Yes, They’re “Killing” “Donald Trump” in Central Park. Let’s Stop Insulting the Rubes, Eh?

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Dear Rebecca:

Here is the controversy du jour:

New York’s Public Theater lost support from two high-profile corporate donors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, on Sunday amid intense criticism of its production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” which depicts the assassination of a Trump-like Roman ruler.

“No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,” the company said in a statement on Sunday night.

“Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste,” the company said. “We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater effective immediately.”

Smart folks are snickering at this decision. “Julius Caesar” is clearly an anti-assassination play, they say, as anybody who’s read the play or seen it performed fully will know.

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To paraphrase Shakespeare: The pundits do protest too much.

Yes, Julius Caesar is a play that ultimately delivers an anti-assassination message. Guess what? “Reefer Madness” is a movie that delivers an anti-pot message, but it’s enduring popularity … well, let’s just say its most enthusiastic viewers may not be taking “Reefer’s” prohibitionist message to heart.

There are a million examples in the history of art of wrapping spectacle in an “eat your Wheaties message” for the sheer sake of delivering spectacle. This way of telling a story reached real heights during Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the Hays Code required that movies ultimately have uplifting moral messages. As long as Jimmy Cagney converts in the last five minutes, he can slaughter as many gangsters as he wants during the preceding 90. Hypocrisy, they say, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Put it on stage, though, and it can be beautiful, even stirring.

Which is to say: If you think the Shakespeare in the Park folks might be trying to intentionally provoke and provide a little bit of anti-Trump spectacle by figuratively murdering him every night for a few nights before thousands of onlookers — well, let’s says you might have a deeper understanding of how art sometimes works than what you’re being credited with by the Chris Hayses of the world.

One can understand the play and still think those involved thought it might be a thrill to depict Donald Trump being shredded by knives. *

*Or Gregg Henry, who plays Caesar. He always plays a great villain. Would love to see him in this. 

Understand, I’m not getting into the ethics of “fake Nazi punching” or whatever we want to call this. I’m getting into the ethics of “insulting the public’s intelligence.” Liberals are acting smug because they understand  literature better, they think, conservatives are mad — rightly — to be treated like rubes, and, well, round and round we go.

If we’re going to have the catharsis of watching Trump torn apart every night, let’s be honest. Let’s own it. But let’s not tell people they’re dumb when they can see pretty well what’s probably going on here.

See you at the theater!
Joel

Why I’m Terrified by News That Hillary Clinton Used Prison Laborers as Servants

Dear Rebecca:

Have you heard that Bill and Hillary Clinton used slave labor in the Arkansas governor’s mansion? I thought it was a hoax, but it turns out not to be: The “slaves” in question were convicted prisoners on work detail. You can see how this is going to get complicated.

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The evidence was in plain sight.

The evidence was in plain sight the whole time: Hillary described it in her 1996 book “It Takes A Village.”

The relevant excerpt:

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I admit. It was kind of breathtaking to read.

And then, on second thought, it was kind of personally horrifying. Why?

For a couple of reasons: First, it’s been 20 years since the book came out. Only now is a fuss being made. That means that a bunch of people read it and didn’t think much about the Arkansas tradition – or, in the pre-Internet age when the book came out, didn’t have the voice needed to make the fuss gather momentum.

Second: I can’t honestly say I would’ve done differently.

I think I’m a conscientious fellow. I argue against racism every chance I get. I argue against sexism the same. And yet, I know I’ve been betrayed by a blind spot now and again. It will almost certainly happen again.

It’s easy enough for me to imagine being in Hillary’s shoes: Not comfortable with a practice, but also not wanting to make a fuss about “tradition,” especially when it saves taxpayers a few bucks, and especially since they’re convicts and especially since I know I’m a conscientious person and will treat them well and … oh dear, it’s a slippery slope to being a slave master.

(There are those who will still argue that this was a good deal for convicted inmates, but there’s also a lot of evidence that the justice system is built to feed black men into prisons, too. Watch Ava Duvernay’s “13th” for a quick primer on this. I’m inclined to the latter point of view more than the first. In which case, the moral rule is this: Don’t accept service from people in shackles. Refuse to benefit from that.)

