Category Archives: politics

Take the Statues; Leave the Pedestals

pedestal“It’s Wrong to Erase History” is the title of an angry letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun complaining about the swift and stealthy removal of four Confederate statues Tuesday night.

That’s the gist of much of the argument for leaving intact commemorative statues of Confederate leaders. 

I agree. It’s wrong to erase history.

But statues aren’t history. They are present. They are now.

Just think about their function: what does a commemorative statue do? It makes a statement about our communal values. It expresses our ideals. Just by standing there in a park or near a courthouse or government plaza, it is doing its job. Not in the past — right now, today. And tomorrow. And every day that it continues to stand.

We should not erase signs of our historical past, even when — especially when — that past is ugly. We shouldn’t pave Gettysburg and put up a parking lot. But Gettysburg does not continue to produce the horror for which we remember it. Gettysburg is no longer the site of bloody battle; it’s a historical site complete with Visitor Center, Museum, Ranger-Led Tours, and a Cyclorama.

Of course, even though these statues aren’t history per se — even though they are all currently at work valorizing leaders of the Confederacy — they are the site of a historical event: the erecting of the statue itself.

That history, as Zack Beauchamp at VOX has pointed out, is often repugnant: a doubling down on the myth of white southern nobility in response to the fight for civil rights.

That’s why many of these statues went up. And the history of municipal approbation of white supremacy is history we should not erase. 

I can think of two good options for accurately representing the historical record:

(1) Erect another statue next to the first statue as commentary. I’m thinking maybe Martin Luther King, Jr., head in hands, sobbing. Or a black mother looking askance at Lee while covering her child’s eyes. Or a mob of Klansmen in full costume giving Lee a thumbs up.

That might get pricey. A cheaper option would be

(2) Remove the statue, but leave the pedestal, complete with a new commemorative plaque. For example:

Here stood, from 1924, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on horseback.

For almost a century this 26-foot-tall bronze likeness expressed civic admiration for a man who fought against the United States and for the cause of slavery.

In 2017, the people of Charlottesville, Virginia, decided it was time to take it down.

 

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Dear Mr. Miranda: A Thank-You Note

hamilton-castDear Mr. Miranda,

The morning after the election I made my husband get up with the kids. I couldn’t face them. They were not innocents: they knew about North Carolina’s bathroom law and the dangers of driving while black. But they are children of the Obama era: they’ve grown up believing that the forces of progress win.

As their mom, I had let them believe that, had even encouraged them to. A parent is supposed to do two basic things: protect her kids from harm and prepare them for the future. I had failed on both counts. On top of the shock and sorrow I felt shame.

Days passed. I couldn’t read the paper. I couldn’t look at Facebook. I couldn’t even go into my closet, lest I see the suit jacket I had bought for Election Day. (Then it was a lovely shade of blue; now it was the color of confidence kicked in the gut.) 

But I couldn’t work either. So I scanned my NYT Morning Briefing email to find something to distract myself. A book review. A recipe. Arts news. Wasn’t there something about Lin-Manuel Miranda? There’s always something about Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Sure enough: the kerfuffle about the Hamilton cast’s post-show statement to audience member and future VP Mike Pence. Trump’s expression of outrage and demand for an apology. And finally his supporters’ call to #boycotthamilton.

Ha!

I laughed out loud for the first time in 10 days. Boycott Hamilton? That’s like attacking a mountain with a Wiffle Ball bat. Taking aim at the sun with a squirt gun. With that one hashtag, the forces of regress revealed themselves to be puny, to be losers who would, eventually, lose. It will be awful in the meantime: we’ll be fighting for health care and reproductive rights; we’ll be hiding undocumented immigrants while praying for China not to take seriously our thin-skinned tweeter-in-chief.

But in the long run, he doesn’t stand a chance against Hamilton—against art that speaks to people. That’s where progress will not just live but thrive. Art that both six-graders and Broadway snobs are obsessed with; art that cites Shakespeare and the Notorious B.I.G; art that springs from all kinds of crazy knowledge about music and musicals and history and politics and rhyme; art that’s based on a fucking 832-page book.

And if Hamilton-the-work-of-art triumphs over Trump, so too does Hamilton’s vision—your vision—of an America where immigrants are necessary, where talent and brains can make things happen, where culture is treasured but skin color is irrelevant. My 11-year-old, who knows your show by heart but has not seen it, confessed recently that when she saw a portrait of the actual Alexander Hamilton, she was a little disappointed. “I mean, I knew he wouldn’t look like Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I was kinda hoping he would.”

Our kids are children of the Hamilton era. We’re going to be OK.

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Donald Trump’s Elusive Frenemy

politically-correct-dictionaryOn a call home from The Mountain School—a semester program for high school juniors—my son Noah complained about a committee he had joined to decide how the student body should talk about the coming election. The conclusion: delicately. “It was ridiculous,” he said. “I’m sorry but it was just so politically correct.”

