The Banality of People

Many days I get up and turn on the internet machine and don’t want to be complicit in its hyper-tribalism, or the thousand shocks your individual conscience suffers if you stray from the movie times and museum hours pages. The internet promised breath-taking horizons of information, but social media presents them to us through prisms whose value  and accuracy we question at our own peril. Messages with any nuance, that pay respects to ethical gray areas, get shredded by rhetorical yes-no questions.

Today, I’m guessing Leslie Rasmussen feels the same. She’s the drummer for an underground rock trio of sisters from Dayton, Ohio called The Good English. The Good English’s website is down right now, and a web search about it shows a series of similar news items: Show cancelled. Show cancelled. Dropped from the bill.


Rasmussen happened to grow up in a suburb of Dayton, and knew a guy named Brock Turner since elementary school. When Turner got convicted of the rape at Stanford this spring, Rasmussen wrote a letter to Judge Aaron Persky to vouch for Turner’s character, to try making a distinction between Turner’s crime and a woman “getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car,” to blame the crime on binge drinking of both perp and victim, and to ask for leniency. Why? Because that’s what friends do.

After the sentence was announced, the extraordinary victim’s statement made its way around, a document that will be read and re-read for years, and rightly so. It made people angry and wishing they could do something, and just then Rasmussen’s letter got released (She says she never thought it would be public.), and now people are parsing the lapses in her moral reasoning to try to determine whether she’s fit to play drums at the Rumba Café in Columbus.

It came to my attention this morning because a friend approvingly posted the news that several clubs in Brooklyn that are holding a music fest this weekend have announced that they won’t be letting The Good English play. I guess that was inevitable given the climate full of comments like this: “Please cancel your upcoming performance of rape apologists The Good English. Women are not safe around women who think rape trials are a political stunt.”

“Since when did girl bands start supporting rapists? They are an embarrassment and offense to your line up. I look forward to seeing you’ve resolved the situation, aka dropped ’em,” said one Yelp-esque customer. “I hope your career crash and burns.” “Fuck this band of no-talent rape apologists!” “Who brainwashed them into thinking rape was okay?” “I really hope the Ballroom [Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, in Cleveland] cancels the Good English concert. I love the values of this venue and I know her words can’t possibly align with those values.”

Where do we start unbundling the ironies? What kind of people are we if we need the bar where we throw back a few beers and listen to indie rock to “align with our values”? Do we look to rock and roll – not just rock and roll, its drummers! – for moral guidance? And is it really necessary to heap public shame on a 20-year-old woman in the name of protecting women?

Watching this clip from a show The Good English did in Nashville last year…

…I wonder how my own 20-year-old self would have reacted, to the rape issue, and to Leslie Rasmussen’s letter, not to the music.

At 20, I admit, I’d have joined the shaming. It feels good to be in a mob. At least it’s something you can do when you’re on the political losing end, and people who take women’s rights seriously do take the Stanford verdict (a lenient sentence for a privileged defendant) as a big loss. So what do we do? We purify the tribe by ostracizing those who’ve stepped out of line. We can’t change the sentence, but we can register our disapproval by preventing a drummer who put her friendship before social justice from taking the stage in Greenpoint.

By 25 I’d have had a deeper answer. I’d have heard enough hard luck stories, had morning coffee with mentally ill people enough times, and had a few epiphanies in theaters, cinemas, and yes, rock clubs to know that life is complicated. It isn’t right, I’d have reasoned – I mean, the victim was unconscious, after all – but they are childhood friends, and you’ve got to make some allowances for that, and she didn’t think it was public, so where’s the shame button for people who violate trust by leaking documents?

This many years later I see one big difference: when I was 20 there was no internet! Typing a letter to the editor was a real pain in the ass, and the public reaction time allowed for a lot more breathing room. There was political correctness, to be sure, and a pack mentality that set in extra hard when scrambling for consolation prizes, but the mechanism for creating that pack was a lot less efficient, and its effects less absolute, than it is today.

I’m guessing that by changing their band name The Good English will figure out some creative path forward from this, and I wish them a good time playing some rock and roll at home this weekend. Surrounded by their sisters. And most of all I wish them time.


