Guilty Until Proven Innocent

(Illustration courtesy Edward Camp)

“…(U)pon the banquet of his funeral they most piously do pounce… And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum…” – Herman Melville

When I was in high school, we were assigned a novel called THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

It’s about three cowboys who are accused of cattle rustling and murder. While the cowboys insist on their innocence, a vigilante posse is convinced of their guilt. The vigilantes outnumber the cowboys, so they get the upper hand. The cowboys are hanged after a long night of drunken accusations and brutality. After the vigilantes commit their dirty deed and ride home, they’re stunned by what they discover: the cowboys were innocent after all.

The book is fiction, but it was my introduction to several life realities: warped vigilante justice…the concept of “court of public opinion” … the behavioral trait where people will do things in a group which they wouldn’t normally do alone (mob mentality) …and the idea that the majority in a democracy is not necessarily right. I’ve never forgotten the book. If you don’t like to read, you should at least see the movie, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Anthony Quinn. It will stay with you.

Clark published THE OX-BOW INCIDENT in 1940. The 1943 movie was nominated for Best Picture. One would think such a powerful story would offer a moral lesson to those who would rush to judgment. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, America underwent the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy hearings, a demagogic, Cold War smear campaign to hunt down alleged Communists. Careers were permanently destroyed.

In 1950, a slow-witted man in England, Timothy Evans, was tried, convicted, and executed for mass murder, despite later being found innocent. His case contributed to England’s abolishment of the death penalty. The U.S. is now the only Western nation to execute prisoners, despite numerous death row inmates later being exonerated.

Currently, America is in the throes of public figures being accused of sexual misconduct.  The entire reality show is sad and tawdry, a perfect second course to last year’s election. For some people, though, it’s a form of gladiatorial entertainment.

The latest name to fall from grace is author and radio personality Garrison Keillor, accused by an unidentified woman of sexual misconduct.

I usually walk the other way when I see sensational “soft” news like this. While I definitely don’t belittle the problem of sexual misconduct, obviously more widespread than anyone could have imagined, I’m more concerned about things like health care, income inequity, environmental degradation, and gun deaths. I know only a few details in the cases involving Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken. The reason I’m writing about Keillor is because for many years, off and on, I’ve listened to his live radio show A Prairie Home Companion, one of the best programs on radio.

Another reason is that, whether Keillor’s guilty or innocent, there are some troubling signs.

On November 29, Keillor was suddenly fired by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), after 42 years of employment, for alleged improper conduct with a woman. The station had hired a law firm back in October to independently investigate allegations. Both the law firm and MPR have been silent about the details. Not so Keillor, who retired from A Prairie Home Companion last year.

“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” Keillor explained. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness, and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized…We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”

On Facebook, Keillor commented “It’s astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation.”prairie image

MPR didn’t just fire Keillor. Similar to what happened to late football coach Joe Paterno at Penn State University after the child sex abuse scandal, it’s trying to erase all evidence of his presence, including cancelling rebroadcasts of his old shows, removing them from the MPR website, and canceling production and distribution of his syndicated series The Writer’s Almanac.

It’s almost assured that, after MPR’s actions, listenership for A Prairie Home Companion will suffer collateral damage and decline. Keillor’s already been consigned to the Bill Cosby Memorial Landfill, so this won’t be punishing him.  Similar to what happened at Penn State, when NCAA sanctions punished students, alumni, and fans, listeners of A Prairie Home Companion will be punished. The show, now hosted by Chris Thile, may end up dying a slow death.

Additionally, PBS recently pulled an episode featuring Keillor from its “Finding Your Roots” genealogy series.  Venues around the country are also canceling prescheduled shows with Keillor. Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts was one, commenting that it “finds all victimization of people deplorable.”

(Does “all victimization” include Keillor and listeners of A Prairie Home Companion ?)

