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.

Inherent Vice

Christopher Hitchens used to say there isn’t a more unforgivable sin than being boring.  (And, accordingly, no more miserable human experience than being bored.)  However, in spending the final decade of his life engaged in high-spirited debates over such disparate subjects as the Iraq War and the (non-)existence of God, Hitchens conceded that to be passionately engaged on one side of a contentious issue requires making the same arguments over and over and over again.  What could be more boring than that?

I mention this because we Americans are about to inaugurate as commander-in-chief a man against whom we have spoken and written so extensively over the last year-and-a-half that we seem to have already run out of new ideas and are now simply repeating ourselves (and each other), effectively boring ourselves to death.

And who could possibly blame us?  When you get right down to it, how many different ways are there to call someone a selfish, narcissistic, vulgar charlatan who knows nothing about statecraft and cares even less?  When that same man takes to Twitter to bitch about the latest celebrity who refused to kneel at his feet, what recourse do we have but to use the same belittling terms to characterize just how thin-skinned and small-minded such behavior makes this 70-year-old infant appear to the wider world?

This is not to say that we have President-elect Voldemort entirely figured out just yet.  By his own admission, he places great stock in being unpredictable—to friends and enemies alike—which makes compiling a full psychological profile of him very nearly impossible.  (How fitting that the verb “gaslight” has enjoyed a resurgence in the American vernacular as of late.)

However, what we do know for sure about our next president—none of which is promising—is enough to keep us invigorated well into the first hundred days of his administration—if not the first thousand—and we have no choice but to reassert them ad nauseam until we are given a reason to think otherwise.  When it comes to opposing Trump, there is no choice but to be boring.

To be clear:  I don’t mean that we should spend the dude’s entire presidency hurling childish insults at him the way he does at others—enjoyable as that might be.

What we need—particularly in these tense early moments—is to establish the truths about Agent Orange that are ingrained in his very DNA—and thus destined to remain the same—while separating out our collective impressions of him that, in the fullness of time, may well be proved false, exaggerated or unimportant.  We cannot get bogged down in ancillary minutiae.  As Joseph Ellis whimsically put it, “There’s something called the forest, and then there’s something called the trees.”

As far as I’m concerned, there is one fact about Donald Trump that overrides everything else:  Insomuch as he values anything at all in this world, it is the furthered personal enrichment of Donald Trump, full stop.  In the end, the 45th president cares about nothing but himself and calibrates his every action based on what he believes is in his own best interest, and nothing more.

This may seem like an obvious point—which, of course, it is—but if we take the next step and accept it as the singular insight that explains everything worth knowing about this strange person—the who, the what, the why and the how—we could save ourselves a great deal of puzzlement and needless psychoanalyzing down the road, and perhaps even be able to anticipate future events with more accuracy than if we merely assumed the worst at every turn.

It’s a question of motivation:  How does a man who is capable of doing anything decide to do something in particular?  Having licensed himself to violate every civic norm in the book, what are the ultimate ends that he intends to achieve with his newfound political power?  And if he truly has no coherent plan—if this whole crusade really was just an idle ego trip that got out of hand—what inner forces are going to guide his decision-making once he actually sits in the Oval Office chair?

It’s not the white supremacy.  Surely, if his poll numbers among African-Americans miraculously shot through the roof, he would embrace (read: exploit) that support before the sun came up the next morning.

Nor is it the authoritarian need to control all levers of power at all times.  If the press swooned over him the way it has often swooned over President Obama, he would gladly defer to journalists’ right to do their jobs and would likely hold a press conference on an almost hourly basis.  (He may well do the latter in any case.)

Nor, certainly, is it any particular fealty to conservatism, isolationism or any other halfway-coherent view of the world that he has occasionally dabbled in but plainly knows nor cares nothing about.  Here, as with everything else, he has shown a profound, aggressive willingness to reverse any policy position on a moment’s notice—often, for good measure, denying such a change ever occurred—leading us to conclude that most, if not all, of his political views are affectations, as phony as they are ephemeral.

All of which might be tolerable were Trump to possess a scintilla of concern for the public good—if he could tailor his policies based on what would yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

But he doesn’t and he can’t.  Practically since birth, he has occupied a position in society whereby status and wealth are the only things worth attaining.  Like a slimier version of Henry Hill in GoodFellas, Trump exists in a milieu that views poverty as a failure of imagination and modesty as a form of psychosis.  To him, there is nothing more contemptible than a morally upstanding citizen who doesn’t give a damn about money or fame.  Just look at how many of those sorts of folks he has insulted in the course of his life.

