Saturday, January 14, 2017

American art has failed us: when narrative doesn't do what it's supposed to do

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." -From Lincoln's second inaugural address,

"Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn't know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never "mocked" a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him groveling when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!" -Donald Trump on his Twitter account a week and a half before his inauguration

Nobody ever claimed a story could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or cure the sick. At its best, narrative does a limited, but crucial, number of things well. It engages both our left and right brains, thereby bypassing some of the prejudices of both, to make us see things through the viewpoint of another person. Secondly, it helps us to analyze, vicariously, the moral outcomes of certain actions by examining their impacts in a hypothetical world on people who give us a simulacra of real human feelings.

That doesn't sound like a whole lot, but when it's done well, it can have profound social, even geopolitical, implications. Abraham Lincoln, as I just learned while reading Doris Kearnes' Team of Rivals, doted on Shakespeare. He loved Shakespeare so much that, aside from his well-known love of going to the theater, he would often engage in late-night readings with his secretaries, his cabinet, or people who just happened to stop by. He also read poetry and, on occasion, humor writers. Lincoln's whole rhetorical strategy was built on the power of story-telling, which he first learned from listening to travelers along the turnpike who stopped at this father's house in the evenings.

From the simple framework of story-telling, Lincoln managed to keep the Union together enough to win a war, and to provide the seed for reunification, in spite of enacting unprecedented policies like implementing a draft, introducing an income tax, fighting a war that resulted in 600,000 dead and millions injured, and claiming greatly extended powers for the executive branch. He did it by applying a power Shakespeare had, what Keats called "negative capability," which meant, among other things, the ability to "lose his self-identity," through "imaginative identification" with his subjects. In very non-poetic, very real, human terms, Lincoln was able to see the point of view of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner, but also those of southern plantation owners. With this capacity, Lincoln not only could find middle ground politically, he could actually sway public opinion with his ability to read fine changes in the zeitgeist and push at the right time.

Consider, by contrast, the past week in "entertainment news," the "entertainment" aspect somehow always trumping the "art" aspect. Meryl Streep, on accepting a rightly deserved award for longtime excellence, dumbly and in tone-deaf Hollywood fashion attacked a guy 49% of the country just voted for.

Other than obliviously calling rich actors and actresses some of the "most vilified people" in society, she started out rather well, pointing out that Hollywood is "just people from other places":

I was born and raised and created in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola [Davis] was born in a sharecropper's cabin in South Carolina, and grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Italy. Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia, raised in -- no, in Ireland, I do believe. And she's here nominated for playing a small town girl from Virginia. 

The sideswipe at the birther controversy was an unneeded digression, but she was still doing great. And she arrived at a point where she could have been even greater, "An actor's only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like."

At this point, she could have offered up an olive leaf to the many people who feel Hollywood is all wealthy liberals who hold middle America in contempt. She could have pointed out her own performances where she tried to show a sympathetic side of ordinary folks, some of whom might have voted for Trump. Instead, she launched into judgment on something Trump did where it's not even clear he did what everyone says he did. We all know this part by now--she accused the President elect of mocking a disabled reporter, something Trump denies.

People have different opinions on this. I more than half believe Trump on this one, even though I don't want him to be President and I more than half wish the story were true. But I sometimes mock people who aren't at all disabled in a similar manner, by presenting them as stating their case in a flustered way. (Maybe I shouldn't--something this whole thing has made me think of.) But even if Streep suspects him of having done it on purpose, at a moment when the whole country is looking at her, she ought to have shown a little more charity.

She could have built on her vast street cred ("ethos," in classical rhetoric) to remind us that we have to look for the best representations of one another, rather than criticizing each other based on the worst straw man depictions we can find. She could have encouraged us to take seriously the hopes and fears of our neighbors. Instead, she poked the bear.

The bear, in this case Donald Trump, predictably allowed himself to be poked. His supporters have offered up much better responses, including this one that responded with the respect and charity Streep should have demonstrated in the first place.  Instead, Trump gave us what's at the top of this post.

Trump should have done much better, of course. The following 128 characters, delivered via his favorite social networking medium, would have won the battle right out of the gate:

Congrats to Streep. One of the best ever. Understand your "Doubt" (you were great in that). I hope to exceed your expectations.

Not only does a soft answer turn aside wrath, sometimes it just makes you come off as the bigger person. Streep threw fire. Trump could have won with water, but he went with more fire. Since he's about to be President, he should be criticized for his lack of impulse control.

But I blame Streep more. As an actress, I would hope she'd be the one more steeped in practical empathy. Not only should she be better able to understand Trump and the reasons why people voted for him, she also ought to be able to understand how people on the other side of America's two-country divide would react to such a speech.

Much as I'd expect a Christian to do more to alleviate the suffering of the poor than a secularist, I expect someone who is a professional empathist to be better at empathy. This isn't just a critic, this is someone who is actually supposed to embody other human souls. After a lifetime of excelling at that, she failed to put it into practice on a very simple level when it counted. She had a chance to, in a sense, "evangelize" Trump and his supporters. Did Trump sound evangelized? What's the point of story telling, if it doesn't even do one of the few things it's supposed to do well?


  1. And enjoyment. That's a third thing stories can do for us. I'm not a Puritan. Fun is okay.

  2. How can you doubt that he was mocking the journalist? If it were an ambiguous, isolated thing, well, we might indulge in doubt. But when it's part of an established pattern, we become complicit in finding ways to doubt. The strategy is exposed by its implementation....

    I love that Streep has to refer to the "beautiful Ruth Negga," so obviously a knee jerk effort to establish her bona fides on race.

    1. I think my openness to believe it wasn't intentional mocking of a disability is built on the fact that I, myself, have (I think) made similar gestures when I want to indicate that someone was arguing a point so cluelessly that they almost shut down searching for the words. I was flailing my arms to indicate that the person I'm talking about was also flailing to express herself. I've done this about people who aren't disabled in any way, although now that I think of it, maybe the gesture itself is intended to compare the person in question to someone with a disability. It hadn't occurred to me before. Now that I realize it, I should probably stop doing it. But I've still done it. So I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. (Also, have you ever noticed how much Trump moves his hands anyway?)

      I suppose to me, it's not important, because I feel like his ideas alone are enough to object to. Free markets are a conservative idea I believe in. He is trying to introduce selective, populist-based protectionism. That's a bad idea. It's a bad idea to try to take a segment of the population working jobs at a low wage because the market demands their labor and criminalize them. I can just focus on the bad ideas without the need of attacking the character. At least, if there is any doubt a specific character flaw exists. If one wanted to make an ad hominem attack, better options exist.

  3. Yes, I'm very attentive to his gestures. They are not unpracticed. Cicero noted the importance of this to the delivery, and I think for a long time that a number of our public speakers have been restrained or inattentive to this dimension. But Hitler wasn't! It is a dimension whereby a speaker establishes his ethos with the audience. The speaker guides not merely by word, but by gesture. Trump does this, and, therefore, this is all the more reason not to disregard the calculated mocking of the disabled journalist.