Patriotism à la Sondheim

April 29, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As many people have noted (including me here), one of the things that Stephen Sondheim brought to Broadways was ambivalence. It pervaded several of the songs in Sondheim 90th birthday tribute Monday night.  Some songs declare their ambivalence right off the bat (“I’ve got those God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later Blues.”) or in their titles (“Marry Me a Little”).  But ambivalence is a subtext in “Send in the Clowns” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” 
Baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell*, for his part in the tribute, chose “Flag Song.”  It's a patriotic song, written for a parade. It was going to be the opening for “Assassins” (“An imaginary parade with a crowd of bystanders watching, some of whom turn out to be assassins we get to know later,” says Sondheim)  but it was cut from the show.

Even in a song of patriotism, Sondheim gives us ambivalence.

You can gripe
All you like,
You can sneer,
“Where are the heroes?”
You can shout about
How everything’s a lie.
Then that flag goes by…

You can snipe
At the greed
At the need
To be a winner
At the hype
You keep hearing
From on high.

For a minute you’re aware
Of being proud.
And then suddenly you’re staring
At the crowd
And you’re thinking.
“They’re as different from me
As they possibly could be— “

Then that flag goes by,
And no matter how you sigh,
“It’s the bright blue sky.
It’s just Mom and apple pie.”
There’s this thing you can’t deny.
This idea.

George M. Cohan it ain’t.

To hear it, go here**  and push the slider to about 1:20. Mitchell introduces the song this way.

If somebody asked Steve Sondheim to write a patriotic song for our country right now with everything that is going on, I think this is the song that he would write. It’s pretty amazing that he already wrote it. Thirty years ago.

Here he his performing it at the Kennedy Center a year pre-Covid-19.

* Mitchell fell ill with Covid-19, recovered, and now regularly leans out his fifith-floor window — still on Broadway, but two miles north of the theater district — and, as people on the sidewalk below listen, booms out “The Impossible Dream.” (A video is here.)

**  After you hear “Flag Song,” push the slider to 1:58 to see “Ladies Who Lunch.” You’ve probably heard about this performance already if you’re at all interested in musical theater, but if not, don’t miss it.

The Worst: Agamemnon . . . and Maybe Some Other Leader

April 26, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I’m not stating parallels,” says Madeline Miller, who writes novels using characters from Greek myth, “but the ancients had a saying, ‘Nothing new under the sun.” She was being interviewed by Ezra Klein in his podcast. This comes at about the one hour mark.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript.

If I were to name the worst person in the Iliad, Agamemnon wins, hands down. And speaking of our current situation, the Iliad begins with a plague, because Agamemnon has taken as a war prize a daughter of a priest of Apollo. The priest of Apollo shows up to take his daughter back, and he offers Agamemnon fair ransom. When someone offers you fair ransom in the ancient world, you’re supposed to give back whatever the thing is.

Agamemnon not only does not give the girl back, he insults the priest and sends him away with harsh words and threats. So the priest of course — this is not very smart on Agamemnon’s part — goes to the god Apollo and says, “Punish the Greeks.”

So Apollo sends down a plague. For nine days, people die all across the Greek army. The fires burning the bodies are burning constantly.

And Agamemnon says nothing and does nothing. Even though everyone knows whose fault it is, he does nothing.

Finally, Achilles says, “OK, we’ve gotta get everybody together. If Agamemnon won’t act, I will act.” And he gets everybody together, and he asks the priests, “Hey priests, what do you think’s going on. Do you think someone offended a god?” And the priest says, “Yes, of course. It’s Agamemnon.”

And Agamemnon blows up at Achilles for embarrassing him even though it was completely his fault.

After Miller’s disclaimer that she’s not stating parallels, Ezra Klein adds, “Yes, there’s a Greek dimension to some of the national figures on the stage right now.” He and Miller are talking about him whose name, apparently, must not be spoken. A man who manages a plague poorly, thereby costing many lives; who refuses to acknowledge his error or do anything to correct it; and who lashes out angrily at those who do say clearly that he is at fault.

