History Has Its Eyes on You

Every action has an equal, opposite reaction, and so whenever any piece of popular culture becomes a runaway success, you can set your watch to the moment when the backlash comes roaring up behind it.

Seeing as Americans are determined never to agree on anything—albeit some of us more vigorously than others—it is inevitable—and probably for the best—that even the most widely and deeply beloved of our national treasures will sooner or later find a detractor or two hiding under some rock or other.

However, for a good long while, it appeared that in this regard—as in so many others—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was truly one-of-a-kind.  That this audacious, revisionist Broadway musical-cum-history lesson had transcended all the usual cultural mores, rules and laws (including gravity) to emerge as the one thing on which everyone can agree.  Call it the Adele of the Great White Way.

As a true believer, I was perfectly fine with this rarefied mass ecstasy over (of all things) an expensive Broadway show.  As much as I value open debate on practically any subject, listening to the Hamilton cast album over and over has become something approaching a religious experience, and we all know what happens to reasoned dissent once religion enters the picture.

All the same, over the last week or so, a sort of anti-Hamilton faction has finally—finally!—begun to consolidate in various online media outlets.  While I have so far found the arguments in these pieces generally misguided and unconvincing, it is imperative that my fellow fanatics take a break from their unconditional Hamilton love and read them.  They might be surprised how much they learn.

While these critiques are by no means interchangeable—their authors approach Hamilton in different ways and reach different conclusions—they tend to focus on one of two claims:  First, that Hamilton is not as historically accurate as it appears; and second, that it is not as socially progressive or “revolutionary” as its creators and fans have proclaimed.

At first blush, the complaints about accuracy could be dismissed as preposterous—not because they’re false, mind you, but rather because strict adherence to historical truth is so obviously not this show’s primary objective.  To any fair-minded listener, it should become clear—say, during the Cabinet meeting where Hamilton tells Jefferson, “Sittin’ there useless as two shits / Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you / Where my shoe fits”—that Miranda has granted himself certain liberties with the Founding Fathers that are, shall we say, fairly easy to infer.

It is the nature and the right of historical dramas to take history into their own hands for the sake of clarity and entertainment.  One must never let facts get in the way of a good story (as Mark Twain may or may not have said) and while the Revolution is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time, artists have always manipulated the events of 1776 to their own ends.  It is absurd to hold dramatists to the same academic standard as historians and biographers.  “All we can reasonably ask,” Roger Ebert once wrote about a certain film, “is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

That brings us to the more compelling and provocative critique, which says that—contrary to the prevailing view that Hamilton is a watershed moment in American culture—there is actually nothing historically innovative about Miranda’s take on the Founding Fathers.  Specifically, that despite its ethnically diverse cast and über-contemporary soundtrack, Hamilton is ultimately just one more show that lionizes famous white men—and only white men—who birthed a nation that purposefully and violently excluded African-Americans and other undesirables from realizing their fullest potential as human beings.

In her superb essay, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro sees Hamilton as a continuation of so-called “founders chic,” observing, “[D]espite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. […] Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.”  (Monteiro then proceeds to name several black individuals who could easily have figured into Miranda’s story.)

Continuing this thought in an equally-thoughtful blog post, “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is,” NYU PhD student James McMaster writes:

“[I]n Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States—colonizers all, slaveholders some—are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States.  Case in point:  During ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ when the talented Daveed Diggs argues as Thomas Jefferson for the security of the South’s slave-holding economy, the actor’s blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States.”

While we should all be extremely grateful for these reminders of the truth—the whole truth—of how this country came into being, my immediate response to these charges with regards to Hamilton is through an old Stephen Hawking line:  “You can’t think of everything.”

Or, to put it slightly less glibly:  Lin-Manuel Miranda devised a particular way to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton that would serve his own interests, which meant that a boatload of other interests—however worthy—would necessarily be left on the cutting room floor.