There is no reconciling this obsession with personal enrichment with the interests of the nation at large.  Hence my view that Trump’s rank greed and selfishness will be the “rosebud” to his presidency:  They are the only constant in his 70 miserable years on Earth, and if you want to know what he’s going to do today, ask yourself what he stands to gain tomorrow.

Sweet ’16

We might agree that 2016 was nobody’s idea of a good time.  Certainly, any year that sees the death of Snape and the rise of Voldemort lends credence to Ross Douthat’s recent quip that “history has become a fever dream from which we are struggling to awake.”

However, in the spirit of holiday cheer—and in defiance of the natural urge to swallow a cyanide capsule or play Russian roulette around an empty table—I will close out my year with a reflection on the handful of people who made 2016 bearable.  Some of these were virtually unknown to me before January 1, and yet today I cannot imagine my life in their absence.  It just goes to show that every 12-month period, no matter how depressing, contains certain hidden pleasures that, in the fullness of time, add up to something resembling a life well-lived.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA

For reasons mostly beyond my control, I haven’t yet seen Hamilton live at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.  Indeed, I haven’t seen it anywhere except through bootleg clips on YouTube and the PBS special Hamilton’s America, which aired earlier this fall.

But I have heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visionary historical epic more frequently than any album this year (if not ever), and I think it’s fair to say that after 30 or 40 rounds of the rap battles, R&B ballads and other assorted musical revisionism that comprise this singular cultural behemoth, one has “experienced” Hamilton as deeply as humanly possible short of shelling out the thousands of dollars required for an actual goddamned ticket.

In any case, the influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda on my life in 2016—possibly the greatest of any nationally-known individual—was not just the show itself, but all the treasure hunting that Miranda’s sublime lyricism inspired.  In addition to teaching me more about rap and hip-hop than I’d ever known (or cared to know) before, Hamilton sent me to the history section of the library with a ferocity I wish I’d possessed in college.

Plowing through the Ron Chernow epic that got this whole trouble started—followed by Chernow’s equally magisterial 2011 biography of George Washington—I progressed to Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Summer, followed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and Annette Gordon-Reed and others, and before you knew it, I felt I understood America’s founding generation almost as well as the average middle school student from the Bronx whose class gets to see Hamilton for free on a Wednesday afternoon.  What a country.

TA-NEHISI COATES

Apart from anything else, 2016 was the year I became officially embarrassed to be a white man in America.  If the election of Trump was the final straw—and it was—there is no overstating the impact of The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates in laying the historical foundation for why America still hasn’t solved racism more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

One answer to this—long argued by Coates and others and seemingly proved by the rise of Trump—is the enduring assumption of white privilege.  Without batting an eye, white people can spend 400 years denying black people life, liberty, voting rights, decent housing and access to basic municipal services, but at the first mention of “affirmative action” or “Black Lives Matter,” suddenly the country is engaged in a race war and white people are the most oppressed group in America.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh, and reading Coates—as breathtakingly beautiful a stylist in prose as Miranda is in poetry—has removed any possibility (if one existed) of my embracing this white supremacist fantasy at any point in the future.

For me, this began with Coates’ essay, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic in the summer of 2014, continued with his bestselling memoir, Between the World and Me, and culminated just this month in his newest Atlantic piece, “My President Was Black,” which tries to reconcile America’s continued institutional racism with the fact that Barack Obama was elected president twice.

Just as important—as with Lin-Manuel—were the myriad works by other writers that Coates’ own writing forced me to seek out—particularly those of James Baldwin, whose novels Another Country and Giovanni’s Room were among the most pleasurable reads of my year and whose essay collections Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time were among the most illuminating.

WESLEY MORRIS AND JENNA WORTHAM

A late adopter of virtually everything, I still haven’t fully assimilated the concept of podcasts to my day-to-day life.  However, early in the fall, I stumbled upon “Still Processing,” hosted by the New York Times, and I haven’t missed an episode since.

The podcast is a weekly conversation between Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, two young-ish feature writers for New York Times Magazine, with each installment examining some aspect or other of contemporary American culture, be it music, film, TV, sports, politics or—as is often the case—the intersection of all the above.

