Archive for Hamilton

Surviving Trumpism. Restoring Democracy.

With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,…

How does an unhinged, thin-skinned, son of a Scots and a

Klansman, born into privilege and wealth,

a thug who loves only himself,

his money and his station,

become the next leader of this nation?

There are many reasons, including the false equivalency of the media (Clinton’s emails being equivalent to dozens of Trump’s disqualifications), FBI Director James Comey’s late-breaking vague “emails” allegation, racism, sexism, anger at neoliberalism, the rise of fake news, people’s tendency to vote on feelings rather than on policy, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act (and the voter suppression it has enabled), lowest voter turnout since 2000, and several others.1

But the questions we face now are how can we understand this next phase, and most importantly what can we do?


proposed Trump logo, satirically created by Sam KuoRise Up

If you have ever asked “Why didn’t people protest and stop Hitler’s rise to power?” you now have an opportunity to answer that question for yourself.  What will you do now?  President-Elect Trump ran an openly bigoted campaign, calling Mexicans criminals, alleging that Muslims are terrorists, arguing for racist profiling, and bragging about committing sexual assault.  Now, after the election, hate crimes are on the rise, and he is assembling an administration to enact his plans. What will you do?


White people need to step up

As you might imagine, the less a person looks like me (straight White man), the more she or he is frightened right now. So, I am reaching out to all of my friends, colleagues, and students — but especially those who are most vulnerable. I talked to my students Thursday (these were my first post-election classes), and told them that if they need to talk, I will listen.  If they need to cry, I have tissues.  If they need help finding resources, I will help them.  I told them that, whoever they voted for, I know — from our conversations over the semester — that they know we’re all part of the same human family. And so I told them to look out for each other, and especially for those who don’t look like me. If you see someone getting harassed, this is the time to step up.

This is especially the time for White people to step up — and not only because White people elected Trump. Yes, I know, if you’re a White person reading this, you’re probably not one of the people who voted for the angry talking yam. But if you have White privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, the privilege of being abled, any unearned privilege at all, you need to use that privilege to stand up for others. Indeed, the more privilege you have, the greater your obligation to use it.


This Is Not a Drill

There are already reports of hate crimes and racist graffiti around the country.  This is likely to increase under a Trump presidency.  As long as I live in this country, I will defend all people’s rights to life, liberty, and happiness.  All people must be treated fairly under the law.  All people must feel safe.  I will defend those values until my dying breath.  I will never yield.  I invite you to join me.

But be aware of what you’re signing up for. Given bigots’ propensity for violence and the widespread availability of firearms, opposing the coming tyranny is likely to place us in harm’s way. We may be shot. We may be jailed. We may be harassed. The NSA, the FBI, and the CIA will soon be working for Donald Trump.  I understand why people may hope that Herr Gropenführer’s openly racist and sexist campaign rhetoric was merely bluster and that he will govern differently than he campaigned.  But autocrats — and he campaigned as an autocrat — tend to follow through on their threats.  It would be naïve to hope that President Trump will adopt values that differ markedly from Candidate Trump.

But we must not stand by while fascists threaten our fellow citizens. Silence is complicity. We must not be silent. We must stand and fight.


If you see something, do something.

If you hear words that are racist, homophobic, sexist, Islamophobic, call it out for what it is. If you see someone getting harassed, intervene. Maeril has created an excellent bystander’s guide to Islamophobic harassment which is a model we can adopt to oppose any type of harassment.

http://maeril.tumblr.com/post/149669302551/hi-everyone-this-is-an-illustrated-guide-i-made

Go to her Tumblr post to read more about it.


We must not normalize Trump.

This is not an ordinary transfer of power, in which one party’s candidate takes office after the other party’s candidate loses. The President-Elect is openly disdainful of democratic norms and social norms. As president, his hatred, his lack of regard for anyone but himself, his sexism, his bigotry, his mendacity will all begin to seep into the body politic, gradually undermining democratic institutions.

CNN: The Alt-Right Man for the Job?Stay outraged. Do not adopt polite euphemisms that disguise oppression. Language risks normalizing tyranny.  I saw a CNN headline yesterday on potential Trump Chief of Staff, an anti-Semite and spouse-abuser: “The Alt-Right Man for the Job?”  The “Alt-Right” is White supremacists’ term for themselves.  It’s not a joke. Whomever wrote that headline is colluding with the fascists.  To call Trump’s proposed Environmental Protection Agency head Myron Ebell a “climate contrarian” or “climate skeptic” is to propagate a lie. Climate change is real. If the human race is to have a future, we need to combat it as aggressively as we can. Mr. Ebell is an anti-science, conspiracy-theorist who is funded by the coal lobby. He’s a professional saboteur, and a crackpot.

