This commentary is about personal choice, not about policy making, or about judging others who consume entertainment you don’t approve of.
The NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers stopped playing Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” before games, and removed her statue, recently.
Why? Because an anonymous caller told the Flyers’ front office she had a history of singing racist songs.
Before I dig into the facts behind this contretemps, I want to examine this issue of the problematic creative. That is, the artist whose works provide joy to fans unaware of their favorite’s more hideous flaws.
Everyone has a line they draw, how and where that line gets drawn is obviously an deeply personal choice. It can be heart wrenching. I was so disappointed, and upset, with Kevin Spacey that I realized I could no longer watch any of his work. This brilliantly talented actor whose Richard III must have been glorious to see, and who starred in some of my very favorite movies, made it so that I can’t even look at him.
A conversation with my mentor one day centered on this thorny subject. We have to support creativity, and not censorship. So where does that leave us?
I’ve circled around this so many times I’ve met myself both coming and going. There are no hard and fast rules. And it’s not easy to decide what’s right.
But consider this. What if we didn’t know about the dark secrets of our favorite artists? We’d continue to consume their work without having the burden of weighing our morals every time we pick up a book or watch a movie. My personal library is pretty big and I don’t know a thing about a lot of the authors whose work occupies that space. I’m willing to bet that if I looked hard enough I could find something nasty about some of them.
I don’t have time or energy for that. I want to judge the work based on my enjoyment of what’s between the covers. And believe me, I have no problem bailing on a book if it’s not living up to my expectations. Life’s too short, time’s limited, I gotta get the best I can out of the entertainment I consume.
We all say and do things we wish we hadn’t. In our younger days, our judgement probably wasn’t that sharp. Mine definitely wasn’t and I would hate to be judged on a bad decision I made decades ago that no longer fits who I am. This is not to excuse the serial bad behavior of people. Someone having a really bad day saying something they immediately regret and never say again is one thing. A person who does that on a regular basis and show no understand or regret is a completely different topic.
Kate Smith’s “racist” history amounts to two songs she sang in her 20s when just starting her career. She certainly wasn’t a racist, especially by the time she sang “God Bless America” live at a Flyers playoff game in 1974.
An opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune questions the “moral clarity” in making the choice to boycott Smith. As far as I can tell, this isn’t about moral clarity, it’s about the politics of the day.
Where do people find the energy to stir up such trouble? Wouldn’t fighting actual racism be a better use of time and energy? A woman who sang two songs decades ago, and died in 1986, hardly seems worth all that tsuris. I can barely look after myself most days, so I won’t be spending that much more energy on it.
Enjoy what you enjoy, don’t feel guilty for enjoying it and draw your lines in the most comfortable places for you. And certainly, don’t look to anyone else for guidance. Unless you’re asking for book recommendations …
I’ve said more than once that Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most important writers today. If not the most important when it comes to matters of race in America. Especially matters of black and male in America.
His book Between the World and Meis written for his son explaining how to survive in a world where, “… navigating his Baltimore neighborhood was rife with literal boundaries and secret codes, any violation of which could get him beat up. Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts to make sense of the senseless. While explaining to his son, it becomes clear that there is a sort of sense in the chaos, but only to those who are so invested in making sure the ‘other’ oppressed.” (7 Stillwell review, January 16, 2017)
Then came The Beautiful Struggleabout his chaotic upbringing in Baltimore surrounded by his father’s collection of Black Panther and black power movement books. The only thing I could really identify with was being the nerd wanting to be left alone to read. For Coates, it was comics. For me, books. And we were both greedy for them.
These two books offer an insight into a world I could never know, and never truly understand. But Coates’ writing is eloquent, teaching many things along the way.
During interviews, he is gracious and thoughtful. At one point, he mentioned driving to the venue and seeing a billboard with his face on it. “It’s just unreal,” he said.
