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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Now More Than Ever: Meryl Streep, Donald Trump, and Politics in Art

            This past Sunday, during the annual Golden Globes, Meryl Streep got up to accept a lifetime achievement award, and used the occasion to deliver a (by Hollywood standards) strong rebuke to President-elect Donald Trump, and the darker parts of human nature his rise represents. 

            Donald Trump, surprise surprise, was not a fan, and immediately tweeted out his anger (throwing in a few more pathetically transparent lies for good measure), and many of his supporters did not hesitate to proclaim Streep’s words as “the reason Trump won.”  That the reactionary conservatives would respond in this manner should shock no one.  But it was- well, if not surprising, certainly disheartening- to see some progressives criticizing Streep as well, saying something similar to what Meryl’s fellow Hollywooder Mark Wahlberg said just over a month ago- that celebrities should just shut up about politics, that a goofy awards ceremony for overblown Oscar bait isn’t the place for it, that people just don’t want to hear it anymore, and that any effort on the part of a celebrity figure to do otherwise merely reinforces the terrible liberal bubble we coastal folks are apparently perpetually consigned to. 

            And those reactions, right there, are precisely why Meryl Streep’s speech wasn’t just important, but necessary. 

            Meryl prefaced her remarks by listing just a few of the very wide backgrounds of people sitting in that room.  Yes, they are certainly an elite and privileged group living in a particular area, but they are drawn from all over the world, and the hodge-podge of perspectives that form each of them is crucial to the creation of great art, which is, in turn, essential for the well-being of the human soul. 

            Yes, we all have our bubbles.  Everyone lives in a bubble, because everyone has limits, biases, flaws in their perception of reality.  But not all bubbles are created equal.  Some bubbles are bigger than others, some more porous and open.  The idea that some bubbles, or fields, like the arts, should automatically be politics-free zones is absurd, because that’s simply not the reality we live in.  Politics is everywhere, and everything, because it reflects all of the society that it comes from, warts and all.  It was always everywhere. 

            This is the part where I would be expected to write something like, “but before Trump, it was harmless to pretend otherwise, and now that’s all changed,” or something of that nature.  But that would be a lie.  Because our collective acceptance to simply ignore some things, and assume politics occupies some mystical realm separated from the rest of daily life, was never harmless.  It is passive acceptance of “things as they are” that has always allowed the greatest evil, and the greatest discrimination, to flourish, thrive, and grow.  But while that would have continued to be true whether or not Donald Trump had won the Presidential election, his rise will certainly make it worse.  The potential for harm-through-apathy, already present throughout human history, is about to increase to particularly acute levels, and the last thing we can afford in times like these is silence. 

            Meryl Streep’s words were crucial and important and needed not in spite of the fact that she said them during a gilded awards ceremony dedicated to film and television, but precisely because that’s where she said them.  It was necessary in the same way that Beyonce’s daring, powerful, and jaw-droppingly awesome Super Bowl halftime show, replete with lyrics explicitly about female (especially black female) empowerment and a dancing troupe marching onto the field in an ‘X’ formation wearing Black Panther garb was necessary- not in spite of the fact that it was the friggin’ Super Bowl, but because IT WAS THE FRIGGIN’ SUPER BOWL, meaning a lot of complacent people were guaranteed to be watching. 

            It is at the moments when we most desire to sink into passive complacency, when we are most relaxed, or most distracted by whether that forward tackle will get his act together or whether Sarah Jessica Parker has the tackiest dress of the night, that we most fervently need something to shake us from our reverie, to shock us, wake us up, and remind us that, yes, there is still a great amount of injustice in the world, and it must be fought, tooth, nail, and claw. 

            Meryl spoke of the importance of the free press in holding power accountable, just days before our President-elect literally shouted down a journalist from an accredited news outlet, refusing to take a question because he just didn’t like them.  If that doesn’t demonstrate how essential her speech was, I truly don’t know what to say to you. 

            It was also a call to empathy, at a time when the harshest, meanest, and cruelest instincts in human nature are being empowered and unleashed in ways we have been unable, so far, to check, simply because we never thought we would have to.  Watch the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, and see how wholly unable he and Lindsay Graham are unable to empathize with those who would label many of their actions and stances racist, to get a feel for why something that should be so apparent must be stated and reaffirmed time and again. 

            If a single viewer that night was moved enough by Meryl’s words to act, to get up and MOVE, to march, run for office, buy a newspaper subscription, and work in some fashion to make the work a more empathetic place, then her taking the time and vocal strength to say what she did was more than worth it.  Politics and the arts have never, ever been separate in our world, and they never will be. 

            Because art can inspire and ignite many of our best angels, and can be a catalyst for change unlike little else, now more than ever we need our art and our artists to use their tools, talents, and positions, no matter how low or high, to raise up the best of us and aid us in the battles to come.  Now, more than ever, we cannot afford silence, and cannot risk complacency. 

-Noah Franc 

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