American Idols

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.”

In a strong field, that may well be the finest lyric Paul Simon has ever written—and for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the late former Mr. Marilyn Monroe.

Americans need their heroes—be they in sports, entertainment or maybe even politics—and they feel acutely vulnerable and adrift when those idols seem to vanish from the scene. This is particularly true in times of extraordinary distress and upheaval, such as (to pick a random example) a global public health emergency, when inspiring moral leadership is so urgently required.

For liberals who’ve been trapped in an existential funk since November 2016, one such hero is of course Barack Obama, the last U.S. president to exhibit any sort of compassion for his fellow human beings, who, unlike his wife, has made himself relatively scarce since exiting the White House more than three years ago.

That was until last weekend, when Obama made highly-anticipated dual virtual appearances before college and high school graduating classes of 2020—the latter televised in prime time—during which he intoned, “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” The speeches did not include the word “Trump,” but we’re not stupid.

Whether by accident or design, these commencement addresses came on the heels of “leaked” remarks by the former president in a “private” conference call that saw him loudly and explicitly castigating the current administration both for its abysmal response to the coronavirus outbreak and its corrupt handling of the Michael Flynn case—words so forceful that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, responded, “I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut.”

As a matter of political timing, Obama’s sort-of reentry into the cultural bloodstream is quite obviously related to the sort-of beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, and the presumed crowning of Obama’s former wingman, Joe Biden, as the Democratic Party nominee. And certainly the party’s de facto standard-bearer has every right to publicly advocate for his hoped-for inheritor and the values he represents.

Beyond that, however, we, the people, have every reason to question whether McConnell had a point. That is, whether Obama’s broader commentary on the Trump administration is either wise or becoming of a member of the nation’s most exclusive club—namely, those who once had access to the nuclear codes and enjoy Secret Service protection to this day.

Indeed, the question of how ex-presidents should behave in retirement has been a matter of debate since March 1801, when John Adams opted to flee Washington, D.C., on horseback in the dead of night rather than attend the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson the following morning. In our own time—as with virtually everything else—the issue has broken along partisan lines, with Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton maintaining high profiles and busy schedules deep into their post-presidential years while Republicans like the Georges Bush have made a point of receding serenely into the background, content to have their records speak for themselves and their successors left to run the country in peace.

Old fogey-at-heart that I am, I’ve long had a soft spot for the latter approach to elder statesmanship, admiring of the discipline it must take not to gloat at everything the new guy is doing wrong.

In fact, Obama himself vowed to mostly adhere to the hands-off approach to ex-presidenting, telling reporters in January 2017 that, once Trump took office, he would refrain from open criticism except for “certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.” In retrospect, considering the object of his prospective ire, perhaps that was Obama’s dry way of saying he had no intention of keeping his mouth shut and should not be expected to do so.

The real problem, in any case, is that Donald Trump is such a singularly appalling individual that remaining silent on his odious reign could reasonably be seen as a dereliction of duty for any self-respecting public figure—particularly one so devoted to appealing to the so-called “better angels of our nature.” In other words, the sheer awfulness of Trumpism—even compared to that of, say, George W. Bush—is sufficient to override the usual protocols of discretion among past presidents. These are not ordinary times, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

But here’s the thing: Part of the job of statesmanship is to be disingenuous every now and again for the sake of preserving the national fabric. Whatever one might think about Donald Trump, he is the duly-elected leader of our country for at least another eight months and maintains unshakable popularity among a not-insignificant chunk of our fellow citizens. As a head of state, he is entitled to a baseline deference that reflects the majesty of the office he holds, which transcends the character of whoever happens to hold it at a given moment in time.

When a retiring president passes the baton to his immediate successor, he is conferring legitimacy upon the most important public job in the United States—a hand-off in a constitutional relay race that has continued uninterrupted since George Washington peacefully ceded power to John Adams on March 4, 1797.

By then turning around and glibly musing to the nation’s schoolchildren that the sitting commander-in-chief has no Earthly idea what he’s doing, he risks ever-so-slightly chipping away at that legitimacy, rhetorically lowering the presidency to just one more partisan player in a vulgar federal political food fight, rather than the figurehead of the greatest republic the world has ever seen.

I say this in the full knowledge that Obama’s characterization of the Trump White House as a raging dumpster fire of incompetence is objectively, obviously correct. Nor am I under any illusion that the courtesy I am asking of Obama for Trump was ever extended to Obama himself at any point during his eight-year stint in the Oval Office. In effect, I am demanding a double standard whereby when the Republicans go low, the Democrats go high—a strategy that never seems to bear much fruit in the long run, however noble it may sound.

The plain truth is that there will be no good answer to this question until we have a new commander-in-chief. That the catchphrase of erstwhile conservative Rick Wilson, “Everything Trump touches dies,” extends to the presidency itself. That Trump is the exception to every rule, but once he’s gone, maybe we can return to life as it used to be, almost as if he never existed in the first place. Maybe.

In the meantime, with a pandemic raging and an economy cratering, the nation must turn its lonely eyes to someone, and while Joe DiMaggio is no longer available, I can think of at least one other Joe who is.

Consent of the Governed

If you’re wondering about the state of civics education in America today, look no further than a recent episode of Jeopardy!  In the first round of questions and answers, the $400 clue in a category about government read, “This document ends, ‘We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.’”

Not a single contestant rang in.  On America’s flagship TV game show, none of the three players could recognize the climactic clause of the most famous document in the history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence.

While I understand that Jeopardy! is considerably more difficult in front of a live studio audience than from the comfort of one’s couch, I’d like to think there are certain sentences that are embedded in the soul of every man, woman and child in America, and that “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” is chief among them.

However, as one survey after another has shown, this is increasingly not the case.  With each passing generation, we, the people, have become progressively less knowledgeable about the history of this country and our duties as citizens thereof.

Beyond our ignorance of the basic facts of America’s founding—like how, for example, we actually declared our independence from Britain on July 2, not July 4—we have demonstrated an alarming mixture of confusion about and indifference to our obligations as participants in a democratic republic, not the least of which is the act of informed voting.

Case in point:  Last week, the Democratic Party establishment was thrown for a loop by the surprising primary victory in New York’s 14th House district by political neophyte (and self-proclaimed democratic socialist) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  For all the talk about how the win by Ocasio-Cortez portends a definite leftward shift by her party’s base this fall—a base that is suddenly shot full of hope and adrenaline for the first time in two years—it was equally the case that a mere 13 percent of the district’s eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot in the first place.

