Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.
Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,” “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.
As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.
Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
—A Christmas Carol
In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story. Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.
When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.
This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.
In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.
Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published on this day, 143 years ago.
Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus,” painted for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, 1601
When Stendhal, the 19th century French author, visited Florence in 1817 he became so overwhelmed by the city’s glorious art that, overcome by a surfeit of visual splendor, he had a temporary psychological breakdown. He’s not the only one to react to extreme beauty in this way. Art lovers have found being in the presence of tremendous beauty so moving and emotionally taxing that they’ve suffered confusion, tachycardia, dizziness and hallucinations in art museums frequently enough for psychiatrists to give a name to this cluster of responses: Stendhal Syndrome.
Tourists occasionally experience breakdowns while overcome by the beauty of Botticelli‘s paintings in the Galleria degli Uffizi or at the foot of Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Some are sent to Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital‘s psychiatric ward for evaluation. The syndrome was named in 1979 after an Italian psychiatrist observed more than 100 cases among tourists in Florence. Apparently American tourists are not known to suffer the syndrome as Europeans do; some say that perhaps this is because as a culture, we don’t experience the same immersion and attachment to masterworks of art as Europeans. As a rule, Europeans believe we derive neither the ecstatic joy in being surrounded by profoundly beautiful and important masterworks, nor the psychological trauma of being overwhelmed by it. When they find an American who is deeply touched by their heritage and art, most Europeans are surprised and delighted. I have found that many will go out of their way to help a visitor enjoy immersion in their glory.
Most U.S. tourists visiting Europe simply lack the frame of reference and familiarity with European art and history that Europeans have, and without such a frame of reference there is less build up of anticipation or depth of understanding, and these are the underpinnings of emotional reaction. Faced with the exhaustion of travel, the unforgiving pace and the breadth of new experiences that most packaged tours provide to Americans overseas, the majority of my compatriots can be forgiven for being too numbed and overwhelmed by the fatigue and novelty of European tourism for great meaning to sink in. It’s not that emotional reactions to beauty and meaning are lacking in our makeup, but that most of us have simply not been exposed to either the depth or breadth of art historical experience and understanding that many Europeans enjoy. This is, of course, partly because of our physical distance from the majority of masterpieces of Western art, and also because of the relative novelty of our national history and treasures.
While the U.S. has many European masterworks in museums, one must make an effort to visit them. We are not surrounded with them as most urban Europeans are. Turn a corner in any major European metropolis and you may find that treasure troves of art and architecture await you. In Italy especially, the sheer volume of exquisite historically and artistically important works is staggering. In Rome or Florence, it seems as if nearly any random block offers a world-class repository of culture to rival anything Americans could muster. One city after another (not to mention little villages and gorgeous hill towns) boasts ancient treasures, Roman monuments, priceless works of every kind. So it is no wonder that people steeped in stories and photos of such masterworks who enjoy and remember their history should be overwhelmed when immersed in the glories of Europe’s cultural centers.
I have never had a nervous breakdown in a museum (or anywhere else, for that matter), but I have several times been moved to tears and wonderment before a work of art which I have studied and loved from afar. Here is my favorite example.
When I was 21, my mother and I spent several hectic weeks traveling through the art centers of Italy together in honor of my having completed college. For both my senior theses (I wrote one for my history major and my art history minor) I wrote on art historical subjects. One essay was on 15th century Florentine architecture; the other compared the impact of different sources of patronage (e.g., Italian popes, Spanish monarchs, Flemish churches, Dutch merchants) on the styles and subject matter found in works painted or sculpted by major 17th century Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish artists.
I took night school classes in Italian, since Mills College didn’t offer that language, to enrich my art historical studies. When I went to Italy with my mother two months after graduation, all my art historical research and Italian language studies were still fresh in my head, and I was aching to see all the pieces whose photographic representations I’d spent four years swooning over. I had been to Italy on multi-country package tours of Europe in my teens, but this time we were focusing on one country alone and spending days on end in magical cities where we had enough time to seek out the tinier churches that tours usually missed. We were women on a mission.
My mother was as crazy for 16th and 17th century art and architecture as I, and as determined to cram as many masterpieces into our free days as I was. On one swelteringly humid July day in Rome, she and I visited so many churches we lost count. We crisscrossed the city on swollen legs and blistered feet, determined to get one more painting in, view one more astonishing Bernini sculpture, admire another set of volutes or one more baldachin or another monument or reliquary or crumbling edifice. At last, dehydrated and aching, we dragged ourselves into Santa Maria del Popolo in search of a painting neither of us wanted to leave Rome without seeing: Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus.
