Recently, as I was watching "The Music Man" with an impossibly young Robert Preston on cable, I was struck with the truth of an old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same…
Recently, as I was watching "The Music Man" with an impossibly young Robert Preston on cable, I was struck with the truth of an old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Early in the movie, Marian the librarian is confronted by an angry Mrs. Shinn, the mayor’s wife, who demands to know why the library has allowed her daughter to check out a "disgusting," "smutty" book -the Rubiyat of Omar Kayyam. Today’s arguments may involve videos rather than books, but the attitudes of those who view libraries with suspicion, if not outright hostility, haven’t changed much.
While the library theme was woven through the movie, it was Professor Harold Hill, scam artist extraordinaire, who seemed most contemporary. As others in my (somewhat advanced) age group will recall, Hill’s genius was in convincing the citizens of small towns that they were in dire need of whatever snake oil he was selling at the time. He had the cure, but people first had to be convinced that they had the disease. When Hill discovers that the River City billiard parlor has acquired a pool table, he has his "hook"-to use a public relations term of more recent coinage. Billiards are an honorable game of skill; pool, however, is "the devil’s plaything." It doesn’t take long for him to convince the good citizens of River City that they have a moral crisis on their hands. And then-viola!–he has the answer to the ills that have befallen them. When school board members try to check on his credentials, he employs the time-honored tactic of distraction to evade their inquiry.
"The Music Man" may be the perfect metaphor for our increasingly surreal political process. We certainly have no shortage of latter-day Harold Hills. A good case in point is Congress’ attempts to censor the internet. Virtually everything that can be found in cyberspace already exists in books and magazines. But the printed word is like the billiard table–a known feature of our intellectual landscape. The internet is the pool table, bringing trouble to River City and not so incidentally boosting sales of legislative snake-oil. The so-called Community Decency Act will reduce "indecency" when the River City Boys Band plays Souza.
In the movies, we can love and admire the rascally Hill, secure in the knowledge that there will be a happy ending. But in the real world, the politics of fear and distraction promise no such tidy resolution. As long as we allow political cynics to blame gays for declining morality, immigrants for declining wages, the federal government for declining SAT scores, and everyone but themselves for our unbalanced budget, we will continue paying our hard-earned money for phony brass band instruments. As long as we reward those who conjure up demons, we will be unable to attract to public service those who can tackle the demons we really have.