Yesterday on Facebook I got involved in some pretty good honest give and take over Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech in which she took on the behavior of Donald Trump. I think it’s important to phrase it that way, because it was not an ad hominem argument as Trump’s often are; instead it opposed a kind of behavior she feels—most of us feel—is untenable and even un-American.
The speech centered on his mocking behavior towards a disabled reporter, Serge Kovaleski who suffers from arthrogryposis, a disease that limits the functioning of the joints. Meryl Streep, like most other Americans with any sensitivity toward others, felt that Trump’s behavior was abhorrent—not that he should be chastised or impeached for it, not that he should be ineligible to lead the nation, simply that he should have apologized or not done it. She called Trump’s mockery an “instinct to humiliate.” In football that costs fifteen yards. In real life, nothing? Mr. Trump blames the media for the story. He’s lying.
As to my give and take yesterday, it centered on a statement like this one:
When will the Hollywood elites realize, no one cares for their political posturing or viewpoints? Shut up and sing, dance, act or direct whichever the case maybe because we’re smart enough to make our own informed choices when it comes to voting.
It was like this one, but it wasn’t this one. I only reprint this because it shows the difference between wielding talking points and making a substantive argument. The former student I responded to was more thoughtful and reasonable. The fact that he and I disagreed made me think: the statement above made me groan, because it posits ideas I don’t believe are true. Of course “shut up” usually means the person doesn’t require a response, but if I thought it would make a difference, I would say this:
1. Is the Hollywood elite any worse than the Wall Street elite? the petroleum elite? the coterie of billionaires Trump has installed at the highest levels of the government? I would submit that since the former probably pay their taxes, they have a leg up on Mr. Trump in terms of what they do with their money. Besides, following Hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie donated $8 million to New Orleans. Their projects remain active. George Clooney founded “Not on Our Watch” to fight genocide in Sudan. Donald Trump, by contrast, paid $25,000 from his foundation to get a Florida attorney general re-elected. His Washington billionaire-elite will be making our decisions for us until 2020 and beyond. Meryl Streep simply asked Trump to stop humiliating disabled people.
2. Are we smart enough to make our own informed choices? I would submit that we are but we don’t, and that sometimes, even if we’re good people, we need a nudge. Maybe it’s the painter, the performer, the screenwriter, the novelist—in short the artist—who provides that. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle a century ago to expose the evils of capitalism. He didn’t succeed, but his novel showed a corrupt and dangerous meat-packing industry that led to the FDA and other government protections that allow us to buy food with some sense of security. In 1929 Erich Maria Remarque wrote All Quiet on the Western Front to illustrate the dehumanizing effects of war on the individual soldier. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage had shown the same thing fifty years earlier. So did Norman Mailer in the forties, and Randall Jarrell in a bombardment of unforgettable poetic images in “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Read that and tell me you’d send someone off to war.
3. There is no more heartbreaking scene in any movie than the end of Brokeback Mountain, and it’s no less heartbreaking because the lovers are gay. And there is more racial understanding (and open confrontation of racism) in Driving Miss Daisy than all the platitudes we’ve heard this past election cycle. Expressions of humanity, that’s all.
4. Artists as disparate as novelist George Eliot and poet Sharon Olds have laid bare the lives of women more clearly and profoundly than Melania Trump or Betsy DeVos or even Meryl Streep ever will. Read Middlemarch. Read Sharon Olds They don’t deal in the superficial; they deal in the real and painful—and they know enough not to make vacuous statements like “I have great respect for women.”
There’s more, but since few readers have accompanied me this far, I can probably stop. Except…thoughts take some time to develop and arguments take some time to formulate and our best efforts cannot be limited to 140 characters that end with “so sad.”
Years from now the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Dickinson, the novels of Hemingway, the films of Kubrick, and the paintings of Cassatt will continue to resonate and inspire. And we’ll watch the films of Meryl Streep the same way we watch Jimmy Stewart or Joan Crawford today—with a kind of awe and reverence that transcends time. (Well, you’ll watch: unless the whole concept of time takes a dramatic turn, I won’t.)
Was Ms. Streep’s speech divisive? When Trump won the election I said, “we’ll give him a chance.” Many of us did. He inherited a divided country by promising to make us great again. Instead he has gathered around him a group that ridicules the dreams of the so-called “forgotten Americans” who voted for him. He has already forgotten them. Worse, he has continued to berate anyone who even whispers a criticism. In that light, the complaint that Ms. Streep’s speech was divisive is specious.
Look, I really don’t know if artists are by definition better spokespersons for humanity. But when they speak for our better angels, what do we lose by listening?