In this episode of High Noon, David Marcus joins the podcast. Marcus is the political reporter for the New York Post and the author of Charade: The COVID Lies That Crushed a Nation. Before becoming a political writer, he was an actor and the co-founder of a theater company.

David and Inez discuss the failure of expertise and institutional actors during the course of the coronavirus pandemic, and the erosion of public trust resulting from unclear instruction and political bias.

Additionally, David enlightens the audience on the institutional forces pushing the arts steadily to the left, and they discuss the disconnect between the audience and an increasingly avant-garde art scene that caters only to a handful of tastemakers, donors, and government grant offices, as well as how to reintroduce universal themes that make art meaningful for a broader swath of the public. 

High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.


TRANSCRIPT

Inez Stepman:

Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. First off, I want to apologize for not having an episode up this last week. That was because I was quite ill, and I was coughing and hacking the whole time, and I think that would be very uncomfortable to listen to, as a listener. In that eventuality, we decided not to record last week, but we are back with a great guest this week. David Marcus is a reporter for the New York Post, where he reports and writes on subjects of contemporary political interest, all kinds of things. He’s also the author of the book, Charade: The COVID Lies That Crushed a Nation. In full disclosure, he was also a former colleague of mine at The Federalist. One of the things that I really love about Dave’s work is that he comes to it with a totally different perspective than, I think, most people do, in the political world.

So, his background is actually in theater. He’s an actor, which is very different than most people, I think, in politics. They’re either a poly sci background, or they’re the kind of class president types. Dave has a totally different background. I think that really comes through in his work. He also has this really great ability to talk to people from all walks of life and to really communicate their stories in a way that, I think, is a lot more human than analytical. That really comes through in this book. Welcome, Dave, to High Noon.

David Marcus:

Thank you, Inez.

Inez Stepman:

In this book, you not only interview folks in the administration, in the Trump administration … Your book ends with the election of 2020. But you not only interview folks in the administration, you interviewed Tucker Carlson, you interview a lot of people in politics, but you also interview … You talk a lot about some of your friends that you were hanging out, and their perspectives on the COVID pandemic, and then also, even you talked to a sex worker in Las Vegas, and what that did to her trade, in terms of getting more or fewer customers. How did you decide who to put into this book? This is really more of a memoir of that time. Even though you have a lot of great facts in it, as well.

David Marcus:

Yeah. That was a challenge right off the bat. When I started work on the book, one of the books I wanted to model it off of was Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino’s book, Justice on Trial, about the Kavanaugh thing, because I had really liked that book. Mollie was also a colleague at The Federalist, so I talked to her about it. What became clear as I started writing was that whereas that was a story, and most books are about something that literally affects some small group of people, and the rest of us are paying attention to it, this affected everyone. There really was nobody who wasn’t a part of the story. I think the first outside-the-administration or, really, outside-of-the-box interview that I did, was there was one point relatively early on where I interview a guy who’s in the advertising industry.

I think viewers will remember in the early days of the lockdown, there were all these ads. They were the same ad. It was piano music and shots of empty streets, and then you had shots of first responders, and we’re all in this together, all the slogans. Every ad was the same one. I was very curious. Right? How did this happen? There wasn’t some meeting of all the advertising executives to say, “We’re all going to run the same ad.” This guy was really able to walk me through why that happened, which really had a lot to do with lawyers and copycatting, because it was something where they really didn’t want to get it wrong. So, there was one safe way to do it, and so, they all did that.

Once I did that interview, I realized that the two most important functionaries in the lockdown story were the government and the media. Obviously, the government because they could literally impose lockdowns, but the lockdowns weren’t really imposed, for the most part. For the most part, we consented to them. That had a lot to do with the media. Those were the two areas where I really chose to put most of my focus.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. It was a weird experience to read this book, because it really reminded me, took me back to the mentality in April, May of 2020, where in DC, and then in New York, where you were, there was this eerie silence on all of the streets. This was before there was a lot of the research that said that, for example, walking around outside was not a danger, in terms of transmission. So, the streets were eerily empty, except for the sirens, the sirens of the emergency vehicles taking people to and from the hospital. So, you really bring us back there, and then you seem to then question that we, perhaps, even at that point, made some decisions on the basis of fear rather than science.