We hobbled all around the church looking for the chapel we sought, so overwhelmed by pain and fatigue that we had to poke each other to make sure we admired and appreciated the other masterworks all around us. Then we walked around a corner and into the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo only to find St. Paul lying on the road to Damascus before us. The painting was darkened by time, covered in dust and obscured around the edges by layers of cobwebs. With one of the greatest paintings anyone will ever paint before us, enormous, filthy and exquisite, we simultaneously burst into tears and hugged each other in relief and delight. This painting alone was worth every blister, every step, every night of study, every set of endless marble steps we had climbed throughout the city for six long, hot days.
Finding my way to this painting distilled all I love about art into one perfect moment, just as Caravaggio distilled all that was important about Paul’s conversion into one perfect image. For Caravaggio, the moments of most pathos and meaning come when holy figures are brought down to their most elemental humanity and humility. He humbles Christ, the Virgin Mary (whom he painted as bare- and dirty-footed and swollen in death) and St. Paul in his paintings to bring their essential humanity closer to us, so we see that as we are now, so once were they. Unlike someone like Rubens, who elevates powerful human beings to lofty heights, Caravaggio brings holy personages down to the human level so we can empathize with them and love them in a more completely human and heartfelt way.
As painted by Caravaggio, Saul becomes Paul while lying in the dirty, dark road, nearly trampled by his oblivious horse. He is literally knocked off his high horse and blinded so he can be humbled enough that his soul might be exalted in times to come. My experience in making my way to the piece was similar on a small but meaningful scale; my little pilgrimage exhausted and humbled me so that in the midst of all the glories around me after days of being bombarded by the endless masterworks of Rome, I could still be touched profoundly by one old, dusty and perfect painting.
Other works of art have moved me to tears, but I think no first moment with any work of art can surpass the joy I felt in the perfection and purity of that moment with that work of art. Unlike Stendahl in the Uffizi Gallery, I did not need to fall to the floor with arms outstretched in my ecstatic moment. Paul did that for me in his eternal ecstatic moment on the wall of a dark Roman chapel.
[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]
Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.
Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.
As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.
The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.
Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)
To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.
The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.
Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.
If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.
During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.
While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.
When I was a teen, I used to read Shakespeare plays aloud with my mother, a high school English teacher, for fun during summer vacations. Mom and I tended toward the tragedies, but when my own daughter and I read Shakespeare’s plays during her high school summer vacations, we read most of his comedies together. We’d take two different well-footnoted editions of his works and our dog with us on a walk to the park. There the three of us would sit in the sunshine while Lily and I read through an act or two of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Lily and I usually only got through one act a day because as we read, we compared the footnotes in each edition to better understand the allusions and puns and to get pronunciation suggestions along the way. Together we delighted in just how funny Shakespeare’s plays really are—how bawdy, how full of puns and mischief and made-up words his plays are! Lily had a knack for understanding Shakespeare, but we both benefited greatly from reading the footnotes so we could catch the jokes and puns and historical background that we otherwise would have missed. Pronunciation and word meanings have changed so much over 400 years that even Anglophiles and literature fans can miss a great deal of Shakespeare’s naughty wit without a bit of context.
This fascinating little video featuring English linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, gives examples of how Shakespeare’s plays sounded when spoken during the playwright’s own lifetime, and explains some of the jokes that modern audiences miss. Give it a listen.
Photo by Matthieu Spohn for New York Magazine: Science of Us
New York Magazine’s Science of Us website, which features articles related to human behavior, shared this article by Jesse Singal debunking what has been a creeping assumption among media outlets, college counselors and other alarmists that Millennials are fragile, anxious and unfit for the “real world,” and have been coddled and weakened by our overweening, infantilizing society.
Cultural critics posit that today’s college-aged young adults are becoming more stressed, anxious, depressed and generally emotionally frail than ever before, and they say that colleges and society in general are babying them and causing increased neuroticism. This long, extremely detailed and well-researched article points to evidence that those who believe that today’s youth are going to Hell in a handbasket rely too much on their own confirmation bias; undervalue the importance of huge socioeconomic changes over the past decade (including a deep and damaging recession); and, most importantly, ignore actual metrics and provable data that show their negative assumptions about Millennials to be overblown at best and highly inaccurate at worst.
