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Skip “Hamilton” and Read Gore Vidal’s “Burr”

I have been observing with mild apathy the gleeful reaction of late to Hamilton, a musical about the Founding Fathers that traffics in the typical white supremacist nonsense about the creation of the United States. Living outside Providence, I have seen Broadway musicals rolled out with regularity at our local theaters before hitting the road tours across the country, meaning this Hamilton buzz seems like one among many previous rodeos (though the Clinton fundraiser angle is out of the ordinary).

As an antidote to this propaganda, I highly recommend to readers the excellent 1973 historical fiction novel Burr by Gore Vidal. Kicking off his Narratives of Empire cycle, Vidal traced the history of our American imperial project back to the Founders and delivered a genius diagnosis in the form of a post-modern historical novel with wicked sense of humor. Many would argue that it is perhaps Vidal’s finest work, though I wonder if his book on Lincoln fits that category as well.

Making reference to the American fictional landscape of the 19th century, and in particular the works of Hawthorne and Melville, Vidal begins with a frame narrative set during an election not unlike our own this year. Andrew Jackson, the populist with a major case of imperialist chauvinism, is exploding in the polls. Charles Schuyler, a lawyer in the office of an elder Aaron Burr, who wanders around New York City croaking out quips about his dead compatriots as if we were being entertained by an antebellum George Burns, is asked to edit his employer’s memoirs.

As we read along with Charlie, we are subjected to a bitter and sarcastic retelling of the creation of the Republic. Washington is a bland idiot who has never won a battle. Thomas Jefferson is a hypocritical ideologue, close in tone to a Trotsky or Obama, whose lectures about individual liberty while running an estate populated by slaves, some of whom are his own children by Sally Hemings, not unlike the corporate Libertarian types of today. Hamilton, the total corporate sell-out who wants to give the country away for nothing to the banking and mercantile classes, is a sassy-mouthed gossip who tries to start a whisper campaign about Burr committing incest with his daughter Theodosia and gets shot in response.

I would not want to spoil the book, which remains a joy over forty years after publication, but there are two sequences that stick with me that are worth mentioning.

The first is the scene, late in the book, featuring Burr and Jefferson at Monticello. The two men discuss the ramifications of the recent Haitian Revolution, which panics the slave-owning class. The mood in the country is roughly akin to a red scare (something Vidal burrvidalknew about as a Washington scion during the postwar years) and Jefferson is somber as a result. He knows there is a serious chance that the spark of emancipation by violence can spread to his own back yard. Burr is disgusted by the hypocrisy and observes amongst the slaves who are building the estate small multi-ethnic versions of the Third President. Several months ago, during an interview with Dr. Gerald Horne, the good Professor said Vidal was spot on with this characterization, red scares in this country, be they following the Paris commune, the Bolshevik revolution, or the fall of Nazi Germany, have always entailed fear of unpaid property expropriation. Why do I suspect that point won’t be on the stage any time soon?

The next is far less serious. The book was written shortly after Vidal had his infamous on-screen feud with William F. Buckley, editor and founder of the neocon tabloid National Review. Vidal gets his revenge by having a thinly-veiled stand-in closeted homosexual reactionary polemicist make a complete fool of himself. But besides the fact Vidal is perhaps one of the few men in human history known to have brought his grudges not just forward in time but also backward, a temporal summersault if there ever were one, he perhaps does the greatest favor to the general American public by showing that journalism itself is indeed the sporting profession of the activists and agitator, the trade of those who intend to change not just the world but minds also.

In other words, he provides us, through the logic of postmodernism at its most mature (and therefore least reactionary), a rebuttal to the idea that there ever has been such a thing as “objectivity” in news reporting. Instead, there are two sides that have developed opposing narratives which are vying for the whims of the majority. Going back to the duel between Burr and Hamilton, it is an ongoing class war between capital and the working man. Whether he pushes a pre-industrial farmer’s implement or drives a cab, he is toyed with by an elite that tries to convince him through a variety of clever tropes and tricks that each has a solution to the contradictions inherent in capital. Of course, one has much better PR than the other, hence the ongoing success of the 1%. (I use male pronouns intentionally because women, particularly those of color in our society, have almost consistently throughout history seen through the ruse but have been ignored.) A more accurate vision of the media, devoid of hyperbolic aggrandizement of personalities that makes Alban Butler seem tame, is yet to be seen.

Over the past year, I have recognized that, even if Trump himself is a complete car accident, his supporters are not typical Republican class collaborators. They are pissed off white working class people that are sick of Democratic and Republican Party neoclassical economic policy rip-offs. Their support of Trump is an act of desperation. And this is because the left has objectively failed. Bernie Sanders, a New Deal-Great Society Pentagon Keynesian, was able to pull enough people into the sheep paddock that we are now confronted with a “lesser evil” argument from heroes of the New Left while Jill Stein’s Green Party bid is hindered by the amount of time it has in the media spotlight and the mainstream novelty tone of reporting.

Vidal’s Jackson and today’s Trump supporters have a great deal in common. People who consider themselves Lefties or interested in class solidarity need to learn how to shed the New York-fostered, look-down-your-nose condescension for Trump supporters. This does not mean surrendering one’s principles of feminism or anti-racism, quite the opposite. Instead, we need to have conversations, maybe over books like Vidal’s, that help transfer loathing for immigrants and gays to bosses and capital. That might not be a fun task but it is vital, in the face of climate catastrophe, to build that class solidarity and quickly.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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