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Broadway’s “Hamilton” and the Willing Suspension of Reality-Based Moral Consciousness

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Ben Cronin: “Hamilton was against slavery the way a Prius-driving Californian with stocks in Exxon Mobil and Nestle is against global warming — notionally.”

Michelle Obama: “Best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life”

Lyra D. Monteiro:  “This is everybody’s story.  Which, it isn’t. It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative.”

“For goodness sake, why are we still venerating these guys?”… If you had to put all the slaves owned by Washington, Jefferson and Madison on that stage, they wouldn’t fit.”

Ben Brantley [New York Times]:  “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show.  But ‘Hamilton,’ directed by Thomas Kail and starring Mr. Miranda, might just about be worth it …”

Paul Street:  “Miranda’s Hamilton is in this sense a perfect cultural wrap up to the ugly neoliberal Obama years.  It is a brilliant ahistorical monument to Orwellian, fake-progressive bourgeois identity politics in service to the very predominantly Caucasian financial elite and ruling class hegemony.”

Recently I received for my birthday an extravagant gift from some family members, an orchestra seat ticket to one of the hottest shows on Broadway, Hamilton.  I was touched by the generosity of such a gift, but not quite as thrilled as my loved ones undoubtedly assumed.

Despite the incredible degree of media hype surrounding the show, even prior to its 2015 Broadway debut, I remembered reading a number of strongly argued and intensely passionate negative reviews of Hamilton for profound historical distortions.  These reviews particularly showed up on one of my favorite political websites, CounterPunch.

Attending Broadway productions was a rarity for me and admittedly I was reluctant to look a Broadway gift ticket “in the mouth,” so-to-speak.  I was also growing weary of my far-left political stances causing strain among family, friends and coworkers.  I never could seem to align with the political (and now, it seemed, cultural) consensus of the vast majority of “normal” pro-establishment liberals.  Actually my marginalization had begun with the early Obama years, steadily intensifying — me and my ilk being regarded as ideological “extremists” with the ever-hardening polarization of what used to constitute “the American Left.”

Of course, why would any of my loved ones begin to expect a discouraging word, even from me, about a show that had swept the 2016 Tony Awards, won a Grammy, a Pulitzer Prize, and was the only work of art ever to receive a Kennedy Center honor.

I decided to forego revisiting those trouble-making Hamilton reviews before seeing the show.

[It would later, by the way, take me three Google searches to efficiently retrieve some of those aforementioned negative reviews. Apparently the latest Google “algorithm” process is doing its censoring-best against left-leaning critical analyses, even the cultural kind.  My first Google search was “Broadway – Hamilton – reviews”.  I was overwhelmed with a vast number of ecstatic commentaries.  To quicken my search I added the word “negative.” Some provocative and fascinating reviews appeared but none of the ones I had remembered.  Finally, for the third search, I added “Counterpunch” and that pulled up quite a few more scholarly and resonating reviews, some I recognized from writers such as Ishmael Reed and Paul Street.]

I was also distracted from doing any serious, pre-show internet research by a troubling case of bronchitis.  I prayed I would physically rally enough to attend the upcoming show.

Show day turned out to be a snow day.  I wrapped up warmly and armed with a fresh bottle of cough syrup and a purse filled with Kleenex headed to Times Square.  I was concerned that my occasional but still ferocious cough would disturb my fellow seat mates.  This fear was unfounded since the musical was aggressively frenetic from the first moments, with its streaming rap dialogue and spirited hip-hop, R+B, gospel, soul, pop, etc. song numbers.

I don’t know if it was a case of my aging ears, impaired hearing from short term bronchial flu or from long term endurance of roaring subway trains, but I had a hard time catching much of the breakneck rap dialogue.  Was there a deliberate payoff for this by the author?  I couldn’t imagine why, though Nicholas Pell I would read later accused the musical of “playing fast and loose with the truth.” Well, Miranda was definitely playing fastwith it.

Some of the rhyming that I did manage to catch was quite witty, but other rhyming seemed lazy and forced, for example adding an “-ing” (or more often an idiomatic “-in’”) to the ending of words as end-line matchups.