Do not adopt the language of your oppressors.  Monitor your own language, listen skeptically to others — especially to the media’s.


Phone and write your representatives as often as you can.

Your representatives need to hear from you. Don’t waste time with Tweeting and Facebook.

The most effective things you can do are (1) phoning them and (2) writing a “snail mail” letter to them.  Send these to the district (state) office, rather than to DC.

Emily Ellsworth, who worked in Congress for six years, explains it all in this Twitter thread.

What should you focus on?  Professor and political strategist Lisa Corrigan made these suggestions on Thursday:

  1. Ironically, the neocons will have to moderate him or coalitions between outraged non-Tea Party Republicans and Democrats will work to stall his bumbling policy initiatives in Congress. This doesn’t leave a ton of room for Democratic Party maneuvering.
  2. Campaigning is not governing. He said a bunch of dumb shit that will not come to pass, even though it freaks you out.
  3. The backlash against him as a president will increase in the first two years, so down ballot Dems in Congress will have a huge opportunity in 2018. Send them money early and often. Trump will be a huge target.
  4. Obama has 100 days to ram through a bunch of executive orders, which is what I would advise him to do.
  5. And dude needs to get Merrick’s confirmation done. ASAP. It looks like that *might* be easier now that the GOP is freaked about a Trump presidency. Or not. Because #gridlock.
  6. The Democratic Party doesn’t like the evangelicals but there will be lots of them who are not supportive of Trump’s worldview and a political revolution, if it happens at all, will come from the evangelicals. They have the money and the organizations.
  7. Democrats need to talk about a new vision for American labor. NOW. And use it as a competing frame.
  8. If Dems give up education, all is lost.

For coping under a Trump presidency, my advice would be to focus on items 3 (supporting down ballot Democrats in 2018), 6 (finding common ground with evangelicals), 7 (new vision for American labor), and 8 (education).  Focus your energy here.

And remember: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. More voters opposed Trump than supported him.


The Cycle of Progress, Backlash and Progress

In the U.S., backlash follows progress just as surely as night follows day. In response to the racial egalitarianism that inspired the Civil War and Emancipation, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws terrorized African Americans for another century.  After the Civil Rights Movement comes the Nixon Administration.  After our first Black president, a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.safety pin, designed by Sam Kuo

This does not mean “Oh, history moves in cycles, and will thus move us back in the direction of equality.”  We move towards equality when people fight for it.

In other words, sure, wear that safety pin as a gesture of solidarity.  But we need more than gestures.  We need action.  Now.


Join the Movement

Trump’s elevation to the highest office in the land took many of us White people by surprise because we like to think that most — not all, but most — White people are better than that.  We like to think that we’ve become a less racist society, that White supremacy is on the wane, that the future will be brighter. This is a mark of our White privilege.

5’7″ Black Male (@absurdistwords on Twitter) has a great thread on this subject, written the morning after the election.  As he says,

I’m talking to you now surprised white people. I wanna bring you in for an empathy moment.

This feeling you have right now. Amazement that the country could be so short-sighted, that it could embrace hate so tightly? Welcome.

This despair and dread you feel. The indignation, the bewilderment, the hurt, powerlessness, the fear for family and livelihood? Welcome.

That knot in your stomach, that feeling of heartache? That uncertainty about your safety? The deep sense of fundamental injustice? Welcome.

For many marginalized people, this spike in distress you feel this morning is what we feel EVERY morning.

That feeling of “How could they possibly…?” is precisely what we feel with every incidence of excused violence, disenfranchisement, denial

I do not say this to diminish what you feel today. What you feel is real and valid. I’m giving you an opportunity to truly empathize.

For it is the lack of that empathy that allowed America to shrug as the marginalized shouted warnings.

Today the imaginary wall that divides your experience from ours has come down. You have the chance to commune with the rest of us.

So, to those calling to start an anti-Trump movement, a better option is to join those already fighting oppression.  Rather than building a new pro-democracy from the ground up, get connected with those groups already doing this work.


Here are some organizations to join and to support

Jezebel has compiled a list of “A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support.”  Here are a few highlights (plus one not included), but follow the link for the full list.

For those with the means, I challenge you to follow my friend Katherine Fusco’s lead, and choose your organizations, and then commit to give regularly. Can you commit to $5 a month?  Great.  How about $10?  Even better.  If you can sign up for a recurring contribution that will help the organization by giving it an ongoing source of income.

