The Frail ‘Rules’ of Rhetorical Courtesy

It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of an insecure and needy leader.

Periodically civil discourse in the United States withers. The remarks of some public officials are intemperate and too many are compliant. Those of us who have been around awhile remember Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 declaration of segregation “forever:” certainly a low point in the American project.  More commonly, agitation for change motivates activists to defy the rhetorical norms of social discourse in favor of the rougher ‘music’ of personal condemnation, leaving little room for finding middle ground. There have always been moments in our history when this kind of incivility gains the upper hand: for example, in the vilification of President Lincoln by even the abolitionist press, or during the 1968 presidential campaign, when tensions over the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the assassinations of MLK and RFK brought the melting pot to a boil.

We are in another such period.  But this time the challenge to civil order has not originated from angry newspaper editors or youthful marchers in the streets of Chicago, but from the single agent of the Commander-in-Chief.  The President of the United States is a full-time social disruptor with an unhelpful penchant for trashing core values in the American canon.  Listening matters less than judging. Arguments with evidence are not worth the time.  Facts and even prior statements are disowned.  Self-promotion dominates over self-reflection.  Our best political norms emphasizing tolerance and a degree of generosity have never seemed more frail.

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president. 

If we were unprepared for how silent the Constitution and the President’s party can be in reining in a chronic norms-breaker, many Americans have been stunned by the almost daily verbal slights and discourtesies Donald Trump shows toward ordinary citizens, neighbors, trading partners, immigrants, the press, and especially the nation’s traditional allies.  It seems that women who lead our most important international partners are especially in for unhealthy doses of disrespect.  Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is our most powerful ally; Britain is our closest. It was a breathtaking violation of international norms to hear a President dressing down a British Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview given within hours of meeting her face to face.  He noted in Britain’s Sun that, among other things, a rival within her own party would make a good prime minister, making a mockery of his role as her guest.  (He later offered kinder words, like a sullen teen asked to ”make an effort;” it’s a recurring pattern where Trump is forced by his handlers to issue a rhetorical corrective.)

It was just a few years ago we heard a very different message in a 2012 joint statement released jointly by Barack Obama and then Prime Minister David Cameron:

"The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by history, traditions and values we share.  But what makes our relationship special--a unique and essential asset--is that we join hands across so many endeavors.  Put simply, we count on each other and the world counts on our alliance."

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president.  Not even an old Marx Brother movie can match the rude assaults dished out by the former reality show personality.  It’s as if we have been locked in a dingy bar with an insult comic who won’t leave the stage. It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of a fearful and needy leader.

Dancing Away the Doldrums

There are reasons to admire any group that can do a complex task in perfect coordination.  That they seem to do it with so much pleasure is something to celebrate.

There is an eight-minute YouTube video featuring  Broadway’s Sutton Foster that I’d recommend to anybody who feels like  they have been mauled by the national news cycle. It will momentarily lift the dark clouds. The clip features Foster and a group of dancers rehearsing a tricky dance sequence for a revival of the 1930’s show, Anything Goes. It played at the Stephen Sondheim Theater in Manhattan in 2012, eventually leading to a Tony Award for Foster. Even though it’s a piano rehearsal without sets or costumes, the video has been seen by several million viewers.  And its easy to see why.  Who said communication can’t also happen through your feet?

Tap dancing has gone out of style in contemporary shows, but its unique combination of rhythm and syncopation against the beat remains a pure joy to watch. The cast seems to be having as much fun in this run-through as they are supposed to have in front of an audience.

Anything Goes works well right now for the same reasons it worked in the darker days of 1930s.  Cole Porter’s music and lyrics help us look past the frail plot to witness age-old skills that evolved from Irish and African-American traditions.

There are obvious reasons to admire any group that can do anything together in perfect coordination.  That they seem to do it with so much pleasure serves as a model of contagious optimism. There is also something to celebrate watching the cast ‘nailing’ the complicated footwork demanded in the last four minutes of this sequence.

In Rehearsal: Sutton Foster Sings “Anything Goes”

Buy Tickets to “Anything Goes”: http://www.broadway.com/shows/anything-goes/ More Broadway Videos: http://www.broadway.com/video-on-demand/ During a press event, Tony winner Sutton Foster tears into the title song from the upcoming “Anything Goes” revival. Shot by Nick Shakra for Broadway.com

Like most forms of expression, dance works because it engages audience members and makes them sympathetic participants. People moving in rhythm offer a unique form of predictability that we can easily anticipate.  In addition, theater is always a potent trigger for empathy. We are mentally wired to put ourselves in the action. The cognitive process of “mirroring” induces us to become vicarious participants in what we see and hear.  This is by no means a given in most of the rest of the animal kingdom.  Humans are born to put ourselves in others’ stories. And so the exuberance of the performers becomes our’s.  And once more the cliche is true: the company’s sense of fun is literally infectious.

Top Photo: Foster in the 2012 Revival of Anything Goes by the Roundabout Theater Company