Inglorious Bastard

I spent the better part of last Friday evening with the new Quentin Tarantino picture, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, a film that anyone with even a mild appreciation of cinematic history really owes to himself or herself to see.  Like every other Tarantino project to date (only more so), this one is about nothing so much as the joy and richness of the movies themselves.  For those, like me, with a soft spot for American culture in the late 1960s, there may not be a more blissful 160 minutes spent in a movie theater this year.

That is, except for the violence against women, of which (one might say) there is slightly more than is strictly necessary.

For all his unheralded success—creative and financial—over the past quarter-century, Quentin Tarantino has always presented as a problematic figure in the Hollywood-industrial complex.  Early on, in films like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, Tarantino was taken to task for his screenplays’ rather liberal use of the word “nigger” by white and black characters alike—a pattern that led admirers like me to half-jokingly surmise that perhaps he, like Rachel Dolezal years later, is under a mistaken impression of his own racial identity and privilege.  (In fact, he identifies as a mixture of Irish, Italian and Cherokee.)

When he hasn’t been batting away accusations of racial insensitivity and/or appropriation, Tarantino has had to answer for his oeuvre’s general use of extreme, gratuitous violence as an integral part of each

film’s narrative arc—typically in the form of Mexican standoff-like confrontations involving guns, knives and the occasional samurai sword.  (Not to mention the one-off deaths caused by such things as poisoned coffee, a black mamba snake and a Pop-Tart.)

That Tarantino has gotten away with this—earning critical adulation and impressive box office returns, to boot—is due, in great part, to the knowing, witty, near-cartoonish nature of that violence.  Like country music, abstract expressionism or Boris Johnson, it almost dares you to take it seriously, ultimately earning your admiration and approval through sheer force of style.

More to the point, the dynamic of these bloodbaths is either to pit good guys versus bad guys—with the former always triumphing in the end—or to contain no good guys at all, and therefore no one to feel especially sorry for.

As such, despite the excessiveness of it all, the morality of Tarantino’s cinematic smackdowns has historically been fairly straightforward:  A band of Jewish renegades massacres an auditorium full of Nazis, say, and we cheer them on because, hey, what’s more pleasurable and cathartic than sticking it to the Third Reich?  Sure, maybe the job could’ve been done with 10 bullets instead of 10,000—plus or minus the flammable nitrate film that burns the joint to the ground, for good measure—but then who ever went to a Tarantino flick for sensibility or restraint?

Indeed, Tarantino’s sinister genius in these set pieces is to make them so perversely and deliriously enjoyable that we become implicated in them—accessories rather than bystanders, tacitly condoning the use of over-the-top carnage, against our supposedly better judgment.

Where this becomes uncomfortable—as it now has in two Tarantino films in a row—is when the carnage is visited by a strong man upon a weak woman.  In 2015’s The Hateful Eight—spoiler alert!—there was Jennifer Jason Leigh being lynched by a gleeful, chuckling Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins.  And now in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood—spoiler alert number two!—we have a set of Manson Family acolytes—barely old enough to drive—being mauled, burned and body-slammed by two of America’s most beloved movie stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

To be clear:  In context, all of those women had it coming.  By this point in their respective films, they’d already wrecked unholy havoc unto others and were hell-bent on wrecking even more, given the chance.  They are not passive, innocent victims.  They have agency and, like many of their male counterparts, are unambiguously wretched people.

It is for that very reason that the audience feels licensed to revel in their messy, sadistic demise at the hands of men who are all-too-happy to bring it about.  The net result is an auditorium full of people hooting and hollering at women being brutalized, and there’s just no way around the awkwardness of it springing from the mind of a 56-year-old man-child with #MeToo issues.

Lest we forget—as most of the culture apparently has—Tarantino owes the balance of his career to one Harvey Weinstein, the producer and sexual super-predator about whom Tarantino famously said in October 2017, “I knew enough to do more than I did.”  While the director himself has not been accused of sexual criminality—and reportedly confronted Weinstein about his criminal behavior on at least two occasions in the past—he was, by his own accounting, ultimately an enabler of a serial rapist for the sake of preserving and advancing his own career.