Just so no one thinks I’m excusing Garrison Keillor and downplaying this woman’s suffering, I’ll emphasize that he may indeed be guilty of more than just sliding his hand across a woman’s back to console her.  In which case he deserves a just punishment.  But he also may be innocent.  No one knows the truth at this point except Keillor and the woman (or women).  Not even MPR.

My problem is MPR fired him without ever consulting him about the allegations (at least, that the public is aware of).  They and others also want to erase any evidence of Keillor.  Though still a far cry, this expunging of history nevertheless has the whiff of Nazism and the dystopian worlds of Kafka and Orwell.

Once more in America in this age of tweet-friendly soundbites, a new term has been coined: “outrage machine.” But if there truly is outrage, how is it possible a man can be elected to the presidency after incontrovertible evidence of misogyny and sexually inappropriate behavior? Are we a nation of hypocrites?

***

If my wife or daughter were the victim of sexual harassment, I’d be at their sides in a heartbeat. At work, I’ve participated in ethics training. A good chunk of this training involves how to associate and how not to associate with employees of the opposite sex.

Some things are obvious. You don’t invite female co-workers to your bachelor pad to watch X-rated actors like “Long Dong Silver,” like one of our Supreme Court justices reputedly did (and I emphasize “reputedly”). You don’t grab them in their private parts, like our sleazeball president advised men to do (and here, I’ll emphasize definitively advised).

But there’s a large grey area (philosophical, not physical). One person’s idea of harassment could be another person’s attempt at being friendly or compassionate. There’s also the dating game. How many times can an employee request a date without it being considered “harassment”? Three times? Twice? Or should it be absolutely forbidden to request social time with an employee of the opposite sex?

Can you compliment someone on their outfit or hair? If she’s feeling depressed, can you put your hand on her shoulder? If so, does the shoulder have to be clothed, or can it be bare? Can you move your hand slightly while it’s on this bare shoulder?

I’m not being facetious, I’m totally sincere. Judging from what’s happened lately, I think we now need to ask ourselves these questions.  How are we going to define sexual misconduct? Should an office manager now be concerned about smiling at a co-worker? Could a friendly smile be construed as a sexually suggestive “leer”?

***

Garrison Keillor’s guilt or innocence isn’t the point of my essay. My point is that, even before all evidence and testimony are in, and despite his denial of sexual misconduct, he’s been hung by the neck in the court of public opinion. The court here includes Minnesota Public Radio; all those who have cancelled his future appearances (some adding editorial spice, like Berkshire Theatre Group); and various journalistic sharks around the country who smell blood.

The Republican Party, dominated by white males, is completely out to lunch regarding the problem of sexual misconduct by public figures.  The Keillor story is the opposite extreme: knee-jerk liberals anxious to judge, convict, execute, and expunge all traces of a man who didn’t even get the opportunity to defend himself.  And I say this as a liberal.

The idea is to discourage and punish sexual misconduct.  You aim for the bullseye. But you don’t pull back on the string until the bow’s ready to snap. Otherwise, you miss the target completely. And you could do a lot of harm in the process.

 

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A Walled Mind: My Interview with Donald Trump

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I will build a great wall – and nobody builds a wall better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Let’s ignore the poor English (referring to his single great wall as “them”) and the economic and political unreality of constructing such a monstrosity. This is a man who refers to people he dislikes as being “stupid,” “fat,” “ugly,” “lazy” (easier to sling playground insults than conduct a thoughtful debate). He’s neatly packaged all Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. He’s also insulted American P.O.W.’s by saying that his heroes “don’t get captured.”eyes

One would think that, at minimum, this last remark would alienate Trump from conservatives. Instead, Trump has skyrocketed in polls. He currently leads his closest Republican presidential competitor (Ben Carson) by a huge 16 percentage points, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll (http://wwlp.com/2015/08/27/donald-trumps-poll-numbers-on-the-rise/).

What does this say about today’s Republican Party? Toto, are we not in Kansas anymore?

