After the riot at the Capitol, we were told on the one hand that now is the time for peace and unity, and, on the other, that the violence carried out in the halls of Congress does not represent America, that it’s not “who we are.” The first view is self-serving nonsense; the second, simplistic and historically inaccurate. Both are examples of the poverty of political speech, with its lazy reliance on cliché and platitude.
As every English teacher knows, there is an insidious cycle at work in such formulations. Slovenly thinking and impoverished language walk hand in hand, each reinforcing the other.
In the last few years, it has proved almost impossible not to become news junkies, giving attention to the lies, cynical posturing, and narrow-minded ideas of mediocre thinkers. Confronting the deceit, vitriol, and claptrap of politicians and media head on and giving it a name was one way of preserving common sense, decency, and truth itself.
But with the constant vigil there was a price to pay in loss of perspective and peace of mind. For respite, a retreat to art provided clarity and solace.
I recently discovered, via YouTube, MCC Theater’s 2020 Miscast Gala, in which Katrina Lenk gives an astounding performance of “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof. She is not a Russian Jew, and she is most certainly not a man, yet she stays true to the song and conjures new meaning from it.
Singing, dancing, and playing the violin, Ms. Lenk performs with nuance, good-natured satire, and, above all, intelligence. Her performance is political, but also revelatory in critiquing the inequity of traditional gender dynamics and the worship of money. Like all great artists, she builds a bridge where the gulf seemed too wide to traverse.
Keats’s well-known affirmation that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is a paradox that puzzled many of my high school students, but its meaning is really quite straightforward. In Katrina Lenk’s performance, we see truth and beauty rolled into one. Dressed all in white except for her pink pumps, she is beautiful. Her singing, violin playing, and dancing are beautiful. Her radiant face is beautiful. The truth she evokes, broadminded and charitable, is beautiful.
The vision of artists provides a handhold in the dark when we are forced to confront complex and difficult truths about ourselves and our society. Today, there is no denying the simple truth that American democracy is not only imperfect but riddled with holes and that we are in danger of losing our way. While it might be more enriching to read Toni Morrison than listen to the self-important bluster of Lindsey Graham, we can’t afford to live in a binary world. Who will light the way? It must be our elected representatives and our artists.
We shouldn’t expect much from our politicians in the way of poetry. The oratorical brilliance of Abraham Lincoln has always been the rare exception. Occasionally, however, political speech succeeds in transcending the hollow formulations and half-truths that are so often its hallmark. And when it does, when it inspires our better selves to take flight, we rediscover our ideals and the will to act on them anew.
President Biden’s inaugural address may have lacked rhetorical flourish, but in its honest presentation of important truths, its deeply felt sincerity, and its adherence to fact, it was profoundly moving and inspirational. He made me want to be a better American.
And what a stark contrast President Biden’s words presented to the bombast of Mr. I-Alone-Can-Fix-It with his reference to “American carnage,” which, given the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, must now be viewed through the lens of irony.
In the days ahead, may we be blessed with high-minded leadership as we confront the mass psychosis that bedevils our country and too often appears impervious to plain speech, truth, and the ideals America was founded upon.
Andrew Hay lives in Eastham.