I love Meryl Streep. The River Wild, a crime thriller in which she plays a tough-as-nails river guide, was one of my favorite movies as a kid. Adaptation, Doubt, and The Iron Lady are permanently marked in my memory. But the Hollywood aristocracy rarely does political speeches well, so I felt a little embarrassed for one of my favorite actresses when she made a stab at it Sunday on national television.
As you've probably heard, Streep gave an acceptance speech at this year's Golden Globes that was largely about President-elect Donald Trump. It was like a highlight reel of liberals' worst assumptions about power.
Streep first painted herself and everyone in that room as the country's new underdogs: "All of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners, and the press." Streep was riffing off an earlier joke by Hugh Laurie, but she wasn't joking. She was deadly serious.
Then she gave a long list of actresses and actors who came from parts unknown, and sometimes from nothing, to conquer Hollywood: Viola Davis from a sharecropper's cabin in South Carolina, Sarah Jessica Parker from Ohio, Dev Patel from Kenya and then London, and so on. It was, in and of itself, a stirring list, but one that belied a common assumption among liberals and conservatives alike: That equality lies in everyone having the same shot at reaching the top of society, regardless of identity, as opposed to closing the yawning gap between top and bottom.
Then Streep got to the cornerstone of her speech: the horror she felt when Trump once mocked the disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. Of Trump's many cretinous statements and behaviors on the campaign trail, this was undeniably one of the foulest, undertaken against someone "he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back," as Streep put it. But then Streep got to the next part: "It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth."
This was where Streep's speech went off the rails and her hierarchy of vilification came apart. The peak of American power is Trump and his teeth-baring supporters? The bottom are immigrants and the media elite?
Trump himself may have "outranked" Kovaleski, but Trump's supporters are another matter entirely. Plenty of them come from the most economically devastated parts of the country. In fact, one of the most reliable statistical predictors of support for Trump in a given county are rates of death by suicide, drugs, and alcohol. These people are literally killing themselves out of despair.
Meanwhile the cities inhabited by Streep, and myself, and everyone who cheered her last night are flourishing. All significant cultural production — movies, music, art, news, politics, etc — is created in the major city centers and then beamed out to everyone else. All serious economic activity occurs there as well.
In any other context where someone with privilege was criticizing people with little-to-none, liberalism would rightly insist on doing so with great care and humility. It might insist on just avoiding the topic altogether. But Streep did the opposite and even made herself and her fellow media elites the underdogs.
Now, none of this means that Trump isn't vile and cruel. Nor does it mean that Trump's supporters didn't reveal something about themselves in elevating such a man to the White House. But as Joe Bageant, one of our most perceptive and unsung observers of the white working class, pointed out, American society is adept on training its less-privileged members for cruelty. It works them in demeaning low-paying jobs while stripping their communities of wealth, tut-tuts their bigotry and moral failings, and leaves them no outlet other than resentment and/or violence.
Some reporters and observers really did try to empathize with Trump's white working-class supporters in 2016. But many liberals either resisted that empathy, or pointed out that no such empathy is ever on tap for the black poor and working classes. Which is true. But the cure to hypocrisy is not simply to be consistent, but to do what is right consistently.
"An actor's only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like," Streep said. I totally agree. It's a big reason why I love the movies. But Streep presented that empathy as a gift to the rest of the country, as opposed to something she and her colleagues might learn from themselves.