In other words, the media spent a full week rethinking the narrative trajectory of the 2018 midterms based on a single race in which seven-eighths of the district did not  even participate.  Is this really our idea of representative democracy in action?

Regrettably, yes.

This is to take nothing away from Ocasio-Cortez, a spirited and savvy campaigner who inspired her future constituents in a way her opponent, Joe Crowley, did not.  In truth, such an abysmally low turnout rate is utterly typical for a congressional primary held in the middle of the summer—indeed, it would barely be aberrational for an election held in September.

As a rule, Americans do not vote more than once every four years, and tens of millions never vote at all.  While there are numerous (and often complex) reasons for this—deliberate, systematic suppression being the most insidious—the simple fact is that the majority of these non-participants just plain don’t care who represents them in the public square—be it the legislature, town hall, state house or White House—and cannot be bothered to do the research necessary to know which candidate to choose when the designated day arrives.

Hence the fact that virtually no one (including me) seemed to have heard of Ocasio-Cortez until the day after her win—much like how, according to one survey, only 37 percent of us can name our own congressperson without looking it up.  Or how, according to another survey, a mere one in four can identify all three branches of government, while 31 percent cannot name a single one.

I could go on.  Oh, how I could go on.

In a letter to a friend in 1816, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”  Less famous—but perhaps more important—was the subsequent clause:

“The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents.  There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information.  Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

On this Fourth of July—the 192-year anniversary of Jefferson’s death—might I humbly suggest that, if we truly wish to pull our country back from the abyss, we direct our righteous indignation not at our leaders, but at ourselves.  That we reflect that there isn’t a single official on Capitol Hill or in the White House who wasn’t democratically elected—or appointed by someone who was—and that if we want a fresh set of representatives in 2019—and, with them, a fresh set of policies and ideas—we have it in our power (as we always have) to sweep them into office and to throw the bums out.

Election Day is November 6.  I’ll be there.  Will you?

Sex Crimes and Misdemeanors

It’s Thanksgiving week, folks.  For me, that means several things will most definitely happen, as they always do:  I will eat half my body weight in pie.  I will listen to “Alice’s Restaurant” on the radio.  I will go to the TD Garden for a Celtics game (16 in a row, baby!).  And at some point, I will re-watch Hannah and Her Sisters.

In years past, none of those things was the least bit problematic.  (Particularly the pie.)  This year, however, I am faced with a moral dilemma that has hit the country like a tidal wave over the last couple months:  If a movie is made by someone who has committed a mortal sin, am I duty-bound not to watch it ever again?

Hannah and Her Sisters, released in 1986, has ranked at or near the top of my favorite films list from the moment I first saw it in the early 2000s.  A “Thanksgiving movie” of sorts—the holiday is observed at three different junctures in the story—I never miss it during the latter days of November, much like It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve or Jaws on the Fourth of July.

The trouble is, Hannah was directed by (and co-stars) one Woody Allen, the beloved New York and Hollywood institution who, in 1992, allegedly sexually assaulted his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was all of seven years old—a crime for which he has never been punished, either legally or financially.  Despite years of wide public knowledge of his possible—if not probable—predatory behavior toward prepubescent girls, he continues to churn out a film a year—invariably starring A-list actors—most of which turn a healthy profit and occasionally snag a stray Oscar or two.

Prior to the Age of Weinstein, Allen was able to get away with this through benefit of the doubt:  He would deny all accusations of impropriety and it would become his word against Dylan’s.

Then, in 2014, Dylan dispatched an open letter to the New York Times detailing the horrifying—and apparently ongoing—physical and mental trauma she has suffered from the incident in question, and the tide of public opinion began to turn—sort of.  (Allen’s response, also published in the Times, was a master class in condescending bitterness, clarifying nothing except how much he loathes Mia Farrow, his former partner and Dylan’s mother.)

Smash-cut to today—with one predator after another falling by the wayside, from Harvey to Cosby to Spacey to Louie—and it seems only a matter of time before Woody is evicted from polite society once and for all, and I would say good riddance.  Better 25 years late than never.

And yet the movies remain, and with them the question that will continue to plague us until the end of time:  As a consumer, is it possible to separate the art from the artist in one’s daily life?

For me, the answer has always been yes, and the #MeToo movement has done nothing to alter my basic view on this subject, which is that compartmentalization—i.e., the willful disregarding of certain facts at certain moments—is an essential component of one’s appreciation of the arts.

We might agree the world would be a better place if millions of men were not disgusting, power-hungry pigs who systematically treated women like their own personal playthings.  However, it is equally true that great ugliness can occasionally yield great beauty, and it does society no favors to cast out every film, TV show, album, painting and idea that was borne from a morally repugnant source.  Knowing what we know about the Founding Fathers, I would offer America itself as Exhibit A:  Are you prepared to renounce “all men are created equal” just because the man who wrote those words didn’t seem to believe them himself?

Of course you’re not, because great works transcend the context from which they arose and can be considered and appreciated anew with each passing generation.  We can condemn the man without condemning the work, because in the long run, we will forget the man altogether while the work will endure indefinitely.  That’s what art is all about.

As it happens, Hannah and Her Sisters is a perfect illustration of how minimally a film director’s faults extend to the final product—particularly when the former happens to be a prodigy and the latter happens to be a masterpiece.

The great irony of Woody Allen (assuming the assault allegations are true) is how generous his films are toward women—how he so frequently casts first-rate actresses in strong leading roles and draws out some of the finest performances of their careers.  It’s no wonder Hollywood starlets keep knocking at his office door:  Allen’s films have produced more Academy Awards for acting (seven) than those of any other living director, and all but one of those Oscars were won by women.

In short:  If Woody Allen the man believes in treating women like crude sex objects, Woody Allen the writer-director has not received that memo.  Apparently he can compartmentalize even more profoundly than his audience.

For that consideration alone, Hannah and Her Sisters deserves to retain its place high up on the Mount Olympus of cinema.  Beyond being an absorbing, warm, complex, funny, nuanced, ironic and economical tale of New York sophisticates living at the intersection of ambition, lust and existential dread, Hannah is also the rare male-directed film that repeatedly passes the Bechdel test—the feminist rule of thumb that asks, “Does this movie contain at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?”

