This weekend the story about Vice President-elect Mike Pence getting booed by the audience and lectured by the cast at Hamilton, as well as President-elect Trump's tweet-fit over it, dominated the news. Many warned that those tweets were calculated to distract from Trump's $25 million fraud settlement over his so-called university, a first for an on-deck commander in chief and a grim harbinger for his future as steward of American law and education. Of course he tweeted about this, too, calling the settlement a "small fraction" of the $40 million suit, prompting further questions about his understanding of fractions.
Certainly some members of the media and public were distracted by the stage and social media theatrics — you can get caught up at nonprofit news outlet www.ProPublica.org, which has assembled "The Absolute Best, Most Terrific Reporting on Trump University" — but if we are to follow and report on the next four years, we may need to get better at multitasking and considering more than one awful story at a time.
But the Hamilton moment is worth focusing on, too, and not just because of the irony of Trump calling for a "safe space," a term often ridiculed by his base, or the boycott of a play that's sold out until the second coming. Actor Brandon Dixon implored Pence, "We, sir, we are the diverse America, who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us." The cast used its platform to speak on behalf of people of color, religious minorities, immigrants, women and the LGBTQ community, the very people who make up the cast lined up for curtain call. But this diversity is not exclusive to Lin Manuel Miranda's hip hop-infused show.
The arts — music, visual art, dance, theater, literature — despite what the overwhelmingly white, male canon would show you, have always been a haven for those outside the mainstream, the very groups that find themselves in the most precarious positions under oppressive regimes. And given that Pence himself has been a proponent of shifting HIV research funds to objectively abusive and homophobic "conversion therapy," as well as making it a crime for same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses, they're right to worry about him. Add to that Trump surrogate Carl Higbie suggesting last week that the imprisonment of Japanese American citizens during World War II set a precedent for national Muslim registration, all while white supremacists are popping bottles over Trump's election at a Washington, D.C., convention, and an oppressive regime is not sounding far off. The Hamilton cast was wise to use the chance to be heard. In times when minorities and the poor are most heavily and forcefully silenced, stages, microphones, bookstores and galleries become our pulpits, our outlets and our strongholds.
Art is also a mainline to the mainstream audience, one of our best avenues of influence. Scoff if you like at the activism of actors, musicians and writers, but in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration largely ignored the AIDS crisis, the ACT UP movement, the ranks of which were thick with artists and performers, used street art and exhibitions to spread its message. Dismiss protest music and political art, too, if you like. But though history may be written by the victors, art, to the horror of those in power, can sculpt how we perceive it, how we remember it. It is the reason Tsar Nicholas bothered to send Fyodor Dostoyevsky to the gulag and China's government concerned itself with jailing Ai Weiwei. Think for a moment about the Holocaust and consider how much of what your mind's eye provides is from film, photography or the stories of those who lived it.
In his beautiful and crushing memoir Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi describes trying to recite Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, the lines he could recall at once offering him a way to understand his very real hell and feel his humanity again if only for a few minutes. This is what art offers both creator and audience: a shift in perspective, sometimes a little needed escapism, a means to speak above the noise, a sign that we are not alone and a tool of survival.
Along with marching peacefully, subscribing to newspapers, donating to worthy causes and reaching out to each other, it is vital that we engage in and support the arts. Luckily for us, Humboldt is packed with painters, dancers, poets and songwriters. Throw a rock and someone will yarn-bomb it, paint it or add it to a found-object sculpture. We are counting on creative people of all backgrounds in our community to keep nudging us out of our comfort zones and reminding us of the world's beauty. We need them to practice an aesthetics of inclusion in a political climate that would seek to isolate us. They are counting on us to open ourselves to their work, to respond and, if we have means, to pay for some of it so they can eat the good ramen noodles once in a while.
Visit our galleries and museums. Listen to an art talk. Go hear some live music and tip the band. Hit up a drag show (bring bills, honey). Go to the symphony. See a play. Buy a ticket and come ready to applaud if it moves you. Come ready to hear a point of view that is not your own. Come ready to be unabashedly swept up. And when you are confronted with those who want us to shuffle offstage and disappear back into the wings, come ready to boo.