There was his infamous Twitter fight with Cornel West, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, and professor emeritus at Princeton. In 2003 (ish) a friend and I were moseying the Stanford Campus when we happened upon a lecture by Dr. West. I found it to be obtuse and inexplicably over-complicated. All I remember of it now is how he would lean into the lectern after a question from the audience and say, “I think the brother (or sister) for asking that question.” And would go off on an answer which made no sense to me. The upper class white people around us nodded their heads in sage agreement. My friend and I looked at each other quizzically.
To be sure I hadn’t missed something, I grabbed a copy of one of his books and diligently slogged my way through it. No wiser than before. Maybe Philosophy just ain’t my thing.
Anyway, Dr. West and Ta-Nehisi Coates got into this righteous Twitter feud which ended with Coates leaving Twitter for good after Dr. West called him a “house n….r.” I still don’t know what to make of that, or understand what prompted that particular epithet.
Coates’ third book, We Were Eight Years in Power languishes on my to be read stacks. Sometimes I nip over to The Atlantic website and read his columns from there.
I was reminded of his work in a Brain Pickings post about Coates, in which Maria Popova highlights the “terror of kindness” where we have been culturally conditioned to expect the worst from those we encounter and must face our disbelief that people can actually just be kind.
This book went right on to my wish list, not because I’m a huge Batman fan, but because I want to read Cory Doctorow’s essay.
“Occupy Gotham, [is] about the terror of letting a billionaire vigilante decide who is and isn’t a criminal …”
My first memories of Batman are of the campy 1960s television series. Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, Otto Preminger as Mr. Freeze, Cesar Romero as The Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, etc. I remember them fondly.
I didn’t know about comic books then, and I was not yet 10 so just went along for the fun of it. I’ve seen several, not all, of the movies and am currently watching Gotham in my copious amounts of spare time.
I even had this by James Hance in my cubicle for a while. Starry Night is one of my favorite pieces of art, and I thought the idea of a mashup was cool.
That’s where my critical thinking started and stopped. Until a co-worker mentioned he didn’t like Batman because he was a vigilante.
“Huh,” I thought. It stuck with me.
And now that I’m watching Gotham, fascinated by the origin stories and watching the evolution of young master Bruce Wayne, I think about it a lot. Who is Bruce Wayne to be making these decisions? Do we make allowances because Gotham City is so crime-ridden even most of the police are criminals themselves? Do we make allowances because Bruce is obviously working out his parent issues and using his money to do some good for the city?
Yes, it’s fictional and yes, it’s an interesting story. But isn’t this one of the times critical thinking can be used to question the appropriateness of vigilantism in society?
We all want to be rescued from the horrors of our lives, and we want to know that we’re safe because people are generally well-behaved and law enforcement does its job. Batman as guardian is a nice fantasy.
But let’s face it, he’s only Batman because he’s wealthy. He can afford the toys and the time for training and wandering the streets chasing down whoever he deems is a criminal. (As a side note, are his feelings for Selina “Cat” Kyle going to get in the way of treating her as a criminal?) The class system allows Bruce to behave in this manner.
People in a lower socioeconomic class, like Jim Gordon, don’t have the luxury of money. Gordon is a paid civil servant, he can’t compete in Wayne’s class system. The city government is so overwhelmed there’s no money to be used for salaries, equipment, etc.
Gotham City is society’s law-enforcement issues extrapolated to the nth degree. Plus villains one can usually only find in comic books. With bad guys like Penguin and the Falcone family, Gotham’s problems are unique and require unique solutions.
I’m just not sure vigilante is the way to go. And I have no other answers. Maybe Doctorow’s piece will help me figure some of this out.
The original tells of Orpheus and Eurydice and the story of her death, but focuses on Orpheus and his efforts to locate her and bring her back to the world of the living.
Sarah Ruhl‘s Eurydice focuses on what happens to Eurydice in the Underworld.
She dies on her wedding day, kidnapped by the Lord of the Underground who promises her a letter from her dead father.
She arrives, confused and with no memory of life among the living. Her father, who has never forgotten her, finds her and together they rebuild her memories.