Boy, does it ever.  Indeed, the people in this movie talk to each other about pretty much everything sooner or later—love, sex, death, God, suicide, Bach, Caravaggio, E.E. Cummings, The Marx Brothers, architecture, opera, quail eggs, infidelity, artificial insemination and what Jesus might think about pro wrestling if he came back tomorrow.  (The film’s answer to that question is among Allen’s gut-splitting-est punch lines.)

What is finally so remarkable about Hannah and Her Sisters—alongside Allen’s other top-tier achievements like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall and the notorious Manhattan—is how deeply it understands human desire and why we behave the way we do.  Why, for instance, a happily-married accountant would betray his wife by fiddling around with her emotionally vulnerable sister.  Or why a frustrated actress would subject herself to one rejection after another before deciding to try her hand at screenwriting.  Or why a successful TV producer would quit his job to go search for the meaning of life.  Or why a reclusive painter would refuse to sell his work to a man who will pay top dollar for it.

Of course, the answers to these mysteries can take years in therapy to sort out—which, in Allen’s own case, they famously have—but one imagines it has at least something to do with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—another timeless, irreplaceable concept first articulated by America’s most hypocritical founding father.

As a two-hour treatment of this material, Hannah and Her Sisters is on par with Ingmar Bergman in its seriousness of purpose and depth of thought, while somehow incorporating the same riotous, neurotic humor that has characterized virtually every film Allen has made since he began in the late-1960s.  It is a nearly perfect movie that enriches my mind and soul every time it plays—particularly on or around Thanksgiving—and I don’t require Woody Allen himself to uphold high (or, indeed, any) ethical standards for himself in order to enjoy the artistic and intellectual gifts he has bestowed upon the world—past, present and future.

When it comes to cinema, the heart wants what it wants.

Life Itself

I’ve seen more new movies in 2016 than during any single year of my life—and there are still 12 more days to go.  Selective consumer that I am, I have enjoyed nearly all my filmgoing experiences to date, and have had enormous difficulty cramming the best of the best into a traditional top-10 list.

As I continue reflecting on all the wonderful moments the cinema offered in an otherwise wretched year for the human race, I offer some fleeting impressions of my final four—a quartet of films that burrowed deep under my skin and never really found their way out.  Four singular conceptions that—in radically divergent form—satisfied (or nearly satisfied) Roger Ebert’s definition of a truly great film:  “It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us.  It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

MOONLIGHT

“You can pick from the menu.  Or I can give you the chef’s special.”  So says Kevin, the chef, to his childhood friend, Chiron.  Now in their late 20s, the two men haven’t seen each other for more than a decade.  In all probability, they would’ve remained strangers for the rest of their lives, except that Kevin recently phoned Chiron in the middle of the night to ask what he’s been doing with himself.  And now Chiron has driven 700 miles from Atlanta to Miami—materializing in Kevin’s diner, unannounced—to provide him some semblance of an answer.

Why?  Because, for all their time apart, he and Kevin share a secret that can never be reconciled until they are in the same room at the same time.  Their history—forged in one rapturous, terrifying moment many years ago—is at once totally alien to the society they inhabit, yet absolutely essential to understanding who either of them truly is.

The circumstances of their upbringing—namely, being poor and black in America—have prevented them from facing this complicated truth head-on, and so they have both chosen to suppress it—albeit in strikingly different ways.

And yet, on this night, in this diner—as Kevin prepares the chef’s special—there is suddenly the prospect of a reckoning—an echo of John Adams’s plea to Thomas Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other”—and with it, the possibility of love, happiness and inner peace.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

In the greatest legal circus of the 1990s—The People of California v. O.J. Simpson—Mark Fuhrman was supposed to be the prosecution’s star witness.  He was the LAPD detective who found the pair of black gloves linking O.J. Simpson to the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.  One glove was recovered at Nicole’s house, the other at O.J.’s.  Both were splattered with the DNA of all three individuals, as were the driveways of both homes and the innards of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.

In short, it was a slam dunk:  With a veritable orgy of both direct and circumstantial evidence, it was obvious to any fair-minded person that Simpson—an NFL hall of famer, actor and all-around celebrity—had committed double homicide.  Game, set, match.

And then Fuhrman took the witness stand, and everything fell apart.

To the defense team’s delight and the prosecution’s unending chagrin, Fuhrman turned out to be a scumbag:  A crooked, racist maniac with a long, proud history of brutality against LA’s black community.  Having bragged about his bigotry and deceitfulness on tape, he became Exhibit A in the defense’s theory that the O.J. evidence may have been planted—a narrative of institutional racism that jibed perfectly with the actual history of the LAPD, to say nothing of the nation as a whole, then and now.

In Ezra Edelman’s documentary, prosecutor Marcia Clark muses, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have.  Otherwise, I’m with them.”  Therein lies one answer to how a clearly guilty man could be acquitted by a jury of his peers:  Because after 400 years of white people in America getting away with murder, maybe it was time—if only just this once—for a black person to do the same.

ELLE

Michèle Leblanc has been having a very strange week.  Her son is moving into an apartment he can’t afford with a fiancé he doesn’t love who’s carrying a child that (probably) isn’t his.  At work, her underlings are fomenting a rebellion against her take-no-prisoners managerial style.  Elsewhere, her sort-of divorced mother is carrying on with a lover half her age, while Michèle herself is fooling around with her best friend’s husband and—for good measure—growing very flirty with her married next-door neighbor, Patrick.

Oh yeah:  And on Thursday afternoon, a mysterious man in a ski mask entered her apartment, wrestled her to the ground, savagely raped her and left.

By all outward appearances, that last item was the least-distressing moment of Michèle’s week.  Apart from a quick doctor’s visit, she doesn’t bother telling anyone about having been assaulted until dinner on Saturday evening—and even then, she hastens to add, “I feel stupid for bringing it up.”  When her flabbergasted dining companions ask why she hasn’t called the police, she shrugs, “It’s over—it doesn’t need talking about anymore.”

Is she in denial?  A closet masochist?  Just plain nuts?

As Rick Blaine would say:  It’s a combination of all three.

