Decency Is Not a Dirty Word

Meryl Streep.

Did you have a visceral reaction to that name just now?

If you know why I’m asking that, my guess is that you thought her speech at the Golden Globe awards was either powerful and eloquent and exactly what the country needs to hear as the Bully-in-Chief prepares to take office, or an inappropriate, off-topic, partisan attack on the president-elect by an out-of-touch liberal elite living in her privileged Hollywood bubble.

And if your reaction falls somewhere outside those polar stereotypes, I’d love to hear it. I dream of a society in which every single action and speech of consequence does not drive us to rush to one side of the room or the other to huddle in the comfort and safety of our supposed ideological soulmates.

Or to put it more simply, I dream of a society consumed less with ideology and more with cooperation, tolerance, kindness, and finding common ground. And enlightened enough to realize it is not always necessary or constructive to take sides—or for that matter, to make sides where sides don’t need to be.

In her speech accepting an award for lifetime achievement, Streep wove in a story about what she called one of the most effective acting performances of the year—by Donald Trump, in which he mocked a disabled reporter for calling out Trump’s lies about a story the reporter had written after the 9/11 attacks.

Here’s the portion of the Streep speech that, without naming him, directly referenced Trump: “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, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

In 2001, reporter Serge Kovaleski co-wrote a story looking into claims that there were Muslims on New Jersey rooftops celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers. The allegations were never substantiated, but Trump, during his presidential campaign, claimed that he saw “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the attacks, and then cited Kovaleski’s story as backup. Kovaleski correctly countered that his story did nothing to support Trump’s claim. So during a campaign rally, Trump lashed out at Kovaleski—who has a disease that limits the function of his joints—and mocked him by flapping his arms spastically. If you watch this video and still deny that Trump was mocking Kovaleski’s disability, I’m pretty sure your trousers will erupt in flames.

It didn’t take conservatives long to fire up the backlash, on Twitter and elsewhere. Meghan McCain tweeted that “this Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won, and if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how, you will help him get re-elected.” The clumsiness of her logic aside (one must assume she meant Trump voters were rejecting Hollywood-style elitism in general, not having a collective moment of clairvoyance), McCain left us wondering what exactly in the speech she objected to. Other conservative pundits criticized Streep for turning an awards ceremony into a leftist political rally. Former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway asked why Streep didn’t use her platform to address the public (on Facebook) torture of a mentally challenged boy by four young African-American adults in Chicago. Conway’s apples-and-oranges twist of logic might have seemed bizarre had not Fox News been employing the same diversionary tactic for years, blunting necessary discussions about police brutality against blacks by asking why the media weren’t spending more time covering black-on-black crime.

And the Supreme Tweeter himself shot back that Streep was “over-rated,” and repeated the provable lie that he had never mocked a disabled reporter.

Now Streep’s speech did hit one unfortunate sour note, called out by, among others, Trevor Noah and The Washington Post. “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” she said. “And if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” As Noah scolded on The Daily Show Monday, “You don’t have to make your point by shitting on someone else’s thing.” If you want to make people think you are one of those privileged Hollywood elites who doesn’t understand Middle America, go ahead, make fun of “low-rent” entertainments like football. (And by the way, Meryl, like many of us educated East Coast elites, I would have been watching a certain NFL game instead of the opening of the Golden Globes had I not been detained by soccer-coaching duties.)

That said, there is nothing about Streep’s takedown of Trump over the Kovaleski incident that warrants left-vs.-right hostilities. The core of Streep’s message was not about politics—it was about decency, and the abuse of power to encourage similar indecent acts. This is what saddens and disgusts me about the world that Fox News and its ilk have created and perpetuated. As with the obstructionist Republican Congress, nothing that comes from the other side can be validated as correct or even a pretty good idea. There is no common ground. It’s bad enough that the Republican Party rejects science and welcomes racism and homophobia within its ranks. When we cannot agree that the parents of a fallen soldier deserve to be treated with respect, or that language demeaning women and condoning sexual violence is disturbing at best, or that a disabled man who dared to speak truth deserves not to have his disability mocked in public—by the soon-to-be-most-powerful man in America, no less—then we are in deep trouble.

And as long as the right is programmed to avoid these questions by simply lying its way around them, our national discourse is doomed to parallel the obstinate sez-who of an angry Facebook argument. Meryl Streep is asking us to be better than that, and if it takes a “privileged elite” to have the platform, and the gravitas, to say so, I don’t have a problem with that.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

 

One thought on “Decency Is Not a Dirty Word

  1. K.S.

    This very much needed to be said (Decency is not a Dirty Word) and I’m glad to have read the likes of such sentiments for the first time in print! At times it appears that “sides” willfully misunderstand the other and do not have problem-solving as the common goal. Refreshing to read it finally pointed out that the crux of Streep’s point was not, actually all about “relitigating” the insult to the reporter, but in fact, a much greater message about effective communication. Great piece.

    Reply

Leave a Reply