In point of fact, the writing of every play, movie and book in history has involved including a million little details while omitting a million others.  To be a writer is to be an editor and a synthesizer—as David McCullough once said, “I’m not a writer; I’m a re-writer”—which requires making choices that both sharpen and narrow the focus of one’s work in order not to juggle too many balls at once.

Contra Monteiro, who takes issue with Hamilton’s tagline, “The story of America then, told by American now,” I interpret the race-conscious casting not as a means to conceal the founders’ inherent white supremacy, but rather to demonstrate that the ideals for which they fought apply to people of all races.  That most of the founders clearly didn’t intend this at the time is an irony that cannot (and should not) be overlooked, and part of what makes Hamilton so irresistible is the implicit knowledge that if the real people suddenly materialized and saw themselves being portrayed by the likes of Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs, their expressions would be worth well over 1,000 words each.

In short:  Hamilton does not directly confront the realities and consequences of slavery because, in the end, that’s not what the play is about.  Miranda chose to dramatize the life of Alexander Hamilton and the handful of powerful people with whom he interacted, and that is how the piece should be judged.  Call me old-fashioned, but I find it slightly unfair to critique an artist for the work he didn’t produce rather than the work he did.

This does not mean that objections like the ones above should not be raised and heard.  If Hamilton has any purpose beyond entertainment, it’s to stimulate interest in the history of the United States—including the history that Hamilton does not have the time or inclination to cover.  If Miranda and company truly intend to democratize the country’s founding, they should own the ways in which their own efforts are incomplete.  They don’t need to be complete, but nor should they suggest that they are.

As it stands, we are left with exactly what we’ve always had:  A brilliant, addictive piece of theatre that we can love and question at the same time.  A guaranteed job creator for every talented non-white actor in New York that is nonetheless a celebration of dead, white slavers.

The truth is that Hamilton invited this minefield of hypocrisy the moment it took on America as its primary subject.  As a wise man said:  It’s full of contradictions, but so is independence.

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Whodunit?

There’s an old personality test—introduced to me in middle school and lovingly preserved on the interwebs—involving a woman who gets herself killed journeying between her husband and her lover.  The “test,” as it were, centers on the question of who is most to blame for the woman’s untimely death.  Is it the bored husband who neglected to take his wife along on his business trip?  Is it the greedy boatman who refused to ferry her across the river to safety?  Is it the heartless boyfriend who didn’t lift a finger in her defense?  Or is it the woman herself for being unfaithful and blundering into the wrong place at the wrong time?

It’s a ridiculous conceit, but the idea is that how you assign blame for the woman’s murder is determined by what you value most in life.  The options, in this case, include such things as “fun,” “sex,” “money” and, my personal favorite, “magic.”

Anyway, that story’s been on my mind for the last few days as I’ve seen Donald Trump campaign events descend into violence and mayhem whenever a gaggle of anti-Trump agitators has sneaked its way into the arena.

With regards to these unholy scuffles, everyone seems to have a firm opinion about who is most at fault.  Interestingly, however—and I think you know where I’m going with this—no one can quite agree on who, exactly, that is.

Obviously, then, what we need is to update that silly game about the two-timing wife so that it applies to our own time and our own values.  With Trump—a man who stands as America’s signal Rorschach test of 2016—we can learn a great deal about how each of us thinks just by how we interpret what is happening directly in front of our eyes.

From a sampling of reactions, we find that most people trace the cause of this campaign unrest to either a) the protesters, b) Trump supporters or c) Trump himself.  To an extent, one’s opinion of these incidents is merely an affectation of one’s politics:  If you find Donald Trump generally detestable, you generally attribute all detestable acts to the man himself.  Conversely, if you think Trump speaks truth to political correctness, you find fault only with those who are preventing him from speaking.  It’s confirmation bias in action:  You see what you want to see and filter out everything else.

But of course, all of that is but the tip of the bloody, bloody iceberg.  However illuminating it might be to debate which side threw the first punch, it’s not until folks start to blame those who weren’t even in the room that the real fun begins.