The question—as it has been during the 22 months of the #MeToo era—is:  What do we do this information?  Outside of the legal system, how do we assign blame and allocate punishment for the systematic, grisly, institutionalized raping and pillaging of vulnerable women by some of the most powerful men in show business—and, in this case, for those who allowed it to happen and only apologized when they were cornered and had no other choice?

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is Tarantino’s first new movie since #MeToo began.  I must confess that, although I was aware of his negligence vis-à-vis Harvey Weinstein—not to mention his recklessly pressuring Uma Thurman into doing her own stunt driving in Kill Bill, resulting in serious injury—I had somehow put them entirely out of my mind until the moment Brad Pitt slammed the Manson girls’ heads against the wall in the film’s climactic scene.  And even then, I grew only faintly cognizant of how grotesque it was for a filmmaker with such a checkered relationship with the gentler sex—and supposedly chastened by the belated exposure of his longtime benefactor—to choose to conclude his movie by beating the living daylights out of a pair of women known primarily for falling under the influence of a powerful, dangerous sociopath.

It’s not a terribly great look—not for Tarantino, and not for the men in the audience (like me) who can so easily check their feminist wokeness at the door for the sake of entertainment—and the fact that nobody seems to give a damn suggests either that few hold Tarantino liable for the abominations committed by the producer with whom he worked for 25 years, or that #MeToo itself is on the wane in the public consciousness, as we return to the status quo ante in which men can do whatever they want and, because they’re famous, we let them do it.

 

To Love a Country

In a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate, Mitt Romney was asked, “What do you dislike most about America?”

To the shock of nobody, Romney dodged the question completely, responding, “Gosh, I love America,” adding, “What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people—hard-working, innovative, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented American people.”

It was a lovely thought, perfectly in keeping with the public persona of the ex-governor, now-senator we have come to know and, um, not completely hate.

Really, with a dozen years of hindsight, the most remarkable thing about that moment was that the question was even asked—that someone angling to be America’s commander-in-chief was challenged in a public forum to critique the very country he hoped to lead.

Indeed, when Romney took another whack at the presidency in 2012, he released a memoir of sorts, No Apology, whose title more or less summed up the attitude of his campaign.  As far as he was concerned, America is an idyllic land of milk and honey that has only ever been a force for good in the world, for which it should feel nothing but unadulterated, chest-thumping pride. 

As you’ll recall, President Obama’s greatest sin in office, according to Romney and others, was to have had the temerity to apologize for America’s various historical blunders—particularly on matters of race and foreign policy—thereby implying the nation is somehow less than perfect.  The nerve!

While Romney himself has since slunk off into complete obscurity—i.e., the Senate—his view of the United States as a moral dynamo on the world stage whose superiority must never be questioned has only hardened as Republican Party orthodoxy in the years since.

Or so we were informed last week by the current president, Donald Trump, who in a Twitter broadside against four congresswomen that managed to blend howling racism with wholesale incoherence, argued that anyone who is skeptical about how the United States is run—including those who have been elected to run it—has no business residing within the country’s borders and ought to “go back” to the far-flung lands “from which they came.”

“IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE,” the president tweeted, “YOU CAN LEAVE!”

Beyond the irony that three-fourths of the congresswomen in question were, in fact, born in the United States, it has been duly noted that few people in public life have been more openly scornful of U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the years than Trump himself.  Indeed, for all the money and privilege—untaxed and unchecked, respectively—that has spilled into his lap practically since birth, the president never seems to run out of grievances about the place that has handed him everything on a silver platter, up to and including its highest public office.

And yet.

Setting aside the singular, noxious bigotry that informs much of our Dear Leader’s enmity toward a republic founded on the principles of liberty, pluralism and equal justice under the law, Trump is absolutely correct in expressing his misgivings about his homeland without fear of persecution or prejudice.  He is right to assert—as he so memorably did in a 2017 interview on Fox News—that America is not “so innocent” in its behavior toward its geopolitical adversaries and, by implication, shouldn’t be held up as the moral paragon that the Mitt Romneys of the world would have you believe it is.

In other words, if you want an ironclad rebuke to the tweets of Donald Trump, look no further than the actions of Donald Trump.

That said, the president’s personal hypocrisy on this matter needn’t obscure the deeper truth, which is that the greatness of America resides precisely in the right of every one of its citizens to criticize it, because criticism, in the right hands, is among the sincerest expressions of patriotism and love.

