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Why The ‘Hamilton’ Dust-Up Matters

Expanding the politicization of the public square makes America worse

Well, you knew this was coming:

Though there may have been some very clever trolling in Trump’s tweet, Trump’s reaction to the Hamilton insult — which I called reprehensible here — is an example of why Trump is going to make things worse in some respects. He and his enemies bring out the worst in each other, and are making the public square less inhabitable by us all.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s stipulate that many on the left are far too quick to denounce as bigotry speech that they don’t like. One admirable thing about Trump is that he doesn’t care what they think. But Trump routinely takes that too far. It’s great not to be cowed by political correctness, but Trump doesn’t have any sense of the difference between p.c. and plain old courtesy and decency in speech. The examples of this are legion. What has changed in American life is that we have become far more accepting of vulgarity and discourtesy in public. To his very great credit, President Obama has always risen above that, even when he was not shown the same respect.

To many Americans, myself included, Hamilton audience and cast made themselves look like self-righteous jerks with their display last night. Trump should have let it pass, and allowed the jerks to do further damage to themselves. It would have been the presidential thing to have done. But now he’s ramping it up, and making himself look undignified and beneath the office to which he was elected. I have a sinking feeling this is going to be the pattern for the next four years.

I see lots of people on the left — commenters on this blog, people on Twitter, etc. — getting all indignant, saying that the descent of fascism onto America is such a crisis that we have no reason to respect the ordinary norms of civility. How can you complain about people booing Mike Pence at the theater when the administration in which he will serve is a nest of white nationalists who are going to take everything away from gays and minorities?! Well, assuming that that is true — which I absolutely do not — then you ought to fight even harder to maintain the structures and norms of civil society. One of the blessings of civil society, when it’s working as it should, is the ability of people of different, and sometimes antagonistic, views and backgrounds to gather in the public square as a community.

One reason why the no-platforming, safe-space p.c. craziness on campus is so destructive is that it makes it impossible for a university to do what it’s supposed to do. They treat a space for education as if it were a temple, and attempt to protect it from heretics and heathens. A theater has a different function than a college campus, but when it functions as it is supposed to do, it is a place where all people can come to be entertained, certainly, and, one hopes, raised out of themselves, enlightened, and enlightened together with everyone else in the audience. To make the theater a place where our political opponents cannot come to experience art in community is to place them outside the community. It is to regard the performance on stage as a sacred rite to which unbelievers may not be witness. It is to make a religion of art.

To be sure, the separation between art and religion is not clean and clear. The Greeks considered theater to be a religious rite. At its highest, art, like the rites of religion, serves as an icon, providing a window onto the transcendent. But art in our time and place is unlike religion in that its rites are not meant only for those initiated into the cult. In Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, for example, one can only receive communion — that is, participate in the most intimate rite of the religion — if one has been baptized and confirmed (initiated), and is in a state of ritual purity. In Islam, one cannot transgress the borders of the holy city of Mecca unless one is a believer. This kind of thing is normal and natural. Those borders define what it means to be a member of the community.

Those religions, though, welcome unbelievers to participate in other public rituals. For example, neither Orthodoxy nor Catholicism would deny a respectful unbeliever access to their services to hear Scripture read and the word of God preached. Non-Muslims are welcome at Friday prayers in mosques. In fact, Christians and Muslims often invite non-believers to their services. This is well and good. A Muslim or Christian believer hopes that what the non-believer sees, hears, and feels at the prayer ritual will compel him to learn and experience more of the religion, and ultimately to embrace it. Then and only then will he be permitted to commune at a deeper level (e.g., receiving the Holy Sacrament, making hajj to Mecca).

That’s religion. Should art work that way? I mean, is it the case that liberals believe that artistic performances — theater, music, and so forth — must be limited only to people who share their moral and political views? If I were worried that the Trump administration was going to be hostile to minorities and gays, I would have gone out of my way to make Mike Pence feel welcome at Hamilton, and hoped and prayed that the power of art moved his heart and changed his mind. But that’s not how the audience saw it. They wanted to show Pence that he is not part of their community, and the cast took it upon itself to attempt to catechize Pence at the end of the show. (And people say Evangelical movies are bad because they can’t let the art speak for itself, they have to underline the moral and put an altar call at the end!).

