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Ripon, New Parties, Final American Idol Final - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 7, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ripon, New Parties, Final American Idol Final

Last week I went to speak at Ripon College in the town of Ripon Wisconsin. Some of you may recognize this as the place where, in 1854, the Republican Party was founded.

The two-party system had almost died when the Republican Party was founded. The Democratic-Republicans, by now called simply Democrats, had become the sheltering party for most of the pro-slavery forces in the South, as well as many who were willing to tolerate the "peculiar institution" in the North.

After the Kansas-Nebraska act organized Kansas and Nebraska as free states, while opening New Mexico and Utah territories to the possibility of slavery, many anti-slavery Americans realized that the old Whig Party had no strength left to resist the domination of the federal government by those who would expand slavery.

Many people today misunderstand the point of counting each slave as three-fifths of a person. The idea was not to undervalue slaves -- indeed, the slave-owners would have been delighted if, for purposes of apportionment, slaves were counted as full persons. For by counting nonvoting slaves, slave states received far more congressmen than the number of voters in those states would otherwise have received.

Anti-slavery forces, on the other hand, wanted to count no slaves at all, reasoning that if they couldn't vote, they shouldn't be used to beef up the congressional representation of their masters. So when the Constitutional Convention approved the "three-fifths compromise," the groups took opposite sides from what most people today might assume.

Using those extra congressmen, the slave states were able to dominate the House of Representatives, while they kept careful track of the Senate with each new state admitted to the union. Their safety net was slave-state Texas, which, if too many free states were admitted, had the power to divide itself into five states, going from two senators to ten.

In other words, the deck was stacked against the anti-slavery forces, and they were sick of rolling over and playing dead, letting the abomination of slavery continue unchecked in what was supposed to have been a free country.

New York Newspaper editor Horace Greeley had a conversation with Alvan Bovay, a like-minded friend from Ripon, Wisconsin. Bovay suggested that it was essential to form a new party to replace the Whigs. Greeley thought there might still be some life in the old Whig Party. But Bovay returned to Ripon -- a small town in a fairly new and as yet underpopulated state -- and gathered together a group of friends.

Bovay had already told Greeley that the new party would be called "the Republican Party." There were many reasons for the choice; one of the main reasons, though, was that Jefferson gave that name to his own party. Jefferson's party eventually became the Democratic Party, but the Republican name still held some moral force in American thinking.

Bovay was not the only one pushing for a new party. The revocation of the Missouri Compromise represented by the Kansas-Nebraska Act galvanized opposition to slavery in many free states in the West. (Any opposition to slavery in the South was quickly and brutally eliminated, by methods ranging from expulsion and destruction of printing presses to physical reprisals and the occasional murder.)

So when Bovay gathered his friends together in March of 1854, their first act was to dissolve the local committees of the Whig and Free Soil parties, and then name five men -- three former Whigs, a former Democrat, and a former Free Soiler -- to be the governing committee of the new party.

As I stood in the little white schoolhouse where the formative meeting took place, I was moved by the realization that this was not an assembly of national politicians or party leaders. Rather, the Republican Party was born in a small town, created by local people joining with their neighbors to take action to oppose the domination of their nation by a party that stood for the loathsome institution of slavery.

Horace Greeley published an article about the new party in his New York City newspaper, and encouraged anti-slavery friends in other states to turn their anti-slavery rallies into meetings that would form their own state committees under the name "Republican."

By February 1856, nearly two years later, the Republican movement had grown enough that the U.S. House of Representatives now had a strong group of anti-slavery Republicans, and eleven United States senators had either been selected as Republicans or changed their party affiliation.

At that point, nine states' Republican parties issued a call for a national convention to bind all the Republican parties into a single national party in order to advance a candidate for the presidency in 1856. Horace Greeley was one of the twenty-four delegates that attended the convention in Pittsburgh; Abraham Lincoln was another.