Surely, Frederick Douglass had a few choice words for his mother country throughout his life—words that, we can safely say, have redounded to America’s benefit in the long run.  Ditto for the likes of Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony and Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader and innumerable other restless rabble-rousers who found a glaring blemish in the national complexion and took it upon themselves to fix it.

Criticizing your country is the first step to perfecting it.  It’s how you keep your country honest, challenging it to live up to its loftiest ideals.

Why settle for anything less?

Racism at the Museum

This is why I don’t like being part of a club:  Because whenever one member of the club does something stupid, it somehow makes every other member look (and feel) like an idiot.

As reported last week in the Boston Globe, earlier this month a group of seventh graders from a predominantly African-American middle school in Boston went on a class trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, during which they were subjected to an unexpected torrent of racism from staff and fellow patrons alike.

According to witnesses, shortly after their arrival, the class was told by a museum docent, “No food, no drink and no watermelon.”  Later on, students reported being trailed throughout the galleries—to the point of extreme discomfort—by various security guards who seemed to have no interest in the white kids nearby.  Additionally, according to the Globe, one student was chided by an adult museumgoer “about paying attention in the MFA so she could avoid a career as a stripper,” while another visitor blurted out, “there’s [expletive] black kids in the way.”

And we wonder why Boston is still regarded as a less-than-hospitable place for black people to live and raise their families.

Reading the details of this bizarre field trip from hell, I found myself embarrassed and appalled at least three times over:  First, as a human being; second, as a longtime resident of greater Boston; and third, as a frequent visitor to—and member of—the Museum of Fine Arts itself.

See, it’s one thing when some casual act of Northern racism occurs on a subway platform or in the bleachers at Fenway Park—places that are loud, dense, messy and more-or-less open to the general public.

By contrast, an art museum—in this case, arguably the finest in all of New England and the silver bullet in Boston’s cultural arsenal—is supposed to be the sort of refined, enlightened and (it must be said) exclusive repository of human excellence where that sort of submental crap doesn’t happen.  I don’t know about you, but I can spend hours wandering through art galleries without uttering a word to anyone, let alone complaining about “[expletive] black kids” and giving unsolicited career advice to random 13-year-old girls I might encounter along the way.

As an MFA member—someone who, for a mere $75 per year, is free to explore the museum’s innumerable holdings and special exhibitions to my heart’s desire—I take my privileges seriously enough to respect the institution and all the people in it, and I expect everyone else to do the same.

And so, when a pair of fellow patrons made a wretched spectacle of themselves in the very halls where the city’s most priceless treasures are displayed, I could not help but take it personally.  Much as the rotten behavior of one ballplayer reflects poorly on the entire team, so, too, did it feel as though the bald racism of two museum guests tainted the character of all the others.

I love the MFA dearly, and I don’t want to tell an out-of-towner about some terrific new exhibit there and be asked, “Oh, you mean the place that treats black people like garbage?”  Nor, I might add, do I want to be in the position of answering, “Yes, that’s the one.”

Following a formal inquiry, the MFA—to its credit—was able to identity the morons who made those ridiculous comments and has banned them from the premises.  (Both were, in fact, members.)  As for the “watermelon” comment from an unnamed staff member, officials could neither confirm nor refute that such a thing was said:  The person in question claimed to have told the class, “No food, no drink and no water bottles”—the official museum policy for all visitors—raising the possibility that he or she either severely misspoke or (less likely) was misheard.

Regarding the overbearing security guards, a museum spokesperson insisted—rather unconvincingly—that they were following normal protocol at all times, while nonetheless acknowledging, “[I]t is understandable that […] the students felt followed [and] it is unacceptable that they felt racially profiled, targeted, and harassed.”

As short-term damage control goes, the MFA’s response to this mess has been reasonably adequate, insomuch as it has taken the students’ complaints seriously, has apologized multiple times and in multiple ways, and has pledged to reassess and tweak its policies to ensure this sort of horror show doesn’t happen again.

In the long term—as the Globe and others have loudly opined over the last week—the museum needs to figure out how to foster a clientele that is sufficiently diverse—racially, socioeconomically—that a group of black seventh-graders will feel just as welcome and at-home there as I do.

