Friday, June 03, 2016

What is a straw man?

Sander Gusinow has responded to my response to his piece in TDF "Are Liberal Politics Hurting Theatre?" by asking me to respond on the TDF site so we could debate. Apparently he didn't check the comments below the article before making that request since I had responded on the TDF site back in April.

The TDF comments text boxes only allow for 400 characters, which makes it barely better than Twitter for engaging in meaningful debate. But I responded to Gusinow's response yesterday to my April comment. My latest comment isn't currently visible, I assume because TDF has to moderate it first. In any case, I didn't address Gusinow's unconventional use of the term "straw-man" in the TDF comment, but I will here.

a weak or imaginary opposition (as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted
How my comment was a "straw-man" argument by this definition I cannot say. I wrote:
Good" of course is subjective - but what reviews make clear is that the play was over-the top and strident. "The gruesome conclusion, which takes the discussion about control of one’s body to a literal extreme, will polarize..."
My argument was obviously a direct response to Gusinow's own argument. I guess I could have said "contrary to your claim that the play was passed on for political reasons I think it was passed on for stylistic reasons" but I didn't expect I would have to be so explicit to be understood. In any case, even if my point wasn't clear, a statement like: "the play was over-the-top and strident" is hardly sufficient material with which to fabricate a straw man, even if that's what I was going for.

As I said in my latest comment on TDF which will hopefully be posted soon, Gusinow has provided no evidence at all to support his claim that producers had passed over GIRLS IN TROUBLE for its political point of view. 

Because consider this: no play produced by a well-known New York City theater company has, to my knowledge, produced a strident, over-the-top PRO-abortion play. Or really, any play with the main theme being pro-abortion. So if Gusinow is correct and the producers were calculating that their audience is mostly pro-abortion, why have we not seen a strident, over-the-top pro-choice play to balance the anti-abortion message of GIRLS IN TROUBLE? 

Gusinow claims that GIRLS is a good play - I haven't seen it, but the reviews make it sound seriously flawed. Jason Zinoman in the NYTimes writes:
The drama’s red-hot center is the shocking last act, an articulate debate in an Upper West Side kitchen between an anti-abortion activist, Cynthia (Ms. Booth), and the pregnant host of a cooking show on NPR, Amanda (Laurel Holland). This scene is dramatically clunky, features some truly strange dramatic choices (did Mr. Reynolds really need the nudity?) and an off-key performance by Marshall York as Amanda’s husband. Yet the two superb lead performers put flesh on what are essentially dueling essays.
And the Variety review gives us some insight into Reynolds' obnoxious personality as well:
But subtlety isn’t really Reynolds’ strong suit; nor humility. He could have served his play a lot better by focusing on a single issue rather than trying to take down an entire cultural perspective armed with little but one-liners. 
Instead, we get a potentially thoughtful discussion of abortion hobbled by throwaway potshots. Communism is for idiots; vegetarianism is for idiots; opposing the death penalty — also for idiots. This is something liberal playwrights do all the time, but they ought not to, either. It’s intellectually offensive to dismiss your opponents as fools, regardless of what side of the fence you’re standing on.
So the Flea put on a polemical play that the NYTimes characterizes as at times "clunky" and featuring "some truly strange dramatic choices" and Variety thinks is lacking in subtlety and humility. Although I have to say, I don't know which liberal playwrights Sam Thielman is talking about, who call their ideological opposition "idiots." The most blatantly liberal playwright I know of is Tony Kushner and I thought ANGELS IN AMERICA was pretty even-handed and respectful to Mormonism. Something I very much doubt a play by Jonathan Reynolds would be. Joe Pitt is shown as more self-delusional than an idiot, and even someone as objectively nasty as Roy Cohn is treated with compassion over his death by AIDS.

Would The Flea have produced a polemical potshot-ridden play like this if it was pro-choice? Not likely. It seems to me the entire reason for producing GIRLS IN TROUBLE was to show that the Flea was brave and unafraid of controversy in producing an anti-abortion play. Although unfortunately for them, and for Jonathan Reynolds' right-wing martyr complex, there was no controversy at all.

And that's because in the white male-dominated theater world there are points of view that are taboo  - but opposition to women's rights is not one of them.