Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hamilton and Dr. Johnson: A July 4 Special

My 11th grade history teacher -- a key mentor figure for me in high school and later -- was, among other things, a prolific aspiring dramatist, and among his many creations was a play of some considerable length about, of all people, Alexander Hamilton. Who? The proposal was clearly far too far ahead of its time to be appreciated by the slack-jawed philistines, like me, of our Florida town. Alexander Hamilton? We said. The guy from the Treasury? None of us could have foreseen that this minor and oft-maligned footnote in our history textbook would come roaring into his own as a pop culture idol, of all things, in 2015-2016, of all times!

To the extent I knew or thought anything at all about Alexander Hamilton before all this, it was to assume, due to some unexamined and indirect hangover of Beard and Parrington, that he was the root of all evil in American life. Beyond that I just thought he was another dull and insipid schoolbook figure. It was only my teacher -- and, apparently, Lin-Manuel Miranda -- who had the good sense to see past all that -- to appreciate that here, at least in the hands of Ron Chernow, was the stuff of real drama -- the amorous blackmail; the intellectual ménage à trois with the two sisters. My teacher may have missed the hip hop ingredient, but otherwise, he saw something coming that we all missed. When I started to hear, two years ago, that there was something sensational happening on Broadway called Hamilton, I had a moment of pause. You mean, Alexander Hamilton? For an instant, I thought that perhaps my mentor's opus had made it all the way to the big leagues.

Seeing the production this past October, it was immediately clear that this was an extraordinary creative work -- one that deserves all of the praise it has received. I also couldn't shake the feeling, however, that here was a sociological phenomenon that needed explaining by something more than just the indubitable quality of the show and its music. Why was it, I kept asking myself, that America wanted to hear the story of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers, of all people, except told through hip hop and with a non-white cast, and in these past years of 2015-16, in particular? Why was this something people were so desperate to see that the tickets were legendarily hard to acquire, unless purchased months in advance and at forbidding prices? Why now? And why this subject?

The first sociocultural explanation that comes to mind, of course, is that it is a fresh telling of America's past that is more in keeping with what we hope our present is and what our future will be. "This is a story about America then, told by America now," as Miranda says. In some way, the play is a reinvention of America's founding mythos. In this version, the role of Virginia slave-owners like Jefferson is played down, and lifted up in their place is a man of Caribbean (albeit white) middle class origins with an outsider background and (debatably stringent) anti-slavery views. "Immigrants -- they get the job done!" It is a revisionist accounting of the origin story that emphasizes scenes and people who better align with the country's 21st century ideals, aspirations, and demography. 

Except for the fact that it isn't, quite. Beneath some of the counter-traditional elements just named, Hamilton actually tells a pretty familiar story about the United States' founding -- one that we have long wanted to hear and repeat. In this version, the Revolution was still waged in defense of freedom, and, while that ideal was too little realized for much of the country's history, it nonetheless set us all on an irrevocable course toward a greater expansion of liberty, equality, and justice for all. The British, meanwhile, are portrayed as simplistically villainous -- as designing oppressors. When the play does make nods toward the persistence of slavery and the subjugation of women and other blemishes on the national record, it is generally in the context of affirming that these sins would eventually be rectified in the onward march of the Declaration of Independence and its ideals. Women will be "in the sequel" of that document. John Laurens recruited enslaved people to his unit in exchange for freedom. Washington eventually favored manumission. And so on. 

Perhaps strangest of all, for a show that has been hailed as an alternative version of American history, Hamilton features non-white actors, but it does not feature any non-white characters. Its story about America's founding still focuses on white men and women -- they simply happen to be portrayed by non-white performers. It was my friend Isaac who pointed this out to me, and he observed that it feels a bit like wanting to enjoy the fruits of revisionism without putting in the hard work of growing them. The creators of Hamilton could have written a founding story that was told through the eyes of historic non-white personages, but they did not. Instead, the show centers around the same old pageant figures -- Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, etc. -- that you know from your grade school Thanksgiving parade. It is as if white Americans were seeking permission in the play to enjoy the old-fashioned account of American exceptionalism, and with fewer perturbations of conscience than before, because the notorious "old dead white men" are now no longer white. We're transported back into a fictive world in which Americans are on the side of "freedom" and the British are no less straightforwardly on the side of tyranny. King George III plans to "kill your friends and family," he tells us (in what happens -- btw -- to be one of the most undeniably delightful songs in the whole show). Never mind that the real King George actually waged a far less bloody and indiscriminate war than General Washington did in upstate New York, against Indian tribes that sided with the British (See Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz' Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States). Never mind that the British actually acted as a temporary buffer against the colonists' devastating and often murderous westward expansion into Indian lands. Hamilton invites us to forget the uncomfortable and hard-won truths, and makes it seem okay to do so, because it is all in the name of a surface-level cosmopolitanism.