As long as there has been oppression in the U.S., there have been organizations fighting that oppression.  Join them.


We Have Been Here Before…

Americans like to think of their country as a democracy that offers equal opportunity to all comers.  However, for most of its history, the United States has been a White supremacist police state that treated women as second-class citizens.  The last fifty years have been an aberration, not the norm.

Thomas JeffersonOur first president owned human beings.  Our third president both owned human beings and raped them. (News flash: a slave cannot grant consent to the person who owns her. We can call Sally Hemings the “mistress” of Thomas Jefferson, but what that means is that she’s the woman he raped repeatedly.)  Our twenty-eighth president, Woodrow Wilson, segregated the federal government, thought segregation was good for Blacks, and was a Ku Klux Klan apologist. Upon seeing the classic racist film Birth of a Nation (in which the Klan are the heroes), Wilson remarked, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

President-Elect Trump wants to institute a nationwide “stop-and-frisk” policy — which is both a proven failure from a police standpoint, and actively racist.  He ran an openly racist campaign, calling for mass deportations.  He is not the first racist president.

This is also not the first time that freedom of speech and of the press will come under attack.  We need only look to the Sedition Act of 1918, or to McCarthyism, and to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

There are historical precedents for a lot of what we’re about to experience.  But not everything…


… And We Have Not Been Here Before.

He is the first actively megalomaniacal president to have command of the nuclear arsenal, and a vast surveillance apparatus. He is the first president to lack experience in government or the military.

As far as I know, he’s the first demagogue president. He called for his opponent to be jailed, and twice insinuated that she be assassinated. He believes in revenge.  The most powerful person in the world is a vengeful man who admires dictators. This is very, very dangerous.


How to Survive Autocracy

Protesters outside Trump Tower the day after the election, New York City, November 9, 2016

Indeed, as I write these words, I wonder whether it’s safe for me to write these words. Come January, we will have a president who ran as an autocrat (“I alone can fix it”), spoke disdainfully of freedom of speech, and maintains an enemies list. However, his incredibly thin skin also makes it impossible to gauge what may set him off.  Just about any form of criticism seems to anger him.

Though I have not lived under autocracy before, I am becoming more aware of how even implied threats curtail freedom of expression. Though this criticism may later place me at risk, I think it’s better to speak up than to stay silent.

I would, though, advise you to study Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.”  Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who has opposed Putin.  She knows what she’s talking about.

Here are her main points:

  • Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.
  • Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
  • Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
  • Rule #4: Be outraged. If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.
  • Rule #5: Don’t make compromises.… In an autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral. Those who argue for cooperation will make the case, much as President Obama did in his speech, that cooperation is essential for the future. They will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy, from which the future must be protected.
  • Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either. Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election.

But read the whole thing.  You’ll need this.  We will all need this.

While I’m offering advice on what to read, follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter and read everything she writes. Kendzior is a journalist and an expert on authoritarian states.  Here’s her piece from the morning after the election: “A fascist’s win, America’s moral loss.”


Resisting Tyranny is Patriotic

Superman PSA, c. 1950

I have continued wearing my Clinton-Kaine pins in public because I want other anti-fascists to know that I’m with them. So far, I have not been challenged, but when I am I will say:

I wear these because I’m a patriotic American. I support all people’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All races, all religions, all genders, all sexualities. Whether they’re immigrants or native born.  Whether they’re abled or disabled.  Throughout his campaign, our president-elect has actively opposed these American values.

If they say, yeah but Trump has a black man and a woman in his cabinet, then I say:

they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Nearly all of his top picks are White men. Also, news flash: racism doesn’t only infect White people. It seeps into the minds of all of us. The person who says things like “I am the least racist person you’ll ever meet” is either lying to you or unaware of how racism works.

Fighting Trumpism is inherently patriotic. Remind people of this at every turn. You are the patriot.


Struggle is more reliable than hope

It’s hard to be hopeful right now. The mood resembles the days after September 11th 2001, with one crucial difference: the terrorists will now be running the government.  We know that things are about to get much, much worse — but we don’t quite know how.  We’re falling and have no idea when we’ll reach bottom, or even where the bottom is.

But do not give in to despair.  Join the struggle because struggle is more reliable than hope. Struggle gets things done. Struggle organizes. Struggle makes the phone calls. Struggle votes. Struggle stands up for the marginalized.  Sure, it’s nice to feel hopeful. Hope offers the warm illusion of that things will get better. It’s a nice feeling.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)However, things will get worse more rapidly than we realize. Hope is a luxury. Struggle is a necessity. Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it best in his eloquent, necessary Between the World and Me:

So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

And in that struggle, remember that you have allies. As Hillary Clinton’s campaign advised us, we are stronger together.


