One of the first records I bought was Imagine by John Lennon and like him, I’ve always been a dreamer. I’ve always believed the world could be a better place. His life like other great dreamers was cut short by violence.
“Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.” – John Lennon
Martin Luther King had a dream, was also shot dead, and whilst he precipitated change in his country, yet the work goes on. Black Lives Matter shows the need to keep at it, that progress is not instant but builds a head of steam and gathers momentum. It took 46 years from MLK’s “I have a dream” speech until Barack Obama became the first black President.
Eight years before MLK’s speech Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus back in 1955. Nine months before Parks, a 15-year-old teenager, Claudette Colvin did the same. These women had had enough of being pushed around and treated as second class because of both the colour of their skin and their sex – double discrimination and oppression, because “we don’t live single issue lives” – Audre Lorde.
The Tipping Point
The 1969 Stonewall Inn riots that kicked off the LGBTPride movement were actually the third resistance event in a US city against Police homophobia and transphobia (LA, 1959; San Francisco, 1966), but the tide had turned. The people fought back.
Other movements like #MeToo, #GenderPayGap, and #MarchForOurLives – one of the biggest youth protests since Vietnam, create momentum and a tipping point when people say enough is enough.
What inspires me to keep going in my activism is both the history of past examples: Lennon, MLK, Rosa Parks, and Audre Lorde:
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
But also the role models of now. Like Parkland, Florida’s amazing Emma Gonzalez or Malala Yousafzai:
“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
“If one man can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?”
We haven’t arrived, there is more to do
We haven’t yet reached the tipping point on, for example, FGM, for which there’s not been a single successful prosecution yet in the UK.
For a supposedly developed, civilised world we are in a mess. There remains so much more to be done on people trafficking, on equality and diversity, on mental health compassion and advocacy, on welcoming refugees and migrants, on giving everyone similar educational opportunities, on ending gun violence.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Be different, be the one and not the many, and make a difference
Being able to reflect on history means I know that change can and does happen, and each time it began with one person. A past relative of mine wrote the speeches for William Wilberforce in the UK to end slavery, another worked as a spy and interpreter alongside Tito in Yugoslavia with the resistance against the Nazis.
We can make a difference, and it begins often with a small act of resistance and others then joining you. Be the person who says “enough is enough”, and “now is the time”.
We can be the change:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi
And we should not wait:
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama
OK, so that was a somewhat clickbait title, one hopes it’s no more than a war of words but the decision to block the BBC, CNN, NYT and more from a press briefing on Friday marks an escalation in this media war. Since Donald Trump‘s speeches can make as much logical or grammatical sense as Yoda but without the wisdom or the Force, it can be hard to ascertain what is true or false, or even meant.
He often says something forwards, pausing part way through to rinse, repeat, recycle a few words, then repeat it in reverse. His favourite words at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) speechincluded “great” (x33), “America/n” (x31), “very” (x26), “the people” (x18), “fake” (x13), and “bad” (x11).
Using ill-thought language and policy acts as an accelerant to the incendiary nature of xenophobia and may have already resulted in the shooting of two men from India in Kansas. It may too early to say or a connective leap too far but surely incidents such as this are similar to the post-Brexit rise in hate crime. The difference is that American hate crime is armed with guns.
Winning the war
The US President says he’s not about the words, but about the actions, he is going to win a war, against the media, Muslims, and Mexicans. Whilst the was against the media is only a metaphor he has nonetheless come out guns blazing. To top his monosyllabic rhetoric against the press his Press Secretary has just barred the BBC, CNN, the New York Times, and others from a White House briefing.
At the same time, Nigel Farage has endorsed Trump’s attitude towards mainstream media, telling Fox News:
“They are simply not prepared to accept that … that Trump happened, they kind of want to turn the clock back. And what they don’t realise is they are losing viewers, they are losing listeners, they are losing this battle big time and I’m pleased the president is not afraid to stand up to them.”
Trump has also said that he will “obliterate ISIS” and his language sometimes sounds like he could quite possibly go after Iran and North Korea at this rate. He uses the language of a sports team that has not won a match for seasons – it’s not a game Donald!
“We don’t win anymore. When was the last time we won? Did we win a war? Did we win anything? Do we win anything? Do we win anything? We’re going to win. We’re going to win big, folks. We’re going to start winning again.” – Donald Trump, CPAC
How? By “putting in a massive budget request for our beloved military.”