It's worth remembering that in that era, the Republican Party existed for one reason only: to oppose the extension of slavery into new territories. It was the anti-slavery party, and everyone knew it.

No one could have guessed that after John C. Fremont was defeated as the Republican candidate for President in 1856, only four years later, in a weirdly contested election in which the Democrats split their votes among three candidates, the gangly country lawyer and one-term congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, would become President of the United States.

His election was correctly seen by the pro-slavery faction as the beginning of the end for slavery, which is why southern states began seceding from the Union. Voters in the North were fed up with the slave states essentially depriving them of the ability to get a hearing for their values in the federal government. They were angry and frustrated ... and after the Civil War, the new Republican Party became the dominant party in American government until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

(Yes, Grover Cleveland won two terms, but, during a deep depression at the end of his second term, the Democratic Party self-destructed over the silver issue and nominated the unelectable populist William Jennings Bryan -- three times. Democrat Woodrow Wilson also won two terms starting in 1912, and -- because the Democratic Party was the party of Jim Crow -- eliminated all the patronage jobs in the South that the Republicans had given to black citizens. But Wilson was elected only because the Republican Party split between its liberal wing [Teddy Roosevelt] and conservative wing [William Howard Taft]. With these exceptions, the Republican Party was the default party of government from 1861 to 1933 -- a remarkable run for a party formed by a small committee in an obscure Wisconsin town.)

Right now, many Americans are feeling a very similar resentment and frustration, as the Constitution is repeatedly amended by judicial diktat, and the results of democratic voting in the states are regularly overturned by the courts, which are governed only by the prejudices of an elite that simply invents "rights" out of nothing, while trampling on basic constitutional rights like those in the First Amendment.

Resenting the fact that the elitists care nothing about the will of the majority and don't even attempt to build consensus, these frustrated voters can't find a political party that speaks for them. Remember that the Whig Party still nominally existed when the Republican Party was formed to replace it -- the new Republicans were convinced that it had lost the power to hold the line against the anti-democratic pro-slavery faction.

Are we in a similar position today? Certainly many see Donald Trump's candidacy in that light. Unfortunately, we have a long history of "new-party" movements in America, and those that were founded by a single candidate in order to advance his agenda did not last long as a national force.

Maybe in some obscure place there are still committees of George Wallace's American Independent Party or H. Ross Perot's Reform Party; Strom Thurmond's States' Rights "Dixiecrats" are gone from the national political stage. Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party disappeared and Eugene Debs's Socialist Party faded, as did Robert LaFollette's Progressive Party, even though former Vice President Henry Wallace tried to revive it in 1948.

A third party built around someone as ignorant, narcissistic, lazy, mean-spirited, and morally appalling as Donald Trump is not going to triumph where Teddy Roosevelt failed. Disgruntlement parties don't work, except as spoilers, usually getting the opposite of the desired results.

But the will to form a real grass-roots party like the Republican Party of 1854 in Ripon, and the national Republican Party of 1856 at the Pittsburgh convention, obviously exists. That's what the Tea Party movement was, until it was co-opted by the no-idea-is-too-crazy wing of the Republican Party.

The desire for a new party exists; and many who yearn for a choice that they can actually support, instead of the hideous dilemma of choosing between Drumpf and Hillary, need to remember that parties don't need to be formed by fat cats and big money and famous people.

A new party that changes the nation and the world can be born with the organization of a committee in a small town, which then reaches out to like-minded people in other states. And in six years, maybe they can elect a President; and if they can attract and nominate a candidate of the brilliance and deep moral goodness of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps a new majority party can be formed to preempt the two extremist parties now in existence.

The same thing happened in England, when the Labour Party formed because the working class felt unrepresented by the ordinary back-and-forth of Liberals and Tories. America has the habit of a two-party system -- but it doesn't have to be the same two parties, long after both have lost their usefulness to a fed-up electorate.

Such were my thoughts, standing in that little white schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin.