Take care of yourself, too

Watch Luke Cage or whatever your current favorite show is. Watch your favorite comedians or news/satire shows. Exercise. Take a walk, go for a run, play basketball, swim, do yoga. (I find that I feel a bit better when I exercise regularly.) sbtPray or meditate. The meditation app “Breathe” can be calming. In sum, turn to your wellness strategies — or devise some soon.

For me, the bright moments in this election’s aftermath have been all the supportive people in my community — here in Kansas, across the country, and around the world. As Clinton’s victory began to slip away on election night, I started getting texts and emails, with more arriving the following day. My friends and colleagues have been reaching out to each other, caring for each other.  We have each other.  We support each other.

An election like this shatters whatever faith I have left in humanity, and so it’s been vital to hear from good folks. The task now is to gather these bright fragments, and guided by them, stagger forward into the looming darkness.

We will prevail.  We have to prevail.  There is no other option.

Any suggestions?  Anything I’ve left out above?  Please feel free to add it below.

Thanks for reading.

Now, let’s get to work.


THE SOLE ENDNOTE:

1. I didn’t want to make “the reasons Trump won” the main focus of this piece, but here’s brief note on possible causes for any who may be interested.

  • False equivalency: The media peddled the Clinton email story as if it were somehow equivalent to Trump pathologically lying about everything, swindling people at Trump University, failing to pay contractors, claiming to have written books (The Art of the Deal) that he didn’t, bragging about committing sexual assault, calls to assassinate his opponent, his racist “birther” b.s., his Islamophobia, etc. etc. When voters got unmediated Clinton, her poll numbers went up. For instance, after each debate, her poll numbers improved.
  • FBI Director James Comey’s statement about emails that he (too late) recanted tipped the scales in Trump’s favor.
  • White people/Racism. White working class voted for Trump, Black working class did not. White women voted for Trump, women of color did not. That Trump’s racism did not immediately disqualify him says a lot about the electorate.
  • Men/Sexism. If Hillary Clinton were on tape, bragging about (let’s say) “cock-grabbing,” her campaign would never have recovered. There are many other examples of the double standard to which she’s been held, but this is the most symptomatic.
  • The working class feels left behind because, on some level, they know that neoliberalism is a con. It doesn’t deliver prosperity to everyone. Hillary Clinton moved further to the left (thanks to Bernie Sanders), but she’s neoliberalism personified. I’ll take neoliberalism over fascism any day. But White working class voters were unimpressed.
  • Fake news. There are people who believe that Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster, that climate change is a hoax, that our southern borders are porous, that Obama is a Muslim, that Obama was born in Kenya, etc. And they can point you to many on-line sources to “verify” their fanciful notions. Social media just accelerates this misinformation avalanche. The Left and the Right dont actually agree on the same set of facts
  • People vote on feelings rather than facts. If you look at Trump’s website, there aren’t a lot of specific policy details there. If you look at Clinton’s, there’s an abundance of them.
  • Thanks to the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Republican efforts at voter suppression (having fewer polling places in minority neighborhoods, resulting in long lines, for instance) are deterring voters.
  • Voter turnout was low. I wouldn’t venture to predict how much of this was due to voter suppression (it may be quite a small number), but 47% of eligible voters failed to vote
  • Did 3rd-party candidates have an impact? Given the tight margins, it’s probable that they did, but that’s hard to prove: we don’t know which way their votes would have gone or if they would have turned up at all.
  • Could she have run a better campaign? Actually, I think she did as well as she could — a data-driven campaign and on message (just like the candidate). She brought in high-powered surrogates, including the Obamas themselves. Campaigned hard. Listened. But the data was off. She should have campaigned in Wisconsin. She should have done more in Michigan. But hindsight is 20-20.
  • Should the Democrats have nominated Bernie? Now, that’s the $50,000 question, isn’t it? I think Trump’s better at channeling populist anger than Bernie. Bernie actually has some policy solutions, of course, but he’s also a Socialist Jew. Given the prominence of anti-Semites like Steve Bannon in Trump’s campaign (and Trump’s own racism), you can bet Trump & co. would have used that to delegitimize his candidacy. The answer is: we don’t know. Sanders might have succeeded. And he might not.
Image credits: Alt-Trump logo & safety pin by Sam Kuo.

Comments (8)

On Being in the Room Where It Happens: Observations from an Aca-Fanboy on Hamilton The Musical, Shortly After Viewing a Performance of Same, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, in New York City, on the Afternoon of July 2nd, 2016

Hamilton, Richard Rodgers Theatre: marquee, as you approach from the left side, queuing to get in.We saw Hamilton at the Saturday matinee, and several people have asked for a review. So,… here are a few thoughts on being in the room where it happens.