Played by Isabelle Huppert, Michèle is shown, in the fullness of time, to be a woman ruthlessly in pursuit of her own happiness—a process that, in her case, has a curious tendency to rob everyone else of theirs.  Like a wilier version of Selina Meyer in Veep, she is a fundamentally rotten specimen—a textbook sociopath who derives all earthly pleasure from making others squirm—yet somehow emerges as a compelling, magnetic—perhaps even heroic—femme fatale, prepared to turn any setback—up to and including sexual assault—to her advantage and assume control of her own destiny.  What a nasty woman.

KRISHA

It’s the morning of Thanksgiving.  The house is bouncing with activity, inhabited by at least half a dozen adults, another half-dozen twentysomethings, one newborn and an indeterminate number of dogs.  All is well—if a bit chaotic—and then Krisha walks in.

Who is Krisha?  In one sense, she is the person for whom the phrase, “There’s one in every family,” was coined.  She is the sole dinner guest who seems out of sync with everyone else around the table:  The one you don’t engage in direct conversation, for fear of what she might say, do or drink.  A reigning expat from the Island of Misfit Toys.

But no more:  She’s here now.  She’s sobered up (allegedly).  She wants to help out with the cooking and reacquaint herself with her kin and be an all-around better person.

And everyone present is thrilled to hear this.  They miss her, they know what an unholy wreck she had become, and they’re willing to give her every chance to earn her way back into the fold.

Except…not really.  Yeah, sure, if she’s serious about turning over a new leaf, then she has their unwavering love and support and blah blah blah.

In truth, Krisha’s family knows her better than she knows herself, and it all boils down to one unshakable fact:  There is no real hope for her in the end.  She has burned too many bridges—neglected too many responsibilities—to start over again from scratch.  Whatever forgiveness she wants for her sins—indeed, for her entire history to be cast into the sea of God’s forgetfulness—she cannot summon the strength to concede what can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.  When push comes to shove, she would just as well have another drink.

Trey Edward Shults’s film, drawn from his own life experiences, is a testament to the notion that life doesn’t always offer redemption.  It is altogether fitting that it would be based on real events and be released in 2016, since its portrait of a woman teetering on the edge of the abyss is a perfect metaphor for the blazed, desperate nation that produced her.

The Audacity of Hope

If there is anything to keep me going over the next four years of America life, it’s the ironclad assurance that, in the end, Donald Trump is going to hell.

While I would hardly call myself theologically literate, even I understand Christianity enough to know that if hell really exists, a proud, avaricious, vengeful hedonist like Trump will be the first in line to burn for eternity.  Short of bringing peace to the Middle East or giving all Americans free healthcare, there’s nothing the 45th president could do in the next thousand days that would extirpate seven decades of unadulterated sin.

It’s a pleasant enough thought—something to calm my nerves every time I open the paper and see the latest atrocity President Voldemont has inflicted upon my beloved country.

The trouble, though, is that I am a Jewish atheist—a disposition that not only takes heaven and hell completely off the table, but also calls into question the whole assumption that we live in a moral universe.  Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” but if the cause of his trembling—slavery—took another eight-and-a-half decades to eradicate, what does that say about the efficacy of divine justice?

Of course, the beauty of faith is that it cannot be disproved—or, indeed, even argued with.  Unlike, say, physics or CIA reports, the truthfulness of religion is contingent solely on one’s capacity to believe in it:  If you think God exists, then he does.  If not, not.

Understandably, most nonbelievers (myself included) find this logic extremely annoying.  If your brain has been conditioned toward skepticism and the scientific method, you find yourself in concert with Carl Sagan’s formulation, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  On the God question, the evidence isn’t merely flimsy—it’s effectively non-existent.

And yet—like buying a Powerball ticket or auditioning for The Voice—most humans use religion as a flickering, hopeful signal that their lives have meaning, and what kind of a monster would go out of his way to tell them they’re wasting their time?

Before the 2016 election, that monster might’ve been me.  But no more:  In light of an unruly five-year-old becoming the most powerful man on Earth, I find myself reassessing the value of blind faith more seriously than during any previous crisis in my life.

Case in point:  We have been informed—rather convincingly—that Trump’s rise marks the victory of a “post-truth” society, whereby objective facts and raw data are irrelevant and all viewpoints are based on what one feels in one’s gut—a rough approximation of “truthiness” as defined by Stephen Colbert back in the fall of 2005.  Trump, for his part, is on record as saying, “All I know is what’s on the internet,” which stands as a near-perfect encapsulation of just how reckless and frightening his style of leadership and decision-making is destined to be.

If we take a panoramic view of the president-elect’s behavior since November 9—to say nothing of the year-and-a-half before that—we have no choice but to conclude (yet again) that Trump poses an existential threat to America’s core institutions and to the economic stability of the entire world order.  Disdainful of the First Amendment, belligerent toward our allies, blasé about intelligence briefings and profoundly ignorant of both U.S. and world history, Trump is a category 5 catastrophe in the making who, short of impeachment proceedings, is never, ever going to change.

What is all just a fancy way of saying that, from an objective, rational standpoint, the next four years are going to suck on a daily—if not hourly—basis, and we have zero cause to hope for anything better.

Hence the overwhelming allure of religion, which says that hope springs eternal and that faith can be used as a bludgeon against a veritable avalanche of unattractive facts.

Faced with an impossible situation, a nonbeliever will throw up his or her hands and proclaim, “There’s nothing to be done here.”  But to a person of faith, the term “impossible situation” is a contradiction in terms:  So long as God exists—as He most assuredly does—nothing is truly impossible, since there is always the outside chance of a miracle.

To my thinking, that is the real meaning of President Obama’s famous phrase, “The audacity of hope.”  Hope, after all, is just another word for blind faith—i.e. believing in something for which there is little, if any, empirical evidence—and its audaciousness lies in its very improbability and ridiculousness.

Like certain other Christian tenets—love, forgiveness, turning the other cheek—hope is not necessarily in accord with human nature.  Left to our own devices, most of us are prone to ethical and intellectual laziness, which can naturally lead to such un-Christian sentiments as anger, pessimism and despair.  Indeed, there is very little in life more emotionally difficult than looking directly into the abyss and finding some reason—any reason—to soldier onward.

And yet, that’s exactly what we need to do on January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump will be sworn into office and thereby officially become that abyss.  We will need to summon all the energy at our disposal to conjure a fantasy world in which America survives four years of racism, incompetence and corruption without completely losing its soul.