David Marcus:

Yeah. I think that what we’ve never been able to do with this thing, and this goes right up to this present moment, is come up with some kind of rational balance between legitimate competing interests, in terms of what the risk to human life from COVID was versus what the risk to kids not being in school, of people having to where masks, or shutting down businesses, the whole parade of horribles that lockdowns brought. We were never really able to have a rational discussion, or a rational consideration, of people were going to die, one way or the other. In fact, both ways. We got into this mentality of if it saves one life, and that’s not how public policy or human life operates. Right?

I mean, if you let your daughter do gymnastics, if you let your son play football, there’s a risk that they could get pretty seriously hurt. So, you weigh that. You make the decision because there are also benefits to those activities. I think we just so utterly failed as a country to do that, for a myriad of reasons. Yeah. We did a really bad job of it.

Inez Stepman:

Well, one of those reasons is that when you hire people who are experts in their field, they’re often going to look at—and Thomas Sowell famously wrote about this—but they’re often going to look at, essentially, a single factor analysis. Right? We had a lot of public health bureaucrats who were, as you say, their goal was to get to zero COVID cases. Right? You would think that in our system, the appropriate balance then would be, “Okay. Yes, you experts, you medical professionals, you’re here to give advice to the political branches, which are then going to weigh that goal of making sure that there are zero COVID cases against all of the other things, as part of political judgment, against economic factors, against what might happen in extended lockdowns to the psychology of children, if they can’t go to school.”

These aren’t decisions that are made “on the basis of science.” They necessarily involve political judgment. I mean, it seems like the story you’re putting out in this book is that we abdicated political judgment wholly into the hands of experts. They don’t mean to be nefarious. They are looking at a single factor, whereas our political leadership abdicated their role in balancing that factor versus all the other public policy implications?

David Marcus:

Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s 1,000% right. I mean, very early on, you would often hear people say, “There’s no place for politics in all of this.” It’s like, “Well, wait a minute.” I mean, as you point out, Anthony Fauci might be an expert in viruses and infectious disease. He’s not an expert on unemployment, or education, or a whole range of public policy aspects that were affected by the choices that we made, in terms of lockdowns. Obviously, these needed to be political choices. It got even worse because all across the country, state legislatures just said to governors, “Okay. Be the emperor,” for a year, I mean, for longer. A lot of these powers still exist. This is unprecedented in American history.

One of the points that I make in the book about this move to empower governors to really just do whatever they want is that governors don’t do constituent services. Right? As citizens, when we need to go to our politicians and say, “Hey, I need to be able to open my restaurant. I need to be able to go to church. I need to be able to send my kid to school,” you don’t go to your governor. You go to your state assemblymen. You go to your state senator. That was gone. That was just all gone. Thankfully, we’re now starting to see states, even blue states like Pennsylvania, start to pull back. Not only pull back some of these powers right now, but Michigan just passed a law that changes it so that this can’t happen again. So, if there’s a silver lining, that might be it. We need to realize that you can’t hand total dictatorial power to governors for a year. It’s a disaster.

Inez Stepman:

Right. Even though governors have that broad power in emergencies, generally, most emergencies are short term. Right? That would be the justification of handing decision making power to one elected official, rather than the normal legislative channels. Right? Legislatures move slowly. They take into account, as you say, constituent services and everything. A single actor can make those decisions quickly in an emergency, but that rationale gets weaker and weaker over time. Right? We’re talking about, already, well over a year, pushing towards a year and a half, of dealing with this pandemic. That rationale certainly at least starts to get weaker, if not disappears altogether.

David Marcus:

It does. It goes get weaker. When you think about the precedent that we just created, if a sufficient number of Americans can be convinced that climate change is a public health crisis, or that racism is a public health crisis, which in fact, several states and localities have already declared, then we now have a precedent in place where, for those reasons, or really anything that we determine to be a public health crisis, we can just suspend the Constitution and allow governors to rule as kings. I think, more than anything else, that’s what we need to look at in all of this, and make sure never happens again. The problem was partisanship, not politics. We needed more politics, not less politics.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. I guess I totally agree with that, in a sense, even though you and I have quite different views about the virus itself, and what was necessary to contain it. You tend to be more, longer term, are almost completely against the lockdowns. I think they were an appropriate tool at one time, that, perhaps, that rationale doesn’t extend for month after month after month. We have different views on that. I think we can agree on this. This is, at the end of the day, a political judgment. It has to be because of the reasons we were talking about. Right? This isn’t single factor. We’re not only concerned with coronavirus in the world. There are many other things that can kill people. That’s just restricting the analysis to things that can kill people. Right?