So: I think what Bill and Hillary Clinton did was wrong, and I think it was profoundly human, and that’s what terrifies me.

I’ve been thinking about the ways injustices sustain themselves — I’ll be writing about Jim Comey on a similar topic in the next few days — and one of them is that they embed themselves in custom and tradition, take on an air of authority, make it easier to accept than to challenge.

I’m pretty sure I’m not a better person than Hillary Clinton. And that terrifies me. How easily would I accept slave labor?

Do you know for certain that you would do better?

God have mercy on us.

Sincerely,

Joel

White Dudes and Wonder Woman

Dear Rebecca:

Over the last year, some of my friends have offered up this jokey-not so jokey prayer in public: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

It came to mind today as I watched white dudes react to the runaway success of the new “Wonder Woman” movie. Frankly, it’s been an awkward grapple.

Here’s Rich Lowry at National Review, wondering why we can’t just enjoy a good superhero flick without getting caught up in feminist politics.

The critics have swooned, and some of them have literally cried over the movie. This is a bit much. The advancement of women in this country, or even just in Hollywood, didn’t depend on the production of a better female superhero vehicle than, say, Elektra (Rotten Tomato rating: 10 percent). Nor is it unusual anymore to see women beat up villains on screen. This hasn’t stopped people from losing their minds — a new American core competency — over Wonder Woman.

More complicatedly, David Edelstein at New York found himself, er, revising and extending his previous remarks giving the movie a mediocre review. After answering charges he’d spent too much time contemplating his looks, he answered the broader charge that he simply didn’t take the movie seriously enough:

I underestimated how much a superheroine at the center of a woman-directed film would mean to many people, and descriptions I considered lively and complimentary would come across as demeaning. Moreover, if Wonder Woman will empower women at this moment in history — in which reproductive rights are imperiled, and an admitted groper is working to undo decades of gains for women — then some of the criticisms of my review are just. I reserve the right to think that this is not, overall, a very good movie. But it is an important one.

For which NYT columnist Ross Douthat offered this bit of snark: “It’s a mediocre movie, but I didn’t understand how important mediocre movies are to the Cause.”

…which seems to miss the mark a bit.

The key to understanding why mediocre movies might be “important to the cause” goes back to Lowry’s column: He’s right! Elektra was a lousy movie that did lousy business. And what happened? Despite the flowering of the superhero genre over the last decade, nobody’s seen fit to make a major female superhero movie again until about now.

When superhero movies about white guys do badly, nobody puts that on their white guyness. Ryan Reynolds survived the critical failure of Wolverine and the failure failure of Green Lantern before finally striking gold with Deadpool. Now, it seems, he’s set for life. Short story: White guys don’t have to worry about mediocrity being a major setback.

Meanwhile, the studios offered up three major women-centered superhero movies over the course of 30 years, they flopped, and based on that — instead of the fact that the movies just sucked — the dudes-that-be decided there wasn’t an audience for women-centered superhero movies. They even decided women couldn’t be the villains.

Wonder Woman, it seems, proves that’s wrong.

So the response to Lowry is: When women are getting as many of these opportunities as men, maybe we’ll be able to dial the conversation back a bit. Until then, the process is natural.

And the response to Douthat is: Maybe you shouldn’t sneer at people taking seriously something you don’t have to take seriously because it will never be a problem getting a superhero movie made about people who look like you.

And the response to Edelstein is … well, I kind of wish he hadn’t written his response at all. Critics are inundated with fanboy — a term I used advisedly — criticism whenever they diss a superhero movie, and maybe he should’ve just shrugged it off. Today’s piece was too defensive to come across well, and certainly didn’t appear to be as considered as most of his film criticism usually is.

But read those last sentences again. He doesn’t owe Wonder Woman, the movie, undue respect if the movie hasn’t earned it. Indeed, he says that his review of the flick — that it’s “not … a very good movie” — stands. He can acknowledge that it’s an “important” movie, though — a judgment that belongs to a slightly wider conversation than the “thumbs up-thumbs down” movie review might permit. Did he do wrong with the initial review? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t miss out on something.

