Cleopatra is one of the most beautiful women in history — by reputation, by myth. Gal Gadot is one of the most beautiful women in history — by the evidence of our own eyes. She has been tapped to play Cleopatra in a movie, naturally. Could there be a more natural hire?
Yet the hire has rubbed some people the wrong way. (What doesn’t?) “Gal Gadot’s Cleopatra film sparks ‘whitewashing’ claims,” reads a headline from the BBC. The article explains, “Some have said the role should instead go to an Arab or African actress.”
Cleopatra was a Greek princess, presiding in Alexandria.
In 2016, I wrote an essay called “Killing Aida: A mortal threat to art.” It was sparked by an incident at the University of Bristol, in England. Student protesters there forced the cancellation of a production of Aida (not the opera by Verdi but a musical by Elton John and Tim Rice, which is based on the opera).
What was their beef? Egyptians and Ethiopians would be played by students who weren’t Egyptian or Ethiopian.
Ay caramba, as they say on the streets of Cairo and Addis Ababa.
I poured into my essay everything I think on the subject of identity politics and art. I have nothing to add. I “left everything on the field.”
Cleopatra entered into my essay, as it happens. That’s because one of the Bristol protesters said, “Whitewashing still exists. It’s been done enough in Hollywood. Look at Liz Taylor in Cleopatra.” I commented that, “quite possibly,” Cleo and Liz looked rather alike — “not that it matters much when you are talking about art.”
The fundamental theme of my essay was that identity politics could be the death of art. The two don’t mix. One or the other has to prevail. Many of us worry that it won’t be art.
Last season, Saturday Night Live had a sharp and funny sketch about actors in a game show — a show called “Can I Play That?” Contestants have to decide, “Can I play that particular role?” (The answer is probably no.) To watch the sketch, go here. It is a fabulous skewering of a type of political correctness.
Thinking of Cleopatra, I think of Shakespeare, sure, but I also think of Handel, and his opera Giulio Cesare (i.e., Julius Caesar). My two favorite sopranos in the role of Cleopatra are Americans: one a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, the other a black girl from Laurel, Mississippi.
To hear Beverly Sills (née Belle Silverman) in 1968, go here. To hear Leontyne Price, in 1956, go here. Both sing the aria “Se pietà di me non senti,” an F-sharp-minor beguiler, one of the best arias Handel ever wrote, in opera or oratorio. Late in her career, Price began all her recitals with it.
She played another Cleopatra, too — in Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, which opened the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, in 1966. The role was written for Price (literally, I mean, not figuratively).
I could go on, but you catch what I’m saying about all this. I hope Gal gets a chance to play Cleopatra, because I’d love seeing that movie — or Gal going to the grocery store wearing no makeup and a burlap sack, I don’t care.
• China, Russia, and Cuba have been elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council. What else is new, right? I am repeatedly reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s point: The United Nations is not so much an assembly of nations or countries as an assembly of governments or regimes. Some of them are democratic, some of them aren’t. Some of them are vicious dictatorships, like China, Russia, and Cuba. The U.N. is only as good as the world’s governments. The U.N. is a reflection of the world’s governments.
• As U.S. officials negotiated with the Taliban in Doha, President Trump sprang a surprise tweet: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” The announcement stunned U.S. negotiators and Taliban negotiators alike. The Taliban guys, needless to say, were more pleased than their U.S. counterparts. All the U.S. leverage was taken away: whoosh.
Forthwith, the Taliban endorsed Trump for reelection (not that the Taliban holds much sway, as far as I know, with American voters).
Trump’s tweet was obviously — nakedly — a campaign ploy. “Troops home by Christmas” is an old concept, virtually a cliché. Whatever you think of the continuation of Americans in Afghanistan — and there is a lot to think — this impulsive presidential tweeting is no way to run a war.
Well, what do I think? It has been a long time. We’ve been in Afghanistan almost 20 years. Veterans of the war are now seeing their sons and daughters go off to fight the same one. Yet the Taliban are still in alliance with al-Qaeda, a friendship that should make anyone, especially an American, wary.
Everything I think on this subject, I put in a piece last year called “Looking Hard at the Afghan War.” At the center of that piece is a conversation with Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and to many other countries in the region.
• Recently, Senator Mitch McConnell was talking about the pandemic, self-protection, and the White House. Say what you will about the man, he is sane — stone cold sane:
“I haven’t actually been to the White House since August the 6th, because my impression was, their approach to how to handle this is different from mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”
• You have heard that 13 men were arrested in a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer. I’d like to go back to protests at the state capitol, earlier this year.
Men with guns entered the gallery, intimidating the lawmakers below. One of those lawmakers, Dayna Polehanki, took a picture and tweeted, “Directly above me, men with rifles are yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bulletproof vests are wearing them.”