David Marcus:

Right.

Inez Stepman:

There’s also a factor of quality of life, and freedom, and Constitutional liberty, that is not quantified in a single factor analysis. Let’s talk about the difference between competency and messaging. Right? Because I will fully admit that I, in April and May, was completely fooled by Governor Andrew Cuomo. He did not share my politics, at the time, but he was giving these really competent sounding briefings. Whereas, oftentimes, I mean, some of the Trump briefings were really good. The Trump administration briefings were really good. But other times, the president was distracted. He played his usual role in goading the media, which I think felt very different to people in April 2020 than it did, for example, in the preceding part of his administration, because it’s one thing to dunk on the media. We all know they deserve it. But when people are really scared and looking for projection of confidence from their leaders, there were times where I thought that Trump’s messaging did not project that, whereas Andrew Cuomo’s did.

Then we go back months later and look at their actual records, which you do really well in this book, and we see that, actually, the projection of competence is not at all the same thing as actual competence, which you go into a little bit, some of the decisions that the Trump administration did early on that didn’t get a lot of press versus some of the decisions that the Cuomo administration in New York made that, at the time, one seemed competent and one didn’t. It seems like the truth was almost the reverse.

David Marcus:

Yeah. In a lot of ways, it was. I mean, listen, I can’t imagine anything as poorly suited to Trump’s rhetorical skillset as this particular crisis. His hyperbolic nature, and how should I put this, his sometimes-wavering relationship with the literal truth, work, in some context. I think they work in foreign policy. I think they work in some domestic policy negotiations. I think they can be really effective messaging tools. Not with this. A great example, the very first thing I wrote about the coronavirus, I believe it was titled something like “Trump needs to shut up about coronavirus.” He had gone on Sean Hannity the night before. I don’t have the exact date. I believe it was the first week of March. This is all really just starting to kick in.

He goes on Hannity, and at the time, the World Health Organization was saying that this had an infection fatality rate of two, three, maybe even four percent, which is crazy, which is vastly more deaths than even we experienced, and we experienced a lot of deaths. He went on Hannity and he said, “I have a hunch that it’s a lot lower than that, probably even less than one percent, from conversations I’ve had with people.” The media blew up. I mean, I did, too. That’s like going into your doctor, who says, “You’ve got stage four cancer, but I have a hunch you’ll be fine.” Right? That’s not how you say that. He was pilloried, and he lost some trust because that’s not the way you talk about it. He was also exactly right.

In that interview, he explained why he was right. The reason he was right was that asymptomatic people weren’t being tested. By early April, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya at Stanford would do seroprevalence tests that would show that way, way, way more people had COVID than we knew had COVID, and therefore, the infection fatality rate was a lot lower. That messaging never really caught back up in the media, unfortunately. That was a prime example of where Trump was saying something important and true, in a really ineffective way, and just lost the thread utterly. Meanwhile, an example on the other side, you would have Cuomo, in those early days, seeming really confident, but on a day-by-day basis, going back and forth between New York won’t shut down, New York will shut down, we need to do contact tracing.

In fact, by the time we were seeing these cases in New York, contact tracing was probably pointless. Contact tracing can be effective when you have a really small number of cases, but again, we had so many more cases than we knew we did because we weren’t testing asymptomatic people. We were probably well past the point where … I mean, remember Bloomberg was going to have an army of contact tracers? Do you remember that? That was a week and a half news cycle, where Cuomo was going to put former mayor Bloomberg in charge of the contact tracing, and this was going to be great, and look at this … none of that happened. It just didn’t happen. It sounded good.

Inez Stepman:

That’s right. I mean, he sounded good. That was the whole appeal of Governor Cuomo. At one point, people were talking about whether or not he might replace Joe Biden on the ticket, because he was so massively popular because of these. We’ve really seen that flip, the politics of this flip, almost the opposite where we have folks like Gavin Newsom now, Governor Gavin Newsom in California, under a threat of recall, largely because of keeping in place really strict restrictions in California far longer than other governors, and for his own personal hypocrisy and not following those restrictions. Those turned out to be issues that really resonated with a lot of people who were not getting interviewed for New York Times articles, or Washington Post articles.

