It is 10:43 in the evening. C and I spent the day doing errands—the hardware store for screws for hooks in the utility closet in the back stairs—and chores, principally laundry. It is a warm evening, all the windows are open, and the neighborhood is quiet. After I washed the dishes, I came in here to the living room, and checked out what was on the tube. I like this, in an apartment lit only by a few lamps—pools of light, shadowed walls—the sound of an occasional car going by.
I watched a movie I intended to see when it came out in 2014 but didn’t. It drew me in—Helen Mirren, who plays Maria Altman, and Ryan Reynolds, who plays Randy Schoenberg, and the great Gustav Klimt painting, Woman in Gold, stolen by the Nazis but belonging to Maria. The movie is about Maria’s attempts to get back her painting, about people’s complicated relationships to the past. Can Maria get the Woman in Gold restored to her? But there are other, bigger questions. Can we change anything about what happened in Austria in the thirties and forties? Can the past be corrected? Can wounds be healed? How does the past affect us? How permanently? What can we learn? In their continuous discussion of the reasons for seeking restitution, Altman says to Schoenberg, “I want them to acknowledge what they did, stole what was mine.” I think what she must want is for her inviolable dignity as a human being to be acknowledged.
This need is a familiar one. This morning, Heather Digby Parton, who writes for Hullabaloo and who is called “Digby,” asks in Salon what drives those supporting Donald Trump. A study of Trump supporters by Angus Deaton and Anne Case, professors at Princeton, supports the idea that Trump voters are white working class, with less than a college education, who take out their anxieties by supporting Trump. But Nate Silver on 538 says no. Silver says, “The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. […] well above the national median household income of about $56,000.” So they’re not voting for Trump because of personal economic insecurities (although Silver acknowledges that general concern for the national economy can play a part).
What drives Trump voters, then?
Digby has an idea. She quotes Phillip Klinkner of Hamilton College, who says, “Economic status and attitudes do little to explain support for Donald Trump.” She says, “It wasn’t economics or trade or even American pride that drew them [Trump’s supporters]. It was his cynical ‘othering’ of the first black president and all that that culturally represented.” Digby says, “Essentially they want to recapture an America that no longer exists, one that has white people at the center of the culture, on top of the world, secure in their place as the highest caste.” Let me have it the way it used to be.
The need to go back and repair the damage—put it back the way it used to be—is a need exhibited by both the Trump voter and the Austrian descendents of those who stole the Woman in Gold. And, of course, the movie and the election both force us to ask, Who are we?
Michelle Obama, speaking this week to the graduating seniors at CCNY, says, “Their legacy [i.e. the legacy of graduates of CCNY like Colin Powell] is very much your legacy. And your inheritance. And don’t let anybody tell you differently. You are the living, breathing proof that the American dream endures in our time. It’s you.”
In her speech, Michelle Obama makes reference to the past-which-we-can-never-undo—slavery in this country—, but also the past of immigrants to America and their hopes for a better life, both kinds of past which endure into the present. Faulkner famously said of the past, “It’s not even past.” In order to know who we are, we must find out who we were—the Nazis, the KKK, or the women in Seneca Falls or the gutsy folks on Christopher Street fighting with their bodies New York’s riot police. Our present must be devoted, at least in part, to the future, but it must also be an attempt to deal with the failures of last year or things left undone last year or in the last administration or in our youth or even in the youth of our nation. And we have to acknowledge all of it, the hard stuff and the easy stuff. It all belongs to all of us. And then we have to continuously ask ourselves What part of the past should I let go? What should I hang onto? These questions have to be asked over and over again, every week, every year. What can we learn now, about ourselves? What is necessary?
Maria Altman’s quest, in the Woman in Gold, was not about her regaining possession of an object even though that object is one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. In the end, having gotten her painting, she gave it away. Her quest seems to have been always about respect and responsibility. This is who I am. This is what I have experienced. This is what I will do.