Thursday, July 28, 2016

over at Current Affairs Alex Nichols objects to the way that the powers that be are into Hamilton

In that respect, Hamilton probably is the “musical of the Obama era,” as The New Yorker called it. Contemporary progressivism has come to mean papering over material inequality with representational diversity. The president will continue to expand the national security state at the same rate as his predecessor, but at least he will be black. Predatory lending will drain the wealth from African American communities, but the board of Goldman Sachs will have several black members. Inequality will be rampant and worsening, but the 1% will at least “look like America.” The actual racial injustices of our time will continue unabated, but the power structure will be diversified so that nobody feels quite so bad about it. Hamilton is simply this tendency’s cultural-historical equivalent; instead of worrying ourselves about the brutal origins of the American state, and the lasting economic effects of those early inequities, we can simply turn the Founding Fathers black and enjoy the show.
Kings George I and II of England could barely speak intelligible English and spent more time dealing with their own failed sons than ruling the Empire —but they gave patronage to Handel. Ludwig II of Bavaria was believed to be insane and went into debt compulsively building castles — but he gave patronage to Wagner. Barack Obama deported more immigrants than any other president and expanded the drone program in order to kill almost 3,500 people — but he gave patronage to a neoliberal nerdcore musical. God bless this great land.
Vocational artists have always been the servants and builders in their art of empires.  Why should this era be any different?  The delusion would be to think that it would ever be different.  Even a cursory perusal of the history of Soviet art, music and literature will show that you can be as far left as you can imagine things being and empire tends to behave the same way.  Identity politics on the left, unfortunately, has become a fantastic means by which artists can pretend that what they do is socially responsible when it doesn't materially help the plight of the working class (as if that could ever ultimately be permanently remedied anyway).   This sort of outrage is tragic for how willfully myopic it is about the history of the arts as a whole.  Like Miyazaki's Caproni asked, would you choose to live in a world with or without the pyramids?  The pyramids were built by people who did not necessarily get to choose that as their lifelong project; conversely, if there were no art would there be no repression?  Obviously not.
If the left were a bit more consistent about the ideal that the repressive one percent were more culturally diverse that'd be okay, sort of, but that's not likely to happen.  The collective ownership of the means of production is a pipe dream more absurd than the secret Rapture awaited by Christian fundamentalists.  We can live in a land where there's private ownership and we can live in a land where the means of production is managed by a party and we can live in a place where there's a mixture, but at not point will there be a truly collective ownership of the means of production.
The question that will beset humanity is not whether or not some group of people will be scapegoated and repressed but who will be scapegoated and repressed and what the narrative rationale for that scapegoating will be.  Yeah, I grant that's not a very rosy assessment of the human condition. 
As a brief thought experiment, what if predatory lending isn't draining wealth?  What if it is a fiction that insists on pretending that there is wealth where no measurable wealth is able to be created?  That kind of wealth bubble can't go on forever, can it?  Or is that functionally the foundation of what the left and right hope can continue going on in the United States?  Nichols' argument highlights racial injustices without addressing directly the question of whether that can ever be atoned for.  The outrage only comes off as plausible on the presumption that the wrongs can in some sense be atoned for. 
But if they can't then attempting to right wrongs that cannot be made right is going to end in failure.  It's easier to talk about what could conceivably be done for blacks to the extent that they weren't quite as successfully slaughtered off the face of the earth the same extent Native Americans were.  But then one of the problems with the way race gets brokered by the left and right is that it has been framed in such literally and figuratively black and white terms there's a danger of forgetting that a lot of racial injustice was done in the name of the most enlightened as well as the most conservative ideals of our nation-shaping forbears. Even a city as progressive as Portland, Oregon rests in a state that was chartered as a white supremacist utopia in so many respects that the difficult of attempting to address race is that even the most progressive communities can't escape the reality of the racist component of our foundation. 
There are those who would urge that we challenge each other to live up to a consistency of our highest ideals.  If the creators of Hamilton take that approach then Nichols' polemic has to at least account for that at some point.. If Nichols doesn't buy that the challenge is in whether or not the American experiment deserves to fail on its own historically racist terms.  Maybe it does.  Maybe the entire edifice deserves to die but in that case the kinds of programs and policies progressives have been asking for might run into a problem, asking the empire of oppression to redistribute wealth that can only have been obtained by historic injustice.  This could become a double bind of the radical left's own rhetorical making.  The real discomforting truth may be there will never be a solution for the plight of the working class and that humanity, after so many millennia, will never stop scapegoating; will never stop resorting to violence in word and deed as a solution that creates more problems; and that the temptation to empire exists in the heart of everyone regardless of whatever anti-imperialist bromides they may share on the net. These impulses may be easier to head off at the pass if we recognize they can exist in each of us, but the kinds of rhetorical flourish Nichols indulges in don't seem to grant that. 
It's tough for me to take seriously the moral objections of anyone who can get an article published in Current Affairs complaining about the 1 percent as though being able to write such a piece inherently exempts a person from being part of an upper class at a global level.  Sure, we can potentially shuffle things about the proverbial one percent by means of policy but what won't change is that there will be a one percent. 