Underlying all this (I think) is this sense, among white dudes, that their experience is the median, and that the white dude consensus about, well, anything is the conventional wisdom — maybe even objective truth — about a thing. But we all bring ourselves, our lives into the movie theater with us, and those perspectives affect how we see the movie. To say a movie is “important” without calling it good is a way of beginning to acknowledge those other perspectives.

It’s worth noting that the front page of Rotten Tomatoes “Wonder Woman” page features 20 reviews of the movie — and just five of them are women. The second page? Twenty more reviews, just one identifiable woman.

Think that influences our perspective, even a tiny bit?

I’m not sure that I’m articulating exactly what I want to say here. (One friend allowed I might be suffering from kneejerk leftism on this matter.) It just seems to me that white dudes — I am one — are often like fish in the ocean: They swim in a culture that often facilitates their desires. That’s not a culture that requires them to consider the feminist politics of a piece of art, or one that makes them grapple with why a movie might be important without necessarily appealing to them.

Apparently, it’s very upsetting when something comes along to challenge that.

Going to see the movie this weekend!

Cheers,

Joel

How Minorities Get Written Out of American History

Dear Rebecca:
Robert Curry, writing at The Claremont Review (a sort of righty version of the New York Review of Books) takes aim at those sad tropes of political correctness:

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Barack Obama famously declared that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” Yet no Founder was a Muslim, and it is generally agreed that the first mosque in America was a tiny one in rural North Dakota, started in 1929. How then are we to understand Obama’s claim?

How indeed? Well, Curry says, Thomas Jefferson waged war against piracy, and many pirates were Muslim, thus: “In this sense, then, Islam can be said to have been a part of America’s story from the beginning: it defined an enemy of the new nation, forcing America to summon the capacity to govern and defend itself.”

(Mansplain voice.) Well, actually...

Muslims arrived here before the founding of the United States — not just a few, but thousands.

They have been largely overlooked because they were not free to practice their faith. They were not free themselves and so they were for the most part unable to leave records of their beliefs. They left just enough to confirm that Islam in America is not an immigrant religion lately making itself known, but a tradition with deep roots here, despite being among the most suppressed in the nation’s history.

The story of Islam in early America is not merely one of isolated individuals. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims, and many sought to recreate the communities they had known.

So. Do slaves count as part of the American story? I’l go ahead and say yes.

Dennis Prager’s Civil War (Or: Why I’m Going to Keep on Loving Donald Trump Supporters, Dammit)

Rebecca:

I’ve mentioned a few conservatives who intrigue me because of their willingness to think in unorthodox ways. Dennis Prager, on the other hand, is a conservative who intrigues me because he is so relentlessly orthodox, so consumed by his contempt for liberals, that I know I’ll never find common ground with him. On anything, possibly. But smart conservatives I know seem to dig him, so I pay (sporadic) attention, knowing he possibly is the manifestation of the Conservative Id.

Here’s a passage from his latest, explaining why he thinks some conservatives still aren’t on the side of President Trump:

The first and, by far, the greatest reason is this: They do not believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake.

While they strongly differ with the left, they do not regard the left-right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation. On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do.

Oh dear.

Now. There was some conservative pushback against this piece — but not much against the “Civil War” contention. To be honest, I think a lot of folks on the left would agree that we’re in a kill-or-be-killed — maybe metaphorical, maybe not — battle over what makes being “American.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about reconciliation, because I think we Americans are going to need a healthy dose of it sometime soon if we’re going to continue down the path of being a single nation. (I don’t think that outcome is guaranteed, frankly: Just because we’re currently and have been one nation for a long time doesn’t mean that state of affairs is guaranteed for the future. And who knows? Maybe a division would be for the best. But I digress….)

Specifically, I’ve been wondering how to advocate for the things I think are good, oppose the things I think are bad, yet still lay the groundwork for peaceful coexistence with neighbors who think differently than I do.

Is that even possible?

We’ve talked a bit about Nazi punching lately, and one concern I haven’t really expressed about the whole thing is this: How do we decide who the Nazis are?