One of the myths that you go into here in this book, which by the way, I can hold it up … Here it is. One of the myths you go into is that we had this rhetoric in the beginning of us all being in this together. In some sense, as you said early on in the podcast, we were all in it together in the sense that everybody was subject to potentially getting infected with the coronavirus. It was a scary time. We were afraid to speak to our neighbors, or to get too close to our neighbors, or our friends. In that sense, we were going through similar fears. What ended up happening is that, in fact, different groups of people ended up experiencing the lockdowns completely differently. Can you maybe talk a little bit about who turned out—this is a weird word to say but I think it’s the right word—who benefited from the pandemic, and the lockdowns, and who really took the brunt of them?

David Marcus:

I mean, I did. I got a book deal. Right? A lot of people in the media did. I was very, very cognizant of the fact that I already worked from home. I was a New York correspondent for The Federalist, at the time, so I basically worked out of my apartment anyway. My paychecks didn’t stop. In fact, I got a stimulus check. So, for a lot of people in the media class, it was a very different experience than being a waiter who loses your job, or being a truck driver who loses their job. I live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that’s very residential. It’s not a well off neighborhood. It’s solidly middle class.

I started seeing lines around the block of people waiting for food. I mean, this is not … I’d never seen anything like that in my lifetime. It became quite clear to me that the story that the media was telling us about this adventure where we all play camp in our house, while we get our paychecks, was very different than the reality that a lot of people in the world were facing, in the rest of the country were facing. It was, for a lot of people, a fairly existential level of crisis.

Inez Stepman:

There was also an effect on the different businesses that did better or worse. Right? For example, Amazon raked in additional…I think it was additional billions in profits over the course of the pandemic than they had the year before, while a lot of bodegas, or restaurants, or other small businesses, or even large businesses who had no way to really put their services online, or remotely, really, really suffered. So, we had this bifurcation.

David Marcus:

Yep.

Inez Stepman:

What do you think the impact of that bifurcation is going to have going forward, even as, hopefully, we reach the end of this pandemic, as vaccination rates are rising again, and as we’re experiencing a third, or fourth, hopefully, last wave of this, that doesn’t seem to be resulting in the same level of hospitalizations or death as the previous waves are? As we move out of, cross our fingers, out of the pandemic era, how are the impacts of that business bifurcation, and the different ways that … I’m going to use the word that’s unpopular on the right, essentially, different classes of people, how they experienced the pandemic. How is that going to change our politics going forward?

David Marcus:

I think it’s already having a huge impact on the way conservatives, and some on the left, but more, really, conservatives, think about big tech. Because you’re very right to point out that Amazon was one of the winners here. Right? In general, big tech was a winner because when you make people stay at home, atomized in their house, then all of the things that all these machines that go were, do for us, become more valuable, and everything that actually happens out in the world of hugs and handshakes diminishes. Right? What we realized, I think, by a few months in was that the same big tech that was bringing us our big knocks was also determining what news we were allowed to see about things like the lockdown itself.

This created an enormous, just an enormous, conflict of interest, in that this same sector of the economy that was reaping incredible profits was in control of the information that kept those profits rolling in, and that kept these lockdowns in place. I think you had already seen a few politicians, like Hawley and a few others, pardon me, who were wary of big tech but still had to appreciate the orthodoxy of conservatives as small government, and these are private businesses. They can do whatever they want. I think when we saw what big tech was able to do in terms of the lockdowns, that changed for a lot of people. It changed for me. I think—in fact, I know—from politicians who I speak to now, as a reporter, at least in private, and in some cases, in public, Republicans don’t care if it’s a private business anymore. This threat is too big, and it has to be dealt with. I think that’s a change in our politics that we’re going to see over the next several years, and probably going forward even beyond that.

Inez Stepman:

You talk about atomization and really, I mean, these were conversations that were happening both on the right and the left before the pandemic and before the lockdowns, about a sense of alienation, the fact that people did not have as thick ties to family, church, community, real world interaction, as they used to, perhaps. We have folks like Tim Carney writing his book about alienation, Alienated America. There was this conversation going on that was coupled with Gen Z being a generation that was even more online than, perhaps, my generation of Millennials, and definitely more online than Gen X, which is your generation. How has this, essentially, enforced online period of a year and a half accelerated, perhaps, some of these trends, whereby your digital self becomes, or seems, in some way, more real to a lot of people than the flesh and blood of ourselves walking around.