An acrobatic ensemble of singers and dancers would remain on stage for most of the show.  The chameleon–like role of the chorus troubled me.  It was clear when the chorus represented colonial or British troops, military or political comrades of Hamilton.  But mostly the chorus was an amorphous presence of “the people.”  But which people was that?  Certainly not slaves or Indians who were not included in Miranda’s version of American colonial history.  Small farmers, artisans and laborers?  They also were not the people that Alexander Hamilton was known to have zealousy served.  Was the chorus more accurately representing the “propertied elites”?  But the easy assumption an inspired audience would make would be “ALL the people.”

It wasn’t until Act 2 that I finally emotionally bonded with some of the characters and became more comfortable with the pace of the rapping.  I actually cried out “Bravo!” for a high-kicking, show-stopping number led by the Aaron Burr character called “The Room Where It Happens” about proverbial back-room political decision-making.

Also, I welcomed the periodic hilarious and hearing-friendly monologues of a petulant George III.

Lin Manuel Miranda clearly seemed to attribute most of the success of the American Revolution to the amount of testosterone and personal ambitiousness of the callow young male revolutionaries, including young Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant of humble birth.  Miranda did not seem to feel much obligation to articulate any political and economic philosophies hammered out by the founding fathers of a young America.

As the Broadway Hamilton’s intense auditory and visual “experience” was washing over me, it didn’t take long for me to remember and identify at least three of the issues of those disappointed, and in some cases outraged, critics whose reviews I had skimmed over the years.

I also couldn’t help but consider the parallel of this show’s distortions of history to Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” from decades earlier. I would find a mention of it from Ben Cronin in “Hamilton, History and the Aesthetics of Fan-Fiction”:

“Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK,’ another work of art that captured the zeitgeist of its time but was dangerous in its inaccuracy, it puts aesthetic values over fidelity to what actually happened.  The aestheticization of the historical is a dangerous move, if you ask me, whether it’s Tea Partiers celebrating a past that never was or Miranda distorting one that did actually occur.  If we actually wish to change the country Jefferson and Hamilton helped create, then we need to engage with what they actually did.”

One issue critics of Hamilton seemed to focus on was a distortion of the essential character of Alexander Hamilton himself as portrayed in the production.

Ishmael Reed in “Hamilton and the Negro Whisperers:  Miranda’s Consumer Fraud”:

“Miranda should have consulted other sources that challenge this high school notion that Hamilton was some sort of abolitionist. But that would have been a real turn off for the feel good version of the Founding Fathers, enslavers and what’s often left out, Indian exterminators, which has drawn largely white audiences, who can afford tickets that sell for as much as $700.”

Alex Nichols in “You Should Be Terrified That People Who Like ‘Hamilton’ Run Our Country”:

“The play avoids depicting his unabashed elitism and more repellent personal characteristics.  And in the brief references that are made to slavery, the play even generously portrays Hamilton as far more committed to the cause of freedom than he actually was.  In this way, Hamilton carefully makes sure its audience is neither challenged nor discomforted, and can leave the theater without having to confront any unpleasant truths.”

Paul Street in “Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age” provides historical details of the real Alexander Hamilton.

“Miranda’s Hamilton is a super-cool and highly talented immigrant from a broken family who was born out of wedlock in the West Indies and came to North America determined to achieve wealth and fame. He’s a “scrappy and hungry” newcomer and “self-made man …”

“Alexander Hamilton was no people’s champion. After four years serving as American Revolutionary War General George Washington’s chief of staff, Hamilton took up rhetorical and political arms against the egalitarian tendencies of the revolutionary times in which he lived. Viewing those tendencies and the new American republic’s popular classes with snooty contempt, he campaigned for a stronger central United States government run by and for men of great propertied wealth …”

“Hamilton was the early Republic’s ‘captain of the 1 Percent. A leader of finance capital…’”

“… the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury to advance his program to make the United States a major commercial and military power ruled by and for an opulent mercantile, financial, and, he hoped, industrial elite.”