This could certainly be achieved through an acceleration of the MFA’s pre-existing effort to spotlight more artists of color in its galleries, events and various other special programs—and to make those events free of charge, as many of them already are.

Or better yet:  Why not just make the whole damn place free of charge?  Rather than perpetuating the aura of exclusivity (read: exclusion) that its $25 admission fee engenders, why shouldn’t this most indispensable of civic institutions truly become a gathering place for all the people, à la the Boston Public Library or Faneuil Hall?  If New York’s Metropolitan Museum can offer free—or rather, voluntary—admission for all New York State residents without going bankrupt, why not the MFA?

It won’t solve all of Boston’s racism problems at once.  But it would at least be an acknowledgement that those problems still exist, and that access to art is no less essential to a flourishing and equitable society than access to education or healthcare.  Someday the world will understand that, and thereby become an immeasurably better place to live.

Stop Punching People in the Face

Leave it to America’s far left to make fighting Nazis seem unreasonable.

This past Saturday, my hometown of Boston, Mass., became a focal point in the racial and political unrest that has seized the nation since the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., the previous weekend.  In the City of Beans, a gang of similarly-minded individuals planned to hold a “free speech rally” on Boston Common—speech that presumably would include incitements to racial and anti-Semitic violence, à la Charlottesville.

In response, city residents mounted what could only be described as an overwhelming show of counter-force:  a phalanx of 40,000 sign-wielding liberals who marched two miles from Roxbury to the Common in a concerted effort to demonstrate just how undesirable racism has become in this increasingly welcoming New England town.

Of those 40,000 people, 33 were arrested for disorderly conduct such as throwing rocks and bottles at police and instigating scuffles with those they deemed to be their mortal enemies—i.e., Nazis, Klansmen and the like.

In such a contentious, emotionally-wrought environment, 33 arrests might seem like small potatoes—a negligible amount of hooliganism in an otherwise respectful and orderly exercise of free assembly in an uncertain time.

Indeed, it would be an impressively small figure, except for one thing:  There were virtually no white supremacists on Boston Common that day.

Yes:  Initially, several representatives of America’s leading neo-Nazi groups—including those who appeared in Charlottesville—were slotted to speak at the Common’s Parkman Bandstand on Saturday.  However, because the blowback to this event was so ferocious—on the part of both ordinary citizens and the city’s mayor and chief of police—nearly all of the most contemptible and poisonous of these genocidal thugs opted to get the hell out of town before the thing ever really got off the ground.

What remained of this “free speech rally,” then, was a disparate, minuscule and heavily cordoned-off collection of libertarian weirdos whose unifying purpose seemed to be nothing more concrete than to celebrate the right to gather in a public park and make an unholy spectacle of yourself.  Among the few who actually spoke (not that anyone could hear them) were an Indian-American entrepreneur running for U.S. Senate in 2018, along with the deaconess of a Rhode Island religious sect whose rituals include smoking cannabis through a giant ram’s horn.

There were no Confederate battle flags.  No Nazi salutes.  No tiki torches.  No “Jews will not replace us.”  No nothing.

In short—and to the world’s great relief—Boston was not Charlottesville.  Not by a long shot.  And yet, by their conduct, certain members of the heaving counter-protest seemed determined to believe that it was, and that the men and women squeezed into the Parkman Bandstand—some of whom carried rainbow flags and signs reading “Black Lives DO Matter”—were an existential threat to liberal democracy and deserving of the maximal abuse one can inflict in broad daylight while surrounded by Boston’s finest.

The result—as seen on TV—was that a handful of hapless white men in red caps—some of them undoubtedly scared out of their wits—were pushed, shoved, screamed at and put in such danger of serious bodily harm that they required a police escort back to their vehicles or some other private space.  Indeed, without all those cops standing nearby, there is little doubt the scene would’ve turned real ugly, real fast.

This will not stand, my friends.  This aggression will not stand.

If combating racism is to be the great mission of the Resistance under Donald Trump—and why on Earth shouldn’t it be?—we must follow the example of the 39,967 who did not cause trouble in Boston, while robustly condemning the 33 who couldn’t summon the willpower to act like normal members of society.