Those who deride Millennials often extrapolate from small samples while ignoring actual, repeatable results from larger longitudinal studies at colleges across the nation. I highly recommend this article for a more factually based and nuanced perspective.
The Boston Globe’s satirical front page warning of life under a Trump presidency, published in their opinion section on April Fool’s Day
This morning the Boston Globe shared a brilliant piece of satire in their opinion section: a mock-up of what their paper would be like one year from today if Donald Trump were to win the presidency. Predictably, social media is blowing up with explosions of outrage from people who don’t know the particulars or the place of opinion pieces in journalism and have no awareness of the importance and history of satire in affecting political change. They say they are appalled and offended and that the Boston Globe has lost all credibility. Let us pause to consider some important truths.
The mocked-up pages of the newspaper did not take over the front of the newspaper. Those who go to the Boston Globe will find the satire in the opinion section, the same section in which other political positions are taken every single day in thousands of newspapers and news sites across the nation and around the world in the form of editorials, op-ed pieces and political cartoons.
For those who cry “Outrage!” that the Globe would stoop so low as to share a political opinion in the form of satire, I ask them: does your favorite news source publish opinion pieces? Have you never seen a political cartoon? Do you not read infographics which selectively choose which facts to highlight every day? These tools have been used to sway popular opinion and have been integral pieces of journalism for hundreds of years. Newspapers and journals have always taken stands; very few of them do not endorse candidates for president. The best of them present their opinion pieces in the clearly labeled opinion section; they do their best to report the facts with little adornment throughout the rest of the paper and then put the opinions of their editorial board and columnists in a section expressly labeled as a place where people take sides and try to persuade. The Boston Globe did exactly this with their publication of their “Donald Trump’s world” satire.
Confused and misinformed modern readers often erroneously believe that it is the job of the media to be completely without bias at all times. Ironically, this idea is most often promulgated by followers of extreme-right news media whose every pronouncement has conservative political overtones. There is not a middle ground to every question, and the correct journalistic response to opposing views is often to refuse to sit squarely in the middle and pretend that there is no right or wrong answer when facts point clearly to one side over the other. In many situations, there is a clear and fundamental truth at stake, and not just a matter of opinion. Vaccines do not cause autism, for example, and sweeping worldwide climate change is real. Reporting on such issues as if they were controversial and unanswerable questions would be to mislead readers into thinking that established facts are mere opinions.
When trained journalists turn their well-informed and often cynical eyes on a world full of opposing opinions, murky details and obvious facts, it is their job to not only gather and separate facts from misstatements but also to ask questions about where those facts will lead us. It is their job to think of the likely consequences of a world in which each of the presidential candidates went on to be elected and then ran their administration according to their stated beliefs. Usually they do this in words or cartoons. In a world in which newspapers are quickly dying for lack of readership and most people gather the bulk of their news from online sources, the most effective way to get attention for their opinions is now to take chunks of information and spread them via Facebook or Twitter or Instagram alongside punchy visuals.
Another page from the Boston Globe satire
By creating a stunning visual parody mini-newspaper as a warning of what could come, the Boston Globe knew that they would be able to get attention for their opinions and get people to consider consequences in a more visual, visceral and immediate fashion. They knew that they were taking an editorial risk, but that their message would be carried and discussed by thousands of news outlets and social media platforms around the world. They decided to present an editorial in visual form to get attention, yes, but they buttressed their opinions with facts, quotes and context in the way of a warning. This is their Orwellian admonishment to those who will not bother to read newspapers or consider facts anymore.
The job of any editorial board is to get attention and sway opinion by asking people to consider the consequences of their choices. Those who raise the alarm that the Boston Globe has now shown itself willing to trick people with fake news are the same people who haven’t bothered to actually look at the well-produced parody itself, nor to consider that they get much of their own information from avowedly conservative sources with axes to grind who are more than willing to publish opinion and pretend that it is fact.
As has happened throughout history, a large proportion of the population is bored by and tired of politics and won’t read the facts about the candidates’ actual stances on substantive issues. The average citizen of the U.S. only thinks of the candidates in broad, cartoonish terms without thinking through what the consequences of our electoral choices may be. People justify their political agnosticism and ennui by saying that all candidates are equally corrupt and evil and all of them will lead to the same bad outcomes, so their votes are meaningless and futile. This is demonstrably false.