“We will be substantially upgrading all of our military, all of our military, offensive, defensive, everything. Bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and hopefully we’ll never have to use it, but nobody’s going to mess with us, folks. Nobody. It will be one of the greatest military buildups in American history. No one will dare question, as they have been, because we’re very depleted, very, very depleted sequester. Sequester. Nobody will question our military might again.” – Donald Trump, CPAC
If you can make sense of the “very depleted, very, very depleted sequester. Sequester.” – well done, you speak Trump! I clearly don’t
Fake News and Phoney Sources
The Donald decries fake news but seems to be the source of much of it. When challenged at a Press briefing about his allegedly best electoral college margin claim (not true, Obama and others were bigger) he replied to NBC’s Peter Alexander with:
“I was given that information, I don’t know. I was just given that information. It was a very, very big margin. Well I don’t know, I was given that information. Actually, I’ve seen that information around…”
“we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake. Phony. Fake. A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none.” – Donald Trump, CPAC
He went on to say that journalists should reveal their sources, perhaps presidents should too…
Like BBC fact checking sites, the Pulitzer prizewinning US PolitiFact website maintains a truthometer scorecard on Obama and Trump. Well, so far, he is speaking about 30% truth – and that’s generous including the half-truths. Blatantly false or lies account for 50% of his statements and a further 19% are mostly-false.
And he’s still reiterating his Sweden claim!
“Take a look at what happened in Sweden. I love Sweden. Great country, great people, I love Sweden. They understand I’m right. The people there understand I’m right. Take a look at what’s happening in Sweden.” – Donald Trump, CPAC
This is a week after everyone including the Swedes ridiculed the claim. Earlier, at CPAC, Kellyanne Conway said of Donald Trump that “He’s a man who just absorbs information”!
White House Correspondents’ Dinner
President Obama attended all 8 of his Correspondents’ Dinners for the annual comedic roasting and celebration of a free press. Not just a few times Obama poked fun at “the Donald” (2011, 2016). So it comes as no surprise then that Trump turned down the invite in 2016 and has already indicated as sitting president that he will not attend in 2017. It should be a media field day, except perhaps for Fox News. Obama celebrated a free press as joint partners in their common goal to:
“Root our public discourse in the truth. To open the doors of this democracy. To do whatever we can to make our country and our world more free and more just.” – Barack Obama
When he’s not brandishing Muslims and Mexicans as terrorists, illegals and criminal aliens, they are just “bad dudes”. This is like Bart Simpson running America – do people not realise that programme was satire?
“And remember, we are getting the bad ones out. These are bad dudes. We’re getting the bad ones out. Okay? We’re getting the bad — if you watch these people, it’s like oh, gee, that’s so sad. We were getting bad people out of this country. People who shouldn’t be, whether it’s drugs or murder. We’re getting bad ones out. They’re the ones that go first.” – Donald Trump, CPAC
The bad ones “go first”, does that mean the good ones will follow? Is this reminiscent of anything?
We’re going to build a wall…way soon
“we’re going to build a wall, don’t worry about it. We’re building the wall. We’re building the wall. In fact, it’s going to start soon. Way ahead of schedule. Way ahead of schedule. Way, way, way ahead of schedule.” – Donald Trump, CPAC
For the full “way out” text of President Trump‘s speech at CPAC see the transcript here.
Today is Martin Luther King Day, celebrated on the third Monday in January since 1986 (Reagan agreed it in 1983), his birthday was on the 15th. Born in 1929 to a pastor and a schoolteacher, he himself became a Baptist minister and advocate for African American equality and social justice from the 1950s through to his 1968 assassination. He was instrumental in the bringing in of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Mahatma Gandhi & Non-Violence
King was inspired by the Hindu lawyer and campaigner for rights in South Africa and India, Mahatma Gandhi, and his principles of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience over and against armed uprising. Gandhi was also an advocate of religious tolerance but was in the end also assassinated, in 1948, by a Hindu nationalist. King managed to visit India in 1959.
Gandhi had succeeded in the 1920s in uniting Muslims and Hindus against the common enemy of the British empire. Yet by the 1940s an independent Muslim nationalism led to the eventual division of India and creation of a separate Pakistan.
Some of Gandhi’s more extreme pacifist views included recommending that Britain openly yield to Hitler rather than defend itself, and that the Jews should have willingly surrendered to the Holocaust as an act of collective suicide. He did not support the idea of the state of Israel gained through violence or Zionism, but only as something within the gift of the Arabs to bring about peacefully.