Don’t ever forget:  The whole point of opposing white supremacy is that violence, hatred and intimidation are intrinsically harmful to democracy and all human relations.  Accordingly, the anti-fascist left cannot become associated—even for a moment—with violence, hatred and intimidation.  If we want history to view us as the good guys in this fight, we need to earn that distinction by behaving better than our opponents.  We cannot allow ourselves to sink to their level.

In his insane press conference last Tuesday, Donald Trump attempted to draw a moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who resist them, suggesting that the “alt-left” can be just as intolerant and thuggish as the alt-right.  Well, guess what:  Every time a member of our team does something stupid—such as punching a Trump supporter in the face—we make Trump’s point for him.  And every time we tacitly (if not openly) cheer that stupidity on, we become complicit in fostering the type of culture that we claim to find un-American and repulsive.

Is that what we want?  To prove that Nazis are only slightly less respectable than we are?  With the future of Western civilization at stake, I think we ought to aim a bit higher than that.

Repeat after me:  Nothing good can ever come from violence.  Being officially opposed to fascism does not entitle you to employ fascistic tactics to achieve desired ends, and there is nothing more fascistic than threatening physical harm upon those with whom you disagree—up to and including those who ruddy well deserve it.

To that end, our challenge today is to not permit the cause of anti-fascism to be defined by the group that has made a portmanteau of that very term:  “Antifa.”  New to the American vernacular, but in fact derived from European agitators in the 1930s, Antifa—a loose confederation of quasi-anarchists, helpfully profiled in this month’s Atlantic—defines itself in explicitly confrontational and often violent terms, and seems interested not in winning the understanding of its enemies but in beating them into submission.  You know:  Just like Nazis.

This is not the way to win the moral high ground, folks.  And it sure ain’t the way to win elections.

Equally dangerous—and equally worth underlining—is the left’s abandonment of all subtlety and nuance in the name of effecting a more multicultural world.  If there is any lesson we should draw from the protests in Boston, it’s to resist the urge to accuse anyone we don’t like as a card-carrying racist or anti-Semite.  While it’s apparently true that every Nazi and Klansman in America is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, not every Trump supporter is a Nazi or Klansman—nor, indeed, is every conservative or libertarian a Trump supporter in any way, shape or form.

Every time we liberals aggressively assume otherwise—as practically everyone in Boston did, despite ample evidence to the contrary, both before and after the fact—we turn ourselves into the hysterical, intolerant caricatures that the alt-right suspects we’ve always been, making it that much more difficult to change hearts and minds or be taken seriously by those who are skeptical of our true motives.

As I watched the scene on Boston Common—crisply described by Matt Taibbi on Twitter as “basically thirty people or so surrounded by the whole city of Boston”—I understood why conservatives feel under siege by a culture that doesn’t seem to care what they think.  The way counter-protesters dismissed the very idea of a rally that welcomed unpopular opinions—the way Police Commissioner Bill Evans carelessly remarked, “Their message isn’t what we want to hear”—it’s no wonder the alt-right has come to label us all as “snowflakes” who cannot handle the open airing of competing views in the public square.

Having been on the winning side of virtually every battle in America’s ongoing culture war, it is not necessary for liberals to tar and feather every person on Earth who might possibly speak—or think—an unwelcome idea.  Witch hunts should be limited to when there are actual witches on site—as there were in Charlottesville last week, and as there is in the Oval Office right now—and when they occur, they should be conducted by the forces of reason, restraint and truth, and not by Antifa, which traffics in bullying, propaganda and sometimes even death.

There is nothing to be gained by playing as dirty—or even one-tenth as dirty—as the darkest forces that have ever bestrode the face of America.  Morally-speaking, standing toe-to-toe against literal Nazis is the easiest battle any of us will ever be required to wage, and we would do well always to remember the wise man who famously cautioned, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is our moment to prove that we leftists really are on the right side of history, and with modern-day Klansmen on the march and a racial arsonist in the White House, there is absolutely no margin for error.

This is not a drill, people.  We have to get this one right.

Searching for Sister Souljah

Last weekend, a gang of racist and anti-Semitic terrorists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others in an unambiguous show of intimidation and blind hatred toward a wide swath of their fellow human beings.