Don’t get me wrong: Richard Spencer is an avowed white supremacist. If you’re going to divide people into Nazi-Not a Nazi categories, he’s pretty easy to categorize.

But damn, it sure seems the labels for what defines a Nazi are pretty expansive these days, and on both sides. Google “trump hitler” and you get 33 million results. The first page of image results gets you this:

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Conservatives do the same: I remember well when National Review’s John Derbyshire responded to a Senator Obama proposal — that college students do community service — with a blog post headlined “Arbeit Macht Frei.” You know: The message that welcomed Jews to the concentration camps. (Derbyshire was eventually forced to leave NRO because of his own racist posting: Despite his rhetoric against Obama, most people would probably toward placing Derb in the “Nazi” category.) Google “obama hitler” and you get a mere 18 million results. You can guess what the image results page looks like.

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We can’t all be Nazis can we? Yet, we (and here I’m speaking of Americans, left and right) persist in seeing the other side as such — with the result that we naturally contemplate extreme behaviors in response. Like (say) punching strangers.

(One problem: The Nazis encompassed such a vast array of behaviors that it’s pretty easy to start to make comparisons: Ohmigod! They were democratically elected! They didn’t start off shepherding Jews into concentration camps — but by expelling and hassling and incarcerating disfavored ethnic groups. It’s easy enough to start to draw comparisons, but then: Most people, even on the left, agree that the United States is like other countries in that it has the right to secure its borders and regulate immigration to a degree. But once you accept that logic to any degree and act accordingly, the Nazi comparisons become pretty easy.)

(This is why a certain brand of libertarianism can be seductive in its clarity — the kind that seems to see nearly any government action as tyranny, which means any tradeoff is bad — but that’s for another time.)

If we all see each other as Nazis and we’re all willing to act accordingly, we cannot continue to live together. Because, eventually, we will kill each other.

If one of us is right about the other side being Nazis, that’s possibly even justified. If that’s the case, then yes, we’re in a Civil War, and there’s nothing to do but have it out.

But.

What if we’re all wrong? What if most of us aren’t Nazis? Or what if we’re not Nazis yet and can still be precluded from becoming so?

Perhaps we need to resist seeing each other in villainous terms. That’s not to say that there aren’t villains — it’s easy to go too far the other way, because there definitely are people who make evil choices for evil reasons, and there are the occasional sociopaths — but, maybe, there aren’t nearly as many as we tend to think there are. Maybe, for the sake of survival, we have to get comfortable with just a touch of ambiguity along those lines.

So. Maybe we on the left need to recognize that (say) many conservatives who are trying to repeal Obamacare aren’t motivated by hatred of the poor, but a genuine belief that a genuine free market might serve everybody better?

Or that not everybody who calls themself “pro-life” is trying to control women’s lives, but genuinely believe they’re preventing murder?

Or that people who favor immigration restrictions aren’t necessarily racist, but do genuinely worry about terrorism?

I don’t think the above stances are, ultimately, correct. And certainly, there are conservatives who have contempt for the poor, conservatives who want to keep women in their place, and conservatives who are acting out of racist motivations. (And, certainly, conservatives might do well to recognize that most liberals don’t want big government for its own sake, believe that real and important issues of female autonomy really are in play on the abortion issue, and genuinely believe immigration really did help build the country and continues to have benefits.)

But combining empathy — does my own life contain contradictions? — with logic suggests that the number of easily caricatured single-dimension villains in our life is smaller than we typically suspect. The other side isn’t necessarily evil, just … wrong. Mistaken. But mistaken because their ideas of a just society are a bit different than ours, not because they reject the idea of a just society.

And if that’s the case, maybe we should avoid the Civil War? It’s not mindless middle-of-the-roadism, is it, to say: “I think I’m right, but personal humility — I might be wrong sometimes! — and respect for my neighbor dictate that I listen to her, and even if we disagree, I don’t have to think she’s a horrible person?”

(Even as I write this, I become aware of my that I’m privileged — I’m a white guy with a degree and — from time to time — an audience for my ramblings, so the likelihood of me experiencing oppression is small, the number of villains in my universe is small. Maybe the problem isn’t that we all see each other as Nazis, but that we don’t — correctly! — see ourselves as Nazis when so many of us are closer to it than we admit. The banality, the routine of evil is what makes it so insidious after all, right? Cut to: Lots of black folks nodding furiously.)

