On reframing history

Over at The Atlantic, Edward Delamn talks with (genius!) Lin-Manuel Miranda about how his work of art is influencing how people understand the past —

Delman: You talked about seeing people use the opening song in classrooms—how do you think your interpretation of Hamilton and this period will shape the way people understand the man and his era?

Miranda: Well, I think it’s a particularly nice reminder at this point in our politics, which comes around every 20 years or so, when immigrant is used as a dirty word by politicians to get cheap political points, that three of the biggest heroes of our revolutionary war for independence were a Scotsman from the West Indies, named Alexander Hamilton; a Frenchman, named Lafayette; and a gay German, named Friedrich von Steuben, who organized our army and taught us how to do drills. Immigrants have been present and necessary since the founding of our country. I think it’s also a nice reminder that any fight we’re having right now, politically, we already had it 200-some odd years ago. The fights that I wrote between me and Jefferson, you could put them in the mouths of candidates on MSNBC. They’re about foreign relations; they’re about states’ rights versus national rights; they’re about debt. These are all conversations we’re still having, and I think it’s a comfort to know that they’re just a part of the more perfect union we’re always working towards, or try to work towards, and that we’re always working on them. You know, we didn’t break the country; the country came with a limited warranty, like it was never perfect. It was never perfect, and there’s been no fall from grace. I find that heartening, honestly, that we’re still working on it.

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On Shakespeare and refugees

The Economist’s Prospero blog notes Sir Ian McKellen’s ongoing performance of a monologue from ‘Sir Thomas More‘ —

The scene is based on a real historical event, the “Ill May Day” of May 1st 1517. A mob of working-class apprentices had gathered in London’s Cheapside district, planning to burn the houses of the city’s growing immigrant community. Many of these immigrants were political and religious refugees from France, Belgium and Italy. At the time, Thomas More was under-sheriff of London. (He later became Chancellor*, and was executed by his erstwhile friend King Henry VIII for his principled resistance to the latter’s desire to break with the Catholic church in order to take a new wife.) On Ill May Day the widely respected More was brought in to enforce the sovereign’s protection of the foreigners and calm the crowd. In the play, More asks one of the rioters what he hopes to accomplish; the rioter replies “Marry, the removing of the strangers, which cannot choose but much advantage the poor handicrafts of the city.” More responds witheringly.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the King
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

On perpetrators and victims

Stumbled across a fascinating conversation hosted over at Foreign Policy: in discussing victims and perpetrators of genocide, Joshua Oppenheimer and David Rieff touch on film, intervention, kitsch and smugness. [note, the transcript is a reduxed version of the audio]

Joshua Oppenheimer: Most nonfiction films dealing with human rights abuse tend to tell us that things are well in hand because we’re following an activist or an investigator or a judicial process that promises some sort of resolution even if, when the film ends, things are still a mess. The sense of things getting better when we leave allows the viewer to more easily let go of the experience and to feel like it is being dealt with by somebody, somehow. It also serves the viewer to feel that, by having this explained to us as a phenomenon that’s at least at arm’s length from us, it’s something that we can understand from above. The task of cinema in intervening in and exploring these issues is to actually immerse us in these problems, in these phenomena, so that we actually feel something about what is it like as a survivor or, in the case of The Look of Silence, to have to live surrounded by the still-powerful perpetrators and to live in fear for half a century. Most human rights documentaries also replicate that most basic form of narrative escapism, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. That is reassuring because we inevitably identify with the good guys. But it’s problematic because it makes it difficult to understand — not in the sense to excuse, but to understand how human beings do these sorts of things to each other and the consequences for how we continue to live in the aftermath of atrocity. If we don’t accept the uncomfortable proposition that every perpetrator of virtually every act of evil in our history has been a human being like us, then we actually foreclose the possibility of understanding how we do this to one another and therefore make it impossible to figure out how we might prevent these things.

On paying attention

Megan Garber over at the Atlantic recaps the recent South Park episode (s19e2), which manages to address both immigration and the current rise of Donald Trump —

Here, though, is the heart of the episode—the scene that distills all the satire into one political message. One of South Park’s Canadian immigrants—who are also, it’s becoming clear, Canadian refugees—explains over a dinner of poutine and pie how President Trump happened. And, by extension, how Canada met its dystopian fate.

Holding back tears, the well-dressed refugee recalls,

“There were several candidates during the Canadian elections. One of them was this brash asshole who just spoke his mind. He didn’t really offer any solutions, he just said outrageous things. We thought it was funny.”

His wife sobs, hugging her young son.

He continues:

“Nobody ever thought he’d be president! It was a joke! We just let the joke go on for too long. He kept gaining momentum, and by the time we were all ready to say, ‘Okay, let’s get serious now, who should really be president?’ he was already being sworn into office. We weren’t paying attention! We weren’t paying attention!”

He breaks down, weeping. The whole family weeps. Everyone weeps.

On lynx cats

Sad to say, the lectures I used to coordinate at RC never got this much press. With reporting by David Francis at Foreign Policy, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia discusses the future of the death penalty in the US —

In his historic address to Congress Thursday, Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic church, called for the United States to end the death penalty. If Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is correct, the pontiff may soon get his wish.

Speaking at Rhodes College in Memphis Tuesday night, Scalia, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan and is considered one of the more conservative justices on the court, said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if his fellow justices ruled executions by the criminal justice system unconstitutional. He added that he personally believes executions are legal if the person who is to be put to death received a fair trial.

Scalia based his prediction on simple math: He believes death penalty opponents on the nation’s highest court will soon have the five votes necessary to overrule the four other justices, who would be willing to preserve the system.

Kudos on hosting a news-worthy event, y’all!