Let’s think about it in religious terms. If you were a pastor or member of a church congregation, and a Notorious Sinner came to services one Sunday, would you boo him as he took his seat in a pew? Do you think that would make him more or less likely to value the congregation and accept the message from the sermon? And if you were the pastor, would you think it helpful to single the Notorious Sinner out among the congregation, and tell him, in a bless-your-heart way, that you hope he got the point of the sermon (him being a bad man and all)? You should not be surprised if the Notorious Sinner left with his heart hardened to the religion and that congregation. Any good that might have been done toward converting him to the congregation’s and the pastor’s way of belief would almost certainly not come to fruition.

Look, I’m not saying that churches should downplay or throw aside their sacred beliefs to be seeker-friendly. Sure, congregations should treat visitors with respect, but the church exists to fulfill a particular purpose, to carry out a specific mission. Its behavior must be consonant with that mission. Nevertheless, a church that repudiates hospitality to guests, and thereby chooses to be a museum of the holy, violates its purpose, and diminishes its power to change the world.

So, do liberals want theaters (and campuses) to be museums of the holy, where the already converted commune with each other? Does one have to be baptized into the mystery cult of liberalism before one is allowed in the door? Because that’s the message from last night’s display at the Richard Rodgers Theater. And if this kind of thing keeps up — Trump will do nothing to stop it, because it benefits him and his tribe — America will lose one more gathering place for all of its people.

This is by no means only the fault of the left. As I wrote back in 2009, the shocking breach of decorum that occurred when a GOP House member shouted out “You lie!” at President Obama during his first State of the Union address did Obama no harm, but it disgraced that man, and lowered the dignity of the House. The political right has been playing this ugly game for a long time. Nobody has clean hands.

We are teaching ourselves, though, to love the mud, and to consider our own filthiness evidence of purity. We think our own feelings justify anything. What the cast and crowd at Hamilton did last night is no different in principle from pro-life fanatics demonstrating outside the homes of abortion doctors, and saying that violating private space is minor compared to the horror of abortion. There may be a certain logic to that: after all, if fascism really is descending on America, what’s the big deal about booing a fascist politician? if abortion really is murder, then protesting outside the home of a hit man is small beer. Right? Consider, though, that social order, and social peace, is often maintained by people consenting, perhaps unconsciously, not to push their beliefs to their logical conclusions.

If you believe that religion poisons everything, then it would make sense to you to pass laws forbidding religious observance. If you believe that to fail to confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God results in eternal damnation, it would make sense to pass laws forbidding heresy. Some states in history have done exactly that, with terrible outcomes. There are times and places when we have to draw sharp boundaries and enforce them, but we should be very reluctant to sacralize the public square, and we should be extremely wary about advancing the politicization of life.

A theater on Broadway turned into a sacred temple of multicultural liberalism is not progress. A burger joint on Harvard Square making sandwich consumption a political act is not making this a better place.

It’s not the America I want, but it looks like the America that the Trump right and the anti-Trump left are going to give us.

Photo sent in by a reader
Photo sent in by a reader


Rod, this is what border policing looks like. This is what culture building looks like. They are willing to do the work, and what we are seeing on the Right is a growing recognition of that reality.

Mark Cuban’s sports teams won’t stay in his hotels. Fine. Whatever. But here is a longer list: https://www.google.com/amp/amp.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2016/11/18/a_list_of_all_of_the_companies_sports_team_and_chefs_that_won_t_do_business.html?client=safari

The danger for the BenOp is that there’s a fine line separating it from BubbleOp. The anti-Trump folks living in one now.

Next step will be hotels and restaurants refusing to serve the administration when they are in town. First it’ll be a waitress or a bus boy. They will be treated as celebrities. The desire for virtue signaling will be unquenchable. Major corporations will get on board. And the Right will begin demanding infringement of the Left’s right of association.

Thing is, the move from victory to annihilation, loser to victim, used to take a generation or two. Now it takes a week.

UPDATE.2: A reader suggested I take a look at this CNN report featuring interviews with (white) citizens of Sen. Jeff Sessions’s hometown of Heflin, Alabama. These are clearly working class people. Maybe even a couple of them are poor, judging by the way they look. And yet, they acquit themselves well. Notice especially what two people interview have to say about changing racial attitudes. That’s more sophisticated and human than you’d hear from just about anybody within a five-mile radius of the Richard Rodgers Theater, I’d wager. I can confidently say I would rather that this country be ruled by the voters of Heflin, Alabama, than by the audience at last night’s performance of Hamilton.



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