As with other great cultural commentators, the appeal of Morris and Wortham hinges on their impeccable taste, their engaging conversational style and, most of all, the outside-the-box manner in which they each view the world around them.  (In 2012, as a Boston Globe film critic, Morris was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.)

In “Still Processing,” this gift manifests itself through either discussing subjects that no one else is paying attention to, or discussing popular subjects through a unique and unorthodox lens.  In the 16 episodes to date, Morris and Wortham have tackled everything from transgender identity to the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History to O.J. Simpson to Moonlight to the social history of the black penis to the feminist supernova that is Beyoncé.

As you can tell from that list, certain themes have a way of popping up again and again, which tracks with Jon Stewart’s great insight—adopted by Larry Wilmore upon creating The Nightly Show—that “every important story in America has either race, class or gender hiding underneath it.”  To the extent that we knew this all along, 2016 might go down as the year we officially stopped pretending otherwise.

Elsewhere, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone provided the foul-mouthed gonzo political reporting that has long made him the most deliciously readable commentator in cyberspace.

On late night TV—still the most blissful way to fall asleep without heavy drinking—Samantha Bee became the inner consciousness of American liberals that saw what was happening in the news every day and ran outside to scream into the night.  It’s a shame Bee’s blistering program, Full Frontal, only airs once a week, and that Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show was cancelled.  In the absence of responsible cable news outlets, Bee, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah are, collectively, television’s last best hope in explaining to ordinary citizens just what the hell is going on.

(Incidentally, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show’s James Corden are, for my money, the most purely enjoyable late night hosts in the game.  However, in their pitch for middle-of-the-road mass appeal, they are not quite as pointed as their aforementioned rivals—although Colbert has leaned more in that direction since the election.)

Finally, there was Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  A weekly, hour-long comedic news quiz show on NPR, Wait Wait has been a public radio staple since 1998, but—again, thanks to my tortoise-like reflexes to my cultural surroundings—it was only just recently that it became a regular part of my week.  Hosted by Peter Sagal and featuring a rotating panel of three underemployed writers and comedians cracking jokes about current events, Wait Wait provided a desperately-needed catharsis at the end of each jaw-dropping week of this historic year, making hay of serious world events while going full metal gaga over the silly ones.

Admittedly, by the end, it became awfully hard to tell the difference.

Scumbag-in-Chief

The next president of the United States is a selfish, narcissistic, vindictive prick.  For good measure, he is also a racist, sexist, fascist con man, as well as a lying, cheating sexual predator and a shameless, manipulative, vulgar hedonist.

On the bright side, he also appears completely in over his head, not knowing anything about the country he is soon to lead or the position he is about to fill, and has so far surrounded himself with a rogue’s gallery of losers, crooks and slimeballs.

Many of us have spent the past week searching desperately for a silver lining to the rise of Donald Trump, but in the end it’s a bit like realizing you won’t need to pay your electric bill because your house just burned down.

There is no silver lining to this election—no scrap of good news hidden in the raging dumpster fire of madness that the American people ignited last Tuesday.  We have all boarded the crazy train to hell and there is no turning back.

As a white male—ostensibly the most pro-Trump demographic of all—I will forever defend my vote for Hillary Clinton as the easiest decision I’ve ever made in a voting booth, and I’m proud to have broken Massachusetts law by photographing my marked ballot for posterity, in case there’s ever any doubt as to which side of history I was on.

Now that the election is behind us (ah, what a beautiful phrase!), we have been told the Clinton campaign’s fatal flaw was to have effectively written off America’s white working class, either by ignoring them altogether or dismissing them as “a basket of deplorables.”  Trump, sensing this untapped reservoir of potential support, exploited the fear and desperation of those who despise the Washington establishment and the status quo, and it turned out there were enough of those people to reach 270 electoral votes.

Politically, Trump played his hand superbly, and we liberals certainly deserve blame for not taking him seriously enough to assume he might actually win.

However, a brilliantly-executed con is a con nonetheless, and I confess I am still struggling with the theory that all the blue-collar folk who pulled their levers for Trump are owed our empathy and respect, and that they were justified in voting the way they did.  (David Wong’s recent Cracked article, “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind,” offers the most persuasive argument for this that I’ve read so far.)