In short, we must not lose hope.  Not because hope is a winning bet—it’s not—but rather because the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate.

Because we owe it to ourselves to wish for a miracle every now and again.

A Nation of Deplorables

On Monday, I will be casting the third presidential ballot of my life.  (Hurray for early voting!)  Incidentally—and I don’t mean to brag—this will be the third consecutive time that I will not be voting for an alleged sexual predator for the highest office in the land.

True:  In an enlightened, democratic society, you’d think that not having a possible rapist on the ballot would go more or less without saying.  On our better days, we Americans possess a sufficient level of moral outrage not to let that kind of crap occur.

But 2016 has just been one of those years, so instead we’re stuck with a man—and I use that word loosely—who feels so entitled to the bodies of American women (by his own tape-recorded admission) that his only response to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct is to ridicule the looks of his alleged victims.  Say what you will about Bill Clinton (and I will), but he at least had the courtesy to refer to his most famous accuser by name.

With this year’s standards for electability and decency being what they are, I can take a modicum of pride in having resisted the would-be allure of a vulgar, sexist thug as leader of the free world.  Personally, I intend to continue my trend of voting for non-rapists—and, for that matter, non-misogynists—for the remainder of my life as a citizen.  As John Oliver might say, it is literally the least I can do.

And yet, historically, this has not necessarily been the case for many American voters.

In 1996, for instance, some 47 million of my countrymen opted to keep Bill Clinton in the White House, which is to say that 47 million Americans voted for a man who, apart from being a confessed adulterer, has long been accused of sexual assault—a charge to which he has yet to speak a single word in his defense.  To be fair, the rape allegation didn’t become widely known until Clinton’s second term in office, but I can’t help but notice that—nearly two decades after the fact—the 42nd president remains among the most beloved men in public life, particularly within the political party that claims to be the protector of vulnerable and mistreated women.

Am I really the only person experiencing cognitive dissonance over this rather glaring moral contradiction?

Look:  We all know that Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes are merely a half-assed attempt to divert attention from Trump’s own horrifying attitudes (and actions) toward women.  But this does not mean that Clinton’s transgressions didn’t occur and that he should not be held to the same standards as every other alleged abuser.

If you believe—as I do—that women who level rape charges tend to be telling the truth, and if you agree that what we know we know about Clinton would suggest that such charges could be true in his case, then you must conclude that continuing to hold up this man, uncritically, as a Democratic Party icon is problematic at best and despicable at worst.

So why do we do it?  Because—as Orwell famously said—it takes a great struggle to see what is directly in front of our own eyes.  Because human beings are exceptionally good at convincing themselves of what should be true, rather than what is true.  Because we prefer myth to reality, particularly when facing the latter head-on would completely undermine the power of the former.

Just as most historians refused to accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, until a DNA test proved it once and for all, admirers of Bill Clinton will continue to reassure themselves that he didn’t rape Juanita Broaddrick in 1978, because, well, that’s just not the sort of thing he would do.  Indeed, he couldn’t have done it, because what would that say about all the good people who’ve unconditionally supported and admired him all through the years?

Well, we know what it would say:  That they are either fools or co-conspirators—irretrievably naïve or irredeemably wicked.  And so the solution to this quandary—as unsatisfying as it is inevitable—is to either ignore the problem altogether or to rationalize it to within an inch of its life.  By and large, that is exactly what the Democratic Party has done.

With Trump, of course, it has become so gratingly obvious that sexual harassment (if not assault) is exactly the sort of thing he would do—not least because he’s said so himself—that all excuses or evasions on his behalf can (and largely have) been dismissed as sheer farce.  At this moment—with at least 10 different women having corroborated Trump’s boasts about placing his hands where they definitely don’t belong—to hear that “no one has more respect for women” than Trump has all the believability of Michael Palin insisting to John Cleese that his parrot is still alive.

Which brings us to what has—among liberals, at least—been a defining question of this whole ordeal:  What the hell is Natwrong with Donald Trump’s supporters?

By Nate Silver’s most recent estimate, Trump will end up garnering 43 percent of the vote, which translates to roughly 55 million people.  From what I can gather, this most bewitching chunk of Americans can be subdivided into three groups:

  1. So-called “traditional” conservatives who are disgusted by Trump’s antics and don’t really want him to win, but have nonetheless accepted him as an ideological bulwark against a President Hillary Clinton.
  2. Lifelong Republicans who have somehow managed to look past Trump’s defects and, being totally fed up with “the system,” are hopeful he can serve as a human Molotov cocktail who will magically—and single-handedly—change the way Washington works.
  3. The basket of deplorables.

Obviously that final group is wholly beyond repair, but can we really say the same about groups one and two?

Almost without exception, liberals have condemned all Trump voters as equally irrational and repulsive for daring to stand behind such an irrational and repulsive candidate.  While it may be easy and cathartic to dismiss half the country as a bunch of racist loony toons, it’s also a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that, had your life circumstances been just a little different—and your political opinions rotated just a few degrees to the right—you, too, may have spent the majority of 2016 engulfed in a painful existential dilemma as to what is the right thing to do—about how much nonsense you’re willing to endure to keep your favored political party in charge of the executive branch.

In light of recent history, we might want to think twice about being so sweepingly judgmental.

Again:  Some 20 years ago, 47 million liberals voted for commander-in-chief a man—Bill Clinton—whom they knew full well was a liar and a womanizer, and it was because they told themselves that, on balance, he nonetheless represented the majority of their interests and values.  And yet now, in 2016, most of those same liberals are berating conservatives for engaging in the exact same moral compromise for the exact same reasons.

Pot, meet kettle.

The truth—the whole truth—is that each and every one of us is susceptible, sooner or later, to vote for a morally repugnant presidential candidate, provided his or her election suits our own political purposes.  Whether they realize it or not, a majority of Americans have done—or soon will do—exactly that, and they (read: we) would be well-advised to check their righteous indignation at the door, or at least to temper it enough so as not to appear like such oblivious, whining hypocrites.

Unbelievable

If the continued existence of Donald Trump has produced any redeeming value for the American culture—and “if” is definitely the correct word—it has been the opportunity for us to argue about Donald Trump.  And for all the millions of words that have been expended on who Trump is and what he represents, we have yet to reach any real consensus on either score—a fact so improbable and bizarre that many of us have failed to even notice it.

