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The Search For Ultimate Diversity

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the celebrated writer of the musical “Hamilton,’ recently created a new musical, “In the Heights,’ which he meant as a celebration of his ethnic roots and background. The musical became a movie, but there were complaints, centered not on the plot, or the songs, or the themes, but on ethnic representation, specifically, the color of the actors.

On Tuesday, Manuel wrote this: “I can hear the hurt and frustration, of colorism, of feeling still unseen, in the feedback. I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latinos representation, the work feels extractive of the community we so much wanted to represent with pride and joy. In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.’

It was felt by the people Miranda was apologizing to, that there were not enough dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in the movie, to accurately represent the community Miranda was writing about. The director of the movie, John Chu, whom the Los Angeles Times article described as “a groundbreaking director of color,’ said that he tried to choose the actors who he thought were best for the roles. The article’s writer says, “While audiences were dazzled by the salsa, merengue, and hip-hop dance numbers in the film, some were simultaneously angered and dismayed by its minimal Afro-Latino and LGBTQ+ representation.’

Well, this bothered me. Now it is not just choosing between “Whites vs. Blacks’ in terms of balancing or criticizing casting choices. It is “light-skinned Latinos,” vs. “darker-skinned Afro-Latinos.” These are not terms I made up, they are in the article, and in the quoted texts and comments of the people angered by the casting. Where does this go? Not enough mesomorphs? Too many tall people? We need more or fewer blondes or redheads? Less Protestants? More Jewish characters? Is there a formula to get the right proportions of each, or is it something for viewers in general to decide in each case?

I didn’t see the play or movie. That is essentially irrelevant, because I am not reviewing it, criticizing it, or praising it. And various people were creatively involved in it, including Miranda, Chu, and Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book for the stage musical. And any of them has the perfect right to be displeased with the film product, or supportive of it; and to make public statements about it.

My perspective, which of course I am also entitled to, is that however well-meaning or full of feeling the comments may be, they reflect a game that cannot be won, which is pleasing every single ethnic group or sexual orientation. It cannot be done, as we see every day. There is always someone or some group which is offended, angry, feels excluded or insulted.

Not to mean to mock any of this by the comparison, but it reminds me of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,’ where there is this scene where all the various political revolutionary groups voice their own specific demands, which devolves into a squabbling uproar. That was meant as a send-up of the people of various political groups in the ’60’s and ’70’s, each with a different avowed agenda, who would endlessly argue about orthodoxy, political means and goals.

And it reminded me of the the 1972 Democratic Convention, where a desire for complete inclusiveness, led to virtual chaos; candidates being nominated for VP, then un-nominated, then nominated again.; as the convention’s last day went on until 3AM, at which time the presidential nominee gave his acceptance speech to almost no audience. That debacle certainly contributed in at least some part to the landslide loss in the general election, and the takeover of the party machinery by the Conservative Carter wing in 1976.

Miranda certainly can keep trying to create a work, and control a casting policy, which does not offend anyone, at least any of the minority groups, but he will likely not succeed. What concerns me is that we witness the evil enemy, the fascist Republicans, take full advantage of the relative impotence of ‘our side,’ which is paralyzed by the ceaseless complaining and anger coming from various groups who do not feel sufficiently represented, whether in awards shows, or movie or theatre casts, or candidates, or appointees, and who then either lose interest in supporting the other ones, or seem more concerned about getting their way, than in winning the elections.

And do not think that the Republicans aren’t fully aware of that. This is why I read that “critical race theory’ has apparently been mentioned on Fox News literally something like 3,000 times in the last month. They have two essential aims in their propaganda; 1) find terms or stories to scare White voters that the country is going to be taken over by minority forces who are going to impose a cultural agenda in schools and in art; 2) split the Democrats by accentuating anger among the various factions. This is what the Russians did in 2016, with their ads on social media. Enough people got so angry so as to not vote, which directly caused the margins in the three crucial swing states.