President or not, Trump is still the guy who casually suggested that his opponent be assassinated, and who encouraged physical violence against protesters at his campaign rallies.  He’s still the guy who fostered contempt toward the entire country of Mexico and the entire Muslim faith.  He’s still the guy whom at least 12 women have accused of sexual assault and who was caught on tape bragging about having sexually assaulted various women (what are the odds?!?).  And he’s still the guy who earned the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups and never quite figured out how to tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

None of that should be either forgotten or forgiven, and Trump has no right to expect the nation will simply “move on” from the fact that he’s a wretched human being who will do and say literally anything to get what he wants.  He could undergo a complete personality transplant tomorrow and end up being the second coming of FDR, but he cannot unsay all the things he has said or undo all the hurt he has inflicted on those Americans who have been the victims of his hateful, dangerous rhetoric—in particular, the Muslims and Latinos who justifiably feel that a permanent target has been callously branded on their backs.

As for the 47 percent of the electorate who supported this unconscionable degenerate:  They may well have voted for Trump on the basis of economic desperation and/or white hot rage at everyone in Washington, D.C., but that does not absolve them of responsibility for casting their lot with a man who is a declared enemy of such fundamental American values as multiculturalism, pluralism, a free press and the right to peaceably assemble.

At best, Trump voters collectively decided that issues of character simply don’t matter anymore; at worst, they agreed with most or all of what Trump actually said.  Call me cold-hearted, but I don’t find anything sympathetic in either of those explanations, and you’ll excuse me for casting aspersions on people who define themselves based on which ethnic groups they don’t like.

Of all the false equivalency that occurred during this abysmal campaign, the most irritating to me was the suggestion that all hate is created equal:  That there is no substantive difference between hating someone because of who they are vs. hating someone because of what they think and do.

Of course there’s a difference.  The hatred that drives a white supremacist to beat and torture a random black person exists in an entirely separate moral universe from the hatred that that victim comes to feel for white supremacists everywhere.  The latter is a product of experience and intelligence, while the former is a product of sheer, irrational prejudice.

Sure:  In the end, all hatred is poisonous, and the only way humanity can survive is for love to flourish from one end of the globe to the other.

But the way you guarantee that our country never gets there—and instead grows ever more suspicious of itself—is by electing someone like Donald Trump, who goes out of his way to divide America by race, ethnicity and gender and thereby license the most paranoid and violent among us to act on those noxious views.

This is not going to end well, and it will be almost entirely Trump and company’s fault.  We can beat up on the Democrats all we want for their fecklessness and alienation from the entire American heartland (if such a thing still exists), but there is no excuse or justification for the terror and mayhem that only deep-seated bigotry can unleash—bigotry that, at the risk of generalizing, tends only to emanate from one end of the political spectrum.

As the leader of all of us, the president is supposed to be a high moral exemplar.  By contrast, in his 70-plus years on Earth, Donald Trump has proved himself to be a moral disgrace in every sense of the word, and has demonstrated neither the ability nor the interest in becoming a better person while in office.

We can hope that he will somehow rise to the challenge, transcend all his worst instincts and be a president for all the people—indeed, we have no other choice—but we have been given precious little on which to hang that hope.  In the meantime, we are left with our fears and suspicions that Trump will continue to be exactly what he’s always been, in which case we will spend the next four years rooting for the success of a man whom our conscience tells us to hold in contempt.

Fasten your seat belts.  Things are about to get weird.

Donald/Duke

Donald Trump has a Klan problem, and its name is David Duke.

Within hours of Trump’s shrieking, hysterical acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last Thursday, Duke—America’s leading white supremacist—tweeted his unconditional approval for the GOP nominee while announcing his own candidacy for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Louisiana.

Duke’s tweet read, “Great Trump Speech, America First! Stop Wars! Defeat the Corrupt elites! Protect our Borders!, Fair Trade! Couldn’t have said it better!”

In a separate statement about his Senate bid, Duke added, “Thousands of special-interest groups stand up for African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish Americans, et cetera, et cetera.  The fact is that European Americans need at least one man in the United States Senate—one man in the Congress—who will defend their rights and heritage.”

Duke—for those with short memories—is a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who served three years in the Louisiana House of Representatives and 15 months in prison for tax fraud.  In the meantime, he has run unsuccessfully for just about every public office you could imagine, including two previous bids for the Senate.  In the popular imagination, he is a perennial candidate for America’s racist-in-chief.

