I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents these days. My dad Bernard died 14 years ago on March 26. This is the first year of not having my mom with us to celebrate her birthday. She would have turned 103 on the 19th. Without their support and inspiration I would never have become the person writing these columns. Eastertime brings feelings of loss as well as gratitude and hope.
The promise of eternal life in which my parents believed deeply begins with living a good life. That means having motivational and aspirational ideals — cultivating an ethic of conviction that doesn’t rest on contented certainties but exercises one’s critical and creative faculties.
It’s fashionable today to be cynical about what politics can achieve and to be equally dismissive of much of contemporary culture. Unless you are a political scientist or film reviewer — I plead guilty on both counts — isn’t it naive to believe in the “political class” or to take seriously a popular art form like the movies? But bear with me as I delve into two new books that make compelling cases for a positive critical appreciation of what is possible through the practice of the political and cultural arts.
David Axelrod, author of Believer, knows what it’s like in both the trenches and at the summit of politics. For several years from 2009 - 2011 he was steps from the oval office as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama. Having observed the worst as well as the best of the American political process, he remains a believer in a positive politics of public purpose.
Like me, Axelrod traces his political inspiration at an early age in the 1960s to the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert. Their assassinations traumatized a generation but they also motivated a belief in progressive ideals — in “what you can do for your country” — that would be tested by the debacle of Vietnam, racial violence at home, and the Watergate scandal. Axelrod was drawn to the world of journalism, spending eight years as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He followed the rough and tumble of big-city politics, then controlled by Mayor Richard Daley’s Democratic party machine. He met hard-driving operatives like Rahm Emanuel, the current Chicago mayor who was Obama’s first chief of staff as president. After deciding to start his own political consulting firm, Axelrod became directly involved in campaigns. He became communications director for Paul Simon (the veteran liberal Democrat senator, not the folksinger), who in 1987 would make a quixotic presidential nomination bid under the slogan “Isn’t it time to believe again?”
Axelrod was certainly no ingénue. He was fully versed in all the tactics of a fiercely competitive system and thrived on the intensity of its contests from primaries to general elections. Sometimes fire may have to be met with fire. But the goal was always greater than just gaining power, and required a “politics of conviction, not just calculation.” Axelrod declined to become involved in national politics during the Clinton era of the 1990s, partly for family reasons (his wife was recovering from breast cancer). He first met Obama in 1992 when the latter was a Chicago community organizer. While Obama’s first forays into politics failed, he had ambition and natural talent that became evident when he was elected to the Illinois state senate. When Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry chose him to give the keynote address at the party’s 2004 convention, Obama soared to national attention. Two years later he took the Illinois senate seat at a time when there were no African Americans in the U.S. Senate, and barely a year after that would launch an unlikely presidential bid that would ultimately triumph.
Axelrod explains what attracted him to joining this audacious quest: “Barack personified the kind of politician I believed in. He seemed motivated by a fundamental conviction, born of his own experience that, in America, everyone who’s willing to work for it should get a fair chance to succeed. He was principled enough to stand alone when necessary but pragmatic enough to make deals and get things done. . . . Also, at a time when our politics has grown so divisive, he was the rare politician who genuinely could transcend race and class divides with a remarkable ability to appeal to our common values, hopes, and dreams.”
In hindsight, given the obdurate hostility of the Republican-controlled Congress and surveying the angry ugly mood of the current polarizing presidential primary season, this “yes we can” promise of “hope and change” may seem delusional if not cruelly ironic. But as Axelrod recalls, in 2007 - 2008, with America beset by unpopular foreign wars and an impending financial crisis, Obama was very much the brash outsider with the populist touch. He was the one demanding that “the ways of Washington must change.” He was the one reaching out “to make America whole.” As he said in a speech in Berlin, “the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another.” His campaign was an enormous insurgent movement aimed at mobilizing the grassroots, young people and minorities. Then as now, Hillary was the “establishment” candidate. In urging Obama to go for the highest office in the land, Axelrod told him “this is a splendid time to be an outsider.” Recognizing the ego trips that propel many contenders, he also cautioned that, “you may be too normal to run for president.” That will surely never be said of Donald Trump! (A white male New York billionaire can be a novice interloper, but an “outsider”?)
Notwithstanding controversial accomplishments like “Obamacare,” often in the face of furious opposition and obstruction, Axelrod is frank about the stumbles, disappointments and low points of the Obama presidency. He worries about the racist undertone of some attacks — “a deep-seated resentment of the idea of a black man with the Muslim name in the White House.” He acknowledges that Obama sometimes failed to connect, appearing professorial and aloof. He admits to becoming exhausted by setbacks and negative polls. Yet he describes the man as “a thoroughly admirable person,” vigorously defending his legacy, and holding fast to the belief in a democratic politics driven by higher ideals however much the currency may be debased or corrupted.
If everyone is a critic in politics, movies, like the rest of popular culture, can spark endless disagreements. So how do we, indeed can we, discriminate between anyone’s and everyone’s likes and dislikes? For a number of years A.O. Scott has occupied the prestigious perch of chief film critic for The New York Times. In Better Living Through Criticism he tackles the question of why we need such critics. What makes their views special? In the digital era maybe we should just rely on crowd-sourced aggregators like imdb.com or rottentomatoes.com. Scott sets up his inquiry as a series of sometimes skeptical Socratic dialogues with himself.
Socrates is famous for his affirmation that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In seeking a justification for artistic criticism Scott argues that, while all criticism necessarily involves a subjective personal element, the criticism that is needed involves a process of deeper thinking about artistic creation, of deeper understanding of our own aesthetic experience and that of others. Yes a lot of movies are products of commercial show business. But that does not make them either beneath or beyond criticism.
Moreover, the cinema as a collaborative art form can only benefit from critical discernment, from thoughtful interpretation and explorations of meaning. Following the philosopher Kant in valuing judgment beyond what is merely pleasing, Scott writes that: “In its highest incarnation, the aesthetic is ennobling in a way that makes it hard to distinguish from moral virtue or spiritual grace. . . .”
At the same time, Scott acknowledges that critics often have little influence on popular tastes. Critically acclaimed movies may fail to draw an audience while big productions getting thumbs down score at the box office. The reviewer’s critical freedom “exists in a world dominated by advertising and marketing, by the imperative to buy and sell rather than to stop and think.” Remaining true to the art of criticism means avoiding temptations to go with the crowd or make a point of standing against it — to become a fan or a contrarian disdainful of whatever is popular. It’s not about being “right” or “wrong.” It’s about offering an honest appreciation that makes a contribution to a better understanding of life through art.
These are challenging times for critics, especially in the diminishing world of the traditional print media up against the flood of digital content. But I share Scott’s hope that there will always be a place for critical viewing, writing and reading.