Gandhi’s principles meshed with King’s own Christian principles, as he said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Another early source that energized King was the Christian anarchist and novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was also an influence on Gandhi.
Bayard Rustin, Gay Communist
Bayard Rustin was a sometime adviser to Martin Luther King and had also visited India, in 1948, not long after Gandhi’s assassination. He shared both Gandhi and King’s principles of non-violence. King’s involvement with him was discouraged by others due to Rustin’s former membership of the Communist Party and his homosexuality, which King had little problem with.
Rustin later became a gay rights activist, in addition to his earlier civil rights campaigning. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The journey towards civil rights was more of a bus route, with lots of stops and delays. Rustin had been beaten and arrested back in 1942 for sitting in the second row of a segregated bus.
Thirteen years later, in March 1955, 15 year-old school girl, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on a in Montgomery bus. Due to Colvin’s unmarried and pregnant status the civil rights activists waited for a better test case and were rewarded with the defiance of the now famous Rosa Parks who was arrested later that year, in December, for also refusing to give up her seat.
The 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott ensued, which whilst planned by others was publicly led by King, and resulted in his house being firebombed.
“All men are created equal”
The path to equality culminated in the quarter-million strong 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, predominantly organised by Rustin. Despite its being unprecedented in size and diversity, it was boycotted itself by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam for being too soft and sanitised, promoting peaceful harmony and integration rather than strength and independent identity.
The iconic “I have a dream” speech, much of which may have been improvised on the spot, includes the famous and inspirational line:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”
Whilst King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and indeed the Nation of Islam, fought for black equal rights, the case for full civil equal rights for “all men” continues. LGBTI equality, for example, has been the focus of the last decade of legal progress in the USA, something that Rustin fought for until his death in 1987.
King’s Assassination and Death
King was ever the optimist, preaching love over hate, peace over war, forgiveness over resentment.
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
It was a belief that may have cost him his life, and not a little opposition from other members of the civil rights movement. After President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, King said to his wife, Coretta: “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.” Five years later, he did indeed suffer the same fate.
Black Lives Matter
Despite all the progress, the reality on the ground, is that black lives are still not considered equal. The last year or two has seen so many cases of unarmed black men being shot dead by American police officers that it is clear that stereotypes persist in the minds of many. 980 US citizens were shot dead in 2015 by police, 91 were unarmed and a disproportionate 37 of them were black.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
The laws may have changed half a century ago, but it is hearts and minds that still need to be won, in this generation and in every one that succeeds it. King may have been a pacifist, but he was not passive about change, and how it was to be accomplished:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals…Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”
STOP PRESS: Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear team to return
But on Amazon Prime online video streaming in 2016 not the BBC. Meanwhile Top Gear will return to the BBC but with a different team. The schadenfreude is palpable as the BBC reports on their own loss of a profitable though oft inappropriate franchise.
In an Amazon statement, Jeremy Clarkson said:
“I feel like I’ve climbed out of a biplane and into a spaceship.”
Richard Hammond quipped:
“Amazon? Oh yes. I have already been there. I got bitten by a bullet ant.”
James May saw the perhaps double irony:
“We have become part of the new age of smart TV. Ironic, isn’t it?”
BBC suspends Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson amid mass Change.org petition
Whatever the “fracas” and nature of petulant millionaire star twat Jeremy Clarkson‘s “interaction” with a BBC producer, there’s nothing like a Top Gear fiasco (one of many over the years) to get the nation raging along with over 1 million signatories on a Change.org petition delivered this week by self-propelled big gun, aka tank (probably the slowest vehicle to appear in relation to Top Gear), to BBC HQ. It is just such a shame that this is what energises us and not more significant world matters.
Clarkson hinted that he was on the way out and had no fear, now that the internal inquiry is over – though not published, in berating his BBC bosses with a f*** laden foul-mouthed tirade at their idiocy at potentially ruining the Top Gear formula.
Diverse Top Gear Replacements
Suggestions to replace him have included Sue Perkins, Julian Clary, and Alan Partridge. Whilst they are all comedians, at least Perkins would not be sexist (towards women at least), neither she nor Clary would be homophobic, and any of Partridge’s foreign jokes would be obvious parody and satire. Other comedians who’ve appeared in the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car race around the Top Gear test track have included Eddie Izzard, Omid Djalili, and Sanjeev Bhaskar – all of whom would counter the alleged racism of the show.