You call it a hugs and handshakes world. We can call it, derisively, the meat suit world. It seems like our relationship with the body and physicality was already being attenuated by social media and by technology, and now we’ve had a year and a half where that digital self was essentially the only self. Right? How is that going to impact the psychology of, especially Gen Z, but even the rest of us, going forward?

David Marcus:

I’d like to be hopeful, but I don’t feel hopeful about it. I think it’s going to … I do think it’s going to further this alienation, and it’s not only alienation from each other. In a lot of cases, it’s alienation from reality. I mean, it may seem strange to bring something like the transgender debate into something like this, but I think it actually has a place, because it’s not just transgenderism, it’s trans everything. If you can really be that avatar in the video game that is most of your reality, then why would any of these rules apply? Right? Yeah. I mean, there are very broad trends going on, in terms of the way in which the human mind interacts with computers, even people. It’s like the idea that a human mind could ultimately be downloaded into a computer.

I mean, enormous, huge questions that … The only thing I’ve ever really been able to compare it to is Hermann Hesse wrote a great book called The Glass Bead Game. He wrote it, I guess, in the ’50s, or it takes place in what would have been a futuristic Europe. There’s really only two forces left. There’s the players of this esoteric glass bead game, which you could, in a weird way, compare to the internet, even though he couldn’t have imagined the internet, but it’s just like every type of piece of information and knowledge interplaying together, and these really smart people are able to put them in boxes. The only other one is the Roman Catholic church. Right? That’s it. These are the two extremes that you end up with. I think we are moving in that direction, to an extent.

It’s interesting. There have been several people I’ve known … I wear my Catholicism on my sleeve a little bit. There have been several people I’ve known who, somewhat unexpectedly, told me that the Catholic church is something that they’ve been looking to join, or become a part of, or get back to, throughout all this, even just anecdotally going to mass. I just see a lot more people there, maybe because they weren’t allowed to, or whatever it was. To me, that’s the only hope, is a push for organized religion. My preference is the Catholic church. That kind of push is what can push back against the atomization of online life. Man, it’s an uphill battle.

Inez Stepman:

Well, we’re seeing the opposite trend. Right? The famous rise of the nones, N-O-N-E-S, among which I count myself, where there are more people who not only don’t consider themselves part of a faith tradition, in the abstract, metaphysical sense, but also don’t have that concrete reason to get together with people, with other people they may not know. Their neighbors that maybe then become friends, to actually have that kind of thick community that is provided by in-person religious organization. It doesn’t really seem like there’s going to be a replacement, even from the non-theological perspective, just from the human community perspective. It doesn’t seem like modern life has really provided human beings with another way to have some kind of immediate and physical commonality, common purpose, and shared life with the people around them.

David Marcus:

No. I think that’s absolutely right. It does go beyond church. It’s the rotary club, or it’s 4-H. It’s called 4-H. Right? I grew up in Philly. I’m just pulling that out of a vague memory. Whatever these things are, like bowling leagues. There were things, you watched sitcoms from the 1950s and ’60s, and everybody’s got these activities that they do in the evening, whatever they were. Those are, by and large, at least in modern, urban, American life, things that really don’t exist so much anymore. Yeah. We haven’t done a very good job of replacing them. I think even performance, even the arts, have done a poor job. Theater is not as well attended as it once was. Dance. Comedy does a little better, but there’s a struggle even there. Even before the pandemic, these were trending in the wrong direction.

So, I don’t know. As you mentioned at the top, I spent the first 15 years or so of my adulthood involved in theater. I was producing shows. My whole deal how many people can I get in a room? Right? That’s how I made my money. I still like that feeling of having a lot of people in a room, but there’s just fewer and fewer opportunities to do that and less points of interest that bring people together.

Inez Stepman:

Why is it that the arts in the United States are so overwhelmingly left wing? That hasn’t been true in all places, in all times. Why do you think that the theater community, or really, out of the examples you mentioned, only comedy is somewhat of an exception in the sense that there’s at least … There are some comedians who will target left wing pieties for mockery. I mean, I don’t even know to the extent that makes them “conservative,” but that will target at least as part of their act, they will go after things that are taken for granted on the left. Really, the other arts, Hollywood, theater, even fine art, paintings, sculpture, this seems to be, now, an overwhelmingly left wing space. Was that the case when you got into it, or has it changed over the course of the more recent decades? Why do you think that is?