Obviously, we’re not talking about whether the Republican presidential nominee is an infantile, boorish windbag.  On that we can all agree.

The more interesting argument—interesting because of its apparent insolubility—is the one that invariably takes the form of, “Is Trump really an X, or does he just play one on TV?”  While the identity of X changes from day to day, it has generally been some variation of “racist,” “misogynist,” “fascist,” “anti-Semite,” “Islamophobe” or some similarly charming personal quirk.

If the list of incidents that have inspired this debate is too enormous to tackle all at once, they have all conveniently followed the same basic pattern.  First, Trump will say (or tweet) something objectively repugnant about some racial, ethnic or social group.  Second, the press will roundly call him out for trafficking in racism, sexism, etc.  Third, Trump will express bewilderment that anyone could possibly infer sinister undertones in the offending remark, since everyone knows he is the least racist/sexist/whatever-ist person in the whole wide world.  Fourth, the press will present him with incontrovertible proof that his comment—by, in extension, he—represents the very definition of rank bigotry of the most obvious and odious form.  And fifth (as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has put it), Trump will retort with some variation of, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Certainly, Trump is neither the first nor last presidential candidate to be caught red-handed saying something appalling.  What sets him apart, however, is his fanatical insistence on doubling down, playing innocent and never giving an inch.  No matter how far beyond the pale he has trotted, never once has he apologized for the substance of anything he has said (or endorsed others for saying), always and forever projecting his prejudices onto those accusing him of the same.

Hence the aforementioned mystery:  Is he for real, or is this all a big elaborate performance?

Back in February, HBO’s John Oliver—addressing Trump directly—probably spoke for most of us in asserting, “You are either racist or you are pretending to be, and at some point there is no difference.”  Fair enough, except that Oliver’s formulation makes an implicit assumption that isn’t necessarily warranted—namely, that Trump consciously knows what he’s doing.  By framing the debate as, “Is he a bona fide bigot or is he merely pandering to bigots?” we are granting him a level of guile that he might not actually possess.

To be on the safe side, then, I would pose the $64,000 question as follows:  Deep down, is Trump as ignorant and prejudiced as he appears, or is he wholly oblivious to the consequences of his ugly behavior—i.e. ignorant of his own ignorance?  In other words, when he says, “I don’t think X is sexist” or “I don’t think Y is anti-immigrant,” could he be telling his own version of the truth?  When—to take the most recent example—he retweets an anti-Semitic graphic culled from an anti-Semitic website, is it possible that he is so thick—so utterly lacking in self-awareness and the cultural history of America—that he authentically, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about?

Given what we know that we know about this wretched excuse for a human being, I think it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that Trump is simply a dolt whose narcissism and gall preludes him from seeing what’s directly in front of his nose.  That he is such a profound sociopath that the very notion of causing someone offense—and needing to make amends for it—is totally alien to his way of seeing the world.

On the other hand, because we also know of his bald cynicism and general low regard for the American public—paired with his undeniable ability to tap into his supporters’ most violent passions and fears—it would require a massive leap of faith to take Trump at his word that he doesn’t perceive any racial or ethnic dimension to what is driving Republican voters so crazy in the first place.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump is trying to have it both ways:  He panders to the GOP base by speaking their own hateful language, then proceeds to placate everyone else by denying he did any such thing.  That—much like on his reality TV shows—he is playing out his fantasy as a devious puppet master who thinks he’s the cleverest person in the room.

But if that’s really what he’s up to, then why has he done such a lousy job of hiding it?  If the idea is to blow racial “dog whistles” that only his supporters can hear, why is it so easy for the rest of us to hear them as well?  Does he truly think the general public is that naïve?  Who’s fooling who?

In 1996, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a momentous biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, which argued that our country’s most brazenly duplicitous founding father was able to reside comfortably on both sides of innumerable issues thanks to an elaborate, lifelong game of self-deception—as Ellis put it, by “essentially playing hide-and-seek within himself.”  That is, Jefferson could say or write something one day, then totally deny having done so the next day, and deem himself to be telling the truth both times.  That he was, in effect, an early adopter of the George Costanza maxim, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Having just recently discovered Ellis’s book, I now wonder if Trump’s mind operates in much the same way.  Whether it’s likely that, through his many decades as an amoral businessman, he has trained himself to lie in a manner that manages to deceive even himself.  That when he says “believe me”—as he does every time he says something completely unbelievable—his boundless self-confidence comes not from flagrant dishonesty so much as from having drunk his own Kool-Aid.

Accepting this appraisal of Trump’s character—this odd combination of obliviousness and compartmentalization—it becomes plausible that he would see a Star of David superimposed over a pile of money, not realize its anti-Semitic connotations and, when confronted with them, work backwards from “I’m a wonderful person who would never do anything anti-Semitic” to “Therefore, this graphic can’t be anti-Semitic, either.”  It goes without saying that this approach to reality does not permit the introduction of contradictory evidence, and that is where all conflict begins.

As for the John Oliver question—Does it really matter if Trump’s bigotry is genuine or inadvertent?—I would argue it would certainly make a difference if he became president.  Deliberate, open prejudice—for all the misery it wreaks on society—has the one advantage of being, well, deliberate.  If Trump is fully cognizant of how offensive his antics are, it means he is capable—at least in theory—of reining himself in.

However, if he is so blind to basic social etiquette that he can’t even recognize racism when he sees it, then he couldn’t possibly be expected to become a less awful person, since—in his own mind—he would have no reason to do so.

Based on the events of the last year, I think we may finally have found the secret to what makes Donald Trump tick.

The Price of Independence

Monday is the Fourth of July—that most joyous, triumphant day in which Americans gather ’round the barbecue grill and celebrate the moment 240 years ago when our Founding Fathers—the most brilliant men of their generation—summoned all of their creative energies in the singular cause of perpetuating slavery for 89 more years.

OK, so that wasn’t the only thing the men in the Continental Congress accomplished in the summer of 1776.  In ratifying the Declaration of Independence, the Congress established—against all historical precedent—that nations ought to be governed by laws, not men, and that the men writing and enforcing those laws ought to be representative of—and accountable to—the common, everyday folk.  And, of course, this was all rooted in the radical idea that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, etc, etc.