The “I’m sorry” was for my benefit: he knows I hate the phrase “politically correct.” And yet I too found laughable the idea of protecting hypothetical Trump-supporting 16-year-olds from the intellectual judgment of their peers.  Waah! You Vermont liberals are so mean! Don’t make me feel bad for wanting a sexist, racist, xenophobic nincompoop to be president.

“People’s beliefs are the only thing you should be able to judge,” said Noah. I agreed with his point. So why did I resist his terminology?

The phrase “politically correct” has bothered me since my college years in the late 80s and early 90s, when women’s studies became a doctoral field and Allan Bloom decried the tragic devaluing of the Western canon. Around that time, my father (who perhaps not incidentally teaches the most canonical subject possible: Shakespeare) used the phrase in a book he was writing and I was editing; I made him take it out. It’s a phrase that insinuates rather than specifies, I (maybe) said. It’s got the slippery exterior of jargon and it makes you sound like a grumpy white male.  

Which was true. It’s also true that the term “political correctness” felt like a personal dig, an insult to me and my politics, the way it infuriatingly took the social justice issues I (and my father) cared about and lumped them together with a humorless obsession with terminology. Take, for instance, this New York Magazine cover story from 1991:

Are You Politically Correct?

Am I guilty of racism, sexism, classism? Am I guilty of agism, ableism, lookism? Am I logocentric? Do I say “Indian” instead “Native American”? “Pet” instead of “animal companion”? by John Taylor.

 

Every movement has its embarrassing excesses; in fact, “politically correct” began, according to Amanda Hesser of the New York Times, as a self-deprecating joke among left-leaning activists. No matter. The right soon appropriated it as a term of contempt, mocking leftist excesses in the hope of dismissing the serious issue beneath it all: the ways in which we unwittingly perpetuate prejudice, injustice, and inequality through our language and our institutions.

Twenty-five years later, the term “political correctness” is back with a vengeance, still resisting clear definition, still lazily making a range of hazy accusations:

  • Oversensitivity to the rights of minorities
  • Oversensitivity to the feelings of minorities
  • Embrace of ever-evolving categories of oppression and oppressed groups
  • Elevation of identity politics above all other concerns
  • Mindless adherence to liberal orthodoxy
  • Self-righteousness in the face of perceived infractions to the liberal order
  • Suppression of free speech
  • Tyranny
  • Smugness
  • Insincerity

That last one is a new one, I think. Today’s version of political correctness includes the implication that no one really believes the “p.c.” versions of the statements they make. In other words, President Obama wants to say “radical Islamic terrorism” but is forced by political correctness to say “violent extremists.” And while you know in your heart the right thing to say is “Merry Christmas,” you say “Happy Holidays” for the sake of . . . political correctness. That fundamental presumption of insincerity is what gives “politically correct” its weaselly edge and “politically incorrect” its proud air of truth-telling.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, self-described “truth teller.” For the past year, he has amplified the drumbeat against political correctness to such an extent that Americans polled in June think political correctness is a bigger problem than prejudice. Next to Hillary Clinton, political correctness is Trump’s favorite enemy. Trump uses the term “political correctness” to defend his own crass behavior (“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said, in response to Megyn Kelly’s question about his calling women “pigs” and “dogs”). He uses it to accuse others of liberal weak-mindedness (“The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind” in a USA Today op-ed). And he uses it to preempt critiques of his policy proposals (banning Muslim immigration is “not politically correct, but I don’t care,” he said at a rally last December).  

Basically, if you’re looking for a quotation that includes the words “political correctness,” look to Trump. Beware, however: you may get confused. I, for instance, thought it was simple respect that kept us from calling people “pigs” and “dogs”; that we didn’t cut off people’s heads and drown them in cages on account of basic human decency, American values, and international law; and that we refrained from banning Muslims due to our very own, Founding-Fathers-Approved, First Amendment. 

Even Republicans have questioned Trump’s use of the term: After stating in a debate that Trump’s inflammatory anti-Muslim statements had real-world consequences, and after hearing the predictable “political correctness” scoff from Trump, Marco Rubio replied, “I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.”

I rejoiced at that comment, and then I took a moment to wonder how Marco Rubio and I could possibly agree.

This is how: Political correctness is going too far in the attempt to make sure other people are treated with respect. The reason the term is so slippery is that “going too far” depends on your perspective. One person’s “going too far” is another person’s marriage equality . . . affirmative action . . . even Civil Rights Act. But all of us, even liberals, have a line we draw somewhere in the shifting sands of human progress; cross that line and eyes will roll. Trump’s line appears to be somewhere around the time of the Crusades. Mine, I see now, is at The Mountain School, around the time of Trump.

If anyone is keeping track, that means Noah is right: it is indeed political correctness that is protecting teenage Trump supporters from the judgment of their peers. 

The irony would be delicious if I could stomach anything that rich this close to the election.