Saturday, November 19, 2016
Another View of Hamilton's "Politics"
Dan Filler has an interesting take on the Pence-Hamilton pseudo-event (in Boorstin's terms). He notes a debate among "progressives," a term that still begs for definition and certainly does not necessarily mean leftists, about whether the actors' action was strategically wise or not. And he argues that we should treat "Hamilton as a piece of explicitly political art, not an anodyne feel-good musical about a founding father." I note that there need be no conflict or contradiction between the two, and I doubt there actually is in the case of the Hamilton musical.
Perhaps I am too mired these days in my interest in social class, in the frequent cluelessness of my own class (I mean that generally, not about Dan, and I mean it at least as much about myself), and in what I will, with some deliberate provocation, call the "actual" left as opposed to liberals and progressives. But I had a somewhat different take on the politics of Hamilton and of this episode. (As a purely practical political matter, I think Jack Shafer is probably wiser than both of us in this case.) I shared it on Facebook, not here, because one can be slightly freer on Facebook and because law professors, for bad reasons and with bad consequences, are always fascinated with other law professors' politics and eager to make shallow assumptions about them, of the "supports X so must be liberal, supports Y so must be conservative; therefore a wonderful/terrible person" variety. (We are not always subtle thinkers, especially about politics.) Clearly it was wiser to post it there than here. But what I wrote fits so nicely as a counterpoint to Dan's post that I cannot resist posting it here as well, with a few of the expletives deleted:
Now that I've read the actual statement [made by the actors], it doesn't seem like a big deal. Of course the "we" is contestable, but almost every invocation of "we" in the American context is a rhetorical and political statement that involves contestable definitions, identifications, and usually inclusions and exclusions. People may agree or disagree with particular such assertions but should always understand them as political and not statements of fact. There is a broader question whether we should care what paid performers have to say, any more than I'm especially interested in my barista's view on agricultural policy. But except for the possibility [I would say here, the certainty] that caring too much about what celebrity performers have to say is a sign of a weak democracy and politics, I don't object to actors and singers and baristas having opinions. Even if I did, there's not much I can do about it.
Then there's the broad question whether we should be concerned about the politicization of the consumer marketplace, of which theatrical enterprises are one sector, just as Wal-Marts are another. But expressive businesses, like theaters and wedding photography businesses, are often involved in politically significant expression and should be able to use or not use their voices accordingly. Plus, this was a seemingly unusual and good opportunity.
What I find slightly more interesting and, given what I know about the political self-satisfaction of the class of people that can afford tickets to Hamilton, less likely to be noted outside of actual left or right circles, is what the decision to speak once necessarily implies about all the decisions not to speak. Every day, especially given both ticket prices and the nature of its audience and cultural appeal, Hamilton plays to an audience of neoliberals, militarists, wielders of economic power, beneficiaries of massive corporate corruption and economic and political inequality, people who exploit connections in a relatively closed circle of the rich and powerful, etc. And those are just the nights when Hillary Clinton catches the show! A substantial part of its consumer base and business model is brokers, corporate lawyers, legacy admits to the Ivy League, executives, managers, investors, media elites, and so on. Its audience base is people who can afford to complain about the help, or praise their nannies (who they may or may not pay well or legally), not the nannies themselves. No doubt the regular audience could do with a pointed extra-script lecture or two as well! But that would be bad for business, and disturb the audience-validating, as opposed to audience-challenging, function that is the essence of musical theater. None of this yet reaches Hamilton Inc.'s cozy relationship to President Obama, and the mutual benefits and ego-stroking that were involved in it. Maybe the PBS documentary cut this part out, but I don't recall the actors at the White House performance of Hamilton breaking script to say, "Mr. President, we, sir--we--can't help but notice that you have raided and deported the hell out of undocumented immigrants in record numbers. Also, what the [deleted] is up with the drones, or Syria, or...." I suppose that actually would have been seen as rude in people's eyes. But once you start picking and choosing your exceptions and special occasions, of course you are making a political statement, conscious or not, about all the morally complicit and dubious audiences you are happy to flatter, the number of questionable actions--deportations, assassinations, killings, etc.--you are willing to "normalize," and so on.
Again, I think the actual remarks to Pence were far from harassing or rude, and he belongs to what I expect to be an unusually awful and dangerous administration, and so it's not a big deal for me. It runs mildly against the usual protocol of respecting the office and generally being nice to guests, but the remarks were mild and polite. But Hamilton itself should be understood as being closer to a fundamentally conservative bourgeois enterprise and not to some actual left or even especially vigorous progressive endeavor, except by those who are bemused and bedazzled by identity politics. If it were otherwise, it wouldn't be such a big hit in the first place.
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