I Can’t Believe We’re Here with Him

I don’t remember when I’ve ever been so excited to see a show — any show, of any kind. Sitting in the audience before it started, I felt like a teenage girl, waiting to see her favorite band. I say that not as a slight against teenage girls, but rather as a testament to the sincerity and enthusiasm of their fandom. Since it was a matinee, I had not expected Lin-Mañuel Miranda to be performing the role of Hamilton. When I noticed that not only would he be performing, but so would Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson), Chris Jackson (Washington), and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica),… my eyes went wide.  I would be seeing almost the entire original cast. Live. In a few minutes’ time! (“Almost” because Jonathan Groff is no longer King George, and Andrew Chappelle played John Laurens/Philip Hamilton.)

Hamilton: bare stage, before show begins

Just before the show starts, King George (now played by Rory O’Malley) announces — unseen, via the theatre’s speakers — that people should turn off their cell phones, not take photos, etc.  Then he invites you to enjoy his show. The audience laughs.

And then,… the opening chords, as Leslie Odom Jr. walks on stage, we applaud, and it begins. “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman….” About halfway through the song, while I was lip-syncing along, he made eye contact with me (as he was singing/rapping the very words I was lip-syncing), and his eyes yielded a hint of a smile. That’s part of the thrill of live theatre. You’re all in the room where it happens, together. The audience and the performers share the experience. Being very close to the stage (center orchestra, just six rows back) made us feel even closer.

Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr

Having listened to the cast recording and seen photographs and video clips, I arrived with an imaginary performance in my head.  In that version, the stage was much larger. Sitting in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I realized the stage is actually more compact and intimate. An enormous amount happens in a relatively small space — and quickly. The show itself compresses so much — history, love, betrayal, time, loss, death — into just 2 hours and 45 minutes. Proximity makes what is already an intense show even more so.

You’ll Be Back

After lip-syncing to the opening number, I mostly resisted the temptation to continue doing so. Mostly. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that, as I became absorbed in the performance, I lost interest in lip-synching and wanted to experience the show. To be in the moment (“this is not a moment; it’s the movement”). My focus gravitated to the center of the action, but I would love to see Hamilton multiple times so that I could focus on different areas each time. It would be great to watch just the company, dancing. And then attend another show, during which you focus only on one actor’s performance. Or see it once attending primarily to the costumes and choreography. Or view it while considering the ways in which the set of wooden beams, bricks and rope frames the action of each scene. It’s beautifully staged, costumed, performed, orchestrated. There’s so much to take in.

Hamilton: Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), John Laurens (Anthony Ramos)The staging brought out nuances and jokes I didn’t get when listening to the cast recording. As “My Shot” begins, Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan regard Hamilton doubtfully. As his skills as an MC win them over, their facial expressions change from uncertain to impressed. During the opening of Act II, the expressions on Madison’s and Washington’s faces convey skepticism towards the flamboyant Jefferson. Near the end of that number, Washington and Hamilton exchange a look that seems to say, “Who is this guy?”  Oh, and of course, actually seeing “Stay Alive (Reprise)” as Eliza and Hamilton share their son Philip’s last moments, and the moment of “forgiveness (can you imagine?)” in “It’s Quiet Uptown” are emotionally wrenching. I thought I would cry during “It’s Quiet Uptown,” but didn’t realize that I’d also be crying during “Stay Alive (Reprise)” and “The World Was Wide Enough.”

I also didn’t remember how funny the show is. While we’re wiping our eyes with our handkerchiefs following “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Jefferson says, “Can we get back to politics?” Madison — dabbing his eyes with his own handkerchief — says, his voice cracking, “Please?” In performance, the handkerchief gesture made this moment a hilarious meta-comment on what we had all just experienced. We laughed! After having been brought so low in the previous song, laughter was such a relief. Earlier, during “The Schuyler Sisters,” I hadn’t realized how playful Burr and Angelica were. On the recording, I took “Burr, you disgust me” as a slam — which it is. But, on stage, they’re dancing, and Burr smiles as he gives his retort, and then keeps smiling she responds. It’s a more joyous moment than I’d imagined.