Since the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. In some ways, he makes an easy example: Those of us benefit from the status quo would prefer it if everybody setting out to oppose the status quo agreed to use peaceful methods and not threaten an actual armed uprising, even as we continue to glorify armed uprisings in the name of underdog causes we care about. We’re hypocrites, most of us.

Get away from that, though, and it’s good to remember that King sought both justice and reconciliation — saw them, in fact, as inextricable from each other:

Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action.

Sounds easy. Isn’t.

Something that shapes me in all this: In 2011, I underwent a series of surgeries that saved my life from a severe attack of diverticulitis. During that period, people I thought I hated — people I had every right to hate — offered me support and comfort and grace. It was a revelatory experience, one that I’ve tried to keep in mind since.  I’m less inclined than ever to find an excuse not to love my neighbor — though I’m obviously imperfect on this front — and more inclined to *try* to offer grace where I least want to give it. I think that’s the way of MLK. I think that’s the way of Jesus. Religious inclinations aside, I suspect it has the virtue of being … virtuous.

I hope you’ll forgive the rambling, Rebecca. I want to to do the right things, oppose the bad ones, and work for reconciliation. Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe if we each and every one of us hold to what we think is true, the civil war is inevitable.

But I don’t think it is. I don’t want it to be. I think we can avert it. It will, however, take hard work, choice, and a generosity of spirit that probably doesn’t come naturally to us.

God help us,

Joel

Jesus and Memorial Day

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Rebecca:

I’m not one of those pacifist Christians who pooh-poohs the idea of Memorial Day. Though my own inclinations are dovish, I have friends who have served honorably in the military — I care very much for and about those friends — and I know that people who served in our military have almost always done so with the best of intentions. Live and let live, I say.

On the other hand, I have to admit being skeptical of this:

Every year there are the usual Christian bloggers denouncing the supposedly idolatrous nationalism of patriotic holidays like Memorial Day and July 4. Any display of the flag in proximity to the church or congregational reverence for fallen soldiers is ostensibly a grievous rebuke to the Gospel.

This globalist mindset for Western secular elites is increasingly true for many American church elites, including some Evangelicals, whose elitism recoils at populist patriotic spirituality in Christian and especially evangelical subculture. It’s part of a larger spiritual universalism that rejects or minimizes particular loyalties. Although it nobly aspires to love for all humanity, it fails to appreciate that love meaningfully can only begin with relations in proximity, with family, friends, neighborhood and country. Loving everybody everywhere abstractly is unlikely without first loving nearby persons.

And that’s why Jesus was the Messiah *just for the Jews.*

Forgive the snark.

Loving the people around you is easy, but Jesus rarely preached the virtue of easy attachments. He spoke of loving your enemies, of visiting the prisoner. He offered parables about good Samaritans — Samaritans being outside of Jesus’s circle of “nearby persons.” John 3:16 speaks of a God who loves *the world.*

I am very much against Christianity as nationalistic tribalism. It’s one reason I’ve not found a place in the church. Living the way that Jesus speaks, with a kind of universal love, is damn hard. It doesn’t preclude your nearby attachments. It does suggest that killing for those attachments … might be unwise.

Which might be read as a criticism of Memorial Day, after all. Nah. I suspect some of us are called differently. Life is complicated.

—J

Martyrs

Rebecca:

I’ve often wondered if I would have the courage to confront racial or religious harassment in a public setting.

I wonder that even more now:

The suspect is currently in Portland police custody. The stabbing occurred at about 4:30 this afternoon as the light-rail train pulled into the Hollywood Transit Center.

Details of the triple stabbing, which killed two men, are still emerging. But eyewitness reports to KATU and The Oregonian indicate it was an anti-immigrant hate crime.

What is there to say? These dead passengers are heroes. They are martyrs. They stuck up for somebody who needed their help — and they paid price for it. Let us forever be thankful for them.

And let us pray we have the courage to defend the people who need defending, even if it comes with a personal cost.

— Joel