Meanwhile, Orpheus tries everything he can think of to get to the Underworld to rescue his beloved wife. His music makes the gatekeepers weep, and he is let in to bargain for her return. There’s a condition for her departure, Orpheus mustn’t turn back. Turning in response to hearing his name called, Eurydice is sent back to the Underworld, where she dies a second time.
San Jose’s City Lights Theatre Company’s bilingual performances in American Sign Language and English provided an exquisite twist to the usual theatre production. Each character was portrayed both by an English and an ASL speaker. The ASL actors made it a sort of play within a play, interacting with their English speaking counterpart and each other. CLTC’s intimate setting is a perfect place to see small productions like this.
It’s been about a week since I attended and I’m still struggling with how to write about it. The theme of love, both filial and romantic made me tear up in unexpected ways. As did themes of memory and communication. To be loved that much, to be cared for that deeply, to be led back to memories and learn better communication … I found it moving, unsettling, challenging, and thought-provoking.
Most memorable for me is Lauren Rhodes as the English speaking Eurydice, whose shouted, “I’m very angry at you!” made me proud. Women are so rarely allowed to show their anger, that to allow Eurydice to express hers is a high note. It’s one that sticks with me even now.
And I must mention Erik Gandolfi (English) and Dane K. Lentz (ASL) who perform the Lord of the Underworld with unhinged glee. Gandolfi’s costume in the underworld features a school boys’ uniform with short pants and a bright red jacket. The eerie little boys’ voice made this performance all the more chilling.
After Orpheus loses Eurydice the second time, he stands at the threshold to the world of the living expressing his anguish and grief. In a cross talk dialogue, he says, “Your timing was always off! I would tell you that if you didn’t come in on the downbeat, you’d lose everything.”
Meanwhile, Eurydice stands in the Underground shouting, “I’m sorry!”
Stephanie Foisy (ASL) added a poignant dimension to the already distraught Orpheus, portrayed by the English speaking Robert Sean Campbell.
As I left, tears in my eyes and my heart filled with unprocessed emotion, I walked past a table with pieces of paper and pens made available for anyone who wanted to write a note to someone who’d died. It occurred to me that I didn’t really get to say a proper goodbye to the friend I’d known for over 30 years who died from cancer nearly five years ago. So I stopped and wrote a little note to him.
Out into the bright Sunday afternoon light, I tried to make sense of how such a performance could have a profound effect on me. A week later, I’m still sorting it out but no longer hurting as deeply as I was then. Emotions wax and wane, it’s their nature. We just gotta hold on for the roller coaster ride.
Then there’s Bart Ehrman, the once born-again Christian, now atheist New Testament scholar at University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, blew my socks clear across the room. A lot of things I remembered from my youthful days as an Episcopalian made a different kind of sense. I’ve read many of Ehrman’s books and learned a lot about the history, and politics, of the early Christian church.
All of this to say, LitHub has a fascinating article by Jay Parini about Paul, the founder of the Christian church. Some of which reinforces what I’ve already learned, and what would upset Evangelicals if they ever bothered to actually learn their history.
Jesus’ last name was not Christ, it was a title. And in Jesus’ time there were many wandering the desert claiming to be the Messiah.
Jesus was not a Christian, nor did he found the Christian church. He was Jewish, trying to set Judaism back on the path of rightness.
Jesus was a rabble-rouser and was killed by the Roman authorities because his views interfered with their ability to govern and collect taxes from the Jews.
It was Paul who codified the teachings of Jesus into what is now recognized as the Christian church, long after Jesus died. Paul traveled the region tirelessly preaching and writing about his interpretation of Jesus’ life.
Parini, like Ehrman, learned Greek (Koine Greek) in order to read the New Testament in the original. What he found there was different from the popular notions of Christianity and the early church.
“This is astonishing. The whole universe of enlightenment will be found within the individual psyche, or soul … . The Christian message is, in effect, a message of reconciliation between the individual and the universe itself … “
This message, the one of being a part of the larger universe is one that speaks to me more thoroughly than any religious ideology. And, I’m finding more and more thoughtful people who find resonance in it too. However we go about making peace with ourselves and the ineffable, it’s important to realize it’s work that must be done in order to survive the chaos that is the world around us.