Having Ellen MacArthur, Jennifer Saunders, or Jodie Kidd, on as the fastest women on the track would prove it doesn’t need 3 blokey blokes to present it – although that is the formula to date, and a politically correct presenter team would be as bad as the minimum female comedienne to be included on all panel shows which smacks of tokenism and harms female comedians standing in their own right.
Top Gear Matters to the BBC
Forget the impending General Election, Islamic State, Boko Haram, austerity crisis, the real serious issues of the day are the state of England cricket team – actually, that is pretty bad – and Clarkson’s latest open mouth (insert foot, boot, and massive car) bad boy laddish humour, allegedly watched by an audience almost equally split between men and women (60:40).
Top Gear, Clarkson, and his 4.63m twitter followers, are the BBC’s greatest export (yes, bigger than Doctor Who), greatest that is in financial rather than cultural terms. Bedder 6, as the anonymous company is called, helps to draw in £150m a year for BBC Worldwide from Top Gear from 150-350m viewers across 170 countries and spin-offs.
Just this week it was announced that in December Top Gear had somehow been cleared by the BBC of using “pikey” in a derogatory manner, to the utter dismay of representatives of Traveller communities.
The show is often no-holds-barred macho-masculine pub banter comedy that has comprised insults around race, nationality, sex, and disability. Just read some of Clarkson’s own attempts to be positive about women and yet explain the lack of female representation on the show itself:
“if one presenter on a show is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed heterosexual boy, the other must be a black Muslim lesbian. Chalk and cheese, they reckon, works. But here we have Top Gear setting new records after six years using cheese and cheese. It confuses them… Unlike furious thin-lipped feminists, I tend not to draw distinctions between men and women, apart from in bed where you really do need to spot the differences. At work, girls are just people.”
Conservative MP Maria Miller, has offered support for Clarkson, despite her being a former Disability, Women and Equality Minister. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The World at One, she said:
“The BBC needs to be better at managing its talent … there are other organisations that have to deal with larger-than-life characters…[he] is…a legend, not just in this country, but around the world.”
Legends, however, are extinct people, like the dinosaurs, something that Clarkson himself, in his column in The Sun, admits to being.
“The fact is that you can sign as many petitions as you like and call on the support of politicians from all sides, but the day must come when you have to wave goodbye to the big monsters and move on… I think it’s fair to say that nature made a mistake when it invented the dinosaur. It was too big, too violent. So one day, all the dinosaurs died and now, many years later, no one mourns their passing. These big, imposing creatures have no place in a world which has moved on.”
Does this mean that Clarkson should go the way of the dinosaurs and gas-guzzling cars? That a petition to reinstate him is as pointless as one to bring back Terry Pratchett – however, wonderful a tribute to the latter author?
Change.org Petition to #BringBackClarkson
A record making petition on Change.org had accelerated to nearly 600,000 signatures in barely a day (now over 1,112,000), easily eclipsing more political or ethical campaigns such as the pardon for 49,000 gay men prosecuted in the UK for acts now considered legal. The site’s popularity is such that I could not even get on to it to check the count at 10pm Wednesday night, as it was down with an “Error 502 Bad Gateway” , unless that was some political ploy due to the embarrassment of its success. Well it’s back now, seemingly the site is crashing under Clarkson’s popularity, and advocating the “Freedom to fracas” and with comments including:
“I pay my TV license to ensure that irreverent people can express themselves. If you become boarding [sic] and politically correct, you may disappear BBC.” and “A minority of over sensitive people should not ruin one of Britons [sic] favourite shows.”
I wouldn’t call allegedly hitting a producer over a lack of hot food and xenophobically referencing his Irish nationality, an act of irreverence nor suspending someone for that act, “over sensitive”. That the two most popular comments both had spelling mistakes should not lead anyone to any stereotypical conclusion. They were probably texting whilst driving their fast cars!
BBC Public Service Priorities
As a public service broadcaster with essentially a tax or compulsory licence fee, the BBC’s priorities should not be mere entertainment or subsidised insults.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama
The limits of Satire, Comedy & Humour
In my past I’ve enjoyed Top Gear, some of the banter and car challenges, but I’ve squirmed at the sexist racist humour Humour is one thing, the question is whether it’s actually deeply held bigotry disguised as humour, or an ever-so clever parody of “UKIP white van man racism” – which will no doubt be seen as offensive to white van men. The thing about satire and parody is that they often fail, as with Comedy Central’s Colbert Report on race and trans issues, when delivered by people in the majority who’ve not experienced prejudice, whereas the Kumars making fun of being Indian is.