David Marcus:

It was. I mean, the left was not as far left in 1998 as it is today. So, it was a different kind of left. But I mean, it was all left. There were no Republicans. I wasn’t even a Republican yet. Every once in a while, there was the weird actual Libertarian who just liked to pick fights. Right? There were no Republicans. The reason for it, I believe, and I believe this very strongly, is the not-for-profit movement taking over art forms like theater and art forms like dance. I do think that comedy is the exception that proves the rule here. When you think about not-for-profits in terms of theater, and dance, and that stuff, you’re talking about universities and colleges. You’re talking about non-profit performing groups, or companies, which is pretty much everything outside of Broadway. You’re talking about non-profit granting organizations.

All three of the legs of that stool are incredibly Progressive. They produce incredibly Progressive art. That doesn’t pay for itself. It doesn’t have to pay for itself because it’s basically all funded by donors. Every once in a while, something breaks out and actually makes money. Stand-up comedy is different. Right? You don’t really get a master’s degree in stand-up comedy the way that you do for directing, or acting, or screenwriting. The way you get that job is still pretty much to show up at the club, and either people laugh or they don’t. If they laugh, you get more gigs. If they don’t, you don’t. That is absolutely why you see more ideological diversity in the world of stand-up comedy than you do in any of these other art forms.

So, I think if conservatives want to compete in that cultural space, two things need to happen. One, they need to pay some attention to it, which they haven’t done. Right? I mean, Andrew Breitbart was warning about this over a decade ago, and the call still hasn’t been heard. Second of all, I think they do need to break up some of these non-profit systems that really just bar entry, unless you have a rich uncle who’s going to give you $15,000 for your theater company.

Inez Stepman:

So, what are some of those non-profit systems? You mentioned the NEA. Right? So, there are government grants.

David Marcus:

Yep.

Inez Stepman:

Then there are essentially donor grants connected to art schools? Is that how this works?

David Marcus:

I mean, it all is. Right? I mean, if you give $100 to a theater company or a dance company, some of that money is coming out of the general fund of the government. Right? That’s how a tax deductible organization works. So, essentially, the theater company that I was a co-producer for, we were never a not-for-profit. So, we always had to find unique ways to cover our costs. The general model is that you set up a not-for-profit, you get yourself a board, hopefully, again, you’re well connected enough to have board members who have some money to kick in, as well. You hold a gala. You go fundraise. Generally speaking, the goal is to make about half of your money back through ticket sales, maybe. I mean, that’s great, if you’re able to do that.

So, it becomes this perverse economic model where you really don’t have creative destruction, because if you’re coming out of Columbia or Yale drama school, and you’re trying to start a theater company, your first question is not, “How do I get an audience?” Your first question is, “How do I get a grant?” Until that gets turned around, nothing changes.

Inez Stepman:

So, what would you say then to the objection? Because I feel like if I was coming to this conversation with a different perspective than the culture warrior that I am, I would worry that great art would not … I mean, so much of what we consider great art did not find a productive paying audience while the artist was alive. Right? How do we balance the need to create a space where artists can, in fact, create art or do their thing, but still have it … I think you’re right. We’ve gone from having a marketplace of different types of art that appeal to different kinds of people to almost an exclusively avant-garde way, where most artists are only appealing, as you say, either to grants, donors, or they’re appealing to a handful of critics, who usually work for elite media outlets. Right?

They’re not really trying to get an audience. They’re not really aiming at, let’s say, the average middle class American who might want to come see a play on Broadway, for example, even. Although, that’s probably more aimed at the average American than a lot of aspects of art. I mean, how do we balance between, yes, you want a space for some avant-garde sensibilities that are beyond what can attract a mass audience, but still have some connection to the broader mass of people, giving them an entry into wanting to interact with the art world? I think the flip side of how we’ve set it up now is that the average American thinks that they don’t have a lot to understand or gain from interacting with the art world, because it seems so avant-garde, so isolated. I’m searching for a word here, but so internal in its interest that it’s very difficult for the average viewer to even feel competent enough to experience, or break through, or actually be a member of an audience for a lot of our art.

David Marcus:

Yeah. I think the audience is right. I think that’s why they’re not showing up. In fact, I think the audience is almost always right, almost by definition. This is your job, is to entertain people. Your job isn’t, ultimately, to make everybody stop being racist, however you define that. Your job isn’t, ultimately, to settle some class conflict. Your job is to, as we were just talking about, get people in a room to have a good time with each other. If you can do that other stuff, too, okay. That’s fine. I don’t even know that I accept the basic concept that the American people don’t want, or that most people don’t want, complicated, or high, or fine art.