“Being a successful, middle-aged, overweight woman, people are so angry that you’re stepping out of line,” she said. “Sometimes it really gets me down.” (Alexandra Alter, New York Times, The Evolution of E. L. James, April 12, 2019)
I would amend E. L. James’ comment to “being a middle-aged, overweight woman, people are angry when [they think] you step out of line.” Something else we agree on, the women she describes are invisible.
That’s where our agreement ends because as much as I adore writers, and believe we get to write and read whatever we want, the woman who wrote fan fiction based on teenaged vampires is not someone whose work I would ever read.
People in the know tell me Fifty Shades of Grey really damaged the kink/fetish community because she wrote about it wrong. And from what I hear it wasn’t about consent at all. It was abusive. And now I read her new book is more of the same.
Let’s be clear, I am against censorship, and I am in no way encouraging she not be published. Nor am I encouraging people not read her.
What I am saying is women have a hard enough time being taken seriously anywhere, and fantasies written about men sweeping an unlikely candidate off her feet and abusing her in the name of love are not helping.
Glorifying non-consensual unbalanced power relationships just sets everyone up to believe that’s okay. Fetish/kink is all about consent. Nothing happens between people unless there is a clear understanding of what’s allowed and isn’t. We should all be so lucky as to know what we’re in for.
“Bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadism are ‘varsity-level’ sex activities, as the sex columnist Dan Savage might say, and they require a great deal of self-knowledge, communication skill, and education. Fifty Shades eroticizes sexual violence, but without any of the emotional maturity and communication required to make it safe.” (Emma Green, Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades, The Atlantic, February 10, 2015)
I may have taken more than a little glee in Sophie Gilbert’s glorious take down of James’ new book. Maybe.
“It’s not just that [the book] is bad. It’s that it’s bad in ways that seem to cause the space-time continuum itself to wobble, slightly, as the words on the page rearrange themselves into kaleidoscopic fragments of repetition and product placement.” (Sophie Gilbert, The Indelible Awfulness of E. L. James’s The Mister, The Atlantic, April 18, 2019)
I will end by saying good for E. L. James for following her passion and getting published. That’s a dream most writers never see come true. And good for her for making so much money, and being smart about it.
It’s disheartening that such obviously poorly written books about a sexually abusive relationship which is emotionally dangerous is so popular. Women all over the world probably think this is the way romantic relationships are supposed to work, and will continue to pine for their multi-millionaire fantasy man to rescue them from a dreary, sexless reality.
Stand up for yourself! Engage your own agency and find happiness within yourself. If kink is your thing, find a community which will help you explore it in a physically and emotionally healthy way. Get a vibrator for goodness’ sake. No man is going to rescue you.
Lookee here! Three weeks of posting daily. Writing ahead and scheduling hasn’t been working out so I race home after work and write. And for some reason, the scheduling feature on WordPress has stopped working. Neither of the plugins I downloaded work either. So no regularly scheduled posts at 1700 each day. Daily posts when I get to a computer and can push the button.
Over on Twitter, there was a discussion about personal hygiene as a seduction tool. Apparently, because the Viking invaders into what’s now England brushed their hair and cleaned their teeth every day, washed their clothes, and took a bath once a week, the women were leaving their husbands in droves.
“It must be recognized that the Christians of the time avoided bathing specifically because they considered too much cleanliness to be a sign of vanity, which was sin. Thus the infamous smelliness of the medieval period began.” (C. J. Arden, Were the Vikings Dirty?03/20/2015)
To put this in context, the Viking age was ~793–1066 AD. But what I got to wondering about was, when did we go from cleanliness as a vanity and a sin to cleanliness is next to Godliness?
My brief search led me to John Wesley who, in a sermon in 1778, stated that cleanliness was indeed next to Godliness. (There’s a lot of media and books available by and about him here at the Internet Archive, a cool place in itself.)