Here in 2016, Duke is such a flamboyantly toxic and antiquated character that he would hardly be worth our time, except that—for those with even shorter memories—he has demonstrated a real knack for tethering himself to Donald Trump in a way that Trump cannot quite shake.

Back in February on a radio program, Duke implored white listeners that “voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage”—suggesting, in effect, that Trump is the candidate of and for white supremacists in America.

To the surprise of possibly no one, Trump’s response to this problematic endorsement was pointedly—and tellingly—incoherent.

Initially, Trump appeared to be caught off-guard by Duke’s unsolicited support, reflexively telling a roomful of reporters, “I disavow, OK?”  However, two days later in a satellite interview with Jake Tapper, Trump performed a 180 by claiming not to know anything about Duke and his background and taking umbrage at being put on the spot “to condemn a group that I know nothing about.”  (That group was the KKK.)

Finally, the next morning on The Today Show, Trump asserted—incredibly—that his earpiece hadn’t worked properly and he couldn’t really understand what Tapper was asking him.  From there, he reverted to his original disavowal of Duke’s support, insisting his view on the matter had never wavered—a claim proved demonstrably false by a cursory review of Trump’s own words.

All of which is to say that it took Donald Trump the better part of a week and a series of elaborate linguistic back flips to distance himself from a man who used to burn crosses for a living—a feat that any normal candidate could’ve performed in a matter of seconds.  Then and now, the whole episode begs the question:  What in holy heck in this cretin up to?

In previous iterations of this Trumpian game of rhetorical rope-a-dope on explosive social topics, we have been compelled to wonder whether the Donald is a supreme cynic or a supreme dolt.  Whether a) he is attempting to dupe the American public about the inner workings of his mind, or b) he is a dead ringer for the old Groucho line, “He may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you.  He really is an idiot.”

At this point, let’s say it doesn’t matter.  Let’s assume—as John Oliver has posited—that there is no functional difference between feigned bigotry and actual bigotry, and thereby conclude that, for all intents and purposes, Donald Trump means what he says.

Which would mean, in short, that he is a bigot.  That by wanting to prohibit all Muslims from entering the United States, he believes Christian lives matter more than Muslim lives.  That by denouncing brutality against police without even mentioning brutality by police, he believes white lives matter more than black lives.  And that by attempting to deport all illegal Mexican immigrants and building a big, stupid wall between our country and theirs, he believes…well, that most Mexicans are murderers and rapists, apparently.

The extraordinary ugliness of these positions seems entirely self-evident to most sentient beings—including most Republicans—but the Republican National Committee cannot abide the full implications of Trump’s consistently outrageous remarks about every religious and ethnic minority under the sun.

Why not?  Because if they did, it would mean that David Duke is right, and that Trump has adopted white supremacy as his party’s central cultural identity.

Shortly after Duke announced his Senate run, RNC chair Reince Priebus tweeted, “David Duke & his hateful bigotry have no place in the Republican Party & the RNC will never support his candidacy under any circumstance.”

Wise and noble words, but how exactly does Priebus account for them?  What standard of decency has Duke violated that the party’s presidential nominee has upheld?  What racist, prejudicial statement has Duke made lately that Donald Trump, in his own way, has not?  If Duke’s hateful bigotry is anathema to Republican Party values, why did that party’s voters anoint a candidate for commander-in-chief whose entire appeal is rooted in hateful bigotry?

By supporting Trump’s candidacy while simultaneously denouncing Duke’s, Priebus and the RNC are practically begging us to call BS, and we are duty-bound to oblige them.  They might (and do) argue that Trump doesn’t really represent Republican values and that their formal support for him is purely in deference to the will of Republican primary voters, but then again, what else could define the true values of a party than the values of its electorate?

Nope.  So long as Trump continues to exist in his present form—so long as he doubles and triples down on a platform of purging America of every type of human species that white men like him don’t approve of—he and David Duke will be a two-for-one deal in American politics, and the GOP itself will grow more fanatically prejudiced by the day.

We should note that yesterday—48 hours after the fact—Trump himself told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he disavows Duke’s support “as quick as you can say it.”  In case that makes you feel any better, realize that Trump didn’t trouble himself explaining just what it is about Duke that he finds so objectionable—possibly because if he did, he would be making a rod for his own back.

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.

Whodunit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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