We might start with the Donald himself, who has fingered Bernie Sanders as the main culprit for the madness, saying that the party crashers at his gatherings are on direct marching orders from the socialist from Vermont.  It is noteworthy that Trump bases this claim on no evidence whatsoever, while he has simultaneously blamed other outbursts on ISIS—yes, that ISIS—due to a YouTube video that was swiftly exposed as a typical Internet hoax.  As Trump explained on Meet the Press, “All I know is what’s on the Internet,” reminding us that he is apparently the one person in America who believes, with all his heart, that if it’s online, it must be true.

Farce that this undeniably is, such behavior nonetheless offers real insights into Trump’s personality and that of his fellow travelers.  Strongest among these, perhaps, is the value of “truthiness,” a.k.a. believing something to be true simply because your gut tells you so.

In fact, Trump’s entire movement is dependent on truthiness, since at least 80 percent of his campaign’s major claims are demonstrably false and his promise of “restoring America’s greatness” is one big fatuous smoke-and-mirrors routine containing nary a whiff of substance or honest reporting.  If all presidential candidates engage in hyperbole, Trump is unique for engaging in absolutely nothing else.

The real problem, though, is how sinister that hyperbole has been for the last nine months and how deeply it has metastasized within the GOP.  While this week’s outright physical violence might be relatively new, the truth is that Trump and his flock have been blaming other people for America’s problems for his entire presidential run.  Like any seasoned demagogue, Trump has invented most of this blame from whole cloth, while at other times he has even managed to invent the problems themselves.  (Who would ever know, for instance, that net immigration from Mexico is actually negative over the last five years, or that U.S. military spending increased from 2014 to 2015?)

Which leads us, as it must, to the most disturbing personality quirk of all:  The one that blames all of this turmoil on African-Americans and views the entire American experience in terms of white supremacy.

While it would be irresponsible to peg every Trump voter as a white supremacist—or, specifically, a Nazi or a Klansman—the point is that Trump rallies have become a safe space—if not a veritable breeding ground—for white people who think that punching, kicking and spitting on black people is their God-given right as members of a privileged race.  For all Trump’s claims that the protesters are the true instigators of these melees, most video clips suggest otherwise:  Largely, we just keep seeing groups of young, mostly black people nonviolently holding up signs and chanting cheeky slogans while white guards and white attendees proceed to manhandle them with the greatest possible force—egged on, every single time, by the candidate himself.

You see pictures like these—paired with people like Mike Huckabee calling the protesters “thugs,” a word that Republicans only ever use to describe African-Americans—and you realize all that’s missing are the dogs and the fire hoses.

Among the many sick ironies of Donald Trump is his supposed fidelity to the First Amendment, which he claims the dissenters at his rallies are attempting to suppress (as if Trump has ever lacked an outlet for expressing himself on a moment’s notice).  Historical ignoramus that he is, he doesn’t seem to realize that, when it comes to muzzling free speech, few things are more effective than riling up a large gang of angry white people by telling them how to mistreat a small gang of dark-skinned antagonists.  (And then, of course, pleading ignorance when those same white people do exactly what you suggest.)

Even if there were nothing at all race-based in Trump and company’s behavior, we would still be left with this profoundly dangerous idea that all problems can, and should, be solved with physical violence.  To hear Trump talk, you’d think his were the first-ever campaign events to feature any sort of disruptors and that there is no rational response except to treat them like enemy combatants.  (How long before Trump recommends waterboarding?)

The relevant terms here are “escalate” and “de-escalate.”  As any honest police officer knows, whenever you are faced with a potentially explosive situation, it is your moral responsibility to try to de-escalate tensions and not make matters worse.  Indeed, for anyone who wields authority or influence over others—not least in politics—the obligation to lead by example and get your minions under control is absolute and non-negotiable.

Donald Trump has failed that charge over and over again.  In so doing, he has revealed which values he holds dear and which values he does not—if, that is, he can be said to possess any values at all.

It proved quite prescient that Trump opened his campaign while riding an escalator in Trump Tower in Manhattan:  As it turns out, he is an escalator.