It isn't entirely clear to me progressives grasp that a tolerant liberal democratic society may depend on the stability of what has traditionally been called an empire.  The wealth the left would like to see redistributed is still wealth gained by empire, unless we can thread the needle here and propose that there is some possibility of an empire that is not aggressively imperialist.  If the right tends to straight up defend empire the left in the West seems determined to not concede how much of the traditions of liberalism have depended on social and philosophical and economic developments within what were formerly monolithic cultures that separately aspired to empire.  World War I didn't just happen out of thin air, after all.

Let's float an idea that Marxism is in some key respects nothing more than a secularized Judeo-Christian apocalyptic idiom, not unlike 19th century postmillennialist optimism but without the theocratic rationale--in its place you just get historical materialism and a different foundation for what could still just as easily be a manifest destiny, the kind that was arguably in play as the Soviet Union, under Stalin, expanded its reach in the wake of the end of World War II. 

The general lament that well-funded art can be seen as celebrating an empire is to deliberately miss the entirety of art history for every medium. Of course an American musical aspiring to be a fusion of hip hop and the Broadway music telling a version of the life of Alexander Hamilton could be taken as art that celebrates empire.  When the film industry cranks out films that film critics say in reverential reviews discuss the power of the art of film it's not as if we can't say that the arts in the West haven't solipsistically drifted into the kinds of self-rationalizations so typical of late capitalism that even leftists trick themselves into thinking their art doesn't serve an empire.  That might be the real power of the political ideology of liberalism in the early 21st century,

That the musical may be as over-hyped as other popular musicals could probably go without saying; but it is hardly a surprise that as something becomes popular in the writerly scene at least a couple of writers will aspire to show in apocalyptic terms how it betrays the aims of true art or true politics.

What I have yet to actually read is a discussion about the music in the musical as music ... beyond Terry Teachout's remark that he enjoyed the thing overall but wish there were more memorable hooks and tunes in it.  It kind of figures a self-avowed fan of Haydn such as Teachout would write that.


Cal P said...

As a quick comment:

I find it interesting how "privilege", "1%", "elite" has become the new byword for sinner. I even saw some junky article saying how not voting for Hillary to prevent Trump is a sign of white privilege. Everyone is trying to keep up with the zeitgeist so they avoid the coming judgement. And with the brain-drain and lightening-fast updates of social media, the pace is very quick.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

There's that, although for me what makes that inflammatory rhetoric so exasperating is that it's as if there's this law that everyone who invokes the rhetoric of class warfare positions himself or herself on the "good" side of the class war taxonomy even if they're college students who could afford to go to a liberal arts school and get a degree in a field like music or anthropology--but they can still position themselves as if privilege were something they DON'T have.

I've been tempted to give Hamilton a shot just out of spite for the people who complain about it.