Fred Siegel wrote a great book called Revolt Against the Masses, where he talks about what the average TV lineups for a Saturday afternoon were in the 1950s and the early ’60s. I mean, you had Leonard Bernstein with the Philharmonic, having an incredibly popular show about classical music. You had Tennessee Williams plays. You had Shakespeare plays. You had an enormous appetite for this. You’re probably too young for this, but people my age will remember their parents or grandparents having these leather-bound volumes of the Great Books of the World. Right? Those sold like wildfire. They cost a lot. I mean, they cost a lot of money, and people bought them.

At some point, the elite in our country decided, “You know what? That’s not for a truck driver. That’s not for a bus driver. That’s not for the guy who makes pizzas. That’s for somebody else.” And I think the not-for-profit system reinforces that. Quite frankly, I don’t worry about not having any art if we don’t have the NEA. I mean, we’ve always had art. It’s arguably the oldest thing in humanity. Right? I mean, you look at somebody like Václav Havel. Not only was the Communist government in Prague not giving him money to do his art, they were trying to arrest him, and he still made it. Right? So, I mean, the art’s not going to stop. I’m not worried about that. Nobody’s owed it. Right? Nobody gets to get out of two years of a master’s degree at some Ivy League school and be like, “Hey, I did my time. Now you have to give me $100,000 a year to be an artist.” That’s not how it goes.

Inez Stepman:

When did this flip happen, from the 1950s where, as you say, and I agree, there was a lot more distributed of what we might call great art, throughout popular culture? Even thinking about 1950s versions of Mickey Mouse cartoons. Right?

David Marcus:

Sure. Looney Tunes.

Inez Stepman:

They often were scored with classical music, great classical music. They made references to Shakespeare. Even at the child entertainment level, our pop culture was infused with something of higher value.

David Marcus:

Mm-hmm.

Inez Stepman:

That was popular, as you say. It was popular, and people spent large proportions of their income on it. I’m wondering if that changed, maybe, with the camp movement?

David Marcus:

Yes.

Inez Stepman:

Which seemed to be contemptuous of what we might call middlebrow taste. Right?

David Marcus:

That is Siegel’s theory.

Inez Stepman:

That only the esoteric was … You think it changed with the camp movement?

David Marcus:

No. That’s Siegel’s theory.

Inez Stepman:

Oh, okay.

David Marcus:

He calls it kitsch, but yeah. Basically, Siegel’s theory. My theory veers more in the direction of that is also the period of time when the non-profits really came in and … Late ’50s, early ’60s is when most of those laws passed. Yeah. That’s the period. I mean, early to mid ’60s is when the change happened. I think we could probably look at a bunch of reasons why. Yeah. That’s when it changed. By the ’70s, it was completely different.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. That’s so interesting. It parallels so many things that just seem … We take for granted the idea that cities, for example, have high crime, that poverty correlates with high crime rates. These are things that have not always been true, but since the 1970s, we basically accept as ironclad rules. One of those things is that the average American isn’t interested in patronizing the arts, or patronizing. I don’t know how you say that word, but patronizing the arts, especially fine art. You’re right to say that’s completely not inevitable, and in fact, was different at one time.

Let me wrap and tie these two subjects together, the subject of your book and then the subject, or the profession that you have dedicated most of your life to, until you became a writer. What is the future of those kinds of live audience events that you seem to be so attached to? I mean, you mentioned that you’re not sure if people, even post-coronavirus, if people will be so digitized, atomized, online, that they’re not going to be interested in attending these kind of events. Or do you think that there’s going to be a resurgence? As you said, more people are attending mass at your church. Maybe there’ll be a similar resurgence in people just who really want to get that feeling of being in the middle of hundreds, or perhaps thousands of people, that has been denied to us both by the pandemic and then the attendant lockdowns?