“Hamilton advocated a strong national standing army, required, he felt, to suppress domestic rebellion.”

….

“At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Hamilton argued that the U.S. presidency and Senate should come with life terms.”

Nicholas Pell in “Finally: The Case Against Hamilton”:

“… casting Alexander Hamilton as some sort of proto-multicultural progressive.  That’s either stupidity or mendacity, take your pick.  Hamilton was, if anything, the most aristocratic of the Founding Fathers, the closest thing to a Colonial Tory.  You know that electoral college you’ve been gnashing your teeth over for the last couple months? Guess whose idea that was?”

Another issue that triggered objections was Hamilton’s promotion of the “American dream” meme, that hard work and talent “will out” (self-made manliness achieving a guaranteed rung on an exalted patriarchal ladder) in America’s “free market” system.  To Miranda, Alexander Hamilton was Exhibit A of an immigrant who made good with hard work and smarts.  (The reverse of this messaging is, of course, if one didn’t make “good” rising up from the “bottom,” it was due to one’s own failings for not making full use of all the opportunities provided, and not the responsibility of an unjust social and economic system.)

Alex Nichols:

“…much of the actual substance of Alexander Hamilton’s politics is ignored, in favor of a story that stresses his origins as a Horatio Alger immigrant and his rivalry with Aaron Burr.  But while Hamilton may have favored opening America’s doors to immigration, he also proposed a degree of economic protectionism that would terrify today’s free market establishment.”

Paul Street:

“Adding to the “valorization of the American System, Hamilton’s “Bootstraps Immigrant Narrative” (MCMaster ) feeds Caucasian capitalism’s timeworn victim-blaming story line on why some few folks succeed in climbing up the nation’s steep racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic pyramids while most fail. …. “

Early in the show as I watched the lanky, handsome and winning African American performer playing Hamilton strut across the stage, I envisioned a callow, lively and equally charismatic young Obama. I suspect Miranda would have no problem with that easy conflation.  Though, the personality attributed to a more strategically inscrutable Aaron Burr presented in the show seemed to match Obama’s actual enigmatic political modus operandi more than the supposed bravado of the show’s risk-taking and outspoken Hamilton.

Paul Street:

“Obama no doubt identifies strongly with Miranda’s Hamilton.  The product of a broken family and a foreign father he hardly knew, the President fancies himself a shining example of what a highly talented, hard-working ‘outsider’ can accomplish if they apply themselves and their skills so as not to blow their ‘shot’ at success in the supposed great American land of opportunity that the holy Founders purportedly bequeathed to us with their glorious ‘free market’ system.  Obama has given Black high school and college graduates and other minority audiences stern Booker T. Washingtonian bootstrap lectures on hard work and the promise of upward mobility on numerous occasions, …”

“Never mind that Booker T. Obama’s success always depended on his service to the wealthy white and parasitic few – his leading backers – or the record number of immigrants the Deporter-in-Chief has expelled from the country.”

I think the most profound grievance and source of outrage for the Hamilton detractors is Miranda’s minimization of the existence of slavery in 18th century America.  It seemed ironic to an Orwellian degree for Miranda to fill the stage with mostly non-white performers portraying the slave-owning Founding Fathers.  No Horatio Alger bootstrap opportunities for slaves back then, or for that matter the American Indians targeted for extermination by the leaders and its military of our young American republic.

Alex Nichols:

“The most obvious historical aberration is the portrayal of Washington and Jefferson as black men, a somewhat audacious choice given that both men are strongly associated with owning, and in the case of the latter, raping and impregnating slaves.  Changing the races allows these men to appear far more sympathetic than they would otherwise be….  ‘Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to,’ saidthe New York Times.  But fixing history makes it seem less objectionable than it actually was.  We might call it a kind of, well, “blackwashing,” making something that was heinous seem somehow palatable by retroactively injecting diversity into it.”

Ishmael Reed in “‘Hamilton: the Musical:’ Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders…and It’s Not Halloween”:

“Maybe that’s why the establishment critics leave out the slave parts.  The idea that Black Lives Matter is an improvement over their slavery status, where blacks were treated as objects to be bought and sold, worked, beaten, killed and fucked.”

