Tag Archives: cultural criticism

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“They Came from Another America”

She was stunned that the news that came to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel produced little more than a shrug from other vacationers.

Since it was formed, citizens of the United States have demonstrated that they have diverging ideas about the true animating force of their nation. Is it enough to have a shared interest in maximizing personal freedom?  What does it mean when others are indifferent to a national tragedy?

Full citizenship and its protections were withheld from many over most of our history. But even with more enfranchised, it is apparent that a nation that spans a continent contains many differing values that can eclipse shared beliefs. Members of the European Union occupy another wide continental swath with some of the same challenges. Danes and Poles have cultural characteristics that are at least as wide as those separating native Texans from lifelong New Yorkers. Can citizens in so big an expanse still feel like that are part of the same tribe?

A picture of a culture that is more frayed quilt than a tightly-woven blanket came to mind in reading a revealing piece of literary detective work. It described the little-discussed dive into despair of the writer Joan Didion, a trenchant chronicler of American life. She was a leading American cultural critic who had the rare capacity to offer highly readable accounts of destructive forces swirling just beneath the surface calm of the American experience. Didion knew how to use a literary wide-angle lens to capture the national mood, noticing convulsions that others missed. Because she thought in terms of events laid out in oppositional narratives, she shed insight into alternate perceptions that others missed.

As Timothy Denevi notes in a recent piece in the New York Times, Didion and husband John were vacationing in Hawaii in 1968 and about to head into a sudden existential storm. In this unlikely place her natural California cool gave way to real symptoms of physical illness.

The Trigger

The specific event was June 4, the day Robert F. Kennedy was mortally wounded while leaving Los Angeles campaign appearance. She was stunned that the news penetrating the bubble of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel drew little more than a shrug from other vacationers. How could other Americans not recognize the loss of so temperate a voice while facing the morass of the Vietnam War?

Kennedy was very much a part of her stormy America she chronicled in collections of essays like The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and After Henry. Many saw him as an idealist that might pull the U.S. back from some of the national convulsions in the same year.  Martin Luther King has been shot to death in April. Thousands of American servicemen were dying at a rate of 2800 a month in Vietnam. And the once outsized President Lyndon Johnson had slowly shrunk behind a vail of sullenness. He said he would leave after just one term. The “battle of Chicago” between protesters and the army at the Democratic National Convention was still to come a few months later.

It was during a performance in the hotel by singer Don Ho that Didion’s experienced a full realization of nation that had torn loose of its anchors. The singer had just stopped in mid-performance to pass on the breaking news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, pausing to offer a spontaneous prayer he sung to mark the moment. But others in the room were apparently having none of it, shouting to the singer to “quit the hymns” and jeering his response to the shock.  They still wanted the faux Hawaiian spectacle they had paid to see. The experience made her ill. In the aftermath she could not keep food down. But she still had the crystalline insight of a nation at war with itself.

No matter what your political feelings are, if you’re attached to the idea of the nation as a community—if you feel yourself to be part of that community—then obviously something has happened to that community. . . .  It seemed as if these people did not count themselves as part of the community.  They came from another America.”

A Warning of Things to Come

We are left to see an obvious pattern. This moment resonates because Didion’s sense of dislocation seems to have become a continuous sensation for many us. Like the shocking loss of a genuine American idealist, the daily conduct of many political figures today asks us to keep reliving the eminent dismemberment of the tribe. We must now experience the feeling that many within the culture occupy “another America:” less tied to the customs and norms that had defined the nation.

Didion died just weeks before the failed January 6 coup in the aftermath of the 2020 election. But in 1968 she already had the insight that the United States would not find its way back to the sturdy narratives Americans used to share.  Even then it was clear that a kind of national self-sabotage was becoming the new normal.

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Notes on Viewing Art from Another Era

                   Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

I see the question of how we treat the moral and ethical shortcomings of earlier art as partly understandable in terms of the intentions of the original artists.

When looking at the past, it is easy to react with shock at what we see as huge moral lapses on display in older cultural products. No one today can look at a filmed scene with a character in blackface without a cringe and a sense of regret. Portrayals of race in public art and media are always an interesting case.