We all recognize Trump’s narcissism. And Agamemnon’s. But what about Achilles, who Madeline Miller seems quite fond of? He is the hero of her first novel, The Song of Achilles. In the interview she notes that Achilles, unlike the other fighters in the Trojan war, “is their voluntarily. Everyone else is bound by this oath . .  But he’s just there for the kleos, for the glory. . .  He’s given a choice: you can live a long and happy life, and no one will ever remember your name. Or you can die young and be famous forever.”

Miller finds Achilles’ choice “extremely compelling.” But it proceeds from the same narcissistic rewards that motivate Agamemnon and Trump – glory, reputation, and the defeat of enemies rather than the satisfactions that come from living with others.

The interview with Miller brought to mind sociologist Philip Slater’s book on ancient Greece, The Glory of Hera (1968)*. Slater draws a portrait of Greek males —  gods, leaders, and even less celebrated men — as mostly examples of what we would today call Narcissistic Personality Disorder. “Quarrelsome as friends, treacherous as neighbors, brutal as masters, faithless as servants, shallow as lovers.. . He [the narcissist] will feel that if he is not a great hero he is nothing, and pride and prestige become more important than love.” For Achilles, these were more important than life. “Nothing seemed to have meaning to the Greek unless it included the defeat of another.”

So much winning.


* Slater’s book received mixed reviews, especially in the provinces ruled by traditional classicists — what Slater called “the Un-Hellenic Activities Committee.” That was partly because of his Freudian take on Greek narcissism emphasizing mother-son relations. But listen to Madeline Miller talk about youthful Achilles, petulant and angry at Agamemnon. “He gets his mom to talk to Zeus so that the Trojans start winning and the Greeks all start dying.” Ezra Klein interrupts to point out that “the greatest warrior in Greek history gets mad and calls his mom.” Maybe Slater was on to something.

COVID-19 Politics — Zombies and Boundaries

April 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

For a long time now, I have thought that liberal-conservative differences often rest, at least in part, on feelings about boundaries. Conservatives, far more than liberals, are concerned with the certainty and sanctity of boundaries. Those on the right see these boundaries as constantly threatened and constantly in need of defense. As Scott Alexander put it seven years ago, “the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse tomorrow.”

Zombie-apocalypse thinking resides in the far right corner of what Alexander calls the  “thrive/survive theory of the political spectrum. Rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.”

It’s a robust idea. Thrive/survive explains those “moral foundations” at the core of Jonathan Haidt’s theory (purity, loyalty, hierarchy, etc.) as well as differences on less abstract things like guns, cops, wealth, science and intellectualism, the military, etc. (Alexander’s post is here at his Slate Star Codex blog. Like most of his blog posts, it runs long — about 3400 words — and is well worth reading.)

But now, seven years later, Alexander finds the left/right reactions to the coronavirus pandemic puzzling, especially because in the thrive/survive model, the zombie-apocalypse threat envisioned by rightists sounds very much like the coronavirus: “one of your long-term zombie apocalypses.” [Alexander’s italics]

Some people have brought up that my thrive vs. survive theory of the political spectrum does an unusually bad job predicting current events, especially the thing where Democrats mostly want to maintain lockdown and Republicans mostly want to take their chances. I don’t have much to say about this, but I acknowledge it’s true, and you should update your models accordingly

One way to update your model is to listen to what the rightists are saying. They are trumpeting something that outweighs survive/thrive, a principle that is consistent with other right-left differences – Freedom. It’s the old conflict  between individual freedom and collective benefit. As the woman who, in mid-March, brag-tweeted about going to a crowded fast food restaurant, “This is America. And I'll do what I want.” As for keeping unspecified others — i.e., the general public — safe, that’s not her job. If, as Conservative Margaret Thatcher said, “society” is a fiction, and there are only individuals and families, then you and your family are the only people you have an obligation to protect.

Still, we would expect the emphasis on individual freedom to shrivel when the zombies attack. When threat looms large, people shift their concern from the individual to the group. Individuals may even heroically sacrifice their own lives to save the group. Curiously, Alexander does not mention this reaction. He does note the emphasis on conformity, which is a corollary of group-centered values. So reactions to the coronavirus still seem contradictory. Those right-wing protestors on the steps of the state capitol should be calling for unity, for conformity to the commands of the governor. Instead, they are proclaiming their right to disobey the rules.