*

By the way, having never heard the name of the city spoken aloud, I thought the "o" in Ripon should be given an O-like pronunciation. Wrong. The name of the town is pronounced exactly as if it were spelled "rippin'" or "ripp'n.'"

*

America is a celebrity-obsessed nation. England has its royals and its nobility and armiger class -- all those dukes, earls, baronets, and knights -- but America, lacking such natural-born "stars," bestows the same absurd levels of respect on famous athletes, pop music performers, movie and television stars, and a few politicians.

We Americans are all aware of -- and many of us are frankly embarrassed by -- the screaming, moaning worship of such figures by their "fans" -- short for "fanatics," it's worth remembering.

So when it happens that we come to meet such figures, even ones we admire, many of us feel obliged to explain that our admiration is not the mindless worship of a "fan," but rather the considered opinion of a judicious connoisseur.

In other words, we wish the person to value our good opinion of them, and we assume that for this to be accomplished, we have to make it clear that we are very selective about what we admire.

I remember the first time I met Robert Chartoff, one of the producing pair who had created films like Rocky, The Right Stuff, Raging Bull, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? They produced independent films that were outside the studio system, and did daring things like fighting for the writer of Rocky, a virtually unknown, mumbling actor named Sylvester Stallone, to star in his own movie.

So when I was invited into Chartoff's Malibu home and shook his hand, I felt obliged to start to tell him how much I admired his body of work. I say "start to tell" because he shook his head and shut that down completely. "Let's not talk about that," he said, and because I'm not an idiot, I respected his wishes.

Why didn't he want me to praise his work? Not because he wasn't proud of it. Not because he had no respect for me -- after all, I was there because he wanted to make a movie based on a book of mine, which is not an indicator of disrespect.

Most likely it was because to Chartoff, talking about his own work was something that happens in media interviews. That's work, and at his age he was tired of it. We were there to talk about my book -- and not to praise it. We had things to work out and to work on, and we got down to business.

Writers don't get famous the way athletes, screen stars, pop idols, and some politicians do. The only people who know about writers are -- you guessed it -- readers, and people who read books on purpose are a fairly small group. You hold an autograph session for a book written by even a B or C level actor, and you'll get hundreds of people to buy the book solely to meet the actor and gets his autograph.

People pay money to athletes in order to get their signature on a ball. With writers, our signature on a book actually decreases the value of that book, at least until we're dead and there can't be any more signatures.

However, it happens that readers are also the group of people most eager not to be taken for wide-eyed fans. And so we get a social phenomenon that I suspect actors and singers and athletes don't have to deal with: The reader who has to criticize your work before praising it.

This takes many forms. The most common is the declaration, "I've never read anything of yours; I only want this signature for my nephew." I'm always puzzled by this.

Did they think there was going to be a test, and they needed to make sure I wasn't going to quiz them about the names of the three main characters in my Pathfinder trilogy? Or the drug that dominates the culture of the planet Capitol in my Worthing Saga? {Answers: Rigg, Umbo, Param. Somec.}

No. I not only do not quiz people at autograph sessions, I never even ask my friends and acquaintances whether they've read my books. I always assume that, like most people in the world, they have not. I also expect my lawyer friends not to ask me why I haven't hired them as my attorney, or my doctor friends to inquire why I don't come to them about my physical ailments.

This is known as "courtesy" -- not to put other people in the awkward position of having to disappoint me. I don't ask. So please don't tell.

I also don't care. I choose and value my friends according to who they are, not whether they have provided financial support to my family by buying my books. There are friends I've known and loved for many years who absolutely shocked me by mentioning a book of mine in a way that let me know they had actually read it. It simply never came up.

It's usually newer acquaintances who can't forget that you're "famous" -- a dubious term, when applied to a writer (quick: name the screenwriter of North by Northwest, Forrest Gump, or Philadelphia) -- and therefore feel that your books are the elephant in the room. They're afraid that if they mention them, they'll look like "fans" and be embarrassed.

