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Friday, May 26, 2017

Distant Music

I was listening to the musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime,' a work I admire in all its forms: the novel, the screen adaptation, and obviously the musical. And, while listening to the cast album, all I could think was, 'Where did this America get off to?'

True, it is a difficult America there in New Rochelle at the turn of the last century, as the white middle class sings, "There were no Negroes" and "There were no immigrants," but it was an America working toward something. There was an undercurrent of movement towards equality and mutual understanding, a jagged harmony of tension and commonality.

Since the election, by hook or by crook, of Donald J. Trump, that America is no longer an America recognize. I may as well be listening to Starlight Express--a musical about singing trains.

Once upon a time, in a land under our very feet, there was a great nation standing for freedom. Its people were flawed to be sure. Its history was not pleasant. But it occasionally lurched a bit forward into the idea of itself. The nation perceived itself to be a land of opportunity, of hope, of equality for all even as it fought with itself to resist such things. And in the fighting was the progress.

No more.

No one truly knows why, but one day the fight forward was lost. Certainly many in the nation discussed--and fought--over the reasons why it happened, but one day the lurch forward ceased, and became a stumble back into the unpleasantries of the past. The stumble became a desperate grasping back, then a stampede trampling many of the citizens of the land.

In 'Ragtime,' Henry Ford is more or less celebrated--he's got his own song, he sells a car to a black man named Colehouse, and Colehouse views this car as a symbol of social progress. It doesn't end well for Colehouse, of course, but it ends very well for Ford, who is remembered as an innovator integral to the development of modern America. What's missing from Ford's depiction in 'Ragtime' is that he was an anti-Semitic racist Nazi sympathizer awarded the highest honor a non-German could receive by Adolf Hitler.

I was brought up in post-Watergate America, in the 1970s, and Regan's America in the 1980s. I was brought up in a smallish town in Alabama. My parents were casual racists who experienced desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, and tried to raise me to be more in tune with what they perceived to be the inescapable reality of the New America: they encouraged me to live in the jagged harmony of equality and understanding. When a new black family moved into our neighborhood, Mom and Dad gently nudged me to welcome them, play with the children, become friends with them. Certainly they made racist comments about them (I was told, for instance, that if I picked my nose, my nostrils would stretch out as wide as the black kids' nostrils, a thing I stupidly believed for years), but my parents never told me to stop being friends with anyone who was not my color or religion.

Also, we lived across the street from the only Temple in town. On Saturdays, my father would refuse to mow the lawn out of respect for the process of worship--and we were not all that into worship. I think I went to church maybe five or six times in my youth.

If it had been a Catholic church, or a Baptist church, or a mosque, I'm certain my father would've been just as respectful.

Incidentally, the only time I ever got into a fight was in the parking lot of that temple. It was unrelated to religion. I got my ass kicked for being sarcastic to the neighborhood bully who probably grew up to be a Trump supporter.

Anyway, listening to 'Ragtime,' I realized I grew up in an America that currently does not exist. I grew up with a media straining to resist their centuries-old urge to belittle and demoralize minorities. I grew up with a family trying desperately to accept the idea of inclusion and equality. It was an imperfect way to grow up--in school I had four years of Alabama history and only a semester of world history, and in none of those classes was the Holocaust mentioned--but in all ways it was made clear to me that the way to the future is the way of diversity and inclusion.

Now? Now we have a government attempting to divide and to preserve something that 'once was' that never was. Make America Great Again. Except America was great.

'Ragtime,' you see, is about how America became more alive with its different shades. Certainly there's some whitewashing, but the message is there: as painful as it can sometimes be, we as a nation lurch forward and reach out for something bigger than ourselves, and hope we push our children into that forward momentum rather than drag them back into the stampede rushing backward. There is violence and tragedy in 'Ragtime' (and a very decidedly overlooked Nazi sympathizing god in Henry Ford) but it is tragedy as recognition and warning.

We failed to heed the warning, of course, and now we have people on television bemoaning 'white genocide' and complaining about multiculturalism. Once ridiculed, these people are now elected officials.

And so I don't recognize my country anymore. 'Ragtime' is now science fiction.

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