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Friday, July 10, 2020

Some Thoughts On Hamilton

I've been grappling with Hamilton over the last few days.

Back in 2016 during Hamilton Fever, two performances of the Broadway smash were filmed with the original cast. There were plans to show it with a theatrical release, but since the world is now a living nightmare from which we will never awaken, those plans had to be postponed indefinitely. Instead, our friendly corporate overlords have beamed it into our homes via Disney+.

There's a good reason why Hamilton received all the awards. It's very, very good. For someone like myself who listened to the cast album frequently, I didn't expect to be surprised by the play, but I was. There are so many small touches that I really appreciate, and seeing the original cast perform it is an absolute joy.

There are a few legitimate criticisms that can be leveled at Hamilton. For example, it touches on slavery but doesn't really dig into the fact that the founding fathers tacitly approved of it and wrote it into the founding documents. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a few songs about it, but wasn't able to squeeze them into the play.

That's not what's bothering me, though. I'm bothered by the tiny complaints that I see from people who don't understand what they're watching.

I've seen a complaint that it's homophobic because it doesn't delve into Hamilton's (alleged) queer relationship with Laurens. (There's no historical evidence to support this, and it was only a rumor.) I saw a complaint that King George III is portrayed as a "gay stereotype." (Never mind that the joke is that King George III was going insane at this time, and that it's an ironic juxtaposition of prim Britishness and their relentless bloodthirstiness toward cultures that they don't see as their equals. Also, Jonathan Groff, who developed the portrayal, is openly gay, so.) I've seen a complaint that it's misogynistic because Hamilton is rewarded for his bad behavior. (Never mind that his bad behavior is repeatedly his downfall, and that the female characters get the last word on the proceedings and some of the most potent musical numbers.)

It's got me wondering: Why are we seeing more criticism against Hamilton now than we were when it was on Broadway?

To be fair, Hamilton is seeing more criticism because it's reached a wider audience now. You used to have to seek out Hamilton, either by buying the cast album or by paying far out the ass to go see it live. There was a higher barrier to entry, so those who were looking for it were already probably its target audience. Now that it's beamed directly into your home, the barrier to entry is much lower. That means that more people are able to analyze and dissect it with their own perspectives and (sometimes wrong) opinions.

But I think that the biggest disconnect isn't in the play itself, but the difference between when Hamilton was written and performed and when the rest of the world has seen it. It's got me thinking about shows like The West Wing and Parks & Recreation. Those shows were relentlessly optimistic, written for optimists. We've all now seen that their optimism was, in many ways, misplaced.

Take The West Wing. It lives in a fantasyland where all problems get solved by talking things through. The Ann Coulter analogue character works with a Democratic administration. Everyone cares deeply about America and it's Golden Ideals and Just Wants What's Best For The Country. If President Bartlett articulates a vision that's opposed to the Republican vision but it happens to be better, the Republicans go, "Gee, you're right!" and follow along with it.

To be fair, The West Wing was written during the Bush administration when people needed an escape from the terrifyingly competent bulldozer that was crushing so many lives underfoot all over the world. The liberal fantasy of a president who was able to wrangle Republicans into doing the right thing was like cocaine: It made you feel great for a moment until you come down and realize that you have a hole in your septum that won't be healed.

Take Parks & Recreation. I watched SO MUCH Parks & Recreation, you guys. Unlike The West Wing, Parks & Rec was written in the halcyon days of the Obama administration, but the relentless optimism is there too. I think about an early episode where two gay penguins end up married at the zoo, and the excessively religious woman wants the marriage annulled. In the end, Leslie fixes the problem with pluck and ingenuity, and the religious lady slinks away, defeated.

Like, there's a whole season arc where Leslie runs for city council against the doofy rich guy played by Paul Rudd, and because she's smarter and better and works harder to earn those votes she triumphs, and even the rich guy agrees that she was the better choice.

Frequently, Leslie Knope would solve problems just by being her, and in the end, everyone was rewarded. The nice office functionary gets to be mayor. The libertarian gets to be a park ranger and live off the land. Everyone becomes happy, wealthy and fulfilled. Everyone's lives are enriched because of the hardworking, binder-making, plucky and determined heroine.

Now take Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton is a plucky immigrant who rises to the halls of power through pluck and determination, by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter. He's able to talk his way out of his problems and convince presidents that he's right. While his intransigence got the better of him in the end, everyone's lives were enriched and improved because of his quick wit and indefatigable pen.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, it seemed that these fantasies could come true. We had a black president who seemed to give a shit! We had a likely president who was Leslie Knope come to life, with binders full of plans! While there were challenges, we would face them all together with pluck and determination, because this is America, and that's just what we do here.

Then 2016 happened, and we've seen clearly how these were just fantasies. There's no convincing some people. We're currently staring down multiple apocalypses at once, and there's no indication that things are going to get any better in the near future. We have at least four months until the 2020 election, and then three more months after that until the inauguration, and then who knows how long we'll be unpacking the graft and utter destruction of our nation after that?

And then what? Is there political will to fix anything? Can climate change be tackled by the people who are causing it? Can we successfully bridge the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the dirt poor by applying the same tactics that caused the gap in the first place?

Into this depressing hellhole of suck steps Hamilton, a story written by immigrants which puts BIPOC into the main roles. It's a fantasy: What if the people who were in charge actually cared about the nation they were building? What if the people who were enslaved had champions inside the administration?

What if the people who were oppressed had people in the administration who looked like them?

This is absolutely not a knock on Hamilton at all. Lin-Manuel Miranda's play is a work of genius, and you can't fault people writing a work for a) the conditions under which the work was written and b) the conditions that existed after the work was written that occurred through no fault of their own. In the six years it took to develop Hamilton, we really did seem to be looking toward a more optimistic future. Things were good, and there was a chance that it would keep on rolling onward.

Can we fault someone for not seeing the underlying rot upon which the system was built? I can't, because aside from a few Jeremiahs in the wilderness, most of us didn't see it either. It's only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that we see that the problems we faced never really went away, they just looked nicer for a brief, happy moment.

I think that's why we struggle with Hamilton now, more than we did four years ago. Every snappy rap battle between Jefferson and Hamilton feels like a poke in the eye, a reminder that we never truly lost anything, but that we never actually had it to begin with. In order to get there, we're going to have to fight a lot harder. We can't let Great People do the fighting for us anymore, we have to be out there in front.

That's a scary proposition. Wouldn't it be so much nicer if one determined person could just push everything forward?

We're tired. We're beaten down. We're seeing how precarious any level of success may be. We see that all the people who were quietly racist were there the whole time, and we just never saw them. We see that there's a disgusting underbelly, a rotten foundation that has us exposed to the entire world as the bumbling dummies we always were.

So what are we going to do about it? Nothing? Or are we going to get mad?

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