Hamilton: Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the Schuyler Sisters (Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Renée Elise Goldsberry)

Hamilton: Daveed Diggs as Thomas JeffersonI knew the Tony Award-winning actors Leslie Odom Jr. and Renée Elise Goldsberry would be amazing, but I did not realize how fantastic their fellow Tony Award-winning cast-mate Daveed Diggs would be. His serious but playful Lafayette, rapid-fire rapping with a French accent, seems the de facto leader of the revolutionaries until Washington’s arrival.  His flamboyant, narcissistic, but politically savvy Jefferson is brilliant.  Diggs’ Jefferson is also non-stop, high-stepping across the stage in his purple velvet coattails.

Look Around, Look Around

New York Public Library: Alexander HamiltonThere’s something about seeing Hamilton right now, in New York, with (most of) the original cast. Beyond the sheer thrill of seeing it, most of the musical takes place in the city where it’s being performed. As you look around (“look around, how lucky we are…”), you encounter frequent reminders of the history dramatized by Miranda’s play. Walking towards Washington Square Park, we crossed both Lafayette Street (“Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!”) and Mercer Street (“The Mercer legacy is secure”). We happened upon the New York Public Library’s small, free exhibit on Alexander Hamilton, displaying the Reynolds Pamphlet (1797),“Phocion” no. 26 (1796 essay critical of Jefferson, notably his hypocrisy on slavery), The Farmer Refuted (1775), Federalist essays 12 and 13 as they originally appeared in the Daily Advertiser (1787), and letters by Hamilton. As befits a man who trained as a clerk, his handwriting is precise and legible.

Trinity Church: Alexander Hamilton & Eliza Hamilton

The graves of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Hamilton are unaccountably moving. On the day after the show, we visited the graveyard of Trinity Church.1 I did not expect to be tearing up. But I was. Somehow, confronting these slabs of stone felt like experiencing their deaths again. Note left on Eliza Hamilton's grave, 3 July 2016Hamilton died 212 years ago this month. He was only 47 — the same age as I am. Sure enough, next to the Alexander Hamilton monument is a large, flat stone for Eliza. She died 162 years ago this November. Well-wishers have scattered coins on his monument and her stone. One woman — I imagine a young woman, though I don’t know — left a note for Eliza. “Thank you for telling your story and for guarding your husband’s legacy. Its flowers are growing beautifully.” She signed herself “with love from a fellow Albany girl.”

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Hamilton Broadway Opening Night: Curtain Call

NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 06: Cast of Hamilton perform at “Hamilton” Broadway Opening Night at Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Back at the show, the moment the final number concluded, the audience rose as one, applauding and cheering as tears rolled down our cheeks. The entire cast lined up to do a curtain call together in a single line. They did not (as often happens) have the supporting cast take a bow first, followed by those with increasingly larger parts. Underscoring the collective nature of this endeavor, they took their bows as one — after which, as casts typically do, they gestured to the pit and invited us to applaud the orchestra. We did. The house lights came up. I wanted to linger, but reluctantly exited with the departing crowd.

Ron Chernow, HamiltonOthers have had far more intelligent things to say about the show’s cross-racial casting, use of history, elision of historical people of color,2 gender politics, cross-pollination of Broadway and hip-hop traditions. Hamilton will continue to inspire criticism to match the phenomenon. I expect books are already being written, essay collections being edited, special issues of journals assembled. I love musicals and have read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography, but I’m no scholar of musical theatre, nor of early American history and culture. I of course enjoy the allusions to 1776 and Grandmaster Flash, to Les Mis and Mobb Deep. The tunes are catchy, the lyrics are clever, the story is engrossing.

Unsurprisingly to those who know me, I also identify with Hamilton. I write like I’m running out of time because I’m acutely aware that I am running out of time. I will die before I have learned, written, seen, understood, done all I would like to. Unlike Hamilton, I have no heirs. If I “build something that’s gonna outlive me,” that something will be words and ideas. Have I written these yet? I can’t and will never know. I do know, however, that in my pursuit of that elusive something, I can be “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain.” Thankfully, my friends and colleagues manage to put up with me anyway. Thankfully, also, I’ve been fortunate to publish some of my ideas, collaborate with smart people, and continue on my impossible quest.

On that note, and to quote a line not on the cast recording, “I have so much work to do.”3

Notes

  1. Located at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, Trinity Church is the appropriate resting place for a founder of America’s financial system who is currently being celebrated on New York’s stage.
  2. When, during “What’d I Miss?” Jefferson says, “Sally, be a lamb, darling” to a member of the company, she becomes — for that moment — Sally Hemmings. I think she is thus the only historical person of color we see on stage. But more astute viewers of Hamilton should correct me if I am wrong.
  3. The show includes one scene not on the cast recording. The Hamiltons receive a letter from John Laurens’ father, reporting the death of his son — Hamilton’s friend. Eliza reads it to her husband. He’s silent. She asks if he’s OK. His voice choked with emotion, Hamilton says the line “I have so much work to do.”