I can’t tell various ethnic groups what to be angry about, or where I think that they are missing the forest for the trees, or being deliberately deflected into dead ends. I think that this kind of quota thing, where there has to be an acceptable amount of various ethnicities in every production, is both dreary, and seeks to impose a kind of cultural and verbal orthodoxy.

You must have more of this, less of that; someone is offended because someone said a word or cast a person which someone might possibly object to, which of course they want to tell everyone about and ramp up anger. I have heard about this kind of thing going on in college classes, which can be brought to a standstill, if every person who doesn’t like this or that author being included or does not like the way in which the history is presented, gets to voice complaints at every turn. Admittedly it is a delicate problem, to balance trying to be fair and listen to everyone, and trying to teach course material.

Where do we draw that figurative line? I deliberately never saw Spike Lee’s movie “Mo’ Better Blues”; I had read more than one review which said that Lee’s portrayals of Jewish people in the movie more than verged on anti-semitic stereotypes. Some people are intensely concerned with bias against them, but blithely unconcerned with their own bias against others, but of course they don’t see it as bias. So I had no wish to see that movie, or give Lee any part of my $10, which of course he has done fine without. But he got the movie made, and very few even consider the stereotyping bias in it, because Jewish people are a fairly small group by numbers, and are not as apt to complain about such things.

If we are required to count every single actor or statement or piece of art, and carefully inspect it for its numbers of each group, and its possible cultural flaws, we will stymie all or most of it, or else relegate it to only acceptable by select groups. Or we will try, as Disney apparently does, to create works which do not offend one single person, which requires the most bland, insipid presentations.

There have been so many periods in human history where various forces demanded othodoxy, and used various tools to enforce it, including execution. Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. The Christian Church wiped out entire groups of members of so-called heresies, such as the Albigensians. The Inquisition was designed to find excuses to burn people, searching for even the slightest deviation from orthodoxy. The Puritans enforced rigid rules in their bailiwicks, The 1950’s and McCarthyism demanded conformity from everyone, and questioned people in a similar manner as the Spanish Inquisitors. There are different types of forced conformity, and one of them is now the demand for ultimate diversity in all things, at least for the people who are demanding it.

I saw “West Side Story,’ of course, and I know that some were not thrilled by Natalie Wood playing a teenage girl of Puerto Rican ancestry. I thought that the powerful effect of the musical was not diluted, but this would never happen now. Now we have “color blind casting,’ which has cast plays which I have seen, where in the 18th Century play “She Stoops to Conquer,’ an actress from the West Indies played the nearby cousin of the daughter of a landed English gentleman; and where in Shaw’s Victorian play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” Mrs. Warren is Black, and her daughter is White.

I do realize that this was intended to give minority actors more of a chance for major roles, which no reasonable person would argue against. But you will never see a White actor play a Black person, so what happened to the theoretical principle of color blind casting? And I admit that I find it disconcerting. as it is more difficult to lose yourself in the play, you are always conscious of the ethnicities which were not part of the original work. Somebody who has not read these plays, sees them, and may well think that the ethnicities of the actors were intended by the playwright, that there is a cultural aspect to the story which actually never was the case.

We can be certain that if the Republicans regain power, there are going to be trials and executions of various sorts, for those who do not conform to their cultural dictates. The strength of American democracy was always believed to be a tolerance for a diversity of opinions. But that may have mostly been a thin veneer of protection against the impulses toward orthodoxy and totalitarianism which too many people have. And paradoxically, some of the orthodoxy is now directed toward various diversity requirements.

What well-intentioned Lin-Manuel Miranda wants to do with his next work, is his own right, and not a major matter, except that it keeps recurring in various aspects of our culture. The effort to write or say something which does not possibly offend any person or group of people, is Sisyphean, and almost certainly doomed to failure. And if the Democrats fall back into the same kind of thing which went on in the ’70’s, we will all suffer the same fate as then, being repeatedly divided against ourselves.

5 Responses

  1. I will be attending a funeral service tomorrow, for a fellow church member and Sunday school classmate. He was 74, and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He died Saturday after a sudden illness, of some sort of gall bladder?/liver?/kidney? failure. As my question marks indicate, I am still fuzzy on the details.