The Internet, Monolingualism, and This Gorgeous French Movie

The internet did not fall from heaven. Our minds and the social organization that connects them started needing the internet, craving it. And some smart people (lots of them funded by the government) began developing the information systems that filled that need. Of course it didn’t take them long to turn it into a commercial zone, but that’s our fault too. Getting online nowadays is like driving into a valley in Vermont, and telling your friends how much they’re going to love your favorite hamlet, only to discover it’s surrounded by strip malls. What can you do? Kick yourself for not buying enough locally-sourced wool to keep the natives in the 19th Century? Just by driving there, you are turning that hamlet’s hamlet-ness into a commodity and changing that place, and whatever position you stake out in the politics of development, you have to be honest about that.

It reminds me of something I read one time about English as the global language, by a French person no less: “The use of ‘basic English’ by communications and marketing technologies is revealing in this respect: it is less a question of the triumph of one language over the others than of the invasion of all languages by a universal vocabulary. What is significant is the need for this generalized vocabulary, not the fact that it uses English words.” (Marc Augé, Non-Places)

Last century, there was suddenly an urgent demand for a global language. There were fewer Dutchmen on the high seas planning only two stops, Cape Town and Jakarta, and reasonably expecting to get through it all knowing Dutch and one other European language. Global trade and tourism made people hop across colonial empire lines like never before, and English was the last language standing among the European ones.

And so we who grew up more or less Monolingual-English wield our language like a credit card, corrupting everything we touch. We figure, if it’s going to supersede local idioms around the world then we might as well get on board and celebrate what English can do: its greatest hits as we understand them. Whitman, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Seamus Heaney, Joni Mitchell, Woody Allen, and the God-damned Coen Brothers for that matter.



The “Ordem e Progresso” motto on the Brazilian flag is inspired by August Comte, the French grandfather of sociology. The founders of Brazil apparently thought he was a guiding light the way Jefferson and Adams were woozy over the Enlightenment. Who would have thought, back in the 1700s when the Portuguese were already has-been imperialists, that the Portuguese language, via Brazil, would still be pulling respectable numbers well into the 2000s, while the English-French dogfight would already be decided.

Why did I start this post with a trailer to Olivier Assayas’ film, Something In the Air/Apres mai? Because it’s fantastic. His love of cinema is infectious. His politicized high school seniors in post-May ’68 Paris remind me of the student activists I went to Rutgers University with – if you traced time in a line from ’68 to now, then that was around the midpoint. “The revolution” was as old then as my Rutgers memories are now, but they seem to me like all a part of the same past: the same righteousness, the same judgment, the same chafing at the dull guidance of Trotskyist would-be mentors, the same icy glow in the red-headed woman’s eyes when she talks about the cause, the same narcissism, and the same fleeting moments of kindness.

What makes them one past, in part, is admittedly my affinity for Assayas. Irma Vep made me want to make films, and I’d rather see a just-alright one of his films than a good one by most people. Personal gratitude is a more than legitimate reason to love a pice of art.

Partly, though, both of our stories were of the pre-Internet Eden: the time before someone figured out that the public would love to put their address books into their Texas Instruments calculators and make them interface. I don’t just mean the gorgeous image of a woman smoking while working a Mimeograph machine. One’s social life got torn apart every two to four years, and hence life, which always feels epic to young people, was even more so because it was full of finalities. Letters got missed when you switched apartments. Someone might call your mother to get your current phone number: She’d take a message unless she remembered meeting them. If you visited friends in another town, you might meet them at the fountain in Grant Park or the news stand in Harvard Square, and calmly wasted time with a paperback while you waited for them. When I left college and moved to Minneapolis, good-bye meant au revoir.

It’s too bad it’s so expensive to shoot period films, because writing a screenplay set in that Eden is so much easier. You don’t say to yourself, “Wait a sec. She would just text. He would just google. Where’s her phone? She would have gone back and gotten it.” There are still dramatic, and even epic, stories to tell, we just don’t live them with the same effortlessness any more. Our default settings are so much cooler.