What makes the parody both unlikely and unbelievable is that either Clarkson is a bigot or he maintains the persona off-screen as well. To Clarkson, even his suspension is just another joke, despite knowing he was on his last warning.
I’ve done stand-up comedy myself, and made it a rule to only insult and offend myself, not others – although I can’t stop some still choosing to take offence.
Top Gear‘s humour is pub or front room banter, the kind you use when you think nobody is watching – but there are tens, if not hundreds, of millions that are.
And this is the “British values” we should be so proud of exporting? I’m all for freedom of speech, but allegedly hitting your employer’s staff, insulting other nations, and expecting to not only get away with it but get paid millions for it?
Whilst the infraction was off-air, it is no less abusive of workplace colleagues and bullying, despite it not being part of an aired programme. According to The Mirror, he called Oisin Tymon:
“a “lazy, Irish c***” before splitting his lip with a punch that left the 36-year-old with blood running down his face and needing treatment in A&E, the BBC investigation will be told.”
Hitting is not humour, and nor was it his first public punch up. If the rest of the show is very clever parody like Alan Partridge or Comedy Central, then it does not work. It is very hard to successfully satire racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia, all of which have appeared on Top Gear. All the more so when it fuels the white male entitlement patriarchy rather than challenges it.
“Top Gear is an escapist post modern light comedy entertainment show; the vital ingredients being Clarkson, May, Hammond and cars will keep it on the Beeb for a while to come.”
Apart from what may be a short-lived 2011 prediction of its long-term longevity, I beg to differ. Their lives on and off the screen are making stereotypical jokes, setting chauvinist poor role models, and should not be the BBC’s best export. The fact that it is popular in human rights violating China and Putin’s Russia should not be a cause for celebration if it encourages their sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, rather than challenges it.
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou
Jeremy Clarkson – change your attitude, everyone else sign some petitions and be the change! If we are evolved at all, it is time the politically incorrect (such a polite term for sexist racist ableist homophobes) dinosaurs died out.
Saddened, shocked, but not sure I was surprised. Such was the sudden news of Robin Williams‘ apparent suicide at 63 that the Internet was awash with rumours last night that it was a ruse, a fake story. Details emerged overnight (British time) that he had indeed been found dead at home in Marin County, California, apparently having taken his own life. The latest information is that “Marin county sheriff’s department lieutenant Keith Boyd confirmed that Williams was discovered hanged, and had apparently attempted to cut his wrists.”
Owing to considerable empathy with his bipolar depression, this is a tough article to write in memoriam to the wonderful Robin Williams, who I first watched aged 11 when he appeared as the alien Mork. Sadly he has returned to his home planet and left us the poorer, but we have over a 100 films and thousands of laughs to remember him by and the challenge to understand mental illness better over our lifetimes.
Update (11 August 2015): It is now a year to the day that Robin Williams passed on and he still makes me laugh and cry in equal measure and continues to inspire whether in life or role.
Films and Characters
Last night I was preparing to watch The Birdcage film with my partner and a friend. We never got round to it, though I’d loaded it into the DVD up to the opening scene. It’s now set for a memorial movie night with the memorable Armand. He was so versatile, able to play funny, straight, sad, young, old, real, fantasy, even a penguin or two in Happy Feet as the voices of Ramón and Lovelace.
Of his co-star in Happy Feet Two, ‘La Toti’ Sofía Vergara, Williams said“I’d walk 50 miles in the snow just to stand in her garbage … and I cleaned up that line!”
Williams appeared in over 100 films, as well as television and theatre, so versatile were the roles that he played. Whether as Mork or Peter Pan, he always looked like he would never grow up and would live forever – one reason we, as adoring fans, all feel the wrench of his going now.
Perhaps, most memorable for me, was Mrs Doubtfire, and the agony of a father doing anything to get close to his kids. Its long-posited sequel Mrs Doubtfire 2 will presumably now no longer be made.
He was scheduled to appear in several unfinished films, but one that just made it to completion and was screened this summer at the Los Angeles Outfest Film Festival is Boulevard (2014) in which he plays an older married man coming to terms with his secret homosexuality.