    However, IF I understand correctly, he was taken to three different hospitals in Central Arkansas, but none of them had any ICU beds available, before he died. I would assume that was because of COVID-19 cases. Perhaps he would have died anyway, but his life might have been saved if he had been able to get full ICU-grade medical attention promptly. Again, this is IF I understand correctly.

    I suspect that if Hillary Rodham Clinton had been President when Corona-chan struck the USA, then we would have gotten a vaccine, and gotten the damned virus under control sufficiently faster, that there would have been an ICU bed available for my churchmate at the first hospital he was taken to.

    So the Purity Ponies and Vote Slackers (the people who did not vote for Benedict Donald, but could not be bothered to vote for Hillary to keep Donnie Two Scoops out) are welcome to fuck off around the world. Then they can fuck off another couple of trips around the globe. Then they can fuck off to the Moon. From there, they can fuck off to Mars. From there, they can fuck off to Pluto or one of those other trans-Neptunian dwarf planets. Then they can fuck off to the farthest reaches of the Oort Cloud. Then they can fuck off to the Alpha Centauri system.

    • IBW, i am sorry for the loss of your friend. And I share your thoughts about the politics. There was no rational reason for Democrats, people who consider themselves liberals, or on the Left, not to vote for Hillary. But enough of them found their own reasons, even including thinking that if Hillary lost, Sanders would win in 2020. Well, he didn’t, and we not only had a dreadful response to the pandemic, but we also ended up with Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett on the Supreme Court, which means that Roe is going to be further diminished; nothing will be done about the existential issue of climate change, and there will be no gun laws. Of course, had the same people not voted for Nader in Florida, we would not have Roberts and Alito on the Court to remove all the voting rights laws. All we needed was for people to act rationally, instead of out of spite or disdain, and we would be so much better off as a democracy and a country.

      • Thanx, Wills. He and I were not close, but he was a decent family man and a patriot, who deserved a better end than he got.

  2. William, do you think the quest for “ultimate diversity” in the arts further divides Democrats and prevents us from unifying on central issues that effect us all? Is that the crux of the problem for you? If so, I tend to agree.

    Toward the end of his life, MLK was focused on uniting poor people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds to fight for economic justice. The Rev. William Barber, of the Poor People’s Campaign, is currently leading the cause MLK championed. They recently held a rally outside Joe Manchin’s office in WV.

    Poverty is an issue that affects people of all skin colors. Uniting to fight poverty helps us all. Criminal justice reform and voting rights are other issues we all need to support if we are going to triumph over right-wing antidemocratic forces.

    • Beata, yes, I do think it diffuses things, and potentially sets various groups against one another. People will of course have their own views, and key issues for them. But I do not at all like seeing the arts turned into a contest of diversity or mathematical representation. i am rather a purist when i comes to art, and I like productions which are true to the original intent of the artist, as far as it can be ascertained. I do not like it being turned into another forum where people complain about the ethnicity or gender of the casting, or who wins the awards, as if everything ultimately reduces to that.

      In general, liberals tend to be caring, and concerned about the feelings of minority groups of all types. It is obviously better than the way the Republicans act. But it can become enervating and dreary, when it becomes the focus of every single aspect of the culture. The risk the Democrats always face is that their wished for coalition of disparate groups risks being frayed or even torn apart, when there are different people angrily complaining about how they feel they are being marginalized. Some of this is understandable, but the arts have become the place where well-meaning people seem to value diversity of cast, themes, and presentations, over anything else, mostly out of fear of offending anyone, or out of just being concerned about that one aspect. And yes, the FDR coalition was of working people of all ethnicities It is not the 1930’s, but if we are talking about winning elections, we need to be pretty much unified as to major goals, or the other side will pick us apart. This is just my opinion, of course, but this eagerness for narrow, discrete self-identification almost makes all this conflict inevitable. And making ‘Mrs.’Warren,’ who is a well-off prostitute in the 19th century, a Black woman,,almost implies that her race is the issue, when that was certainly no part of Shaw’s typically charming but thoughtful play.

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