They have a question or comment they want to make about one of your books, so they begin like this:

"I don't really care for (Most Popular Book) but I really liked (Much More Obscure Book) and I wondered about ..."

"I haven't read any of your books myself, but ..."

"I thought (Obscure Book by You) was much better than any of the volumes in (Your Most Famous Series)." This comment is usually followed by a glowing smile, as if they're very proud of having shown themselves to be so discerning as to value something that those ordinary fans don't even know about.

All of these are good people who think they are complimenting you by showing that they know your work, or are protecting themselves by making sure you don't expect them to know anything about your work. ("I'm only here because my nephew wanted a signed Ender's Game for his birthday.")

But we writers are not actually famous. We don't spend our days swimming in praise. Screaming fans do not greet us when we go grocery shopping.

Heck, bookstore employees don't even recognize our names on our credit cards. If you're a novelist and no Barnes & Noble employees recognize your name, you are not famous.

So you don't have to differentiate yourself from screaming fans. You don't have to declare your ignorance of our work. We live lives flooded with people who have no idea of anything we've done.

So if you want to discuss or ask a question about a writer's work, just state your point or ask your question. Inside, we're going, "Good heavens. Somebody read that book after all."

We are not going to give you a speech that ends with "get a life." Unlike actors, who don't write the words they say on screen, we write all the words in our books. And we are not offended by hearing them mentioned or quoted or praised.

We don't think you're "dumb" for being a "fan." We're actually stunned to meet a member of that tiny community of "people who read more than one book a year, and remember the authors' names."

Those weird compliments that begin with the assertion that you only like some or one of our books, or that you don't have a high opinion of our most popular book: Really. Truly. That's not a good way to begin a conversation with an author. Or to bring up, with an old friend, the fact that you actually know that he's an author.

Imagine that books were children -- which is a pretty good analogy, since during the writing of a book we are much more attentive to our characters than to our actual families -- and then imagine how well your praise of one child were to begin like this:

"I really never liked your older children, but this youngest one, while she's as ugly as the others, is nowhere near as dumb."

"Most of your children have been ill-mannered brutes and bullies, but this one child is actually quite sweet. You did a good job with him."

"The children of these other parents are all horribly ugly and stupid, but yours, while also ugly, are noticeably humanoid and seem capable of speech."

Such conversations would not go well, would they?

If you want to praise one of my children, I'll be delighted to hear about it. No criticisms. After all, I did my job years ago, and they're way out of my control now. I can't go back and revise my child-rearing

Or if you have a question about one of my children, simply ask. No preamble, no disclaimer, no commentary. Just the question. "What's she up to these days?" My answer: "She's married to a great guy and they have two daughters."

I won't add, "And their kids are both smarter and more amazingly creative than any child or grandchild of yours," even though that is, of course, my opinion. Comparatives of any kind are simply not needed.

That's why I don't really feel as flattered as you think I'll be when you tell me that I'm your third favorite writer. And please don't tell me who the other two are. Even if they're Shakespeare and Jane Austen, I'll still be miffed that you thought I needed to be told that my writings aren't as good as theirs.

And what if your two favorites are writers I really despise? I'm sure that if I replied with, "You think they're good? My gosh, you have no taste at all," you'd feel yourself put upon, and tell other people how rude I am.

But telling me that I'm your third favorite writer is like telling the woman you're proposing to that you only got to her when your first two picks turned you down.

Now, it's quite possible -- indeed, highly likely -- that there are, among the readers of this review column, people who have said exactly these things to me.

Relax. I don't remember who said this stuff, because so many people say it. And even if I did remember that you said it, I'm not holding a grudge. Because I know you meant well.

(Don't imagine, though, that I'm above holding grudges. Grudge-holding is one of my most treasured sins. I still hold grudges against people inside and outside my family who bullied me as a child, against the teachers and professors who used grades to punish me for "offenses" having nothing to do with the quality of my work, against the underling who criticized my work to my bosses behind my back in hopes of getting my job after I left [and it worked], and, above all, I do not forgive anyone, ever, who was unkind to my wife or any of my children.

