Tag Archives: Hamilton

Throwin’ Away My Shot

In what sense can someone claim to win when they failed to get the majority vote? A crooked one, by definition. Some might say “rigged,” to use language that has mysteriously disappeared once one party “won.” The definition of crooked is “not straight; bending; curved.” We cast our votes, and depending on which imaginary lines we live within, those votes are diverted to a party of electors. That means that the person who actually wins the majority vote might not win. When it happens—not often—it always benefits the Republican Party. So it has been in my lifetime. And the “winner” never mentions that the majority voted against him. It’s always a “him.” By a recent count Hillary Clinton had over 400,000 more votes than Donald Trump. That final figure may be closer to a million. Whose votes didn’t count? Compare that conservative 400,000 to the 2,000 votes that “won” Pennsylvania. Go ahead, Trumpetters, you like numbers. Isn’t that an order of magnitude or two out of whack? Doubled? Crooked.

The point of the electoral college is that it has now become a game. Games, as we know from each time George W. Bush was elected, can be cheated. “Hanging chad” is engraved on the tombstone of democracy. Was my vote one of the 400,000 that didn’t count? Most assuredly so. If you know how to read, chances are so was yours. Gaming a system hardly seems to be the basis for the will of the people. The people have spoken and they have been, once again, ignored. W didn’t endorse Trump. I wonder what he thinks of the electoral college now. How does it feel, Mr. President, to have thrown away your shot?

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Some who claim that Republicans know what it feels like to lose need to stop and think. When has their opponent never won both the popular vote and the electoral college? It hasn’t happened in their lifetime. The electoral college may have made sense once, but it no longer does. When we try to tell young people that their vote counts, then put the candidate in office who decisively lost the popular vote, we’re really telling them “throw away your shot.” Still, Republicans are gloating even as the Democrats play by the rules (they’re nice people) and politely throw away their shots. It’s time we stood up for ourselves. When the most contentious candidates (the mind reels at where the GOP can go from Trump), not backed by any previous presidents of their own party, can win based on a technicality, we all need to stand in Weehawken and contemplate what this country has come to.

Hamilton

Religion and politics. It’s difficult to get over the wisdom instilled in your earliest years, and I was one of those who learned that religion and politics always cause potential friction in polite conversation. They are both, however, very important to people and knowing how to communicate about them irenically is a sign of maturity. While I can’t afford Broadway shows, I have read reports about the brilliance of a couple shows that feature—what else?—religion and politics. “Book of Mormon” has continued to be a success in the theater district, and, starting this summer, “Hamilton” joined the ranks of most popular Broadway shows. A hip-hop-inspired version of the story of Alexander Hamilton, the show offers history to audiences traditionally just out for a good time. I haven’t seen the show, but on a recent long car ride, I listened to the soundtrack and I have to admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Part of the reason is the sadness of the story—the dual between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton ended up with one of the “forgotten founding fathers” dead, and another cast forever as a criminal.

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Although my interest in history has defined my career (such as it is), I don’t pretend to know much about the revolutionary period. One of the reasons is that I’m more than a bit ashamed by the treatment of American Indians by the colonials. It is hard to celebrate when you feel like a criminal yourself. Another reason has been that ancient history has always captivated me, and events two-to-two-and-a-half centuries ago feel too recent. Nevertheless, I find myself in New Jersey where much of the Revolution played out: Washington crossing the Delaware, the Battle of Princeton, the Battle of Monmouth, and many other famous episodes. The British of that time enjoyed the power of empire—keeping others down so that the privileged might see themselves entitled. In the musical, King George has a role, in my mind, similar to Pontus Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar.

I can’t help but think that what Lin-Manuel Miranda has offered in “Hamilton” is an extended kind of parable. The show is noted for its multi-ethnic cast in a story that was almost entirely, historically speaking, one of white privilege. Who can hear the songs swirling around the shooting of Hamilton and not think of the equally insane shooting of young African Americans who, like Hamilton, have no intention of causing harm? There are writers and poets and lovers who still try to find their place in a country that bathes the uber-rich with adoration and tax breaks and far too much power. “Hamilton” may, if people actually pay attention, turn out to be revolutionary. Politics and religion share that feature in common.

The Lost Forest

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Asherah has, from lack of new material, fallen into a quiet retirement among the gods. For a while there no shortage of new books appeared, including my first, which explored many aspects of this shy goddess. While academia has pushed her to her logical limits, she has thrived in the world of popular imagination. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Grounds for Sculpture, a whimsical park in Hamilton, New Jersey featuring the work of many artists. The appreciation of art works on many levels. A piece of sculpture can take on new meanings when viewed from different angles, and a piece that seems to make no sense can become imbued with meaning when new perspective is added. Sometimes it is the title of the sculpture. A friend had pointed out to me last year that one of the artworks was entitled, Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera, by Tova Beck-Friedman. Ironically the sculpture is from the same year as my finished dissertation on Asherah, a continent away. I must have seen this sculpture many times, but without knowing what it was, had paid no attention.