I thought it would be interesting to conduct a fantasy interview with “The Donald.” After all, he is one of the reigning kings of fantasy television (generally referred to, oxymoronically, as “reality TV”). So before his circus act gets old with voters – and it will – here’s my mock interview with one of the most bloviating megalomaniacs ever to enter American politics. And that’s saying a lot.

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longitudes: Thank you for allowing me to interview you, Mr. Trump.

Trump: It’s my pleasure.  I’m more than happy to speak with small people such as yourself.

chinlongitudes: Why do you think you’re currently leading Republican presidential contenders by such a large margin?

Trump: What’s so surprising about that? Look at my competition! An African-American who picked the wrong political party. A coupla inexperienced Hispanics. A coupla Bible-thumpers. And a Bush.

longitudes: Your remarks about some people, especially women and minorities, might be considered insulting.

lipsTrump: Look, the problem with this country is it’s too thin-skinned! Look, whatever happened to freedom of speech!

longitudes: Well, nobody’s denying your First Amendment right to say racist, narrow-minded things. But don’t you think a presidential candidate should behave more professionally?

Trump: “Professionally?” I’ve been at the top of my profession all my life! Do you know my net worth?? Can your small mind even grasp how important I am??

longitudes: You promise, if elected, to build a “great wall” along the America-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration. How do you plan to do this?

Trump: With bricks and mortar, you idiot!

longitudes: How will you get this expensive bill through Congress? After all, this isn’t exactly a pork-barrel legislature.

Trump: I don’t need Congress.  Do you know my net worth??  I’ve got the money!

longitudes: Do you plan to also buy the 2016 election?

Trump: I already have. With a little help from the Citizens United decision.

longitudes: You once claimed that Barack Obama shouldn’t be president because he wasn’t born in America.

Trump: That’s right.  He produced a “Certificate of Live Birth.”  That’s not the same as a “Birth Certificate.”  Anyway, I don’t consider Hawaii as being part of America.

longitudes: Are you serious??

Trump: I certainly am!  And a lot of so-called “birthers” agree with me.  They may not be the best and the brightest.  But they will be, once they elect me.

longitudes: What do you say to critics who have called you an egomaniac and a xenophobe?

Trump: Look, I happen to think a healthy ego is a good thing. You could probably use a little more ego, you two-bit pseudo-journalist. What kind of question is this, anyway? What hole did you crawl out of? Look, do you know how important I am??? What the hell’s a xenophobe, anyway??finger

longitudes: A xenophobe is someone who’s afraid of people of foreign origin.

Trump: Hey, I’m not afraid of anyone!! How did you think I got as far as I did? Do you know my net worth?? I love foreigners! I hire them all the time. They’re great on TV, too. They add color.

longitudes: One last question, Mr. Trump. Longitudes is a big proponent of environmental stewardship. What is your stance on climate change?

Trump: (Hey, I was just joking about that “color” remark). What… climate change?? I love climate change! How can you not love the four seasons?

longitudes: No, you don’t understand, what I’d like to know is…

Trump: Look, all climate change is is a hoax created by China to give them an edge in manufacturing. Dammit, it’s China, China, China!

longitudes: You were once quoted as saying “It doesn’t matter what the media writes, as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” Do you ever wish you hadn’t said that?

Trump: Look, you go write whatever you want, Skippy. I’ve got more…mouth1

(Trump is interrupted by an aide, who whispers in his ear)

Trump: …Look, I’ve gotta go. Jeb Bush’s wealthy donors are dropping like flies. I feel a speech coming on.

longitudes: Well, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule, Mr. Trump.

Trump: Hey, my pleasure. You’re alright, kid. If you ever want a slot on “The Apprentice,” let me know.

longitudes: Well, thanks, but I’ve never even seen your show. I usually watch PBS.

Trump: Typical liberal. Have a nice life, loser.

