Norman Lear’s work was an integral part of American life in the second half of the 20th Century. Television programs like Maude, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons dragged television out of the 1950s and into the real world. As Variety states: “Lear’s shows were the first to address the serious political, cultural and social flashpoints of the day – racism, abortion, feminism, homosexuality, the Vietnam war – by working pointed new wrinkles into the standard domestic comedy formula. No subject was taboo: Two 1977 episodes of All in the Family revolved around the attempted rape of lead character Archie Bunker’s wife Edith.”
All in the Family, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979, typified the clash of generations. Middle-aged bigot Archie Bunker – played by Carrol O’Connor – was a right-wing King Lear in Queens, raging at the radical changes in society. Archie didn’t let ignorance get in the way of his opinions; once he argued that people who lived in communes were communists. The thing is, the old dog was actually capable of learning new tricks. Archie never evolved into any kind of saint. But over the nine seasons "Family" aired, experience taught Archie the benefits of listening to (and respecting) viewpoints far different from his own.
All in the Family was the jewel in Lear’s crown, but don’t forget the highly popular shows One Day at a Time (which featured Bonnie Franklin as a divorcee raising two daughters in the Midwest) and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (with Louise Lasser as the titular figure in a parody of soap opera conventions). Good or bad, Lear’s work was never indifferent.
More recently, you may have heard about Lear’s lively activism. His TV shows were themselves arguments for free and unfettered speech, and Lear supported a slate of liberal causes. In 1981 he founded People for the American Way. The organization’s website describes the ways that PFAW has “engaged cultural and community leaders and individual activists in campaigns promoting freedom of expression, civic engagement, fair courts, and legal and lived equality for LGBTQ people.”
Lear’s life was a long and fulfilling one. In 1978 he was given the first of two Peabody Awards, the most prestigious award in television. “To Norman Lear,” it reads, “...for giving us comedy with a social conscience. He uses humor to give us a better understanding of social issues. He lets us laugh at our own shortcomings and prejudices, and while doing this, maintains the highest entertainment standards.”
A pioneer, a gadfly of the state, a mensch. To paraphrase a lyric from All in the Family’s theme song, “Mister, we could use a guy like Norman Lear again.”
Dance Dance Counter-Revolution – We Built a Playlist Fit for a Dictator
The sounds of the summer don't have to just be the cries of your enemies...
There was a time when, if a leader of a nation wanted to speak to their people, they could just hop on the radio and instantly be transported into every living room. Nowadays, politicians –– democrat and demagogue alike –– have to fight to be heard above the unending noise of social media, where the inane musings of a citizen's friend is given equal time as whatever pronouncement they (the politicians) wish to make. Increasingly, this has led to attention-starved politicians engaging in some previously unimaginable behavior, in a seeming attempt to not just compete with your online friends, but become one of them.
The current U.S. President has eschewed the official White House statement in favor of stream-of-consciousness tweeting that resembles some kind of fridge poetry for Tea Party uncles. His predecessor, CoolDadPresident™ Barack Obama, realizing that Roosevelt's fireside chat shtick wouldn't work with the kids, did something different. Realizing that music is both a Thing That Humans Generally Like and a excellent signifier of cultural literacy, the White House published a series of summer playlists curated by the President that combined tracks from some up-and-coming artists (Courtney Barnett's, "Elevator Operator" made an appearance) with undeniable classics like Miles Davis' "Flamenco Sketches".
But why should elected leaders be the only ones who get to cut a mixtape? What about the outcasts of the global order; the ones who everyone avoids at UN meetings? Don't dictators love to dance too? According to The Guardian, the answer is yes, at least in the case of Bashar Al-Assad, whose iTunes purchase history reveals that even the Syrian autocrat is not immune to the charms of LMFAO's "I'm Sexy and I Know It". Years of brutal civil war has left Al-Assad's image somewhat tarnished (war crimes will do that), so perhaps he should find some time in-between barrel-bombing sessions to reveal the softer side of himself; the Bashar who, like any regular loving husband, sends Blake Shelton songs to his wife. Yes, he may have given the order to shell Homs into glass that same day, but it's a start.
So, in the spirit of the humble profession of providing PR advice to despots, I have compiled what I think is a perfect summer playlist fit for any established or prospective authoritarian; one that is sure to give them a much-needed image boost, as well as providing a few helpful tips along the way:
Track 1: "Who Wants the World" by The Stranglers
Before you can even begin to throw that tyrannical power around, you've got to have the ambition to take it. The Stranglers' 1980 new wave classic should get you pumped up for some putsch-ing. "Who waaaants the world?" You do.
Track 2: "Cruel" by St. Vincent
Any dictator worth their salt knows that, even with ambition, seizing and maintaining their positions can't be done with a clean pair of hands. That's okay though, the lilting melodies of Annie Clark should be cool enough to help you drown out the screams you hear in your head.
Track 3: "SHAME" by Young Fathers
So you've taken power, but something feels off, right? People really seem to not like you. Sure, you might've "disappeared" half their family, but your "dodgy dealings just got deadly", it's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they should be the ones who are ashamed. Sing it with me: "What a shame on you/Where's your gall when it's a shame on you?"...
Track 4: "Illicit Fields" by Ka
Being a dictator can be tough, but it can have its perks, even if they might be a little blood-stained. Mixing sweeping melodies and punchy samples, Ka's Honor Killed the Samurai depicts the grey moral territory of life on the margins, where there is very little time for sweeping generalizations like 'good' and 'evil'. It's a seismic work, and sure to provide lots of cool credibility when you invite some influencers over to one of your six places to listen to it on vinyl. Just don't sound too into it when you're singing the hook: "Hate's well known/It's that love I'm unfamiliar with".
Track 5: "Rasputin" by Boney M
With all of this good publicity, you're probably going to be so tied up giving interviews and re-tweeting praise fromNew York Times op-ed columnists that you'll need a reliable henchman to run the affairs of state in your stead. Just make sure that he's at least somewhat qualified. Oh... he's a womanizing cult leader who may or may not be sleeping with your wife? Eh, I'm sure everything will be fine. Plus, his song is so catchy.
Track 6: "The Partisan" by Leonard Cohen
The henchman thing didn't work out, there's rebellion in the air. It'll be okay though; just study this legendary Résistance hymn and you'll get to know your enemy. A bit of Cohen should also help you court some hipsters to your side, and he once published a book of poems entitled Flowers for Hitler, which sounds like a dictator-y thing to bring to a meeting with Hitler. There is something eerily sleep-inducing about the way that Cohen strums through a song that is so saturated with sadness and death; it's enough to make you ignore the wind that's blowing...
Track 7: "Sinnerman" by Nina Simone
There's really nothing that dictators obsess about more than the pursuit of immortality. Obtaining a permanent place in history, whether it be through building palaces, empires, or body counts, is kind of the dictator thing. But, as Simone herself once noted, "time is the dictator of us all," and there's a certain justice that, in the end, everyone fears. This winding, ten-minute symphony of a song is probably Simone's greatest work, and her engine-like piano playing and rhythmic vocals are the perfect accompaniment to some vigorous exercise; the kind of exercise that you'd get from say, running away from an angry mob. Turn it up, tyrants –– time to figure out "where you're gonna run to"...