In response to this clear-cut example of American white supremacy run amok, the president of the United States did what he does best:  Blame everyone but himself.  Provided a golden opportunity to appear presidential for the first time in his life, Donald Trump instead managed to denounce violence and bigotry in general but somehow forget to identify the groups responsible for the violence and bigotry perpetrated on Friday night.  The unrest in Charlottesville, Trump said on Saturday, was the fault of agitators “on many sides”—an argument he amplified on Tuesday, when he attempted to equate the “alt-right” with the heretofore non-existent “alt-left.”

As with most previous instances of Trump saying the exact opposite of what he should have said, there was no mystery as to why he avoided condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates by name:  They are his most loyal and vociferous defenders.  Every one of them voted for him last November, and losing their support now would constitute an existential threat to his presidency in the election of 2020, if not sooner.  As ever, Trump’s only true instinct is self-preservation, and if a second civil war is the cost of winning his next campaign, so be it.

What Trump desperately needs—what America desperately needs—is a Sister Souljah moment.

As students of the 1990s will recall, Sister Souljah was an African-American musician and social critic who reacted to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots by remarking, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”  Asked to comment, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton renounced any association Sister Souljah might’ve had with the Democratic Party, saying, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton’s unequivocal disavowal of left-wing extremism—in the heat of a presidential campaign, no less—won plaudits as a mild profile in political courage, positioning him firmly in the center of the Democratic Party, while also drawing suspicion from many on the far left.  In the years since, the term “Sister Souljah moment” has become shorthand for a politician distancing himself from elements of his own ideological team, thereby risking his political fortune for the sake of moral rectitude.

To be sure, examples of such brave stands since 1992 have been few and far between.  Perhaps the most famous—and costly—condemnation came in the 2000 GOP primaries, where candidate John McCain bellowed to a crowd in Virginia, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”  While McCain’s bold (if equivocating) rebuke to the then-dominant “religious right” helped further cement his reputation as a straight-talking “maverick,” it did him no favors at the ballot box:  As it turned out, most Republican primary voters liked the religious right just fine, thank you very much.

Much more recent—and, arguably, much more admirable—was an interview with Bernie Sanders in February 2016, during which CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue of “Bernie bros”—i.e., Sanders enthusiasts whose pathological antipathy toward Hillary Clinton seemed rooted almost entirely in rank misogyny.  “Look, we don’t want that crap,” Sanders told Tapper.  “Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things…we don’t want them.  I don’t want them.  That’s not what this campaign is about.”

The Tapper interview didn’t receive a huge amount of press at the time, but it was a signal test of character for the feisty senator from Vermont, and he passed with flying colors.  While there is nothing difficult about decrying sexism in all its ugly forms—or at least there shouldn’t be—Sanders went a step further by specifically disowning the people who are sexism’s leading practitioners—namely, his core voters—and, what’s more, by suggesting that if those idiots didn’t get their act together right quick, he would just as well not have their support at all.  He’d rather lose honorably than win at the hands of a bunch of cretins.

That moment is a mere 18 months old, yet today it feels unimaginably quaint—a relic from a long-bygone era in which chivalry was not a four-letter word and basic human decency was considered more valuable than gold.

Will America witness another Sister Souljah moment like that again?  Will we ever get it from the man currently in the Oval Office?

Indeed, it is very easy to imagine how such a disavowal would be arrived at, since Donald Trump has been offered one opening after another to give it the old college try.  Faced with the murderous, torch-wielding skinheads who comprise his natural constituency—and his electoral firewall—he would merely need to step up to a podium and proclaim, “Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of bigotry represent a cancer on the American way of life and will not be tolerated so long as I am president.  Furthermore, I cannot in good conscience accept the vote or endorsement of any individual who holds such poisonous views, for I could not live with myself knowing that I had gotten to where I am on a platform of race-baiting, violence, hatred and cruelty.”

Should Trump ever issue a statement to that effect—and mean it—it would signify a willingness not just to throw his basket of deplorables under the bus once and for all, but also to enlarge his base of support to include at least a sliver of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not currently approve of his job performance as commander-in-chief but could potentially change their minds in the future.  It would enable him, at long last, to become a president for all Americans—not just the ones in the SS boots and the white hoods.

Could Donald Trump ever rise to that occasion?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

Bearing Witness to the Truth

James Baldwin was among the most essential American writers of the 20th century.  Now, thanks to a new film about his life and work, called, I Am Not Your Negro, we can be assured that his influence will extend well into the 21st.