That's how it seemed to me, at any rate, back in those dark days (they've only gotten darker) of October 2016. I left the theater feeling that Hamilton is less a bold retelling of American history -- less a work of excavating forgotten alternative narratives -- than a fantasy of the racial history we wish we had, but didn't. It presents us with a version of the national past in which we have been an aspiring multiracial cosmopolitan democracy from the start. This is not the U.S. that actually was. This is not the U.S. that prevented all but "free white persons" from becoming citizens under the first naturalization statute, and that didn't remove the last racial bars to naturalization until 1952

It may, however, be the U.S. that people wish to believe existed, in these most alarming political times. It may be a form of ideological escapism for an America that -- outside the theater walls -- is in the grip of a neo-fascist political movement. It is opiate for the age of Trump -- a man whose favorite former president is Andrew Jackson, and who is well launched already toward enacting a few Trails of Tears in miniature himself. 

That's me being my usual misanthropic self, of course; and it is possible to expect too much of a pop culture sensation. What, you ask, is it not enough to be a work of musical and lyrical and storytelling genius? It has to accurately recapitulate some highly personal version of American history and promise our political redemption too? It has to appease some standard of counter-hegemonic truth-telling to which no other Broadway show has ever remotely been held? Why is that fair? Why aren't white playwrights and lyricists seemingly ever asked to do the same? And isn't there something more than a bit noxious about me, a white person, trying to position myself as somehow more racially progressive than Lin-Manuel Miranda? 

There definitely would be -- all I can say is that I really don't mean to imply anything negative about Miranda's achievement. The revisionist goal I'm describing may well have had nothing at all to do with the reasons Miranda wrote the musical, and therefore, he can hardly be faulted for not meeting it. As Ezra Pound says in the ABC of Reading, "you can readily see that a good deal of BAD criticism has been written by men who assume that an author is trying to do what he is NOT trying to do." Let us not make that mistake.

What I'm talking about here is not the show itself, but what audiences seem to want it to be. People talk about Hamilton as if it tells a founding story that we haven't heard before, and that better suits our national identity in modern times. I'm wondering if that's really what it accomplishes. And if it does accomplish that, could it not have done so better by telling a story that was truly focused on non-white people, rather than on the same old "Founding Fathers"?

But maybe that would not have become the smash hit that Hamilton was. Maybe that's not the story people want to hear, at least not as much as they do the old affirming tale of America's exceptional onward and upward progress toward greater equality and democracy. In which case, that's not Miranda's fault -- that's ours. That's mine. To pretend that the limitations of such audiences do not exist is the preserve of the blogger, not of the maker of great creative works. And nothing is easier in this world than to be the self-righteous finicky critic of pop culture milestones for not going far enough. It is true that many of the milestones for inclusion do have this same "three steps forward, two steps back" quality to them. Star Trek's first interracial kiss happens behind a screen. Disney's new live-action Beauty and the Beast apparently has an openly gay character for the first time -- he just happens to be Gaston's ludicrous and obsequious sycophant, Le Fou. Wonder Woman has a female action lead -- it just also features a libidinous Arab comic relief sidekick. Hollywood can't seem to shake itself of all bad habits at once. But to disdain all this from one's high horse is to pretend that each modest gain was easy, when it came, even meaningless. Only those living comfortably on the other side of a multitude of such gains, like me, would dismiss them so easily.

Hamilton, then, is groundbreaking. And it didn't have to be. It could have just told the old old story of America's triumphant founding and progress toward freedom without dropping a single beat or showing a fleck of melanin in the cast. It did something more than that. Indeed, it's done infinitely more than I have with my life to break the racist moulds, and I don't forget it. All I'm saying is -- for all that -- it does tell the old story still. Let's not ignore that fact, or pretend it makes an enormous departure. 


Feeling all of this this past October, and in a mood that was souring ever more as the weeks rolled by, and that titanic impossibility of a Trump presidency came true before our eyes, I felt the need to read something that would be really deflating of the whole myth on which this and every popular telling of America's founding is based. Something with more pedigree than Zinn, and therefore all the more devastating. I settled on Dr. Johnson's essay on "Taxation No Tyranny" -- his famous rebuttal of the colonists' position in the Revolutionary War -- which I came to because of its much-quoted line: "how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty" from people who have enslaved their fellow human beings? That seemed just the needle for the puncturing job I had in mind. 

