In defense of Streep, the humanities – and humanity

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The latest salvo in the culture war that is surely to deepen under President Donald Trump was fired by Meryl Streep in a graceful and grace-filled speech at the Golden Globes.

I’m not a fan of people using award shows as a bully pulpit, coming of age as I did in the  1970s when such Oscar speeches (think Vanessa Redgrave and an absent Marlon Brando) were a kind of cliché. I’m not a fan of gesture politics like refusing to stand for the National Anthem. I’m not even a fan of Meryl Streep, a sometimes mannered actress (“Sophie’s Choice,” “The Hours”) who’s nevertheless capable of great work (“Marvin’s Room,” “The Manchurian Candidate”).

But Streep – a hard-working craftswoman who has paid her dues – offered a master class in a performer giving a political speech by turning the concept of the politician as performer inside out.

Streep judged Trump, whose name she never used, for the effectively cruel performance in which he mocked disabled New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski.

“There was one performance this year that stunned me,” she said in accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award. “It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth.

“It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.”

Here I’d like to draw a distinction between Streep’s speech and the “Hamilton” cast calling out Vice President-elect Mike Pence as he exited a performance of the Broadway phenom. Curtain speeches are a rarity with the exception of opening night. As I wrote in a post then, the cast should’ve made its pitch briefly in a backstage meet-and-greet.

Streep, on the other hand, was receiving a lifetime achievement award, which allows for a speech and a broader perspective. The “Hamilton” speech had an air of pleading and neediness. The Streep speech had a quality of strength. It was a call to awareness, if not to arms, an appeal for decency and compassion and an end to the meanness that has defined this election cycle:

“Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose. OK. Go on with that thing.

“This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage….”

Trump, in typical Trumpian fashion, responded by denying he had ridiculed a disabled man – even though it’s on tape – and attacking Streep as an overrated actress, a Hillary flunky and a loser. But Streep’s acting ability is irrelevant to the argument. He should’ve addressed her points rather than distracting by detracting.

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway took another tack, questioning the limited perspective of privileged stars like Streep, who are worth “a gazillion dollars.” But why should the opinions of the rich and famous be any less important simply because they have advantages that others don’t? Aren’t Trump and many of the members of his cabinet 1 percenters? By that standard, they shouldn’t be in government at all.

But they would argue that there are 1 percenters and there are 1 percenters. There are billionaires like Trump who understand the common people and liberal elitists like Streep who don’t. And indeed even Streep supporters like “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah took her to task for these lines:

“So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”

Replied Noah: “You don’t have to make your point by sh--ting on someone else’s thing, because a lot of people love football and the arts.” 

Increasingly, however, the balance between athletics and the arts/academia is tipping in favor of sports. Football is a religion in this country. Arts education and history don’t even register in primary school anymore.

And that’s a tragedy, because the arts and history offer context, perspective, critical thinking, empathy. Football is thrilling but it’s a violent sport that breeds violence – a subject I explore in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding.”

Streep is right to sound the alarm, for the chances of their being many people in the future like Noah – who love football and the arts – are slim and none.