The Daily

Feedback 2017

Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” which for months has been called the right movie at the right moment, felt relevant, if in less magical and obvious ways. It doesn’t have the engine of a classic fairy tale, but rather the power of a populist Frank Capra fairy tale. It tells the story of how the Washington Post printed the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration, as the administration actively sought ways to subvert the newspaper’s First Amendment rights. When Chicago actress Carrie Coon (playing journalist Meg Greenfield) reads the Supreme Court decision — saying the press exists to “serve the governed, not the governors” — I imagine it was hard for Coon to not look directly into the camera and wink. Unlike the years of development most movies take, “The Post” came together remarkably fast; it didn’t start shooting until Memorial Day.

You feel the clipped urgency to get it on screen immediately.

It’s The End of The Year And I Feel … Fine? A Cultural Review of 2017, Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune, December 29, 2017

This year, I wrote a bit on this blog about our democratic institutions under attack and the role lawyers and judges (Branch3) are playing in preserving our representative democracy. You can find some of that here (The Weight) and here (Common Sense). 2017 was the year we witnessed the relative strengths and weaknesses of the institutions we have relied on as a people for almost three hundred years now.

My life, in many ways, is a testament to conflict. And the art thereof. Any trial lawyer will tell you the same.

Feedback is described as  the “1) elec. the transfer of  part of the output of an active circuit or device back to the input, either as an unwanted effect or in an intentional use, as to reduce distortion; 2) a) a progress in which the factors that produce a result are themselves modified, corrected, strengthened, etc. by that result b) a response, as one that sets a process in motion.”

Feedback is a natural response that can be used and controlled to achieve a desired effect – sometimes art representing life, sometimes life itself. Maybe you’ve seen an electric guitar player on stage turn his back to the audience to slide his or her guitar across the front of the monitors and amplifiers. He or she is encouraging a change in the electrical charge or currents to create distortion and/or feedback.

I’ve seen Patterson Hood stomp around on dozens of stages – spitting, grinning, raising his head and arms to the heavens  (beseeching a higher power) and crawling around on the floor (trying to control a lower one). I’ve seen him wrench walls of distortion and sound out of his guitar and just leave it leaning against the amp, still blasting walls of feedback even as he left the stage.

The point is that feedback is a natural response to tension and conflict – it can even be an intentional and productive one. When one current of activity antagonizes another, you get a response. While it might seem annoying at first, if you relax and learn to see in and through conflict, you can actually use the experience. It is helpful to remember that the feedback is a natural product of conflict. The longer tension continues, the longer and louder the feedback will ring. I’ve heard both reality and beauty in all the distorted feedback produced by artists like Hood and his sidekick Mike Cooley, Bob Mould, Frank Black, Doug Martsch and countless others. I have the right ear tinnitus to prove it.

We are producing a lot of feedback today. It is good to remember that we were born in the feedback loop of tension and conflict. Our founders created and took advantage of that tension and conflict. To match their vision of self-governance separated from a distant autocrat, they created a new kind of government with conflict and tension built into the operation of three equal and competing branches of government. They anticipated tyrannical presidents (thinking of Washington himself and his lordly Order of Cincinnati). Their model simply mirrors the natural order of all matter – born in tension and conflict. Ever since Magna Carta (blogged here), our system has recognized the value in resolving natural conflict – not on the battlefield – but within  a system of laws and rules approved by and for the governed.

If the art and usefulness of conflict has gone awry in our society, how many of our ills are a result? More importantly, how many of those ills can be improved by better handling conflict? Rather than using our Constitution as a punchline without real understanding (which I maintain is often the case today), reading and reflecting on our founding documents (and not through the prism of one dogma or another) would be a good start. Conflict can be good. It can also be terrifying and awful. My abiding belief is that our system is designed to produce the most productive kind of conflict. If we can simply, all of us, behave.