Reading Johnson's essay, one finds that his point about the colonists' extravagant hypocrisy in matters of racial equality is a relatively minor one in the overall argument. Johnson's question, just quoted, can stand perfectly well in isolation from the text that surrounds it. How is it that the colonists could write so many unblushing tirades against King George III, the question asks, accusing him of "enslaving" them, and of exercising "tyranny," when so many of their leaders had done just that to other people in a wholly real and un-metaphorical sense? 

Historians like Edmund S. Morgan have long observed the strikingly central role that the fear of "enslavement" played in colonial discourse about the King's oppression --  even -- or perhaps especially -- among those who were actually slave-holders themselves. It is as if, through some subconscious mechanism of guilt, people are compelled to project precisely their own crimes onto the objects of their resentment and hatred -- compelled not only to deny their own wrongdoing, that is to say, but to portray themselves as the victims of exactly the thing they are doing to others. 

It is a tendency that is particularly evident in all forms of conspiracism, a hallmark of Hofstadter's "paranoid" style, and it is to Hofstadter indeed that I owe the concept of "projection" in this context. One sees it in the fact that Hitler -- the ultimate megalomaniac -- was obsessed, via the Protocols, with the belief that the Jews were aiming at "world domination." Or think of the worldview of some of Arizona's "border militias," who -- according to the interviews conducted by one Mother Jones reporter who spent time among them -- believe that the U.S. "has concentration camps ready to put patriots [such as themselves] in." The ultimate irony of this is the fact that the U.S. government does in fact operate a massive detention system outside the scope of meaningful judicial review -- namely, the immigration detention system. It does so precisely because of and as an extension of the type of militarized "security" that the "border militias" are howling for.

So too -- to give a final example -- I recall once hearing a Neo-Confederate monologue that began with an extended apologia for Southern slavery and for the public display of the "battle flag." It all led up, incredibly, and with no sense whatsoever of irony, to a final peroration about how Obama's Affordable Care Act was -- ahem -- "enslaving" the American people. Suddenly, and for the first time in the man's speech, slavery was a bad thing.

The absurdity of the colonists' projecting their own worst fault onto King George III -- who was in fact neither the best nor the worst monarch in history -- has been lost on every succeeding generation of Americans, but it was plain and patent to Samuel Johnson. For the most part, his essay is taken up with belaboring the long-since forgotten fact that at the time the colonists began publicizing their grievances, the King and Parliament had in fact just invested extraordinary sums, barely a decade previous, in a military defense of the colonies during the French and Indian War. It was hardly tyrannical, Johnson insists, to expect them to cover some of the bill for it in the form of taxation -- as, of course, all other British subjects elsewhere had to do as well. Johnson is astonished at the colonies' ingratitude and proposes (albeit in half-seriousness) that the King ought to free people from slavery in order to form an alternative power bloc to the Anglo-Americans. He expresses the hope that the newly emancipated individuals "may be more grateful and honest than their masters."

All of this seems right enough, and fully in keeping with the deflationary purpose with which I turned to Johnson in the first place. I was quite ready to see him take those "Founding Fathers" down a peg. One is satisfied, then, that after all there was nothing new to the American Revolution -- no great advance for freedom and justice, and in fact, the British were more likely to incline toward equality and justice at that stage than the colonists, being less (though still considerably) directly complicit in slavery.


But then, just as I was getting into the spirit of it, something else started to happen in Johnson's essay that nudged me in a different direction. Take the following passage, for example, in which Johnson is responding to the colonists' argument that it is tyrannical to be taxed while they do not enjoy full representation. Says Johnson: 
It must always be remembered, that [the colonists] are represented by the same virtual representation as the greater part of Englishmen; […] Whither will this necessity of representation drive us? Is every petty settlement to be out of the reach of government, till it has sent a senator to parliament; or may two of them, or a greater number, be forced to unite in a single deputation? […] For many reigns the house of commons was in a state of fluctuation: new burgesses were added, from time to time, without any reason now to be discovered; but the number has been fixed for more than a century and a half, and the king's power of increasing it has been questioned. […] The friends of the Americans [in Britain], indeed, ask for [the colonies] what they do not ask for themselves. This inestimable right of representation they have never solicited."
In essence, and with a little -- I confess -- creative reading, Johnson is throwing up his hands and saying, what do you mean you colonists have a right to be represented? Do you think any of the rest of us are represented? Don't you realize that our whole Parliamentary scheme is illogical, based in odd immemorial traditions rather than in some abstract principle of electoral representation? We over here in Britain are simply a network of rotten boroughs without any real mechanism of proportional assignment of representatives, or have you all forgotten?