(Holding a grudge doesn't mean I wouldn't try to pull you out of a car wreck. But it does mean that We Are Not Friends. Ever. And yes, I'm keenly aware of all the times the scriptures say that this unforgiving attitude means I'm going to hell. Seeya there.)

Saying a "wrong thing" about my books does not put you in the grudge category. It doesn't even put you in the idiot category.

Even minuscule fame makes people babble and say things that they would never say, if they were capable of rational thought. I once shared an elevator with a writer I greatly admire -- Gene Wolfe -- and said absolutely nothing for the entire ride. Later, he came into a writing workshop I was conducting and contributed brilliantly. We had an actual conversation.

And I realized later that nothing was exactly the right thing for me to say in that elevator. Wolfe wasn't riding that elevator as a Famous Writer. He was riding the elevator as a guy going from one floor of the hotel to another. The only appropriate conversation would have consisted of, "What floor do you want?" and pushing the appropriate button.

Here's the thing: In social situations, I don't actually care what you think of my books. I don't want to hear you talk about them. It's like discussing what somebody's wearing, while they're still wearing it.

Oh, sure, if you like any one of my books, I think it proves that you are a person of wisdom and taste. But there is nothing I can say in reply, except, "Thank you." So I will change the subject as quickly as good manners allow -- or maybe more quickly. And ten minutes later, I won't remember what you said. Or that you ever read any of my books. Or didn't read them. Because my books are not, in fact, my children.

I'm not going to go back and rewrite them based on your criticisms. I'm not going to suddenly set to work on a sequel to a book that needs no sequels, because you asked for one. I'm not going to drop what I'm doing and hurry to finish a series you've been waiting twenty years for. If you never mention my books, I'll be fine. And, having mentioned my books, if you never mention them again, I'll also be fine.

Oh, there are writers who can't stop talking about their own books. I know writers who do that. They all sound like Donald Trump when he tells us what a winner he is (something that only frightened losers do). I avoid them. I think they're complete bores.

So if you vaguely -- or clearly -- remember having made some kind of backhanded "compliment" about my books, don't feel bad. Forget about it. Because I assure you, I've already forgotten. And I won't remember unless you make a similar slap-in-the-face compliment again.

We live in a society where some people live to catch other people saying something wrong, thrilled to have a chance to take offense. I am not one of those people. If you say something inadvertently rude, I will forget it as quickly as I hope you will forget the idiotic things I'm prone to saying.

And there it is, Uncle Orson's Guide to Talking to Authors about Their Books. It's a really simple formula: Don't do it. Unless you're assigned to interview a writer for a publication that will print that interview, don't mention that you know that he or she is a writer.

And if you are an interviewer, then please realize that interviews are not conversations. The writer is not chatting: Every minute that she or he is talking to you, the writer is working. In most cases, the writer will not remember you or anything you said. You are not friends. You are not even acquainted, unless you also have some association outside the interview.

Having an interviewer turn into a real friend has happened only twice in my professional life -- and unless your name is Scott Brick or Rusty Humphries, it isn't you. So, while being an interviewer does mean you get to ask questions of people who have some modicum of fame or notoriety, it does not mean you can then drop their name as if you were always chatting on the phone with them, or texting back and forth, or dining out with them.

Here's the thing: Some famous people are endlessly fascinated by themselves, and welcome anybody who wants to talk to them about their work. But those people do not appreciate your hinting in any way that there is some portion of their work that you do not like, or that you like less than other portions.

Sane famous people, though, are bored with their own fame, and would much rather talk about whatever subject a conversation might naturally turn to. If you must compliment some work of theirs, then get it over with quickly and politely, without pausing to dispraise some other work of theirs.