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Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Appeal of Lawrence Welk

welk show_color

My obsession started innocently enough. It was a quiet Saturday night at home. Lynn and I had nothing planned. No social engagement, no movie, no weekend junket out of town. It was “stay-at-home” night, a frosty January evening with a burning log in the fireplace, a wine cooler for her, and a couple Yuenglings for me (ok, maybe three Yuenglings).

welk

The maestro himself: Lawrence Welk

At 7:10 PM EST we turned on one of our favorite TV stations: PBS. There, on the screen, were three men tap dancing in perfect synchronicity. They wore matching suits – er, costumes: shiny black shoes, tight purple slacks with bells at the bottom, lavender satin shirts with puffy lapels the size of small pillows, and shirtsleeve cuffs almost as large. The best dancer – I later discovered his name was Arthur – was black. The most eye-catching dancer was a tall white guy with stiffly erect posture, perfectly sculpted hair, and a huge, frozen grin straight out of a toothpaste commercial.

I’m not sure if it was me or Lynn who laughed first. I’m sure I laughed the loudest (remember, I was nursing several beers). We ended up watching the entire show, smiling and wisecracking the entire time. Occasionally Lynn would Google one of the cast members to learn about his or her scandalous private life.

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Anyone over the age of 45 or 50 knows about “The Lawrence Welk Show.” This American television program ran from 1951 to 1982. Its host was a big band conductor who had a distinctive accent. The accent was sort of German-sounding, but it had gotten hijacked somewhere by Russia and North Dakota (!). Welk was famous for his catchphrase “Wunnerful, wunnerful!” and his song introduction of “Ah one, and ah two, and ah…” The music on the show ranged from polka tunes to novelty songs to big band standards. Colorfully costumed skits with low-budget props were liberally sprinkled into the program.

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Sometime during the show’s long run, the music acquired the descriptor “champagne music.” Welk even selected one of his singers as the “Champagne Lady,” one Norma Zimmer, who had a pure, high-range soprano voice. Other notable regulars, which Welk called his “Musical Family,” included tap dancer Arthur (Duncan), who was the first African-American regular on a variety TV show; accordionist Myron Floren; legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain; the four Lennon Sisters, who were as sweet and homey as apple pie; frenetic honky-tonk pianist Jo Ann Castle; and former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess – the guy with the frozen grin.

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

Welk deliberately aimed his show toward a specific (and loyal) audience: white, Midwestern conservative, Christian, and definitely older. So it’s not surprising some of the principal show sponsors included Geritol (a dietary supplement marketed to elderly people), Sominex (a sleep aid), and Polident (a denture cleanser).

But Welk himself could be a harsh taskmaster. He fired his original “Champagne Lady” because he thought she showed too much leg. Pete Fountain quit after he was chastised by Welk for trying to jazz up a Christmas number. Fountain was later quoted as saying “Champagne doesn’t mix with bourbon.”fountain

I guess at this point I should elaborate on the “appeal” of Welk for me. Why do I like the show, which is now in syndication on PBS? Well, there’s the nostalgia aspect. This show was part of my childhood DNA. If my folks weren’t playing bridge or at a dinner party on Saturday night, Welk was usually on – at least for a few minutes. My dad loved good big band jazz (e.g. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie). And even though he referred to Welk’s style of music as “schmaltz” – and my mom still calls it “fruity” – it was probably the closest they could get to their halcyon youth in the 1930s and ’40s… at least on television.

The other reason I like Welk is that, no matter how staid or cheesy the entertainment might be, it has a high “feel good” factor. For an hour, “The Lawrence Welk Show” is a great way to forget the stresses in life. I recently discovered that, of all people, the writer and infamous hermit J.D. Salinger (“Catcher in the Rye”) used to dance along with the Welk program. Maybe he found some joy here to leaven some of the darkness in his life.

You see, Welk’s music and skits are always upbeat. They may be corny, but they’re never sardonic or snide, like so much post-“Saturday Night Live” entertainment today. The performers are always smiling and really seem to be having fun. And the champagne bubbles are always floating. Right along with my beer suds.

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