And all at once, one realizes that perhaps there was something a bit revolutionary about this American Revolution after all! Those colonists had smuggled something into their political demands -- under the guise of invoking an ancient right of English subjects -- something that was in fact a bold new idea -- the principle that one cannot bear the costs and consequences of government if one is not allowed a proportionate say in its decision-making.

Johnson is baffled that they would conjure this notion from thin air and then talk as if it were something that everyone else was already enjoying. "I don't have any proportional representation either," he seems to be saying. "So why should you?" Johnson therefore concludes that the colonists are making an outrageous demand. But he might just as easily have concluded that the subjects living in Britain proper should start lobbying for redistricting and an expanded franchise as well. And indeed, that's just what many would start to do a few decades later, in successive pushes for parliamentary reform. The targets were always the rotten boroughs, and the goal the extension of the number of those eligible to vote. Johnson noted that the pro-American side of the debate in England "ask[s] for [the colonists] what they do not ask for themselves." Yet very soon, they would be asking it for themselves. 

This is the sense in which the story Hamilton tells of the inevitable extension of liberty and equality may have some truth to it after all. Perhaps, in the very source I had looked to to deflate the founding myth, I have found a curious and roundabout confirmation of it. The American Revolution was waged -- at least in part -- by slaveowners and patriarchs, but perhaps it remains true nonetheless that it planted the seeds of the same forces that would undo slavery, and undo patriarchy -- again, at least in part. 

Johnson's example provides the perfect prototype of the way in which all criticisms of liberalism and the extension of its principles have proceeded since then -- as well as of the way in which those very criticisms ultimately subvert themselves. They allow to be thinkable something that was not thinkable before. "Whither will this necessity of representation drive us? Is every petty settlement to be out of the reach of government, till it has sent a senator to parliament[?]" This is of course the same reductio ad absurdum that every anti-liberal attempts, and it is always itself the thing that appears ridiculous in hindsight. Where will it all lead us? they always ask. Are we now to recognize the rights of Black people, women, homosexuals, transgender people, undocumented immigrants, and on and on? To which their liberal contemporaries always reply, soothingly, "No, no, no, this is the last extension of the franchise, or of civil rights, or whatever it is, I swear. We'll do this one next reform and then it will be finished." And, then, of course, the liberals of the succeeding generation reply, "Well, actually yes, yes, we will make those reforms you mentioned. On to the next one!" 

Sometimes, the conservative reductio clears the ground quite literally for the liberal argument of the next generation; it displays an extraordinary -- if unintended -- capacity for prophecy. One of the first defenses of animal rights ever penned, Thomas Taylor's Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, was actually written in order to mock by means of the reductio the notion of women's rights that Mary Wollstonecraft had enunciated. I suppose if all human beings have rights, then next you will say that animals do as well, Taylor scoffed. That is a bullet that many a liberal has since been willing to bite. "Sure, Taylor, I think you're onto something!" Taylor may even have smuggled in a previously taboo and inconceivable thought and made it possible, in the very act of trying to hold it up as a preposterous enormity. 

The reason why the argument proceeds in this fashion is not hard to fathom. Liberalism is simply a logical extension of most elementary moral schemes -- of the Golden Rule, for instance. What one would want for oneself, one ought to extend to others as well. So long as everyone is still in a state of unconsciousness about a given privilege, of course, that privilege and its unjust prerogatives can remain unchallenged. So long as everyone still takes it as a donnée that a given group of people is excluded from decision-making or from the body politic or from the standard set of rights, then one can bluster about for a time with one's reductios. "Well, if there's representation for X, then pretty soon the Ys are going to start in!" And all it takes is for someone -- usually they are a Y themselves, or else a distinctly holy and unearthly soul like a Shelley -- to say, yes, let's extend these rights to Ys as well!

On rare occasions, one does find a Sorel or a Julius Evola or one of his offspring -- Richard Spenser, say -- who simply rejects egalitarian morality outright. As Spenser told Reveal's Al Letson in an interview after the November election: "Fairness has never been really a great value in my mind. I like greatness and winning and dominance and beauty." But like all collections of cranks and creeps, the "white nationalists" will also gladly contradict themselves. They'll borrow the Left's egalitarian morality when it suits them, and simply subvert its usual emphasis by claiming that they are in fact the ones who are oppressed, the ones whose rights are denied. Right-wing extremists talk about a "white genocide." The modern-day KKK claims to be a civil rights organization for white people. Even they want to talk like liberals. Even they mimic -- however obscenely -- the language of the post-Holocaust international moral consensus. 