Photos

I took the ones of the Hamilton marquee, empty stage, NYPL banner, gravesite and note. All other photos found elsewhere on the web.  For example, you’re not allowed to take photos during the performance; these were done specially, with the cooperation of the cast.

Comments (10)

Running Out of Time

Following a December blog-conversation about Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (occasioned in part by her own chemo), my friend Alison Piepmeier asked me to send her a contribution to her blog, Every Little Thing. It appeared there on Monday. I’m reposting it here now.

In case you’re wondering, I got permission from the close relative (named below) to quote her. Then, just after this went live on Alison’s blog, the aforementioned relative — not knowing it had just been published — also gave me permission to name her. (I didn’t, initially, because I wanted to respect her privacy.) I’ve decided to leave her unnamed here, too. If you know me, you’ll know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, you can guess.  Anyway.  Here’s the post.


Dear Alison,

Thanks for the invitation to contribute to your blog. Since our correspondence (via the blog’s comments) occasioned the invite, I’ve decided on an epistolary essay. This is it.

As I write, I’m returning from a conference (MLA!), both longing for the continued fellowship of friends and recognizing the need to face my many (and multiplying) tasks. I want the conference to go on, so that I may continue learning from and enjoying the company of smart people, but I also face classes to plan, proposals to write, manuscripts (my own and others’) to edit, and so on.

I always struggle with that impossible balance between the need to create and the need to think, between ambition and reflection, between ticking off one more item on an ever-expanding “to do” list and succumbing to sleep. I think that you do, also — though I know your struggle is more urgent. Indeed, as I share these thoughts, I’m aware that you’re living in much closer proximity to your mortality than I am to mine. Unless I’m struck down by illness, accident, or gunfire (hey, I do live in America), I should have several decades left. There’s no guarantee, but — at the moment — my long-term prospects look, well, longer than yours do. So, I hope you will forgive my presumption in addressing a subject that you (of necessity) have probably thought about more deeply than I have.

 Photo of Jack Hardman (author’s stepfather), 1990s.Although I don’t have a morbid disposition, mortality has been a lingering companion since my early 30s. There are two reasons, the first of which is my stepfather’s passing. Jack’s death was the cancer equivalent of a train wreck: the diagnosis came in December of 2000, and in January (a little over a month later), he died at the age of 72. For months afterward, I used to talk, silently, to Jack. These conversations became a bedtime ritual. Every night, before sleep, I sent my thoughts in his direction, and hoped that somehow they would arrive in his mind, in the great beyond. Though I knew I was not really reaching him, these imagined communications helped me grieve.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)The second reason was the twelve-year endeavor of writing the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, two (married) children’s writers. This was a race against time. Both were born in the first decade of the twentieth-century, and the people who knew them — especially during their early days — were dying. I narrowly missed talking to Hannah Baker, Johnson’s editor at the newspaper PM, and to Kenneth Koch, the New York School poet who taught Krauss poetry. Many others I interviewed died before I finished the book: Johnson’s sister, Else Frank; children’s writers Syd Hoff and Mary Elting Folsom; artist Antonio Frasconi; and filmmaker Gene Searchinger. Maurice Sendak died four months before the book’s publication. You don’t need to interview people in their 70s and 80s and 90s to learn this truth: the older we get, the more dead people we know.

But how do we face the inevitability of our own deaths? Religion comforts the devout, though I don’t for a moment imagine that it removes all worry. I was recently talking with a close relative of mine who, like me, is essentially agnostic. She faces the certain prospect of irreversible cognitive decline. We don’t know whether it will be a swift descent into oblivion or a slow slide towards confusion and forgetting. We’re hoping for slowness, and she’s doing her best to keep her mind and body active. She knows that Alzheimer’s or dementia (it’s likely one or the other) will claim her, but — as far as she’s concerned — not without a fight!

Recently, discussing her end-of-life plans with those close to her, she said, “I’ve lived three score and fourteen years. I’ve had a good run.”

A relative of my generation asked her, “If you had a heart attack tomorrow, you’d want to be resuscitated, wouldn’t you?”

She replied, “Not necessarily.”

“Wouldn’t you? You don’t know what the future holds.”

“I know what the future holds. A heart attack, whenever it happens, is a good way to go.”

The frankness of her statement gave us all pause. Yes: I, too, would prefer a heart attack to a slog through the thickets of dementia. But I’m struck by her ability to make peace with her own death. She does not want to say goodbye just yet, but she’s prepared to say goodbye when the time comes.