If they've had the wisdom to get over their own fame, then you should get over it, too.

*

American Idol is wrapping up its final season tonight -- Thursday, 7 April. On Tuesday night, they had a two-hour retrospective about the whole history of the show, and I have to say, I thought it was really well-done. They did not make us look at very many of the train-wreck contestants, and they also didn't go through the whole catalogue of winners and losers.

Instead, we got some really good backstage insights -- for instance, how they were not prepared for the huge number of auditioners they got for the second season, because in the first season so few people were auditioning that they actually sent employees into shopping malls to pass out fliers in order to get a few more people to try out.

We got a sense of how many things went wrong on the live shows that we didn't see. Like the time Ryan Seacrest walked out to announce the winner -- but forgot the envelope. So he asked one of the judges a question, and while the judge was on camera, Seacrest ran offstage, got the envelope, ran back, and then thanked the judge for his comments.

We also got to hear comments from and about the show's creators, giving us an idea of their influence on how the show went. I didn't know, for instance, how involved Nigel Lythgoe was in setting up some of the stage gimmicks, like dividing six of the top seven into two groups onstage, and then having the seventh contestant "go stand with the top three." That's what they did on the show where Jennifer Hudson was one of the "three divas," and those three divas were the bottom three. Cruel, yes, but also highly entertaining and memorable.

As I write this, I don't even know who the final two contestants are. The top four were excellent, and so are the top three, which means that the two finalists announced on Wednesday night will also be good.

Even though we all expect La'Porsha Renae to win this final season, we expected David Archuleta and Adam Lambert to win during their years, too, so you never know how things will turn out.

So tonight's show will be the last finale of American Idol, ever. They'll put on a good show. There'll be a lot of crying and a lot of self-praise for the show, and I'm fine with that. Because for fifteen years, American Idol has been one of the most-watched shows on television -- and for many of those years, it was the most-watched show, with half again as many viewers as the first runner-up.

Maybe you've never watched American Idol (Steven Tyler hadn't watched it, when he was asked to come on the show as a judge.) Or maybe you lost interest and stopped watching it. The final show is a perfect opportunity to get a sense of what you missed -- or to remind you of what you used to love.

*

We mock the Inquisition that put Galileo on trial for his life, for the crime of saying that Earth rotates and revolves around the Sun. Yet the attorneys general of many states are now planning to criminalize scientific skepticism by criminalizing research that might cast doubt on anthropogenic global warming.

These new Inquisitions are far less excusable than Galileo's Inquisition, because that Inquisition at least had the excuse that all the evidence of our eyes shows that the Sun moves around the Earth, and we can't feel the movement of the Earth at all.

Today's Inquisitions will prosecute "global warming deniers" even though there is no scientific evidence that global temperatures track with carbon emissions in any way. And by "no scientific evidence" I mean zero. None. Any claim to the contrary is based on deliberate deception.

The global warming proponents seized on the dogma because it was so politically useful for the environmental movement, and it was a convenient weapon to be used against Western economies. The goal is to wreck the world economy; and that's why the proponents were declaring human-caused global warming to be "a fact" and saying "the discussion is over" long before there had been any serious research or discussion.

Now, anybody trying to find out whether global temperatures are controlled by carbon emission can't get funding from governments or universities unless they are trustworthy true believers. So the skeptics -- you know, the people who are still trying to do science -- have no choice but to get their funding from the sources that have an interest in revealing the nothing that underlies global warming claims.

Since many of those sources are tied to the energy industry, the charge in these Inquisitions will be "collusion" and "conspiracy" to deceive the public. But the opposite is true: Time and again, we have learned that it's the global-warming wackoes who lie and lie and lie.

So ... keep your eyes open on these trials, because every one of them is a savage, soul-killing attack on science itself. When politics controls science, the results are no prettier than when religion tried to control science.

Science lives only when every question can be asked, without fear of reprisals from fanatics who want to impose their faith on everybody else.

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