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Asherah is often considered a goddess of trees. My research indicated, however, that such an association was premature. Of course, any discourse that has the Harvard University stamp of approval is decidedly fact, despite contrary evidence. Nevertheless, the dendrite nature of the goddess has persisted into popular culture and even into the world of abstract sculpture. The loss of a forest is, no matter whether goddesses are involved or not, tragic. Asherah has become the protectoress of trees.

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The nature of this particular lost forest isn’t clear. At first it might appear that a fire has gone through, claiming the vitality that once thrived in green leaves and mottled bark. I sense that something more is happening here. Asherah is, above all, the divine female. Here single-most constant role in antiquity was as the spouse to the high god. The loss of the forest still speaks to the on-going repression of women. We like to think that our society is headed toward equality, but progress is painfully slow. As usual with lack of momentum, religious institutions lead the way in conservatism. In the largest Christian body in the world, and in some of the fastest growing religions on an international scale, women are kept from leadership roles on the basis of gender alone. Monotheism declares there’s one god for two sexes. Those who experience life from the other side are like trees falling in the forest. We still don’t know if anybody hears.

To a Fallen Goddess

One of my favorite places to visit in New Jersey is Grounds for Sculpture. Over the past several years that we’ve domiciled here, we’ve had the opportunity to take several friends and family members to see the whimsical, creative, and inspirational park over in Hamilton. When my daughter graduated from high school, she requested a visit to Grounds for Sculpture, and, since family were near at hand, we took the opportunity to see it again.

I’ve always been aware of the religious aspect of creativity. Perhaps it is because I like to flatter myself into thinking that I’m the creative sort, despite my years of academic training, or perhaps it is the kind of pipe dream for which the liberal-minded are easily accused. In either case, I have always found that the best art evokes something similar to a religious experience. There is an element of wonder, emotion, and awe here. Not every piece of art conjures it, just as a single god isn’t sufficient for the whole of humanity. As I wander the grounds, I grow convinced that this or that sculpture had a vision akin to what I’d call religion, that led to the creation of such a trenchant piece. I always leave feeling blessed.

Photo credit: Grounds for Sculpture, postcard

Photo credit: Grounds for Sculpture, postcard

On this most recent visit, a very conscientious relative found, and later sent, a postcard of a sculpture I’d never seen. (It is possible that the sculpture is not currently on display, as the Grounds are continually evolving.) The piece is entitled “Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera,” by Tova Beck-Friedman. Several of my relatives have me to blame for their awareness of Asherah; she is, after all, a relatively obscure goddess in the Hebrew Bible. The sculpture, however, speaks to me of the continuing ability of even extinct gods to inspire artists. Just as Asherah occupied several years of my academic life, I suspect she also haunts the work of sculptors who’ve come to realize that not all gods must be male, and not all gods must be real to be important. Quite the contrary, the collective deities of our heritage may still be found where art thrives.

Living with Art

A day spent among art can be more spiritual than a month of Sundays. Few become rich by being artists—in fact the opposite is society’s expectation. The masterpieces artists leave behind then become among the most valuable of all human creations when their often tragic lives end and it is recognized that no more genius is forthcoming. As a lifelong dabbler in the arts, I know that nothing like a perturbed state of mind serves to bring about the pieces I like best. Seeing the art of others, however, is a deeply satisfying experience. In a pre-Mother’s Day celebration, we met friends yesterday to revisit Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. We’ve grown accustomed to gray skies this spring, so the fact that it was sunny and warm came almost as a divine sign that this was a day to spend outdoors among the artwork of both humans and nature.

As rational as we strive to be, emotion remains our main motive force. Psychologists and neuroscientists, approaching the human mind rationally, inevitably conclude that emotion and reason are hopelessly entangled in the psyche. Not only does this explain the persistent draw of art, but also of religion as well. If possible, pull back and try to listen to someone, anyone, describe their religion in rational terms. How quickly it breaks down! And yet, reactions against a purely scientific—and doubtlessly empirically correct—explanation of the origin and development of life on earth lead to very hostile reactions. For many such explanations are not emotionally satisfying. We need a little more magic in our imaginative diet. Art allows us to indulge without embarrassment in our need for emotional expression. In the art galleries I’ve seen, whether Edinburgh, London, Paris, New York, Milwaukee, Corning, or Hamilton, there have always been hundreds of others seeking something there as well.

What we are seeking can’t be purchased with money, and it can’t be grasped by greedy hands. It can only be held in receptive and hungry internal places—the space pre-scientific individuals called the soul. And there it will remain. The first time I saw the Mona Lisa and the statue of winged Nike will never leave me. Yesterday, wandering the acres of art called Grounds for Sculpture, once again artistic expression claimed another willing victim. In our money-fevered world where “real life” is squandered chasing material goods to outstrip everyone else, art, the spiritual quest, lies quietly awaiting the weekend. The time people value most. And those who spend that time among art will be the most blessed of all.