Sunday, November 29, 2015

The World Is Wide Enough: the message of "Hamilton" is more relevant than ever

The past few weeks, I have been living in the 18th-century with my non-stop listening to "Hamilton": a new musical by Lin Manuel-Miranda that retells the life of Alexander Hamilton (the first Secretary of the Treasury) with a delightful assortment of rap, hip hop and jazz. Probably one of the most poignant lines comes from Aaron Burr, Hamilton's bitterest enemy due to decades of ranking jealousy, misunderstandings, and vehement political differences. Yet after shooting Hamilton in America's most notorious duel, he mournfully sings:

I was too young and blind to see
I should’ve known
I should’ve known
The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.

The phrase "the world was wide enough" speaks to me on multiple levels. On the obvious note, it rings back to the show's juxtaposition of Hamilton as an impoverished immigrant from the Caribbean who "got a lot farther/By being a self-starter," with Burr's privileged American roots (his father was president of Princeton). When Hamilton and Lafayette proudly rap, "Immigrants! We get the job done," the play is a not-so-subtle reminder of America's indebtedness to foreigners like them. So, as our nation's leaders debate whether to accept Syrians and Muslims into our country, the play's tribute to an indigent, parentless refugee who founded our nation's economic systems is nothing short of powerful. America should be wide enough for the firmly established American Burrs and the Hamiltons desperately seeking a better life in this nation.

But as Aaron Burr laments his former feelings of acrimony towards Hamilton, this phrase also speaks of making room for people--not removing them. It calls us all to recognize that our world's beauty and complexity is rooted in differing--even opposing--opinions. And while we may no longer formally duel our opponents, I do worry that we are taking an increasingly Burr-like approach to ousting or shunning those with whom we disagree. Our love of man seems to be waxing cold.

My concern is largely rooted in the burgeoning student protest culture that focuses on dismissing those who may present challenges to their worldview of diversity. I certainly believe in inclusivity; I loathe racism and prejudice as anyone else. But something is wrong about a mildly-written email about Halloween costumes that warrants a student to scream and curse at their administrator. Something is awry with student activists (and a professor!) imtimidating a student journalist from entering a protest on public space.Whatever happened holding discussions with leaders? Writing op-eds? What lesson does it teach these students when they can simply oust others for having a differing perspective, rather than learning to calmly discuss and work with others toward a solution? While I hope that our nation becomes safer for traditionally marginalized groups, I simultaneously worry just how far my generation will go to maintain their views of "political correctness," which seems to justify sanctimonious bullying.

Indeed, recent student protests only seem to reinforce the Atlantic's landmark article, "The Coddling of the American Mind," arguing how teachers are reluctant to present the less popular point of view--for fear of causing offense. On a similar note, Arthur Brooks cogently argues that academia is increasingly biased against conservatives in his piece, "Academia's Rejection of Diversity," and calls for more ideological diversity. It is a painful irony that our educational system, rather than widening our world, may actually be narrowing it.  

We can all work to make our world a little wider. One can only hope that we don't end up like Burr and realize this lesson too late.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Making sense of political extremism: my view of "Suffragette" as a 21st century woman

Until last night, I had always envisioned the suffragette movement as organized marches, conventions, and disseminating numerous pamphlets. However, after watching "Suffragette" Friday night, I was introduced to a more violent stream of events than I had ever dreamed possible. After decades of peaceful campaigning for the woman's vote,  these British suffragettes resort to property damage on a grand scale: cutting telephone lines, shattering business windows, destroying mailboxes, and even blowing up a residence--nearly killing a housekeeper. Apparently, even Winston Churchill's face was slashed by a fuming suffragette. Indeed, these women had declared war on the government and the men who ruled them.

Were these women justified in their actions? As a woman who has all of the rights that they fought for, am I supposed to show some respect for the crimes that they committed? And if so, were the Ferguson and Baltimore riots justified? What about the Palestinian suicide bombers? In short, is there ever a political cause that authorizes the perceived disenfranchised to conduct property damage and even injure others in the process of making their cause go forward? Where, if at all, do we draw the boundaries?

As one averse to political extremism, I had a hard time watching this film. That being said, perhaps it is unwise for me to judge these women from my position of privilege and 20-20 hindsight. These women lived in a very different world with little to lose: they earned one-third less than their male counterparts, had less access to education, and enjoyed no rights to their property or even their children.

But perhaps the most disconcerting experience of watching the film was a realization that in some ways, our society is not that different from a century ago. The main character, Maud Watts, explains to a policeman that violence is "the only language men could understand." And today, commentators on the Ferguson and Baltimore riots explained that these riots and looting are "a language of the unheard." Indeed, extremist acts are still perceived as the only way to express frustration with the status quo. But rather than immediately placing blame on the disenfranchised, what does it say about our nation and media that will only turn its head when violence and rioting occurs? Would MLK or Gandhi's tactics be as effectual in influencing policymakers today? While I would like to say yes, I can't be sure. 

Though I am glad this film portrayed a more holistic view of woman's suffrage, I'm not entirely sure how to interpret these women's legacy. But, in a world like ours with groups that have been--and remain disenfranchised--I think this film reminds all of us to show a little more compassion to those who are overlooked. And if there is any semblance of injustice, people in positions of power have the responsibility to ensure that grievances are met and restitution is made.

Photo by Leonard Bentley.