Monday, November 2, 2020

Hidden Places: Don’t Worry About The Government

Talking Heads: Don’t Worry About The Government

I am sooooooo worried about the government. 

Four years ago, relying on pretty much every polling expert and pundit, and the clearly misguided belief that there was no chance in hell that my beloved country would elect a racist, sexist, selfish, pathological liar with no empathy, no interest in, or knowledge of, how the government works, and who would spend his time in office doing everything possible to enrich himself and his family, attempt to destroy any sense that the government was fair and cared about its citizens while fanning every sort of division and harping on imagined grievances, I was feeling pretty good as Election Day approached. Sure, I was surprised at the popularity that Trump seemed to be garnering, but I felt secure that we’d be electing a smart, caring woman who had devoted her life to public service. And I was comfortable that under Hillary Clinton, our country would continue bending the arc, if slowly due to the obstructionism of people like Mitch McConnell, toward a more fair and just future. 

Boy, was I wrong. 

And that’s why today, I sit in front of my computer, days before Election Day, facing the real prospect that Trump will be re-elected, whether fairly, or, more likely, due to the distortion of the Electoral College, or through fraud, and interference by sycophantic judges. Or some combination of them both. I’ve been voting in presidential elections since 1980, and never before have I had to consider that one candidate has refused to admit that he will leave the White House if he loses, or that one candidate has spent months trying to sow confusion by lying about the voting process, or that one candidate’s supporters actually have surrounded a campaign bus to prevent an appearance, or that one party has discussed ways to appoint electors contrary to the popular vote, or that there might be actual violence after the election, and on and on. 

I’m worried that even if Trump loses, he and his power hungry minions have created a playbook for future authoritarians to follow, because he’s exposed all of the ways that the Constitution and laws can be ignored, perverted or interpreted to lead to strong-man rule, when some or all of Congress and the Supreme Court is willing to roll over and not protect their prerogatives or perform oversight. And I’m worried that if he wins, with no concern about re-election, and with a compliant court system, that the march toward authoritarianism and kleptocracy and racism will continue unabated. 

I’m worried that the damage that Trump has already done will take years, even generations, to fix, and that a second term might be an existential threat to our democracy. 

And I’m worried about what I’m going to do in my spare time instead of deleting the hundreds of emails that I’ve been getting daily from Jaime Harrison. 

Like many of us, I think, to distract from this, compounded, of course, by the raging pandemic that this administration has failed to seriously try to combat, I’ve turned to television, even more than in the past, and last Friday, my wife and I watched David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO. It’s a filmed version of the Broadway show, directed by Spike Lee, and it was great. I won’t get into the obvious comparisons between American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, considered by many to be one of the greatest music films of all time (which my then-future wife and I saw in an actual theater, on 57th Street in New York when it came out in 1984), or between it and the filmed version of Hamilton that recently ran on Disney+. If you’re interested in such comparisons, you have the same Google that I have…. (OK, here's one.)

American Utopia is a collection of songs, some from Talking Heads, some from Byrne’s solo and collaborative works, and a couple of covers, all performed by a talented group of musicians, singers and dancers, on a bare stage, all wearing essentially identical gray suits (of normal size) and no shoes, with some personal and political commentary by Byrne. For the most part, the songs are great (the Talking Heads songs tend to get the best reaction from the audience), the performances tight, and the choreography interesting and mesmerizing. And there’s a joy about the performances that is infectious. 

One of the older Talking Heads songs in the show is “Don’t Worry About The Government,” from the band’s first album, which is written from the point of view of a person (who some people believe is a government official) discussing his simple, comfortable, happy life. And it fits our “Hidden Places” theme when Byrne sings: 

I see the states across this big nation
I see the laws made in Washington, D.C
I think of the ones I consider my favorites
I think of the people that are working for me

Some civil servants are just like my loved ones
They work so hard and they try to be strong
I'm a lucky guy to live in my building
They own the buildings to help them along 

Almost every article that I read before writing this piece referred to the lyrics of this song as “ironic” or “sarcastic.” But here’s what Byrne himself said about the song, in an interview from 2019, before American Utopia opened on Broadway: 

It’s funny. When Talking Heads originally did that song, it was a song about living in a nice condo with modern conveniences and good plumbing and no cockroaches. It became the opposite of what everybody was doing in the folk scene at that moment. Everybody was snarling and angry, and this was a young guy who just wanted to live in a nice apartment! Everybody thought I was being ironic with the song because of the lyrics and the context. But I think people will see a certain truth to it now. It’s not a great virtue living in an apartment filled with cockroaches. You don’t have to have a penthouse, but people want to have a decent life. Everyone can accept that in some way. It’ll be seen and understood in another way with the passage of time. 

I’m hoping that, in a short time, I can stop worrying about the government every day, and that we can get back to the days when civil servants do their work, and people in government work for us.

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