And that is what we need to learn. Or, at least, it’s what I need to learn. During your struggles with the brain tumor, have you figured this out? Have you learned how to say goodbye?

It’s a question that you shouldn’t have to face in your 40s. This may be why I can’t answer it yet, and why my 74-year-old relative can. But I know that the question confronts you, and has been confronting you, throughout your 40s. This is unfair. In fact, it’s unfair of me to expect you to have arrived at a better answer. So, please feel free to ignore this question — or, for that matter, any question I may pose here.

I know that, whenever I die, I will not be finished living. There will be things I have not learned, friends I have not made, books I have not written, places I have not seen, and many obligations unfulfilled. I also know that when my end arrives, I hope to have done more good than harm. I know, too, that I do not wish to suffer: if my prospects look bleak, others should take no extraordinary measures to revive me. Since I am not religious, I also believe that, as my last breaths evaporate and my heart stops, my consciousness will wane, and then I will cease to be. The End. Roll credits.

I do not know whether I’ll have a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, but I know — as what remains of my self dissipates — I’ll miss them. I hope, too, that, if any mark my passing, they do so not through mourning, but through celebrating life. Throw a party. Help yourself to my records, CDs, and books. Hire a caterer. Hire a DJ. Get to know each other better. Sing. Dance. Eat. Have fun.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)Also, since I vigorously oppose the everything-happens-for-a-reason crowd, they are not invited to this party. Everything does not happen for a reason. To suggest that it does trivializes the suffering of others. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. / It takes, and it takes, and it takes. / And we keep living anyway.” This does not mean that we should respond with indifference. Quite the opposite. It means we should engage fully in the struggle of living. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope” (71).

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (CD, 2015)This awareness makes me want to live as fully and as thoughtfully as I can. It makes me want to work harder, and to take more time off. It makes me want to write more, and to write less — so that I can spend more time with those I love. In other words, this awareness simply amplifies that tension between increased activity and quiet contemplation, between labor and leisure. It heightens awareness of the problem I described early in this letter. This is why I’m always (to borrow again from Hamilton) “writing like I’m running out of time.” It’s also why I want more time to appreciate “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” (Yes, I am currently obsessed with Hamilton. Why do you ask?)

I don’t know how to find this balance, but I know that it will require me to accept limits, to say to myself: “Look, Phil: if you are lucky, you might have twenty to twenty-five productive years left. What do you want to accomplish during those years? And how do you want to live?” In other words, I need to set two types of priorities, for both work and life. Since I am also an academic, the boundary between working and living is (at best) thin and (often) invisible.

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Philosopher Kieran Setiya has what is, I think, at least a partial plan for how to navigate our way through this problem. In his excellent “The Midlife Crisis,” he charts a course by, first, distinguishing between telic and atelic. As he writes, “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12). However, there are also atelic activities, projects that “do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity” (12). Other examples of atelic activities include “hanging out with friends or family,” “studying philosophy,” and “living a decent life.” As he points out, “You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (13): “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This distinction is helpful because (as Setiya argues) the atelic are more fulfilling than the telic. Pursuing goals gives you purpose (which is good), but can ultimately leave you empty because you always have to move on to the next one: “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). So, instead, he suggests, one might pursue telic activities in an atelic fashion: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). Or, put another way, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

These days, this is how I’m trying to approach all projects — I’m seeking atelic joy in telic activities. This means that many of my current efforts are collaborative. For instance, I have just given a paper on allegedly “weird” children’s books, co-written by and co-presented with my friend Nina Christensen. Working on it was fun because, in addition to learning from each other, we could both hang out (on-line, since she lives in Denmark). At the same conference, I chaired a discussion on “Children’s Literature Scholarship and Its Publics”: that was great fun to talk with and learn from smart people whose work I admire. With my friend Eric Reynolds I’m co-editing two more volumes of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip Barnaby. And so on. All of this labor will result in good work that should (we hope!) be useful to others, but it will also be fun — because it will all be accomplished with friends.

I expect that this partial answer — indeed, this entire letter — tells you little that you don’t already know. As I said earlier, my sense is that facing mortality puts these questions into much sharper focus. So, you will (I imagine) have already arrived at better and more complete answers than I have.

I’d like to conclude here by wishing you a long and full life, but I worry that such optimism contradicts your experience. So, let me instead wish you this: sufficient health to enjoy however many years remain, sufficient time to guide your young daughter into an uncertain future, and sufficient energy to pursue those projects that are important to you.

Yours in the struggle,

 

Phil

Leave a Comment