It may have been mere coincidence that this movie, directed by Raoul Peck, opened in Boston on the first weekend of Black History Month, but that doesn’t make the timing any less perfect.  After all, it was Baldwin—paraphrasing his hero Richard Wright—who observed, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.  And it’s not a pretty picture.”  If you don’t understand that very basic truth about our country, you don’t know anything at all.

The good news is that—for several obvious reasons—you couldn’t have picked a riper moment to get yourself up to speed on the subject of racism in the United States.  To that end—and just as a jumping-off point—you could do a lot worse than to track down every word that James Baldwin ever wrote.

Though the man himself has been dead for nearly three decades, the force of Baldwin’s ideas has never been more robust or germane to our ongoing National Conversation About Race.  While there are many great writers today who’ve devoted their lives to the struggle against white supremacy in our society, they are essentially carrying on an argument that originated with Baldwin and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s—an argument that was, itself, adapted from the generations of black intellectuals who came before.  If the specific battles have evolved from one era to the next, the overall war has remained the same, with the forces of oppression on one side and the forces of emancipation on the other.  As we know, the good guys do not always win.

Among the leading luminaries of his time—the majority of whom he knew personally—Baldwin served as a sort of philosophical and temperamental way station between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—an unhappy medium bridging the Civil Rights Movement’s righteous anger to its “better angels” restraint.  Like Malcolm, Baldwin was prepared to excoriate the entirety of white America for its crimes against black humanity, while, like Martin, he was also willing to give (some) white people the benefit of the doubt.  Not unlike our most recent ex-president, he could acknowledge that evil springs from ignorance as much as from malevolence, insisting all the while that even accidental racism can ultimately poison a society to death.

As a polemicist—most famously in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son—Baldwin’s great strength was to follow the truth wherever it led him, and to do so without compromise or fear.  Fiercely confident in his convictions—all of which were borne from hard-won personal experience—he never hesitated to tell people what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear.  He had little patience for making his readers complacent—including fellow African-Americans—opting to challenge their assumptions at every opportunity, never sure that the fight for racial equality would—or could—end happily for either side.

The secret to his success—the reason so many readers discover him and can’t let him go—is the unparalleled beauty of his words—the way he bleeds poetry from a mountain of pain and despair.  It’s one thing to possess a probing mind and a fiery heart—both of which he had in spades—but to pour it all out in evocative, lyrical prose—so deep, yet seemingly so effortless—is the mark of not just a great thinker, but a great artist, as well.

Indeed, when he wasn’t churning out furious copy on the breadth and depth of racial injustice, Baldwin was penning first-rate novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, which tell passionate, sexy, tragic stories of social outcasts and were, for their time, extraordinarily frank about such taboos as homosexuality and mixed-race relationships.  Here, as in his essays, Baldwin felt liberated to portray the world as it really was, unburdened by cultural mores that supposedly made such honesty impossible.

And it’s not like this moral courage didn’t have a real cost.  As shown in I Am Not Your Negro, by the mid-1960s Baldwin became a major target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  All told, the Bureau’s file on Baldwin ran 1,884 pages and chronicled everything from his political activities to his sexuality—both of which were complicated, to say the least—and seemed to view him as a national threat almost on par with Communism and the Black Panthers.

In retrospect, there may be no higher honor for a writer than to earn a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list—particularly when Baldwin himself always claimed to be an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not an active participant.  That the FBI could be so terrified of a man whose only weapon was a typewriter should give real hope to those who doubt the elemental power of the pen.  That Baldwin’s homosexuality caused his own allies to view him with suspicion is a tragic irony that underlines why the fight for equality tends to be so goddamned messy and disappointing.

However controversial he proved in his own time—indeed, because of it—James Baldwin has long since earned a place of immortality among the brave black men and women who risked life and limb to secure a measure of dignity and autonomy in a society determined to give them neither.  To the extent that millions of Americans are unaware of Baldwin’s immense contemporary importance to the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, I Am Not Your Negro provides a superb introduction to both the man and the worldview he espoused.  If Peck’s movie leads more people to explore the primary sources—and, through them, to achieve a greater understanding of the meaning of a life inside a black body—it will count as an unqualified triumph of documentary cinema.  No Oscar required.