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Monday, July 11, 2016

Hamilton As Liberal Comfort Food and Guilty Pleasure

I was not at all surprised to discover that Lin Manuel Miranda is a West Wing superfan, and that he left the stage for his final performance to the strains of The West Wing theme. I will admit that the musical "Hamilton" exists for me in something like the same place where I put The West Wing, Herman Wouk's WWII novels/miniserialization, Richard Rorty's political thinking, Rachel Maddow, and Glee Season 1 in my brain: liberal comfort food/guilty pleasures.

If it seems scandalous to declare "Hamilton" a guilty pleasure in this moment of rapturous universal affirmation, let me preface this by insisting on the word "pleasure" there: I bought and memorized the soundtrack the day it became available, I'm a Broadway musical queen as you know, and I think it brilliant and invigorating and moving and memorable, okay? I'll just say that the "educational" plot involves no small amount of retroactive liberal romanticization and occasional mawkish sentimentality when it comes to it and that quite a lot of the music is pretty conventional once you get past the more famous hip-hop set pieces ("The Wiz" and "Assassins" already happened, you know) -- many of which are truly great, but Miranda is not Sondheim (yet), you know what I'm saying?

Look, I love The West Wing -- I have the whole run of the show on DVD in the collector's briefcase edition with the Seal, I watch the whole run every couple of years and watch a season or two's worth at least once a year, I am lapping up "The West Wing Weekly" podcast with fanboy joyjoy, there are episodes of the show that still make me cry and make me laugh out loud and inspire me after the bazillionth viewing... but the show is also a Big Block of Sexist Cheese with stinky blue sexist veins I must fast forward through in an incandescent rage every time, there are moments in which the smug patriarchal assumptions are so flabbergastingly bad I truly find myself thinking the show literally unwatchably bad even though I love it and will watch it and draw spiritual fuel from it anyway.

The racism in "The Winds of War" miniseries makes me feel much the same thing -- and yet I have been re-watching that miniseries over and over and over since it first aired. Part of my personal "Stay Wouk" thing is no doubt due to the fact that in high school I had an intense and terrible identification with the Byron Natalie love story in Winds (first miniseries, but then the novel in which it is spelled out that Byron loves Natalie because she is brilliant but also fucked up and he combines lazyness, intellectualism, and horniness in a bundle that, incredibly enough, Wouk defines as Byron's "virility"!), through which I created of course all sorts of romantic idealizations and analogues that seemed to me applicable -- assuming I am Natalie, of course -- and even plausible as a resource for my future self as an adventurer in love, and given that my other preferred resources were more or less Spock and the witty quarreling couples in Noel Coward comedies this probably wasn't my worst intuition. But another part of it my guilty pleasure is from the highly problematic but I will admit still bracing fueling of an earnest streak of progressive patriotism involving public service in a country uniquely invested with the power and resources to do unprecedented good or evil in the world and the responsibilities this imposes on its citizens of good sense and good will. This is a patriotism that is neither reducible to nor extricable from the virtue of the vicious, the patriotism that is a smug celebration of incumbency by its beneficiaries, but it is also patriotism as the heartbreakingly compromised, infinitely demanding, catastrophically error-prone work of struggle for sustainable equity-in-diversity in the face of all that waste, fear, parochialism, inequity, and inertial incumbency.

Infuriating though he is, Richard Rorty, another deep and formative influence for me, is much the same. I owe so many of my turns of thought and expression to his sardonic and sensible seeming essays! He provided a bridge between Wilde and Arendt for me in a strange sort of way, but for the purposes of this odd little post he was speaking very much the same language Herman Wouk's and Aaron Sorkin's public-spirited actors with all their earnestness and thoughtfulness and awfulness. I never wanted to be them, I always felt I would be excluded from being them even if I wanted to be, but I did want to be something like my own version of them.

If these are all works I have rarely mentioned here on the blog, that is because I tend to talk about my true guilty pleasures (Xanadu, Entertainment Weekly's Big Brother episode re-caps) or my true comfort food (Star Trek, Judith Butler, Gary Indiana), rather than works like these that straddle those categories and trigger my uncomfortable and ambivalent and worried patriotic streak.

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