This near-universality of liberalism is really quite extraordinary. Everyone wants a piece. Various religions reinvent themselves in a liberal direction, and then claim to have discovered liberalism. Islamic fundamentalists, who used to just preach the subjection of wives to their husbands openly, now have elaborate theories about how the veil is actually a form of emancipation. Look at what supposed "traditionalists" of various stripes are actually saying, in most cases, and you will find that they are in fact merely trying to out-liberal the liberals. Whatever tradition they represent actually does more to promote liberty and equality than liberalism does, they claim. When people -- myself very much included -- become annoyed by some new linguistic device of "political correctness," or some implicit allegation that they have been insufficiently sensitive or inclusive in something they have said or written, their first response is usually -- "What do you mean? I'm not racist" or sexist or homophobic or whatever it is. (Even Trump is "the least racist person there is.") Even if in fact, this is the first time they've ever thought about it one way or the other. And so, in their very defensiveness against the political correctness, they are in fact being nudged toward greater egalitarianism. 

Perhaps the reason Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to tell the old old story of the inevitable triumph of freedom and equality is, then, because it is actually true, after a fashion. The historical personages represented in Hamilton may not have realized the extent to which this is what they were up to. The American Revolution itself may have been fought for reasons that were essentially trivial and self-interested. The British might have actually had more than a few points in their favor. But by articulating their narrow and limited cause in the language of universal equality and human rights, the colonists happened -- as if by accident -- to set in motion a cascade of further demands for the greater realization of those principles. They were like the man who invents fire when all he is trying to do is make a spark. They are a mouse that turned the mill-wheel. 

But why, again, should this be the case? Why does one extension of liberalism inevitably yield another, and yet another?

Alexis de Tocqueville offers perhaps the most eloquent explanation ever penned. He was himself of course a measured pessimist with regard to the dangers of advancing equality. He feared, among other things, that a tendency toward totalitarianism and centralism lurked within egalitarianism, for as soon as people are deprived of secondary privileges, and as soon as there are no minor powers acting in society, each individual becomes as weak as every other, and the only authority they have left to appeal to for protection is that of the state. Nevertheless, as logical as this concern may be, Tocqueville recognized in it merely a call for democratic societies to gird against these peculiar dangers, not a reason to renounce equality. This was so because the latter, much as he confessed that it disturbed him, he also took to be nothing less than the will of God -- or, if you prefer, the will of that impartial third-person observer we all should strive to become, according to the Kantian morality.  Equality and liberalism have the inexorable quality they seem to possess because they are a logical extension of any effort at moral universal -- which for Tocqueville means the consciousness of a Deity that would be large enough to comprehend all things.

In those unforgettable closing images of Democracy in America, T. notes that he might prefer to be superior and to be surrounded by superiority, but that is so only because he has not yet attained the divine outlook of the truly impartial observer. Tocqueville's God favors equality because he follows the categorical imperative. 
"When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, of great wealth and extreme poverty, of great learning and extreme ignorance, I turned aside from the latter to fix my observation on the former alone, who gratified my sympathies. But I admit that this gratification arose from my own weakness: it is because I am unable to see at once all that is around me, that I am allowed thus to select and separate the objects of my predilection from among so many others. Such is not the case with that almighty and eternal Being whose gaze necessarily includes the whole of created things, and who surveys distinctly, though at once, mankind and man. We may naturally believe that it is not the singular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, which is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What appears to me to be man’s decline, is to His eye advancement; what afflicts me is acceptable to Him. A state of equality is perhaps less elevated, but it is more just; and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty. I would strive then to raise myself to this point of the divine contemplation, and thence to view and to judge the concerns of men." (Reeve translation)
This is the irreversible path that Tocqueville saw us advancing along, for all his criticisms of our young nation. It was a path not only toward equality -- but toward divine justice. Miranda is right, then. Hamilton is right. Not, per se, in the details about King George -- which are tongue-in-cheek anyway -- or in every historical interpretation. But in the sense that its larger optimism about the destiny of our nation -- the course it set at its founding -- still holds true. In spite of Trump. In spite of Jackson. We are still moving, by a kind of near-mathematical certainty, toward the vantage point of God.

1 comment:

  1. Great post as always, but I would be interested in your thoughts on this article, in light of your characterization of Trump supporters as a "neo-fascist political movement":