The boundaries-based update to the thrive/survive model adds one important consideration. It asks which side of the boundary the threat is coming from. For the right, all threats come from others — those who, even if they are within our geographical boundaries, are in some way outsiders. Go back a few years and it’s the Soviets and godless communism. More recently, it has been immigrants and Islamic terrorists, categories the America Firsters generalize to include all darker people and all Arabs and Muslims.

Some versions of the zombie apocalypse are perfectly congruent with the rightist vision. The threat really is external and comes from clearly identified others.
. . . a large number of zombies overwhelming social, law-enforcement, and military structures. Typically, only a few individuals or small bands of survivors are left of the living. [Wikipedia]
But other variants of the zombie scenario sound more like the coronavirus pandemic.
In some stories, victims of zombies may become zombies themselves if they are bitten by zombies or if a zombie-creating virus infects them; in others, everyone who dies, whatever the cause, becomes one of the undead. [Wikipedia]
The rightists are able to see only the first kind of threat. The attack is from the “Chinese virus,” which is an “invisible enemy.” It will be defeated by hardening our boundaries with the equivalent of walls and guns — travel bans that keep it out and medical cures that kill it.

What that right-wing view cannot comprehend is a virus that is being spread not by outsiders or evildoers but by people who are like us. Maybe even by people who are us. In that situation, the boundaries are unclear — boundaries between good guys and bad guys or even between those who are free of the virus and those who are carrying and spreading it. Also incompatible with the boundary-hardening view is a policy based not on medical-military action against the enemy but on a change in our own daily behavior.

Here are the Michigan protestors, the “small band of survivors,” all suited up for the external zombie apocalypse. They have identified the enemy; it’s the governor. They stand close together, only three or four of them wearing masks, all of them carrying guns. Michigan, as of this writing, has the sixth highest COVID-19 death rate in the country. These protestors may come from areas in the state with lower rates of infection, but if there’s one thing we have learned, it’s that rates of infection and death may be low now (“We had 12, at one point. And now they’ve gotten very much better. Many of them are fully recovered,” said Trump in late February), but those rates can rise rapidly, especially when people crowd together, even if they are carrying guns.

Is Trump’s “Invisible Enemy” Trope an Anti-Semitic Dog Whistle? Probably Not.

April 22, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is this anti-Semitic?

The Forward (formerly The Jewish Daily Forward and aka  פֿאָרווערטס) thinks it is.

There is no other way to say it; just like “America First,” the phrase “invisible enemy” has an ugly history that is now being revived and exploited at the kind of moment when such ugliness thrives—when everyone is scared for their lives and their basic survival.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” claims to describe how Jews invisibly control the world. It’s supposed to be the “proof” of this “invisible enemy” idea.
(The full article is here.)

The logic seems to be :
Anti-Semites have often claimed that Jews are an invisible enemy.
Trump says the coronavirus is an invisible enemy.
Therefore Trump is saying that the virus is like Jews. So the tweet is anti-Semitic.

The logic is obviously flawed. Yes, there is something typically Trumpian in thinking of the virus as the invisible enemy, but that something is not anti-Semitism.* It’s Trump’s need to see everything as a competition, a fight where there is a clear winner (Trump of course) and a clear loser. Where others might see the coronavirus as presenting a public health problem to be solved, Trump sees it as an “attack” by an “enemy.”

Unfortunately in this case, one of the most important methods of solving the problem — physical distancing to keep people from spreading the virus — doesn’t look like aggressive competition. Distancing is so different from the combative things a man can do to defeat an enemy and to win, things like bullying, mocking, or cheating.

The “invisible enemy” framework is also congruent with another facet of Trump’s thinking (at least as he expresses his thoughts publicly). For Trump, the world is divided into absolutes. Something is either the best ever or the worst ever. Similarly, a person is either a loyal ally or an enemy to be disposed of. Again, this view is incompatible with a distancing policy or public health policies in general, for they do not offer clean and immediate absolutes. Not only do the benefits of distancing lie somewhere in the future, but distancing also has immediate and obvious economic drawbacks. Distancing may save lives, but it does not offer the clear and unmitigated win that Trump needs.

* Some of the people who oppose distancing and other restrictions are blatantly anti-Semitic (see this story about Ohio.) But even if all anti-Semites oppose restrictions, that does not mean that all, or even a large proportion, of those who oppose restrictions are anti-Semites.