But even in 1778 personal hygiene was more difficult than we have today. It’s a good reminder we should never expect our norms to fit history. Things evolve and change. I’m grateful every day for indoor plumbing and hot and cold running water.
Title: Alexander Hamilton
Author: Ron Chernow
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.
Title: Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth
Author: Stephen F. Knott
Publisher: University Press of Kansas
Publisher’s Blurb: …explores the shifting reputation of our most controversial founding father. Since the day Aaron Burr fired his fatal shot, Americans have tried to come to grips with Alexander Hamilton’s legacy. Stephen Knott surveys the Hamilton image in the minds of American statesmen, scholars, literary figures, and the media, explaining why Americans are content to live in a Hamiltonian nation but reluctant to embrace the man himself.
“The image of Hamilton fashioned by Jefferson and his allies has endured and flourished, and the Hamilton of American memory is a Hamilton who championed privilege and who was a foe of liberty.” (Knott, p. 26)
Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Stephen F. Knott’s Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth offer a unique insight to both the man, and the legend of the man.
And while I have pondered long and hard about how to write about Hamilton without turning into a Thomas Jefferson bashing machine, it is difficult to talk about one without the other. Thanks to Jefferson and his network of devoted mouthpieces, Hamilton’s reputation remains in tatters centuries after the founding of the US.
That it took a musical based on Chernow’s book to address, and repair, Hamilton’s reputation is a statement on how deeply entrenched lies and rumors become. It’s also a statement on how easy it is to believe the worst in people instead of looking for the best.
Not that Hamilton was a complete paragon of virtue, and could, “at moments of supreme stress, … screw himself up to an emotional pitch that was nearly feverish in intensity.” (Chernow, p. 115) It is hard to imagine how a man with such an towering intellect could have so many blind spots, and be so stupid.
Soaring blind spots seem to go hand in hand with towering intellect. Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and James Madison, all seemed to be intimidated by Hamilton’s intellect. “The byzantine, interrelated nature of his programs (e.g. central banking, professional standing military, international trade with Britain) made him all the more the bane and terror of his opponents.” (Chernow, p. 349)
Nuance, and the lack of understanding thereof, is the two-edged blade of smart people everywhere. It’s baffling how so many around us just don’t understand what we think is an easy idea. “… things were so blindingly self-evident to Hamilton that he was baffled when others didn’t grasp them quickly – an intellectual agility that could breed intolerance for less quick-witted mortals.” (Chernow, p. 119)
Knott picks up this thread, “At bottom, Jefferson could not countenance the fact that an immigrant upstart without the appropriate pedigree … dared challenge him.” (Knott, p. 11)
Jefferson presented the image of a down-home gentleman farmer who understood the agrarian slave-holding farmers of Virginia. He came from wealth, owned property and was a slaveholder. That the bastard child of poverty from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean should rise up and challenge him was more than Jefferson could tolerate.
As is also sometimes true of very smart people, Hamilton was not a crafty plotter and “often could not muzzles his opinions.” (Chernow, p. 176) The myth which has stuck to Hamilton most is that the people are a “great beast,” not to be trusted with direct democracy.
Hamilton was right, but there’s a nuance long missed by his detractors. Trusting a mob mentality to make sensible decisions, especially those involving running a government is a bad idea. As individuals, we are smart and sensible. Of course we know, individually, what we want and need from our government leaders. Put us in a big group and mob mentality takes over, and no one has a good idea, not even what’s for dinner.
This myth about Hamilton continues to live because of he understood the unruliness of a mob. On this point, he was accused of hating all people, especially the less-privileged and standing for something like a monarchy in America. Lesser minds were too busy making up lies and spreading gossip to try to understand the nuance in Hamilton’s statements.
He wasn’t against a democracy per se, he was against allowing the unruly mob have such power. Among other political factors, this is one of the reasons we’re stuck with the electoral college. How else to avoid the mistakes of mob rule?
In the late 18th century it was impossible to believe the republic would ever be big enough, educated enough, and sensible enough to have good decision making processes. Women read? Slaves freed and owning land? Hah, never happen.
