supporters’ minds when they hear the term “illegal immigrant” is someone of a certain complexion who has committed a violent crime. Does it still seem worth debating whom, exactly, Trump is calling an “animal”?

Perhaps, in the short term, he’s merely hoping to boost Republican midterm turnout through the raw power of fear. The risk, however, is that this spills into the kind of fervor that leads people to do terrible things—things they might hesitate to do to a person, but not to an animal.

President: They’re not human beings. They’re not human beings.

The crowd boos.

President: And this is why we call the blood-thirsty MS-13 gang members exactly the name I used last week. What was the name?

The Crowd cheers: Animals!


This is wrong.   This    is    wrong.

If I Ran a News Channel

I have a pet peeve. I cannot stand the expression “the other side.” By that I mean when people on television talk about political issues and describe a group of people as “the other side,” generally as a euphemism for a member of the political party to which the speaker does not belong. It drives me crazy because it flattens everything into only two possible worldviews. It assumes that the only way to view things is as a liberal or a conservative and that what you will say about any given issue can be pre-determined by which you are. It even comes up in conversations about ending polarization. “Talk to someone from ‘the other side.'” Well there are lots of sides, and we have lots of identities and lots of feelings.

I saw an interview lately with Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was asked about how immobilized Congress is by partisanship and she pushed back against this. She told a story about a bipartisan bill to make hearing aids available over the counter that made it through both houses and was signed by the president. Why did this happen? Because it was not an issue that played into any culture war narrative about the left or the right.

We can discuss all the same issues, but there are important topics that we need to depoliticize. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in a recent Ted Talk said “We have an existential threat on our hands. Our left/right divide is by far the most important divide we face… This is the urgent needs of the next 50 years and things aren’t going to get better on their own.” (A few seconds later he used my hated expression “the other side.”)

I don’t have a billion dollars to launch my own cable news network to compete with the big three, but lately I’ve been giving some thought to what I would do if I had. If you look at the cable news networks today, there is a network that has a left focus and one that has a right focus and one that tries to position itself in the center, but they are essentially doing the same thing. There is a great deal of agreement between them as to what kinds of things constitute news, what types of issues warrant discussion as news and how to talk about them. They frame almost every event in terms of what it means for the democrats or republicans chances of re-election. There was, for example, much more discussion of whether the ACA (Obamacare) would pass or be repealed and how it would effect politicians careers and the balance of power in congress and the White House, than what the law consisted of. Same with the recent tax plan.

A while back I found myself watching this Youtube clip of Alain de Botton promoting his book “The News: A User’s Manual.” I was taken with his idea, which comes in about the 35:00 mark, (sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to book mark the video with a start time on Word Press) that the problem with news is that it does not have enough biases. That is to say, rather than framing discussion through the lens of left/right we could frame them through other biases or perspectives. His example of possible alternative biases are a Buddhist bias or a psychoanalytic bias or through the perspective of Walt Whitman.

Some biases that I could imagine, and would like to see represented on my imagined network, would include an aesthetic bias, a community bias, a citizenship bias. Perhaps these would be particular hours of programming– the Buddhist hour, the aesthetic hour…

De Botton’s “School of Life” experimented with the idea of news through a philosopher’s bias in the now defunct The Philosopher’s Mail.

A key principle was that news should target our needs. When a train in France was fatally derailed by a falling rock, we took the view that this was important news; not because we need to know about the state of transport in mountain regions but because it provides a sombre memento mori: a lesson for everyone about the fragility of existence and therefore, of our duty to forgive others, to get on with what really matters and to appreciate what is good in our lives. 

(I am reporting on this late in order to combat a bias that de Botton points out early in his Google talk, the news’s assumption that the most important things are the most recent.)

In any case, if had my own news empire, its bias would be focused on eliminating left/right framing. There would be no talk about “both sides” of an issue: because there are many sides to every issue. And I would love to see hours devoted to these different sorts of biases with watchable, well-informed hosts who took fresh views at the events of the world.  This might produce a different way of looking at the same events being covered on other networks, or it might priorities different stories entirely.

If politicians or political candidates came on the network to discuss current events or legislation, they would not be identified with an R or a D. This would take some getting used to. People look to those letters to decide, before the person speaks, whether they should agree or disagree.

There is, however, other information I would include. We have amble space on the screen and have become accustomed to tickers at the bottom and bullet points at the side. So instead of the R or D, the screen would show information about the politician’s geographic region, what the main industries are there– to give a sense of who that person represents. Additionally– and this is important– the biggest sources of campaign funds would be listed.

There is a strange disconnect in journalistic standards in this area. You would expect that if a news source reported on a scientific study on germs they would not leave out the fact that it was funded by Clorox bleach. It may be that the researcher would have found bleach is most effective in killing the particular kinds of germs it studied regardless of funding source, but it is a factor that people should know about. Not so with politicians. Yes, the information is available if you’re proactive. You can find out that your local senator was mostly funded by the chemical and banking industries, but that information should be made available at the time the viewer is evaluating a representative’s statements. The fact that a particular politician’s campaign was largely funded by health insurance companies may not impact her vote on health care policy, but we should be able to evaluate whether it does or not easily.

Being reminded regularly that this is the representative’s constituency, and these are their financial supporters, might change politician’s behavior to avoid the optics of caring more for one group than the other. If nothing else, it would help voters make informed choices.

I would also issue a moratorium on basing which stories to cover on what is trending online. As I’ve noted here before, there is a kind of story which is naturally suited to thrive in the digital environment. That is a story that allows someone to use it as an identity claim on social media. They tend to be tied to the culture wars in some fashion, often revolve around someone saying something stupid, which have little real world impact on people’s day to day lives, but which can elicit outrage and backlash against the outrage.

My channel would also not report on polls and day to day fluctuations in politicians approval ratings, treating that metric like a value on the stock exchange.

While we’re at it, I think enough channels cover the ups and downs of Wall Street. If you want to find that, there are plenty of places to look. Instead, my news channel would find different measures of economic health to report on.

The main point would be to widen the frame and to view the world differently.

If anyone is out there with a billion dollars to launch a new news channel, please feel free to use my ideas.