Only white lives mattered at a realpolitik level.  Apparently not a reality worth moral consciousness-raising about for the staggering commercial success-bound Mr. Miranda?

Paul Street:

“In an insightful critique titled ‘Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think It Is‘ James McMaster notes how the musical’s ‘multiracial ensemble’ ironically and darkly functions to obscure and cloak ‘the essential anti-blackness of the United States’ past and present.”

Alex Nichols:

“Miranda found that by trying to write a song about his main characters’ attitude to slavery, he ran into the inconvenient fact that all of them willfully tolerated or participated in it.  That made it difficult to square with the upbeat portrayal he was going for so slavery had to go.  Besides, dwelling on it could ‘bring the show to a halt.’  And as cast member Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, notes: ‘The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to.’  Who would want to spoil the fun?”

Too much of my own general knowledge of American history came from conservative and jingoistic high school textbooks and those early Walt Disney TV movies mythologizing and romanticizing the founding of America, though I don’t remember Alexander Hamilton particularly glamorized as a noteworthy champion of civil and human rights.  I did recall the story of his death from dueling with the infamous Aaron Burr.

Paul Street:

“And just how anti-slavery was Hamilton?  ‘Hamilton’s opposition to slavery,’ Frank and Kramnick note, ‘was not central to his political vision.  The musical’s suggestion that had he not been killed in the duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton would have gone on to play an important role in the abolitionist struggle is fantasy.’”

Lyra D. Monteiro

“Yes, sure, it mentions slavery a couple of times, but it’s twice mentioned in the context of just slavery existing and Alexander Hamilton being opposed to it.  And then a couple times it’s mentioned in the context of abolition specifically, and Alexander Hamilton supporting that.  So the 12thline of the play where it’s mentioned, ‘he struggled and kept his guard up’ is the line right after talking about slaves being slaughtered and carted away.  But we have no idea what Alexander Hamilton’s attitude toward slavery was when he was a boy growing up in the Caribbean.  He worked on a slave ship.  I mean, chances are probably pretty high that he was in favor of it; that was his livelihood.” 

Ishmael Reed:

“Professor Michelle Duross, of the University at Albany, State University of New York:  ‘No existing documents of Hamilton’s support this claim [his commitment to abolition]. Hamilton never mentioned anything in his correspondence about the horrors of plantation slavery in the West Indies.’…’Hamilton’s involvement in the selling of slaves suggests that his position against slavery was not absolute.  Besides marrying into a slaveholding family, Hamilton conducted transactions for the purchase and transfer of slaves on behalf of his in-laws and as part of his assignment in the Continental Army.’”

Nicholas Pell:

“Lyra D. Monteiro, an assistant professor of history and American studies at Rutgers University at Newark has written that Hamilton perpetuates the trend of ‘founders chic,’ which venerates figures such as George Washington while forgetting their slave-owning sins, as the race-blind casting masks this issue.”

So the colonial propertied class served so well by Alexander Hamilton parallels the propertied class of today served so well by first Obama and now Trump and the rest of our corporate partied political elites.

In this musical production of Hamilton the heinous crimes of slavery and extermination of indigenous peoples go seriously unaddressed similarly to how in our current corporate media US government crimes against humanity are also minimized or simply omitted.

Also, what should be a giant red flag for those of us trying to fight the slings and arrows of outrageous historical propaganda such as this is factoring in who are the most outspoken and establishment status enablers of Miranda’s Hamilton.

Alex Nichols:

“The Obamas were not the only members of the political establishment to come down with a ghastly case of Hamiltonmania.  Nearly every figure in D.C. has apparently been to see the show, in many cases being invited for a warm backstage schmooze with Miranda.  Biden saw it.  Mitt Romney saw it.  The Bush daughters saw it.  Rahm Emanuel saw it the day after the Chicago teachers’ strike over budget cuts and school closures.  Hillary Clinton went to see the musical in the evening after having been interviewed by the FBI in the morning.  The Clinton campaign has also been fundraising by hawking Hamilton tickets; for $100,000 you can watch a performance alongside Clinton herself.”