Another inspirational film for me was Dead Poets Society (1989), as I always wanted to be a maverick motivational teacher, much as my own inspired English teacher was when I was 13 – he’d sit on the desk and read to us Kafka, Tom Sharpe and Shakespeare rather than setting us essays. In the film Williams, plays Keating the English teacher, who challenges the pupils to see the world in different ways, standing on their desks, ripping pages from books that deadened poetry, encouraging them to carpe diem, “seize the day” and call him “O Captain! My Captain!” in reference to Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln.
“It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer,
his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
Waiting for Godot
Williams appeared with his friend Steve Martin in a much acclaimed limited-run production in 1988 of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. A review said that “As the earthbound Estragon, Robin Williams is the same Robin Williams we have come to know and love for his manic intelligence, comic body language and perfect sense of timing. In this part, he is in bad need of a shave. Between convulsions, he gives unmistakable signs of a soul in puzzled torment.”
The play is about two down-in-the-dumps men waiting for someone, possibly God (though denied by Beckett), to show up. Being unable to think of a good reason to leave, it becomes an eternal and continually disappointed wait. Williams’ real life “puzzled torment” and wait is over and he has decided to leave us. A brave choice – a phrase that some people will not be comfortable with, but one that echoes my own experience, though I’m glad I survived now.
Williams began his stand-up comedy career in the mid to late 1970s, around the same time as his first film role in 1977 and appearance as Mork in Happy Days (1978) which led to the spin-off series, Mork and Mindy, which was hugely ad-libbed.
In the Happy Days Season 5 episode, “My Favorite Orkan”, Williams, as Mork, tries to kidnap Richie and take him back to his planet but is foiled by the Fonz. Originally a dream sequence, it was so popular that it was edited so as to be real and allow for the character of Mork to have wiped their memories and reappear in Mork and Mindy as an exiled alien from the planet Ork where humour is banned. Oh Shazbot! Mork showed up again in a retrospective episode of Happy Days, “Mork Returns”.
In 2004, he was voted 13th on Comedy Central‘s list of the “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time”. It was his improvisation that got him the role of Mork, standing on his head at the audition. Ad-libbing often led to film and television scripts adapting to him, rather than him sticking to the lines. Much of his role as the genie in the animated film Aladdin (1992) was improvised.
In 2009 Robin Williams conducted a delayed 26-city US comedy tour called “Weapons of Self-Destruction“, aimed at George Bush, rather than himself. He was hospitalised that year for heart surgery after announcing the tour in 2008. In 2010 he performed the show in Canterbury, New Zealand, and donated all the proceeds to the Red Cross and post-earthquake rebuilding projects.
I’ve often heard the phrase “the funny man of comedy” used of Williams, but aren’t all comedians meant to be funny? To me it means someone who can laugh at situations rather than make jokes by taking someone down. The irony is of course that the funny man who appeared in Happy Days was an unhappy man.
Just because someone can make us laugh, does not mean that they can make themselves happy. The daily battle with the black dog of depression and for Robin, at least, the associated ‘demons’ of drug and drink addiction, lifts momentarily in the manic moments of humour and comedy, but returns like a fog blanket blocking out the sun. Judgements of his addictions are insensitive, for those who’ve experienced depression, know full well that it can lead to other behaviours in order to survive or end the feelings of depression. Concert pianist James Rhodes called depression a “cloak of lead, a toxic second skin“:
“Depression is like being forced to wear a cloak made of lead. You don’t get to choose when to put it on and take it off. It is a second skin which gradually seeps into your own, real skin and poisons it until you are a walking, toxic, corrosive bundle of infectious awfulness. The thought of suicide is the only real respite and the only chink of light at the end of the tunnel.”
Robin Williams was funny, depression is not, though he laughed at his own “demons”, drink and drug addictions, which had returned to afflict him in the last few months. But that doesn’t give us the right to laugh at his life, troubles or choices.
I’ve done stand-up comedy and did a whole set on my own suicide attempt, it was dark and dead pan. Someone even thought I’d made it all up and commended my ‘acting’. In fact, it was the truth, often stranger than fiction, and my own surviving suicide and finally wanting to be alive again that enabled me to laugh at death and make fun of myself. That is not for others to do though. Doubly insensitive and offensive is the joke on Twitter I’ve seen about it now being an ideal time for Kellie Maloney (the transitioning Frank Maloney) to audition for Mrs Doubtfire 2, now that Robin is dead.