So they did that—renouncing the most ancient, repressive form of government on Earth while proposing an alternative that had scarcely ever been tried before, thereby laying the foundation for what would eventually become the most prosperous republic that has ever existed.  In effect, this group of extraordinary men seized an extraordinary opportunity, realizing that, in the words of Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Which begs the question:  Why did this new world include chattel slavery?

It’s a contradiction that has grown more inexplicable with each passing July 4—namely, that these rabble-rousers could ground their entire revolutionary argument on the principle of universal equality while simultaneously preserving an institution that was a negation of that principle in every possible respect.

Many Americans today seem to think the founders were simply oblivious to it all—that they didn’t realize that owning human beings was a direct violation of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that this magic document promised to establish and uphold.

While there is a certain perverse appeal in assuming the men who created America were a bunch of idiots who couldn’t see what was staring them directly in the face, the truth is at once more nuanced, more tragic and more shameful.

In point of fact, the signers of the Declaration were entirely cognizant of the moral pretzel they were contorting themselves into, and the proof is the following paragraph from Thomas Jefferson’s original—and, he believed, superior—draft:

“[The king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”

As far as the morality of slavery is concerned, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Here, as in so many other places, we find that Jefferson in 1776 understood instinctively that slavery was an evil economic engine that, in making people into property, robbed them of their dignity and betrayed their most basic rights as human beings.  As a Virginia planter who eventually owned upwards of 200 slaves himself—four of whom were his biological children—Jefferson knew these self-evident truths more deeply than most, although he was hardly the only one.

That’s the nuance.  The tragedy and the shame is that Jefferson’s full-throated condemnation of the slave trade never made it into the final draft of the Declaration, thereby taking emancipation off the table as a subject for debate anytime in the near-future.

And why was that, ladies and gentlemen?  Why did the Continental Congress neglect to confront a massive, obvious problem at the very moment when it might have done everyone the most good?

In short:  Because they could only solve one massive, obvious problem at a time.

The choice was mutually exclusive:  Either they could declare independence or they could try to get rid of slavery.  Given the intractable realities of the day, there was no plausible way to free their slaves under any circumstances; meanwhile, the challenge of separating from Great Britain—an objective that several colonies resisted until the very last moment—would only come about on the condition that slavery be totally ignored until some unspecified future date.

As any viewer of 1776 will know, the Declaration of Independence needed to be ratified without a single dissenting vote, and it was as clear as the bright, blue sky that the delegates from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia would’ve never, ever voted “yes” if it meant giving up an institution that constituted their entire way of life.  In 1776—as in 1861 and all the years in between—the continuance of slavery was, for the American South, utterly non-negotiable.

(We should also note—before we give him too much credit—that Jefferson went to his grave believing blacks were biologically inferior to whites, that a biracial society was impossible and that the only way to free the slaves was to ship them overseas and never deal with them again.)

And so—considering the world as it actually was, rather than as we wish it had been—we are left to ask:  Did the Founding Fathers do the right thing in July of 1776?

While counterfactuals are inherently unknowable and somewhat useless, it’s worth noting that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833—a full 32 years before we did.  Is it possible that, by simply staying in the empire, the United States would have been cleansed of its original stain at least one generation ahead of schedule?  Are we entirely sure that life for the average American—let alone the average black American—was improved by breaking off from the empire when (and as) we did?  In retrospect, could the entire American Revolution have been one big terrible mistake?

In the end, we’re stuck with the history that actually happened and must deal with the facts that were known at the time.  In that context, the best we can do is to reclaim the truth of America’s founding by observing how morally ambiguous it truly was.  We cannot proclaim July 4 as a wholly virtuous moment without making racist spectacles of ourselves, but nor can we dismiss the whole episode as the source of all white supremacy in America, since the very words of Jefferson’s declaration would, in time, come to embody the strongest argument for the racial equality that we have been stumbling our way towards for the past century and a half.

That Jefferson’s generation couldn’t live up to its own standard is a singular tragedy; their calculated inaction on slavery is directly responsible for many millions of deaths and more misery than any of us could ever fully appreciate.  That these same men can simultaneously be held up as national heroes and beacons of liberty is the sort of grand irony that perhaps only a place like the United States is at once sturdy and deluded enough to withstand.

As ever, America is a land of contradiction and hypocrisy, and if we don’t spent a good deal of July 4 reflecting on this, then we are not treating our country with the integrity it deserves.

Further, by acknowledging the impossibly compromised choice with which our founders were confronted, we are reminded that there is no such thing as an easy solution to a seismic problem.  Every major political decision involves a trade-off of one sort or another, and if you enter a negotiation expecting to get everything you want, you just may wind up with nothing at all.

The Founding Fathers sought independence, and the price turned out to be the life of every black person born between 1700 and 1865.  In that moment—not knowing how bad things would get—they believed it was worth it.  Today—with all the benefit of hindsight—are we yet prepared to say they were right?

The Unwelcome Truth

Some years back, while promoting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Founding Brothers, historian Joseph Ellis offered this pithy comparison of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams:

“Jefferson tells us what we want to hear.  Adams tells us what we need to know.  [Adams] is the person who will always tell you the most unattractive truth that you know is true.”

Ellis went on to argue that Adams—quite unlike his successor to the presidency—is “the most unappreciated great man in American history.”

Could it be that those two statements are somehow related?  That Adams’ relative historical obscurity is a direct consequence of his refusal to sugarcoat his deepest, darkest intimations about the new American republic?

Of course this is the case, and there is more wisdom in that connection than any of us could fully appreciate—not least in an election year like this one.

While one simplifies the Founding Fathers at one’s peril, it seems clear enough that the enduring preeminence of Thomas Jefferson in the popular imagination owes to how Jefferson was, at his core, a romantic dreamer.  Writing that “all men are created equal” while holding some 200 human beings in bondage and singing the praises of the humble farmer while residing on a remote, lavish estate, Jefferson’s contribution to the American Revolution was to imagine a country and its citizenry as they perhaps should be, but not—by any stretch of the imagination—as they actually were.

Notwithstanding his timeless proclamations about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—words that we invoke on an almost daily basis—Jefferson was, in so many ways, a hopeless idealist with a highly tenuous grasp of reality.  Apart from the howling contradictions of his own existence, his vision for what might eventually turn the United States into a global superpower—a decentralized agrarian society removed from big cities and big banks—was curiously and profoundly out of touch with several key insights about economics and human nature.

