Please Don’t Shoot The Piano Player. He’s Doing The Best He Can!

Please Don't Shoot The Piano Player. He's Doing The Best He Can!

The following column by Joe Wilkins on June 18, 2017 is reprinted with permission:

My favorite Pilgrim, who would have gotten up early to vote against the man, suggested we drive out to the shrine and light a candle for Congressman Scalise and the others injured in the shooting tragedy at the ballpark. As candles were lit and prayers said, I thought of the old "Don't shoot the piano player" sign.

I've always loved that quote. It's a down-to-earth, plain language plea for tolerance of human shortcomings like godawful piano playing and hyper-partisan politics. Don't know where or when the quote originated, but I first saw it on a sign hung above the piano in Saul Bogatin's bar on Pacific Avenue near Atlantic City's famous Knife and Fork restaurant. Bogatin's was a small late-night bar where aging lifeguards and their girlfriends, the occasional hooker, and entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin hung out after they finished their shows at the 500 Club or the Club Harlem.

It is particularly apt advice in today's politics. We have no tolerance at all for differences of opinion amid an endless supply of human shortcomings. But life is so arranged that the greater our ignorance the more certain are our opinions. Aristotle, for example, taught that the earth is the center of the universe, around which all else moves. For nearly 2,000 years Aristotle's wrong theory was taught. Then Galileo became convinced Copernicus was right; the earth moves around the sun. But teaching that was forbidden by the Church as heresy. Galileo  thought he could get away with such teaching, a mistake for which he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

If those geniuses can make such mistakes, the average politician can hardly claim infallibility. Nor can I. Nor can you dear reader. We can all be wrong, and often so.

Why, then, are folks so tempted to shoot lousy piano players or wrong-headed politicians?  When we are goaded into constant anger against each other, the weak-minded predictably fall back on violence. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote, partisan commentators have "made anger into an industry – using it to run up the number of listeners, viewers and hits." It's lucrative with profits guaranteed by employers like Fox News, Breitbart, Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and other fearmongers.

You ask why? Because what Churchill called "the Money Power" and FDR called "malefactors of great wealth" chafe in the governmental harness of public obligations. It  slows them down.  They aim to break government's power to harness their energy to the public interest.  But  the home truth is that when the government has no power, the powerful govern.

How does it work? First you need a scapegoat. Blacks, Jews, gays, long-haired hippies or whoever's handy. Then you weaken our trust in our own government. You set country against city, whites against blacks, schoolteachers against taxpayers. Teach the public to distrust the media. Persuade the working class to distrust their own unions. Preach the nonsense that if a prejudiced small business owner refuses to bake a wedding cake for gays it is his constitutional right, a sacred observance and a winning political ploy.

It is no accident that the weaker our government grows, the more unfettered the wealthy become to re-open unsafe coal mines, to ruin our banking system in pursuit of instant profits, and to ship paying work to distant places where children fill the factory jobs.

The manipulators have mastered the art of egging us on to hate each other and our own government. In the '90s an unholy alliance arose between the messaging and marketing maestro Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich, a relentlessly ambitious Republican congressman. Gingrich was ready to say anything that would get him publicity, and Luntz gave him the vocabulary with which to say it. Use explosive words, Luntz urged. Denounce "liberals" and "Democrats" with words like "corrupt, devour, greed, hypocrisy, sick and traitors." Anti-government lobbyist Grover Norquist insisted we shrink our government until it's small enough to "drown it in the bathtub."

Under Trump, we are re-learning the hard lesson that the less power a democratic government has, the more the powerful govern.                    

We should not shoot piano players or wrong-headed politicians, no matter how bad they are. But neither should we sugar-coat political speech. As one strong-minded woman exec told me:"If I paid good money for a pianist for my wedding who promoted himself as the greatest and it turned out all he could play was Chopsticks, I'd be tempted to shoot the son of a bitch!"  She never would; especially given her vigorous anti-gun stance. But lying incompetents and wrong-headed politicians must, in a democracy, be held accountable, and that means blunt talk.

Of all the politicians in office today, the most determinedly wrong-headed is Senate Majority Republican leader Mitch McConnell. He has disappeared into the bowels of the Capitol Building with 13 hand-picked Republican Senatorial henchmen to patch together the Senate Republican version of the disastrous Health Care bill. But I can't work up a good hate even for Mitch. Only a nut job would wish him harm, even though he's planning to scotch-tape a bastard bill together and throw it on the Senate floor some dark and stormy night for an ambush vote. The worst I can do is wish him good health, a long life and the earliest possible retirement.

Come to think of it, there was another sign at Saul Bogatin's saloon; "Wanted: Piano player who can open clams and oysters!" Maybe we should advertise for a replacement for ol' Mitch as Republican Leader with a sign that says:  "Wanted: Senator who can open clams and oysters. And help the public!"

Editor's Note:  Joe Wilkins is the author of "Kennedy's Recruit," "The Speaker Who Locked Up the House" and "The Skin Game and Other Atlantic City Capers." All  are available on Amazon's Kindle.