Others have taken to the web to say that they have no sympathy for those who take their own life, or suffer from alcohol and drugs addictions. The Guardian has had to moderate and delete about 10% of the comments on the report of his death. I’ve read of people on Facebook calling it “the pussy way out”. So wrong. Suicide is often a decision to end not only self-torment but to end being a burden to others. It can take courage and bravery to attempt it, it is not a coward’s way out as Fox News‘ breaking news editor and anchor Shepard Smith called it, it is the last straw for someone who is tired of fighting for survival every day. I’m not encouraging suicide, but I am saying stop judging it and view the person who has gone as now at peace.
“How can someone so well-off, well-known and successful have depression?”. This was said of Stephen Fry, but is doing the rounds about Robin too. Fry references an article by Alastair Campbell in which “he suggested changing the word ‘depression’ to ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’ in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question, it is. Ill-natured, ill-informed, ill-willed or just plain ill”. Fry writes about feeling sad, lonely, depressed, suicidal and the rights to seemingly illogically having those feelings.
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” – Stephen Fry
Even when surrounded by loved ones, depression is a lonely disease, but having a partner or friend around has saved me from acting on suicidal feelings more than once in the past. It was when all alone, in the darkest hours of the night that I attempted it more seriously.
“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone” – Robin Williams
Very often there are no answers or solutions, and there should certainly be no judgements for what is in cause or effect a chemical imbalance in the brain. I’ve suffered from depression for over a decade and for the last 2 years been under investigation for a variant of bipolar or cyclothymia, Mood Affective Disorder. Fry has cyclothymia and whilst Williams never regarded himself as fully diagnosed, many clinicians think he had depression and Bipolar Affective Disorder.
Whilst the label may help with gaining the right support and treatment, it is irrelevant to how we treat people with the symptoms of the varieties of depression and addiction. We have not lived their life, seen inside their mind, and therefore do not know the balance of accountability for their own actions and suffering under the weight of seemingly intransigent conditions that afflict people indiscriminately and unfairly.
Depression disables, debilitates, and is often met with misunderstanding that you can do something about it by pulling yourself together, getting out more, getting up or some such chivvying coaching. Similarly, with suicide, the offers to “talk to me” before you try it next time, or of it being a “selfish way out” that hurts others, are ignorant, even if often well meant, thoughts. Suicides can be planned or spontaneous, cries for help or calls for the help and feeling a burden on others to end, persistent or momentary feelings of the need for it all to stop, the feeling of powerlessness or the only way to take control.
Dean Burnett in the Guardian called it a “staggering ignorance of mental health problems” to refer to suicide as a selfish act. Suicide and depression are not selfish. Williams had access to the best help around, but he was the “clown that could not be fixed“, as Simon Jenkins writes:
“There was no help that Williams and others like him could not and did not receive. It failed. All illness is a great leveller, but none levels like mental illness. It remains the poor relation of medicine. Research is paltry. Therapies are halfhearted. Drugs are primitive.”
One-in-four of us will get a depression related illness. Yet it receives a small percentage of even 1/40th of the medical research and treatment budget.
Devastating news about @robinwilliams — knew him a little and liked him a whole lot more. A brain wired like no other and so so kind.
Robin Williams’ favourite children’s book was CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe which he would read out loud to his kids. Famous for his funny voices, when reading it to his daughter, named after Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda computer game series, she said “Don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.” One of the hardest things in life is to be yourself.
His third wife and now widow, Susan Schneider, said:
“I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”
Fellow actor and comedian Steve Martin, tweeted that he “could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.” ‘Mensch’, whilst simply meaning “human being” is a Yiddish idiom for a genuinely good person, a real “stand-up guy”.
Barack Obama, in offering condolences, referred to Williams as “one of a kind”:
“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
Tributes will continue to flood in from fans, friends and fellow entertainers, Sarah Silverman described him as “pure love” and Stephen Fry sad he was “so so kind”.
At one point over half the trending tags on Twitter were Robin Williams related including #RobinWilliamsWillLiveOnForever.
George Takei said “May the heavens be brightened with your singular glow” and several have commented on Twitter saying that now he can make God laugh. Friends have expressed sadness, referenced mental illness and one wrote “I can’t believe Mindy is Morkless”, an apt end for how it all began back in 1978.
Gifted, manic, funny, sad, tormented, lost to us, but now at peace. RIP
[This article is an expansion of one first published here]