I didn’t like that kind of protest, that kind of display. Some of my colleagues chastised me, saying this was just good ol’ American friskiness, and what did I expect, with people locked down and deprived of their livelihood? Plus, was I a little girl about guns?
Well, two of those men — two of the men in the photo taken by Polehanki — were arrested by the FBI in the kidnapping plot. I’m glad that the FBI is alert, and I hope that law enforcement in general will continue to be.
Ordered liberty is the only kind of liberty worthy of the name.
• A few days ago, Trump said of Biden, “He literally wants to take your cars away.” Really? Even the hybrid ones?
Earlier, he said that Biden would “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment.” There would be “no religion, no anything.” Biden would “hurt the Bible, hurt God.” Trump added, “He’s against God, he’s against guns.”
• Yesterday, Trump was speaking at a rally, in front of a battery of American flags, flappin’ in the wind. He pointed at some journalists and said, “Look how innocent they look, and they’re not innocent. They’re not innocent. The enemy of the people. I call them ‘the enemy of the people.’”
Yes, he does — over and over. Everyone is numb to it. But we shouldn’t be, in my opinion. The phrase “enemy of the people” has a history. Lots of people have died — been murdered — after being so labeled, in the Lubyanka and elsewhere.
No, I will never get used to it. And for the American president to use that phrase in front of all those American flags. I think it’s sick. I realize I’m virtually alone in this, but I don’t care.
• At another rally, last month, Trump was talking about Ali Velshi, a reporter for NBC, who covered protests in Minneapolis back in May. “I remember this guy, Welshi, he got hit on the knee with a canister of tear gas, and he went down. He was down. ‘My knee! My knee!’” The president continued in this vein before telling the crowd, “It was the most beautiful thing.” (Actually, Velshi was hit with a rubber bullet.)
Reprising the act to another rally, Trump said, “That idiot reporter from CNN got hit in the knee with a canister of tear gas, right? And he went down. ‘I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit!’” And so on and so forth.
Trump told other such tales, to the delight of his crowd. For example: “They grabbed one guy — ‘I’m a reporter! I’m a reporter!’ Get out of here. They threw him aside like he was a little bag of popcorn!”
This is what you would expect from a Latin American caudillo — a Perón, a Chávez, a Bolsonaro — not from a U.S. president. Millions of people love it. Count me out.
• Maynard Solomon, an eminent musicologist, has died. To read his obit in the New York Times, go here. He wrote an important biography of Beethoven — and I once asked him a question. It went something like this:
You often read that Beethoven was a terrible, impossible person, alienating everyone he encountered. Then you read that he was a great man, in addition to a great composer, deeply humane. What to think?
He was both, said Solomon. Both those descriptions are true.
I believe it.
• I never knew about William Danforth, until I read his obit. (How often is that the case?) By his picture, he looked a lot like his brother John! Anyway, let me quote the Times’s obit:
When William H. Danforth was 12, his self-made grandfather handed him a pair of scissors and told him to cut out the word “impossible” from his dictionary. He wanted his grandchildren to feel that they could change the world, as long as they gave back.
Young Bill absorbed the lesson. He went on to become chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, overseeing its blossoming from a commuter campus into a national research institution, and helped found a plant science center to fight world hunger.
Have a little more:
His three siblings also received their grandfather’s message: John became a three-term United States senator from Missouri; Donald Jr. was a business executive who served as board chairman of the American Youth Foundation and helped build the Brain Injury Association of Missouri; and Dorothy Danforth Miller was a philanthropist.
The patriarch, the grandfather, was a businessman, founding Ralston Purina. He also started the American Youth Foundation, whose motto is “Aspire Nobly, Adventure Daringly, Serve Humbly.” As the obit says, this motto “also captured the Danforth family ethos.”
I wish to make a point: A lot of us spend a lot of time running down the “elites.” Maybe some of them deserve to be run down. But a lot of them do a helluva lot of good.
• A moral question has come up in my little world. It has to do with the Detroit Lions. A lot of us — a lot of us Lions fans — think that the general manager and the head coach (whom the GM hired) have to go. Their departure is imperative for the team to get better, we think.
So, is it okay — morally acceptable — to root against the Lions? By rooting against them, are we really rooting for them, in that further losses would hasten the departure of the GM and coach, thereby benefiting the team? Or is that sophistry?
It might take a Maimonides to sort this out.
• Maybe we can end on a language note. The famed journalist Bernie Goldberg, through a tweet, taught me a phrase for being out to lunch: “not playing with all 52.” As I told him, I have incorporated that into my vocabulary for life.
Thanks for joining me, my friends, and may you play with all 52, or at least a strong hand.
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