***

“Unsurprisingly, the New York Times reports that ‘conservatives were particularly smitten’ with Hamilton.  ‘Fabulous show,’ tweeted Rupert Murdoch, calling it ‘historically accurate.’  Obama concluded that ‘I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career.’  (That is, of course, false. Other points of agreement include drone strikes, Guantanamo, the NSA, and mass deportation.)”

***

“The conservative-liberal D.C. consensus on Hamilton makes perfect sense. The musical flatters both right and left sensibilities.  Conservatives get to see their beloved Founding Fathers exonerated for their horrendous crimes, and liberals get to have nationalism packaged in a feel-good multicultural form.  The more troubling questions about the country’s origins are instantly vanished, as an era built on racist forced labor is transformed into a colorful, culturally progressive, and politically unobjectionable extravaganza.”

Paul Street refers to Miranda as an “Orwellian history-distorting shill” for Obama and his “racialized ethnic politics in cloaking plutocracy” all in the service to “the nation’s dictatorships of money, empire, class and race.”

Alex Nichols on “representational diversity” as a distraction from real social and economic justice and progress.

“Hamilton probably is the ‘musical of the Obama era,’ as The New Yorker called it.  Contemporary progressivism has come to mean papering over material inequality with representational diversity.

“The president will continue to expand the national security state at the same rate as his predecessor, but at least he will be black.

“Predatory lending will drain the wealth from African American communities, but the board of Goldman Sachs will have several black members.

“Inequality will be rampant and worsening, but the 1% will at least ‘look like America.’

“The actual racial injustices of our time will continue unabated, but the power structure will be diversified so that nobody feels quite so bad about it.

“Hamilton is simply this tendency’s cultural-historical equivalent; instead of worrying ourselves about the brutal origins of the American state, and the lasting economic effects of those early inequities, we can simply turn the Founding Fathers black and enjoy the show.”

Miranda’s Hamilton’s appeal to young people is useful for indoctrinating them to neoliberal values and teaching them about an American history that didn’t exist.

Kate Keller in “The Issue on the Table: Is ‘Hamilton’ Good For History?”

“Fellow essayist Patricia Herrera of the University of Richmond concurs, worrying that her 10-year-old daughter, who idolizes Angelica Schuyler, might not be able to differentiate between the 18th-century slaveowner and the African-American actress portraying her.  ‘Does the hip-hop soundscape of Hamilton effectively drown out the violence and trauma – and sounds – of slavery that people who looked like the actors in the play might actually have experienced at the time of the nation’s birth?’”

Rebecca Onion in “A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn’t As Revolutionary As It Seems”:

“Acknowledging that the show may have the power to interest kids in the history of the Revolutionary era because of the way its major roles are cast, Monteiro asks:  ‘Is this the history that we most want black and brown youth to connect with—one in which black lives so clearly do not matter?’”

Paul Street:

“… elite foundations have teamed up with the show’s producers to bring tens of thousands of mostly Black and Latino New York City schoolchildren to take it in.  The educational collaboration was financed by more than $1 million in grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and with backing of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History…”

As the talented young Hamilton cast members lined up to take their bows before the exuberant audience, their faces gleamed with the sweat of intense effort and pleasure over the validation pouring forth for them and for Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway Hamilton in all its identity politics-promoting, neoliberal victim-blaming and white supremacy-enabling glory.

I wondered if the queasiness of my stomach was a symptom of the receding flu or more likely resistance to the cultural fraud I had just witnessed.

As I stepped out of the hallowed Richard Rodgers theater, I noted a darkening sky that instead of being filled with the fat snowflakes I had exited three hours earlier now was saturated with a tiny but stinging rain mist.  The particles of precipitation glistened under the garish lighting of the Times Square neighborhood.  It seemed an appropriate metaphor – that surreally glowing fog – for the anti-intellectual, anti-reality, anti-morality propaganda enveloping all of us American citizens these days.

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