Except Hamilton sort of expected it, even if he couldn’t get past the hypocrisy of being white, educated, (male), and marrying into money. His heart and ideals were in the right place, though. His background prepared him well to understand why paying and supplying the militias was important. He championed a standing professional army, precisely because farmers arriving on the field of battle with a pitchfork were woefully unprepared for the rigors of professional fighting.
Hamilton even understood the need for a centralized federal bank for economic stability. (And that’s all I’m qualified to recount because the only thing I know about banking is there are too many fees.) He was, according to both Chernow and Knotts, an economic genius. Well, they’re not the only ones, economists over the centuries have sung his praises too.
But these lofty ideas were held in contempt by those threatened by his enormous mind and his exceptional work ethic. I can understand his disinclination to pander or be less forceful when expressing ideas. We just want to get stuff done and don’t have the energy to play the political games at which others are so good.
And those blind spots? How about Hamilton as participant in the nation’s first sex scandal? For over a year, Maria Reynolds, and her husband, caught Hamilton in their thrall and blackmailed him. “Quite understandably, [there were those who] could not conceive that someone as smart and calculating as Hamilton could have stayed as long in thrall to an enslaving passion. Hamilton could not have been stupid enough to pay hush money for sex, [they] alleged, so the money paid … had to involve illicit speculation. In all fairness, … it is baffling that Hamilton submitted to blackmail for so long.” (Chernow, p. 530)
And Hamilton, rather than quietly admitting it and moving on, wrote volumes to be published in newspapers describing every sordid detail. Career was the motive for this, not worry over his marriage to Eliza and their family. After the affair, Hamilton never strayed far from his family, remaining close by until his death.
Which, of course, leads to the duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton, “born without honor, was exceedingly sensitive to any slights to his political honor.” (Chernow, p. 237) Born without honor, meaning born of suspect parental lineage. Believed to be a bastard, the quickest way to get him riled up was to mention this.
“[Burr] was a chameleon who evaded clear-cut positions on and was a genius at studied ambiguity.” (Chernow, p. 192) He was an opportunist, and could figure out endless ways to profit from any political wrangling surrounding him. Further, Chernow writes, “… Burr was a lone operator, a protean figure who formed alliances for short-term gain.” (p. 421)
He was bent on revenge for Hamilton’s part in Burr’s ostracism from the Jefferson administration and losing the governorship of New York because Hamilton was freely quoted as saying Burr wasn’t fit for office. Hamilton can hardly be blamed for Jefferson dropping Burr from the ticket as VP. The quote about not being fit for office, that part was true.
Weehawken, NJ on July 11, 1804 lives in infamy as the place Burr shot Hamilton, thus ending the career and loving marriage of Alexander Hamilton who only ever wanted to see the US become a strong nation. Burr’s life ended that day too. “…Hamilton committed his last patriotic act, for he ensured that Aaron Burr would never again be a viable player in the politics of the early republic.” (Knott, p. 1)
But, Hamilton’s legend lives on. Depending on the era, he’s been seen as selfish and elitist, interested only in money and power. Depression-era scholars and politicians blamed the Depression on Hamilton, despite being dead for 125 years.
Even his scandalous affair made an appearance during the Clinton impeachment hearings in 1998 when his team presented “a thirty page brief to the House Judiciary Committee citing Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds and the reluctance of Congress to pursue the issue after concluding it was a private matter.” (Knotts, p. 225)
The profound effect Hamilton had on government is immeasurable. Chernow’s nearly 800 page biography follows Hamilton from Nevis to his rise in US politics and his death at the gun of Aaron Burr. Chernow admires Hamilton but doesn’t let that get in the way of the facts as presented.
Stephen F. Knott also admires Hamilton and defends Hamilton against the scurrilous myths which continue to be taken as truth. Between the two, Chernow and Knott present an interesting and entertaining read of a man too intellectual and uncompromising for the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr to respect.
Chernow has the best last word, “Any biographer foolhardy enough to attempt an authoritative life of Alexander Hamilton must tread a daunting maze of detail.” (Chernow, p. 733)