Being a good citizen requires mental effort and a willingness to expend some time and expose one’s opinions to rigor. Lives and livelihoods depend on it. Rights are won and lost over such things. People starve or go without medicine or surgery because of politics. Wars begin and end, countries are invaded and people go to jail or are freed or executed based on the choices we make at the polls. The stakes are so incredibly high that those who spend their lives following politics obsessively and who report on these issues feel they have a duty to use every tool they have in order to get us to sit up and take notice when it’s time for us to make life-changing, world-altering decisions. The Boston Globe has done this using pointed and potent (and clearly labeled) satire. I applaud them for it.
“I start with no new vows or resolutions but with a fervent hope that I may be diligent, truthful and able to resist temptation in whatever form and to have the courage and the will to live up to my ideal of a true life.” — Painter Jervis McEntee’s diary entry from January 1, 1883
Jervis McEntee was a member of the Hudson River School of American painters, a mid-19th century art movement known for romantic, poetic landscape paintings. McEntee’s works frequently feature autumnal subject matter and an earth-toned palette, which lends his work a melancholic air. “Some people call my landscapes gloomy and disagreeable,” McEntee wrote in his journal. “They say that I paint the sorrowful side of Nature, that I am attracted by the shadows more than by the sunshine. But this is a mistake. I would not reproduce a late November scene if it saddened me or seemed sad to me. In that season of the year Nature is not sad to me, but quiet, pensive, restful. She is not dying, but resting.”
While McEntee never had the success of some of the better-known members of the group, such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, he was a close friend and traveling companion to major Hudson River School artists. Though best known for his quiet and solitary paintings, McEntee socialized regularly with other artists. He and his wife Gertrude, a singer, welcomed many painters, writers and performers into their home. Together they encouraged the arts in America much as French salonnières of the 17th and 18th century had done.
Upon McEntee’s death, his mentor Frederic Church wrote to the painter’s sister, saying, “You have lost a brother and I a lifelong friend—a man pure, upright and as modest as he was gifted.” McEntee kept detailed diaries describing his interactions with artists, his travels, exhibitions and prices of paintings sold at them and his chronic economic woes. While I find his paintings evocative and moving, he is today best appreciated for his diaries, which are kept in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. They give rich and fascinating insights into the lives of 19th-century American artists.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the following statement during a campaign speech in November 1940, just over a year before the U.S. entered World War II:
“We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions—bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality. Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities. Whoever seeks to set one race against another seeks to enslave all races. Whoever seeks to set one religion against another, seeks to destroy all religion. “
This is a noble statement, but the president himself made the grave error of rounding up all people of Japanese descent and imprisoning them in internment camps during World War II on the baseless assumption that they would be less patriotic, loyal or law-abiding than people of other ancestries. He was wrong. Not one single Japanese-American was determined to have committed a treasonous act anywhere in the United States before, during or after World War II. Not one.
Indeed, many of those same Japanese-Americans fought nobly for the U.S. and Allied Forces during World War II, even as their families were imprisoned at home. FDR’s words quoted here are right and beautiful, but even he was blinded by fear. He had said at the outset of his presidency that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, and fear is certainly the source of hatred for people and ideas other than our own. Fear makes us turn inward, and that allows us to remain ignorant, to refuse to empathize, ask questions or try to figure out how it feels to be one of those people who frighten us.
Fear keeps us from facing the humanity of our enemies, and makes us see enemies among our friends. It makes American governors look at orphaned Syrian toddlers and see danger; it makes Trump rally audiences look at a single African-American man who asks to be treated as if black lives matter, and then beat him to a pulp because he peacefully but loudly speaks up about bigotry in public. It is only by seeing others as human first that we can figure out how to talk to and deal with them honestly, honorably and peacefully.
When Albert Einstein came to the U.S. to escape persecution by the Nazis, prominent Americans like Charles Lindbergh were warning the nation of the dangers of letting outsiders into the country. He and many popular politicians, religious leaders and businessmen (like Henry Ford) got on the radio, lobbied politicians, published antisemitic books and pamphlets and joined with white supremacist organizations to spread fear and hatred toward Jews. Many said that Jews were communist agitators without morals who would infiltrate the American way of life, degrade American culture and destroy Christian values. So this supposedly Christian nation turned away Jewish refugees out of irrational fear based on a lack of understanding of others’ religious and cultural beliefs. And it’s happening again. One state government after another is shutting its doors to Syrian refugees, describing them as dangerous jihadists and assuming that Muslims are all wild desert people without morals. ISIS/ISIL/Daesh wants a religious war, and we’re playing right into their hands. Don’t let us harden our hearts against refugees based on irrational fear. Don’t let the terrorists win.