Retorts: Skating on the edge of theater

ROLLER DERBY is making a comeback. Is it a metaphor for modern political discourse? (Flickr/Kristina Hoeppe).

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by a “sport” called roller derby. The illegitimate cousin of professional “wrestling,” this cheesy enterprise was broadcast on Channel 13 and involved a bunch of actor-athletes racing on roller skates around a banked track while beating the heck out of each other.

It caught my attention principally for two reasons: it involved women – a rare thing in “sports” back then – and also that it appeared to have almost no rules.

Sure, there was some nonsense about “jamming” and an arcane point system, but the officials were in on the joke and made sure the matches stayed close regardless of any imbalance between the teams. If the games lacked sufficient drama, some semi-fictional “league official” would come out of the folding chair audience and overturn the outcome, leading to much show-punching and faux mayhem.

Later, I discovered that the obviously phony contest was even phonier that it appeared. There was no “league.” There were no Los Angeles Thunderbirds. It was all a traveling circus: the Thunderbirds became a New York or Chicago team when the troupe made its next stop in the Midwest.

Which brings to my mind the recent efforts to get local city councils to take a stand on SB 54, the state law that – among other things – limits cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.

Set aside, if you can, the merits of the proposition. A few things seem obvious to me.

One: It all makes for good (i.e., entertaining) theater.

Two: It all does not make a biscuit of difference.

I’ve sat through two of these bacchanalias, one in Huntington Beach and one in Westminster. They both lasted much longer than they should have, and involved mostly people repeating what the other guy (on his or her side, of course) just said.

I can close my eyes and still see the sea of “Make America Great Again” red caps, and the guy wrapped in the Mexican flag. I can still see the police officers trying, with impressive restraint, to keep the opposing sides from punching each other. I can praise myself for thinking ahead and stocking up on licorice for the long nights.

So as long as we’re going to have these things, we might as well go full-throttle for the amusement angle. If the Garden Grove City Council – which is clearly loathe to do so – gives in and agrees to take up the matter of opposing SB 54 – here’s how they might approach it.

  1. Hold the hearing in a really big place. Maybe a football stadium. Each side could bring in cheerleaders; a halftime band performance would be nice.
  2. Charge for admission. Brown Act? It’s so emasculated that it might as well be the Light Tan Act. When was the last time you saw someone go to jail for its violation?
  3. Speakers are limited to two minutes each. The greatest speech ever – the Gettysburg Address – took less time than that to recite. Don’t like that rule? Why do you hate Abraham Lincoln? Are you a communist?
  4. Speakers have to wear a uniform, signaling which side they are on. Speakers who do not actually reside within city limits must wear a wristband labeled “Ringer” and confine their remarks to saying, “What he (or she) said!” Anyone with a more nuanced position who can see merit to each side is obviously crazy and will be booed out of the place. His or her car will be keyed.
  5. Employ a team of college debate coaches to officiate the hearing, throwing yellow flags when speakers use incorrect or unsupported information, bigoted remarks, or terms like “snowflake” or “racist.” Penalties range from having a minute deducted from their speaking time all the way to being forced to take a calculus class (admittedly irrelevant, but certainly a punishment).
  6. Wind it all up with a “lightning round” in which one speaker from each side answers questions about constitutional law, U.S. history and the best places to eat around town.
  7. Declare a tie and have three lawyers come in and give nine really lengthy opinions in droning legalese on who really won.
  8. Wake up the audience and send them home.

Or we could just set up the banked track and let the two sides settle it like that. Either way, it’s like that old roller derby star, Wild Bill Shakespeare used to say: “A tale … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears every other week, usually on Wednesdays. He’s a moving target.


Leave a Reply