We can admire Jefferson’s ideals all we want, but we should also realize how lucky we are not to have taken most of his policy prescriptions seriously.

In the end, America survived and prospered as a muscular, unified republic by heeding the advice of those who spoke in cold facts rather than warm fantasies—people who understood, for instance, that pure democracy could not be implemented without risking anarchy and mob rule, or that the surest means of establishing international credit was by incurring a national debt.

These are not terribly appealing thoughts—certainly no candidate could get far on them today—and yet they were, by and large, the secret to our success.  America may owe its poetry and lofty principles to Thomas Jefferson, but its unshakable foundations were the work of combative, hard-headed realists like John Adams, James Madison and, of course, that plucky immigrant currently running roughshod on Broadway.

It is certainly ironic—as innumerable experts have pointed out—that Alexander Hamilton has become America’s new favorite founder at precisely the moment when many of his deepest political convictions—big government, big banks, a big national debt—have fallen utterly out of favor among most American voters.

Indeed, prior to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play—and certainly prior to Ron Chernow’s book—Hamilton was every bit as overlooked as John Adams, and for many of the same reasons:  Like Adams, Hamilton built his legacy on telling unsexy truths about how a great country ought to be run, heedless of how unpopular such heresies might be and with an enormous skepticism for the intelligence and wisdom of the common man.  (A personality trait that the musical wisely suppresses.)

It goes without saying that such an openly dismissive and elitist attitude toward the public would make it impossible for men like Adams and Hamilton to be elected president today, and it’s equally worth noting that when Adams was elected, in 1796, a whopping 2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots before the all-powerful Electoral College took over.  (Hamilton, meanwhile, never held elected office in his life.)

And so we are brought to a most unwelcome, yet essential, conclusion:  Historically, the men and women best-equipped to lead this great nation have been—by virtue of their unromantic and clear-eyed dispositions—those least likely to secure enough votes to do so.

Put simply:  As a people, we will always opt for the candidate who tells us what we want to hear over the candidate who tells us what we need to know.  We bitch and moan about how cravenly our presidential candidates “pander,” but of course that’s exactly what we want them to do:  We want all of our dearest political convictions confirmed, not challenged, and we want to be reassured that we are on the right side of every issue.  Invariably, it is the panderers who ultimately triumph on Election Day while the so-called “straight talkers” are increasingly left in the dust.

To a degree, this truism helps explain the supposedly inexplicable success of Donald Trump.  For the plurality of GOP voters who adore him, Trump espouses all of their basest and most selfish suspicions about who is to “blame” for all the trouble in the world—principally, Mexicans, Muslims and the Chinese—while offering the most laughably vague and fantastical “solutions” to these (largely imaginary) problems:  For all that anyone can decipher, Trump’s official agenda entails little more than waving a magic wand and bringing America’s enemies to heel.

For all of his odd (and occasionally admirable) digressions from traditional Republican orthodoxy, Trump’s overall shtick is to assure his minions they have done nothing to deserve their dire economic status and that all of their troubles can be willed away if they would only make Trump their party’s nominee.

Among Democrats the situation is more complicated, as the candidate who is most guilty of pandering to liberals’ sacred ideals is also the one most commended for “telling it like it is.”  In point of fact, among all the major contenders on both sides, it has been Bernie Sanders whose essence as a potential president has warranted the most dramatic revision over the past year and change.

From the beginning, Sanders’ ace in the hole has been the notion that he—and not Hillary Clinton—is the one Democrat brave enough to identify the true sources of America’s glaring economic inequality (read: Wall Street and big banks) and to advocate for a “political revolution” to reverse the popular suffering those nefarious villains have caused.

Fair enough, but isn’t that a textbook case of telling voters what they want to hear?  When speaking to a gaggle of class-conscious liberal Democrats—aka Bernie’s natural constituency—isn’t blaming wealthy speculators for virtually all of America’s ills just another form of preaching to the converted?  Even if the charge itself is essentially true—and there is no doubt Sanders believes it to be true—what exactly is so courageous about pointing a finger at “them” in order to allow “us” to see ourselves as morally in the right?

In any case, Sanders’ real problem up to now has been his unwillingness and/or inability to square his wildest dreams about economic justice with the overwhelming arithmetical difficulty of enacting those ideals into law.

Bernie can bang on all he wants about how the greatest country on Earth should be able to provide health care and education for all of its citizens—a claim that, in effect, constitutes his entire stump speech—but so long as he continues to evade the obvious rejoinders—How much will it cost and why would Congress ever go along with it?—he is not telling us what we need to know.

If Sanders really wanted to make us uncomfortable—if he were to truly live up to his billing as the straight-talking-est candidate of them all—he would recognize the ways in which his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has been correct all along.  He would acknowledge, for instance, that in order to change the system, you must work within (and with) the system, and that if you hope to get even half of what you want—in this case, some pretty enormous tax increases—you’d better be prepared to give something pretty sweet in return.

Here (to quote Joseph Ellis again) is where we find “the most unattractive truth that you know is true,” which is that when it comes to governing, compromise is not just a virtue, but a necessity.  Unless Sanders intends to rule by royal decree—a most peculiar form of socialism if ever I saw one—his administration will have to operate like every administration before it:  Through a series of bargains and quid pro quos, with a fair share of wheeling, dealing and needling to go along with it.

In what has become just about everyone’s favorite song from Hamilton—you know the one!—we are ominously and depressingly reminded:

“The art of the compromise / hold your nose and close your eyes / we want our leaders to save the day / but we don’t get a say in what they trade away / we dream of a brand new start / but we dream in the dark for the most part.”

That’s government, folks:  A long, painful stumble through the darkness in search of the tiniest, faintest glimmer of light.  An election is a choice between better and worse, not good and bad—as Bill Maher has said, “Perfect is not on the menu”—and we should be very wary, indeed, of any candidate who presumes to possess a magic bullet that can cure our imperfect system once and for all.

Hillary Clinton, for all her equivocations and unscrupulousness, seems to grasp the inherent intractability of the government she intends to lead, and her relatively modest expectations for success are—in their own way—a form of political courage.  She is the only major player in this year’s campaign who has told her own supporters they cannot have everything they want, so they might as well stop pretending otherwise.

Could it be that Hillary, and not Bernie, is the straight shooter we’ve been looking for this whole time?  Or would that be a truth that we simply could not handle?

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.