David Marcus:

I mean, that’s the tension. Right? I don’t think that we’ve reached the orgiastic levels of the Summer of 2021 that a lot of people were expecting or looking forward to. I also don’t think that everybody stayed hidden in their apartments. I mean, Manhattan’s popping more than it was. It’s a real tension. It’s very strange to be watching television today, and watch a certain news network, and I’m seeing pictures of these hospitals that they say are almost to capacity. Right? I’m seeing these charts about COVID numbers. I’m seeing the president saying, “Put a mask on.” Then it cuts to commercial break and it’s an ad for a concert in Central Park in August. Right? That’s supposed to be, “Oh, we’re bringing it all back.” Right?

It’s like, “Wait a minute. On the one hand, you’re telling me the delta variant is way more transmissible. I get it, that the Central Park thing’s outside, but people have to get there, or whatever.” These messages just utterly cross purposes. I don’t know where it ultimately leads the American people. One thing that gives me a weird hope, even though my son desperately wants one of those headset VR things, and even though I probably will get him one, at some point, those have not taken off quite the way that I think a lot of people expected. Google Glass was a failure. People are buying the headsets but it’s not this overwhelming thing. I do think there is a level at which when you put one of those things on, and you are so cut off from the actual world around you, I think it still makes people uncomfortable. Now, that might change. Right?

I mean, you’ve seen the movie Ready Player One. That envisions a world in which that has changed. I still think today, if you put one of those things on someone’s head, after about six or seven minutes they want to know if someone’s standing behind them, or if anybody’s in the room, or whatever. There may be that the human mind, and human emotions, that there is a limit. Right? At a certain point, it’s not enough, or conversely, it’s too much, and we need that regular human interaction. Boy, I don’t know. I mean, I guess we’re going to find out.

Inez Stepman:

That brings up a final point, a final question I have for you. Do you think that we’ve been denied catharsis, in a way, after this pandemic? Because the issues during the pandemic became so politically contentious, for various reasons, because they became part of our culture war battles, because we are at each other’s throats about this. This definitely wasn’t a coming together moment for America. Do you think that we’ve been denied … Because I expected, at the beginning of this, that when it was over, that we would all come back together and have a huge party, and cry, and hug each other, and say, “It’s over. It’s over. We suffered through this historical pandemic. Now that’s come to an end. We can enjoy each other’s company.”

I thought there would be this explosion of catharsis. What we’re seeing instead is that we’re separating even more. It seems like some people’s pandemics ended a year ago, and a lot of people’s pandemics, it almost seems like they are never … There’s very little, other than going to absolutely zero COVID cases, that’s ever going to make them go back to a pre-pandemic normal. I mean, have we been denied that catharsis? What does that mean for our future, going forward in the next year, two, three years?

David Marcus:

I mean, we probably have. I mean, maybe it’s been a slow catharsis, because now you can go back inside a restaurant, then you couldn’t, then you could, now you can do this, now you can do … I mean, there’s been this slow opening up. You make a really good point about the difference depending on where you are in the country. Right? Very early on in this, and again, I was still at The Federalist, and I was on one of the lists, because we were talking about stories or whatever. I said, “Is this the most significant crisis that the United States has faced since …” I can’t remember if I pulled a Joe Biden and went Civil War, what I went with, but I went with something a long time ago. Right?

The managing editor, our friend, Joy Pullmann, replied back relatively quickly with, “What crisis?” Right? Joy lives not in rural Indiana but not in urban Indiana. Her life never … Indiana wasn’t one of those states, like Florida and New York, or Texas, or California, that became the, “We’re going to put all our attention here. This one’s good. This one’s bad.” There were states, like Indiana, that really didn’t lock down all that much. It didn’t get noticed. People’s lives were not affected the way yours was and mine was, or whatever it was. Maybe the catharsis question goes back, again, to that question of we were never all in this together since we didn’t all have the same skin in the game. Ultimately, when the buzzer sounded, or when it eventually sounds, if it ever sounds, there’s not going to be the kind of parade that you have after your team wins the Super Bowl.

Inez Stepman:

Dave, thank you so much for coming on High Noon. This is David Marcus. His book is Charade, which you can purchase, I believe, anywhere books are sold. Thanks, Dave, for coming on. You can find his work at the New York Post going forward. Is that right, Dave?

David Marcus:

That’s correct. I waited all the way until the end for a sports analogy.

Inez Stepman:

I appreciate that since I am totally one of those people who knows nothing about sports. I’m the sports ball girl who has no idea. So, thank you so much for coming on, Dave.

David Marcus:

Thanks, Inez.

Inez Stepman:

Thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, IWF.org, or anywhere else that you get your podcasts and YouTube shows. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.