Even while the very different film To Kill a Mockingbird was considered a breakthrough account of justice denied to African Americans (book 1960, film, 1962), a modern view is that it’s still a “white narrative,” with a focus on Atticus Finch as the redeeming moral agent. The cultural rot that denied African Americans the right to live as equals was mostly overlooked in the story. We surely needed Mockingbird. Atticus is a wonderful character; his behavior enacts a form of empathy that is timeless. But we must turn to other sources to understand how depression-era Alabama was often a prison for its black residents.

And then there are the antique forms of racism intentionally or accidently on display in other films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) or the older Gone With the Wind.  It’s interesting that HBO will only show Victor Fleming’s 1940 multi-Academy award winner with the understated disclaimer that “it denies the horrors of slavery.” But that warning is hardly sufficient to prepare us for what is now a completely sentimental and tone-deaf narrative about the southern insurrection. In fact, live long enough, and it’s hard to find a film or novel that does not offer plots and characters that were once admired, but now labeled as racist or sexist.

On a parallel track, some younger academics and musicologists are throwing in the towel on the great canon of western classical music, unable to comfortably explore the works of Brahms or Haydn–among many others–who indirectly benefited from eighteenth and nineteenth century patrons who counted humans as their property. Does our interest in exploitative and unjust social structures require that we abandon the artistic products made possible by these benefactors?

                    Paul Robeson as Joe in Showboat

I see the question of how we treat the moral and ethical shortcomings of older art as partly understandable in terms of estimations of the intentions of the original artists. This is soft ground to be sure, since knowing the motivations of others is fraught with misperceptions. But if the answers are difficult to find, the questions are always worth asking. Did an artist seek to harm or exploit their subjects? Were characters created in ways to devalue their social identities? Were whole groups written off as less worthy of our understanding? As noted, it can be hard to know. But it is easier to feel better about the music of an old epic like Showboat (1936), knowing that Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics enact his deep respect for diverse cultural pathways. One of the best moments in the work is given to Joe, an African American deck hand who sings about the misery of his limited life. “Old Man River” can be heard as a lament of racial injustice: a theme that is also carried out in a plot line that challenges the absurdities of old miscegenation laws.

By contrast, the character of Mammie in the screen epic, Gone With the Wind, is more one dimensional.  She is an African American house slave with opinions that are freely given, but her character is not fleshed out in ways that are fully dimensional. The key film process that asks us align ourselves with one or two characters is loaded in favor of the privileged Scarlett, played by Vivien Leigh. For the record, The Ambassador Hotel where the ceremony was held required her to sit at a separate table away from others in the cast, suggesting something less than benign intentions from her Hollywood peers. More and more, the film has become watchable only as a dead specimen about the ostensible inconveniences faced by white folks at the end of the civil war.

Our tendency in the current climate of identity politics is to dismiss the earlier work of others if we detect personal slights that extend to a whole class of individuals. This rejection is not necessarily a bad impulse, but it is also an intellectual sleight of hand that matches the racist logic we abhor in others.  Any time that one is meant to stand for all we are on even softer ground. These kinds of synecdoches distort the actual world and obviously ignore individual differences.

But on a broader scale we still can note is that those living in previous eras are indeed captives to the norms and horizons of the culture they were in. It seems obvious that we must permit creators of art to exist within the parameters of the only world they knew. We too easily exempt ourselves from this limitation, preferring the alternate fiction that we are free agents not captive to the low horizons of our own tribe. In due course our heirs will correct this misimpression; some of what we take for granted will surely be rebuked by future generations.

In the meantime, thorny issues remain. Do we let Thomas Jefferson off the hook for not releasing all of his slaves, even on his deathbed?  His behavior was not necessarily a violation of the norms of the landed class at the time, but I can’t ignore this ethical lapse. It is clear from his partial creation of the Declaration of Independence that his horizons extended high enough to see the atrocity of owning others. He gave voice to values of equality and freedom; he only needed to enact them in his own behavior. Fully honorable intentions should have allowed him to leave this world not with a final business decision, but on a note of grace.