Do the Arts Make Us Better People? Does Science? Depends on the People

Not sure how much convincing hip readers of everybody's favorite OC Sunday morning literary arts blog will need that the arts are important but I feel like a better person already just talking up the work of Zocalo Public Square and its local night out at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, not against 'em. I'll probably miss the terrific evening of discussion from a panel of writers and nice wealthy patrons and, I hope, rousing political argument from, you bet, the pro-arts side at “Do the Arts Make Us Better People” on Tuesday night, February 11 at 7:30. Why? Because I'll be driving my little actor kid (also pro-arts, as it happens) from his rehearsal at South Coast Rep's excellent Junior Players Conservatory to his piano lesson. But you should go, and also maybe buy tickets right now for the Costa Mesa Playhouse's excellent production of Stephen Sondheim's seldom-produced musical “Assassins,” in which the little Bibster plays the son of crazy-person attempted killer Sarah Jane Moore, and sings along with the ensemble of other nutty all-American kooks.  


It's a show not often produced. Go figure. Nine killers doing song, dance, stand-up. Sondheim is of course saying, singing, joking and analyzing the whole country, and its unique, weird talent at producing a particularly perhaps American team of stand-ins for the socio-political national psychodrama, as it were: those bad actors of violence and dreamy estrangement from reality, sad mutant mentally ill people who fixate on authority in, well, less than healthy ways. (But, charmingly, at least they fixate.) We're talking about the guy who tried to kill FDR because his stomach hurt and missed, murdering the mayor Chicago. Sarah Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, who both tried to kill Gerald Ford. (He was already dead, it turns out.) Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK) and Charles Guiteau (Garfield). Sam Byck, who tried to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House (he was ahead of his time) to kill Nixon. It's all hilarious, manic, gun-crazy fun, with tremendous songs.

The play runs for a month of Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and, yes, seeing it will surely make you better, smarter, wittier, happier, not to mention feeling good about supporting the arts by way of paying the modest ticket price asked from the troupers of a small, brave, creative and seat-of-the-pants operation charmingly situated in a residential neighborhood in east Costa Mesa. Musical Director Stephen Hulsey does amazing work and also plays Leon Czolgoz, who killed McKinley, and the cast features performances by folks with amazing pipes, including other Playhouse stalwarts. Director David Blair plays the dude with the troubled talking tummy. Hulsey's imprint is unmistakable and elegant and lovely. He has done a lot of great work with Theater Out and elsewhere, and contributed to a great CMP production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2012. My favorite song is the tandem love song in which Squeaky sings about her love for Charlie Manson as John Hinkley, Jr. sings to Jodie Foster. Do edgy, smart plays make us better people? Say yes by purchasing tickets HERE or over the phone. Plenty of free parking. Tell 'em Billy sent you.

Meanwhile, the significantly more high-end presenters at that totally free (!) event in the cushy Samueli Theater at Segerstrom include New York Times contributing arts writer Jori Finkel, New Yorker staff writer Susan (The Orchid Thief) Orlean, Getty Trust President and CEO James Cuno, and Segerstrom Center for the Arts prez Terrence W. Dwyer. 
Jori Finkel is a welcome moderator, booster and all-around person in charge of this little pow wow. She's the former LA Times arts reporter lost in whichever dreadful wave of layoffs struck that department. She writes now for The New Yorker, and the good people at Zocolo Public Square, whose sponsor, the instructively named Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State chose her wisely. They work with all kinds of venues in Southern California and beyond (Getty, Skirball) but not so much in Orange County, California. So, nice to welcome them to our local big arts and performance digs. Check out their excellent website, which includes essays, videos, everything. In my most clumsy, easy and yet somehow pleasingly provocative rhetorical move, I offer below the organization's mission statement on this Super (Dumb) Bowl Weekend, without further editorial haranguery:
…a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism. We partner with educational, cultural, and philanthropic institutions to present free public events and conferences in cities across the U.S. and beyond, and to publish original daily journalism that we syndicate to more than 100 media outlets nationwide. At a time when our country's public sphere is narrow and polarized, Zocalo seeks to be a welcoming intellectual space where individuals and communities can tackle fundamental questions in an accessible, nonpartisan, and broad-minded spirit. We are committed to translating ideas to broad audiences and to engaging a new, young, and diverse generation in the public square.

Well, at least there is tackling…in the public square. Shish-boom-bah! Meanwhile, there's more reality-based entertainment, civic engagement and smart, lovely scientists, too, doing their thing for betterment. Another panel discussion, this time at Chapman University. The Friday, February 7 evolution and climate change wing-ding includes another hero of Mr. Bib's, the most courageous and wonderful Dr. Eugenie Scott, of the National Center for Science Education. She's the one you hear (if not enough) on the radio, beating her drum and no doubt her head against the wall, trying to explain to Tea Partiers and science-deniers and Republicans (check out the GOP platform, friends) and religionists the difference, thank you very much, between “climate” and “weather,” not to mention the very basics (and more) of natural selection, and defending you and me from the oil and gas industry's rogue's gallery of PR firms and spin-doctors who are, yes, assassinating real science and real science education.
Chapman's own Dr. Brian Alters, who directs Chapman's Evolution Education Research Center and is president of the NCSE offers the following fairly tame if valuable insight. I considered presenting it in caps.
“A well-informed public is the first step to insuring that our future is in the hands of scientifically trained students capable of solving the problems of tomorrow,” said Dr. Alters. “As one of the leading educational centers in Orange County, it is our responsibility to provide this education when possible. Bringing together leading experts involved in science education for a free event is a great opportunity for the public.” 
No kidding. Scott is, it seems, retiring, but passing the baton on to Ann Reid, a molecular 

biologist with her good work cut out for her. Maybe you'll pick up some ammunition from listening to these folks explain the challenge and offer strategies for influencing actual public policy. Or just annoying the climate change deniers and faith-based fatalists. You might want to prepare by having a listen to one of my favorite recent editions of Bibliocracy Radio, my show last week with Dr. Peter Boghossian, team leader of what he calls his posse of Street Epistemologists everywhere, citizen philosopher teacher-activists whose singular mission is teaching critical thinking and disabusing Americans of silly superstitions. He is author of the most excellent A Manual for Creating Atheists, about which I have already raved plenty. 
Just sayin', as they say on Fox News which, along with more “mainstream” commercial media organs, will often report on public policy issues rooted in clear-cut scientific evidence and study in that obnoxious frame called false equivalency and balance. So if the Heartland Institute (an industry front group) pushes its way into the TV studio with Katie or Tom or Biff arguing against the analysis of, say, Bill McKibbon and everybody else who is not a pimp for big oil, big gas, big pharma or the Koch Brothers and Shell Oil, then, presto, there is not a consensus after all. Which is the problem to which these scientists offer an answer. Thanks.

You already knew that. So, today's OC Bookly challenge. Bring a young person, dumb person, silly person to either or both of these terrific events, but maybe especially the one on defending science education. Assess them before and after the panel. Take notes. Give them a quiz. Let's use some empirical evidence to see if affects them. Better people? Smarter? I await your report.
“Evolution and Climate Change,” Chapman University, Argyros Forum, Room # 202. Friday, February 7, 4 pm. Free, open to the public and media. (my itals, damn straight!) Click HERE for photographs of more sexy scientists and info.
“Do the Arts Make Us Better People”? Zocolo Public Square at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Samueli Theater. Tuesday, February 11, 7:30 pm. Free. Click HERE to be a better person.
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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