Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline
queen_of_kithia

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Upstaged

About a month ago, I praised Lin-Manuel Miranda for writing Hamilton and "providing the perfect rhetorical tools to deal with the current political situation." And while I don't retract what I said, I feel a little bit bad about it because I'm afraid that maybe it shortchanges Alexander Hamilton, the man himself--who, after all, was a pretty good writer in his own right[*](understatement) and also provided rhetorical tools--The Federalist Papers and, to a certain extent, the Constitution itself being the most prominent examples--that are useful to us in the current political situation. To be completely fair, a lot of what Lin-Manuel[*](Yes, I'm referring to him by his given name even though I don't know him personally, and yes, that is pretentious of me. But his last name is a woman's first name, which is confusing to me, and I won't refer to someone my own age as "Mr."; that's just weird and awkward.) wrote in Hamilton is derived from Hamilton's writings.

What Lin-Manuel has done for Hamilton, besides bringing him out of the obscurity he's endured for 200 years and back into the public consciousness where he belongs, is to make Hamilton's work accessible to the general public. Hamilton was a brilliant man, and he writes in a very scholarly and sometimes very dense style. I have a Master's degree in literature--which also forced me to learn some economics, which was Hamilton's forte--and even I have trouble deciphering Hamilton's writings sometimes. But it's a well-known pedagogical fact that if you want to teach something to someone, and have them retain it, set it to music and make it rhyme.

Even more importantly, in writing and producing Hamilton, Lin-Manuel and company have demonstrated the relevancy of the Revolution, the founding of our country, and the framing of its Constitution to our own lives today. Too often, we think of the Revolution as having happened so far back in time that it no longer touches our lives now. Hamilton makes it immediate and relatable. We tend to think of our democracy as a machine that just keeps chugging along and we don't even have to think about it. Which is not true: even if the machine analogy holds up, machines need regular maintenance to keep them going, and if you take them for granted, they break down. Both Hamilton the man and Hamilton the musical demonstrate to us that democracy takes work; it requires effort on our part.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Hamilton is having a moment[*](although I hope it's more than a moment; I hope it lasts for perpetuity and we finally start giving him the credit he deserves for his role in founding our country) right at the same time that a potential tyrant is getting ready to assume the highest office in the land. I think that God--or fate, or whatever you want to call the benevolent force(s) that bring(s) order to the universe--foresaw that there was going to be a need for Hamilton to re-enter the public consciousness and spark people's interest in learning more about him and the things he did. There's a need for people to go back and read The Federalist Papers--as I, for one, am doing now--and say, "Oh gee, when Hamilton talks about tyrants and demagogues, that sort of sounds similar to what's happening now. Let's pay attention to what he says we should do about it."

It's tempting to say that Hamilton foresaw what is happening now, but that's not entirely accurate: by his own admission, he was extrapolating what might happen from looking back at history and identifying patterns of what has gone wrong with democracies/republics[*](he actually wasn't too keen on the word/concept of "democracy"; to him, it meant something akin to "mob rule") in the past. But it wasn't just a matter of identifying what went wrong in the past; he made a concerted effort to put measures in the Constitution that would counteract the effects of demagoguery. He wanted to isolate and excise the cancer before it had a chance to metastasize--or, if that didn't work, to irradiate the cancer and force it into remission before it becomes terminal.

At the risk of belaboring the metaphor, Alexander Hamilton is the sociopolitical oncologist that we need to treat the sickness now threatening to destroy our country by consuming it from the inside out. But he can't help us if we only think about him when we happen to glance at a ten-dollar bill. For him to be able to help us, somebody had to help him first. And that someone is Lin-Manuel Miranda.[*](Well, there's plenty of credit to go around: Lin-Manuel Miranda needed Ron Chernow to write his biography of Alexander Hamilton, and Ron Chernow needed Eliza Hamilton to work for 50 years to preserve her husband's legacy, etc. But while these are valid points, they are peripheral to the larger point that I am trying to make.)

Therefore, I raise my glass to both of them. And to freedom.
Tags: books, ideas, music, politics, theatre, world turned upside down
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