Loving Hamilton doesn’t make you progressive

We are rapidly approaching Oscar season, so anticipate a wave of think-pieces dedicated to their cultural significance. I decided to preempt them with a think-piece of my own to act as a warning sign: Before you, entertainment-conscious liberal, dive into Hollywood’s symbolic impact on the rest of the world, you should know. Your opinions on entertainment are almost completely irrelevant.

Take, for instance, Hidden Figures, the biopic about three African-American women whose mathematical work was integral to America’s first manned spaceflight mission. It’s been nominated for Best Picture. Hidden Figures is a solid film: Taraji P. Henson’s work as Katherine Johnson, the protagonist, was strong, as was Janelle Monae’s funny and prideful portrayal of Mary Jackson. When I saw it, there was minor applause throughout, as there is supposed to be with films that are an Event, a cultural touchstone. The audience in particular loved a gratifying scene in which Kevin Costner, as head of the space task group, takes a literal ax to the facility’s segregated bathroom system. It feels good to see oppression torn down.

So I don’t take issue with Hidden Figures‘ quality. What annoys me, rather, is that the film will inevitably be portrayed as “brave”, or “timely”. The film helps bring to light the erasure of the role of people of color, especially women, in STEM fields, which is obviously virtuous. But it also leads the audience to feel self-congratulatory. The (frequently white) liberal moviegoers pat themselves on the back, having become more “woke” by seeing a progressive and educational film. Their consciousness, they tell themselves, has been raised. Of course, it’s not that brave to detest segregation in 2017.  It’s not brave, and it doesn’t help the exploited people of color of today.

And this is the crux of what is wrong with a liberalism that puts entertainment as the center of social justice movements: It does not realize (or maybe its architects realizes all too well) that entertainment is not in itself progress.

This is most evidenced by another massive cultural touchstone, Hamilton. Readers will probably recall the furor that resulted from when the cast of the musical politely asked Mike Pence to consider the musical’s message. The President was furious, sounding off on Twitter that “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” This is amusing, given the alt-right’s hatred of safe spaces. But more to the point, it touched off a mini-culture war on the internet that neatly distracted from the Trump University settlement.

Reince Preibus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, recently commented that the now-forgotten $25 million Trump University scam was settled so that the Donald may take office “without distraction”. But there already was a distraction, and the entertainment-obsessed center-left bought it. “How dare he hate on my favorite musical?” was the rallying cry, instead of, “he defrauded people of their degrees and is still pending with a sexual assault case”.

If Trump’s media parry away from Trump U wasn’t bad enough, there are also the socioeconomic dimensions of the incident to consider. The conservative writer Marc A. Thiessen writes in the Washington Post:

Hey Democrats, want help to rally the country around Donald Trump? Here’s a great idea: Have a crowd of wealthy, out-of-touch Manhattan liberals (who can afford $849 tickets to “Hamilton”) boo Vice President-elect Mike Pence while the cast of the Broadway show lectures him on diversity. (hyperlinks his, not mine)

Honestly, I agree with him. “Hamilton” is the darling of the ruling class. Michelle Obama says it’s her favorite piece of media, period. The AV Club notes that Hamilton has for some become a metaphor for out-of-touch liberalism. This gilded, theoretical, cultural style of politics is completely impotent in fighting Trump.

But following the Oscars and watching Hidden Figures or Hamilton is much more fun and easy than fighting Trump. It’s easy to follow the controversy regarding so-called progressive entertainment and ridicule the reactionaries who belittle them. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to watch a movie and applaud its marginalized heroes when their children and grandchildren are being systematically oppressed and starved in Flint, Michigan, at Standing Rock, and across the republic. If the liberal response is simply to watch a cool new Broadway musical, if defending Hamilton is the extent of our commitment to social equality, we may as well be watching reruns of 24.

Perhaps this means the viewer is not truly understanding the message of the film or its context. Perhaps this may be true with Hidden Figures. But I truly hope people do not internalize Hamilton, as Alexander Hamilton was fundamentally anti-democratic, argued for an elected monarchy, and once described the masses as “a great beast”.

Which is pretty representative of how entertainment liberals are divorced from material conditions and politics. It’s this delusion that allows them to compare the current situation to Harry Potter. It’s what allows them to talk about how this Super Bowl’s commercials were “brave” and “progressive” while the corporations that produced these ads continue to exploit our workers, destroy our environment, and trample on our civil rights. This entertainment-focused ideology causes liberals to write think-pieces about how Hillary Clinton is a literal goddess.

Entertainment buffs love to tell the amazing story of how Star Trek portrayed the first on-screen interracial kiss. What they fail to mention is Star Trek‘s democratic, socialist, and post-scarcity society. It’s more virtuous to work towards such a future than it is to congratulate yourself on having watched its portrayal on TV.

Adam Levin (19 Posts)

Adam Levin writes about politics and media, is a board member of the United Nations Association of St. Louis, and is an accomplished trombonist.