Privilege and The Zero Sum Game

Someone I Know was super annoyed at a certain Mr. Dixon, lately of Hamilton fame, who made some remarks the other day. He described the actor as arrogant and self important. He objected to the actor presuming to lecture Mr. Pence about "inclusion" (air-scare-quotes included). He said it makes him want to vomit when liberal hypocrites can't see the irony of black actors portraying white people, when they'd need to hysterically retreat to a safe space if a white actor played Malcolm X in a musical (which, I mean, I admit that doesn't sound awesome).

Brandon V. Dixon: Nice publicity shot, by the way

Now, against all odds, I like this person and consider him a friend. So I don't want to be unkind. But I admit to some frustration; this comes up pretty often and there’s a lot to unpack.

Let’s start here: The friend in question is a born’n’bred Manhattanite and an Ivy League educated white man, practicing law for hundreds of dollars per hour (literally more than seven). This makes him, then, a member of multiple intersecting groups that have, and have always had, the largest concentration of wealth and the most ready access to the ear of government. The vast majority of the government are, in fact, drawn from his peers. Until about 50 years ago,  he, collectively, has had virtually total control over society's narrative. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels churlish to begrudge the actor what is no doubt a fleeting impact upon...well...anything.  I suppose it boils down to the fact that for many people, the right to speak - the right to be heard - is a zero sum game. If the actor has some, others, perforce, have less.

We'll set aside my friend's decision to imbue a person he’s never met (nor seen this show, nor seen the actor’s work generally, nor heard the remarks in question) with the qualities of self-importance and arrogance. What's interesting, if depressing, is that his gorge is raised by the actor seizing his moment to speak. What it tells me is that my friend's myriad advantages are not enough. It's not enough that he have almost everything. He must have everything. In a statistical anomaly, a guy happens upon a great gig. The fame he gets from said gig makes people willing to attend to and publish his thoughts. He takes that opportunity, and my friend is irritated to the point of vomiting. Which is, y’know, really irritated.

For many people, it’s true that artists are considered (albeit often subconsciously) to be servants. They're meant to dance like the court jesters they are, and never diverge from whatever the courtiers find to be entertaining. And in spite of the nation's obsession with Celebrity, the echo chamber offers very few souls any financial security, and elevates even fewer to a position of professional power (and for those few, that power is virtually always short-lived). That our cultural obsession motivates an army of hopefuls only ensures there will, ever and always, be more court jesters than courts. And by a lot.

So. The immutable laws of Supply and Demand entitle consumers to expect artists to provide whatever it is they imagined when they purchased the ticket; no more and no less. Every Jack and Jill is a Mozartean-era patron, entitled to dismiss the artist who displeases.  And most artists faithfully follow the rules. Because obviously.  Unless you have family money or significant professional currency, your livelihood depends upon it. An artist who needs to feed his kids and pay his mortgage never forgets that he’s interchangeable and endlessly replaceable. And if he does, he’s quickly reminded by cold Reality that not only is he a disposable luxury item, he's an independent contractor without access to the social net.

Once in a while, an artist acquires enough professional capital to decide he can spend some. Maybe the IRA he self-funded has grown enough that he feels like he can be out of work a while, if worse comes to worst. His parents paid off his house, whatever. But anyhow, for a brief shining moment, he's not 5 weeks from homeless.  He has a window of opportunity to separate 'entertainment' from 'art' or 'speech'.  (Which, not for nothing, are not the same thing at all and in an historical context are barely even related.) He believes he'll survive the inevitable outcry.  Perhaps it'll even add something to his cachet. Or, hell, the larger conversation. Why not? How many chances will he get?  The gods have given him a crowd, a hot minute and a megaphone.  Why shouldn’t he grab it?

My goodness, everyone uses their advantages. Certainly my friend uses his; he often uses the forums at his disposal, and his significant professional capital, to express his point of view and advance his agenda.  There's one advantage my friend doesn’t have: a minute and 20 seconds (per Youtube) in a forum where many strangers gather, and the press eager to publish what he says to them. But the outrage! How dare the actor exploit this advantage! To me, this is sadly begrudging of, fundamentally, not much.

The bit about the actor’s ‘presumption to lecture’ his new vice president is weird. Why is it presumption? Is it not his place? If not, why not? Because Mr. Pence was out for the evening... off duty, or something? Come, now. If my friend believed his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness were threatened, and found himself before a powerful member of the government, he wouldn't say so? Of course he would. He would tell himself that confrontations and criticisms are the public employee's lot, and rightly so. If the VP suggested that my friend's type of people, as a class, should receive electroshock therapy treatment for some consensual, legal behavior or other, are we to believe that he'd refuse any opportunity to decry that suggestion? Riiiight.  And, why is “inclusion” in scare quotes? Does he not believe in the concept? Or does the Ivy League educated, white, straight, man, the extremely affluent rich person's attorney, believe his level of inclusion is comparatively the same as a 30-something black actor on a big gig?

The bit about black actors playing white characters to no outcry is exhausting.  First, there was quite a bit of geschrei over the casting of black actors in the roles of white characters. Plenty of people needed a lie down - the piece was not given a free pass.  Setting that aside, though, nobody is portraying Alexander Hamilton, as he lived, from a perspective of biographical verisimilitude. The piece is a re-imagining; a not-literal, time-warped, piece of high-concept art. It's an abstraction, utilizing hip hop and modern dance, designed to send a message elevating American patriotism and country-love. It's soft-focus nationalism told through African-American art forms. And yes, people of color have gotten sick and tired of seeing white actors portray their beloved historical figures in biographies. Yes, they have been known to complain. But the notion that they need a “safe space” every time it happens is silly. If POC collapsed every time a white woman played a brown historical figure, they’d never leave the house.

In closing, I just have to say this: Didn’t Donald and Mike run on a “Fuck Your Safe Spaces” platform?  They did, right? Well. The bottom line is this: Mike Pence advocated for a law that would electrocute gay people to “cure” them (see: proper use of scare quotes), and then he went to a Broadway show. He got off light. And the reason he got off light is because Brandon Dixon isn't a hothead. Brandon is a courteous and prudent person. It didn't have to be Brandon up there offering a polite little speech, so people could feel they'd been heard and everyone could settle down and move on with their evening. It could've been me. Things might've ended differently, is what I'm saying.

The punch line, of course, is that the religious fanatic - the guy who wrote a law requiring that blood clots resulting from a terminated pregnancy get a burial - is the one with the decent manners and the common sense and the understanding of how dissent is received.  Meanwhile, the thin-skinned narcissist, our very own Rotting Pumpkin Time Lapse-Elect, stamped his feet and demanded an apology because his sideman wasn’t made perfectly welcome by the audience, and the actor spoke briefly about why that was. I mean, fuck’s sake, fellas...for a Strongman, Donald sure could grow a pair.

Kathryn Allyn

Jazz singer, political junkie, cautionary tale and nights'n'weekends Stig, on the Island of Misfit Toys.