Aretha Franklin, the Antidote

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 17, 2018

What better example of the power of art and the artist to move our people and our society, capture our treasured values, encompass the living reason for getting up in the morning than Aretha Franklin?

Especially in this time of societal stress and divisions, of inter-class tensions and the abandonment of caring and fairness, Aretha’s voice has cut through all the noise about the mincemeat that Americans are making of race, civil rights, immigration and justice.

She was a consummate performer, of course, a magical, immediately recognizable voice that crossed generational lines of musical taste. But more importantly, she was a living tribute to what she sang — RESPECT and caring for one another.

There was an important message for humanity outliving Aretha Franklin, something related to a living sermon about living in ways that honor others. And it was an important note for our society that this singular leader was not a president or a politician, a business leader or a hated villain.

She was an artist, a singer and piano player, right out of church.

Aretha stood for recognizing humanity, for supporting women, for welcoming neighbors of all races. She was a Queen of Soul in the music world, and a queen for justice off the stage. Her strong personality ran second to her healthy respect for her God, her church, her audience, and a humility that allowed her to address actual social issues.

In short, Aretha was the antithesis of Donald Trump. Maybe she was the antidote.

We have a line in our family Passover Seder that quotes the Jewish philosopher Elie Wiesel, witness to the Holocaust, that asks, what is the opposite of nihilism, the absence of any reason for being. The response is “Dayenu,” a central sung thank you in the home service that acknowledges that life is good enough. We need to make do with what we’ve been given.

It’s a short hop, skip and jump to recognizing that we ought to be celebrating Natural Women just for being women, that we should recognize Chains of Fools, that we should encourage people to Think, that we should be shouting to the skies for R-E-S-P-E-C-T for one another, that we thank whatever God we recognize for the chance to live.

In Aretha world, it follows, then, that we act in ways that reflect an appreciation for all humanity, not just those that come across the border with green cards and a guaranteed income in hand. It follows, then, that we make health care easier to get, that we pay attention to 70,000 deaths a year from opioid abuse, that we find ways to talk with one another before picking up arms. It follows, then, that corporate profits might be nice, but don’t belong at the top of the social heap as the singular, most important goal.

We wake everyday now, nervous about what Donald Trump will do as president, about how he will use his enormous power to insult and belittle, to lie and fudge, to devise ways for the government to shirk its job of regulating the excesses of business and money interests to control the agenda. And, now approaching 700 days in office, Trump has yet to disappoint; he seems constantly on the march to make America worse for Americans, even while satisfying arbitrary campaign promises to his non-majority base of voters.

Take stock of the biggest themes of the Trump era — anti-immigrant, anti-people of color, anti-protest, anti-press, anti-allies, anti-real American values for the freshness of disruption. You don’t see helping people in that list, you don’t see standing up for others in that list, you don’t see helping to see the value of individuals who may not agree with him specifically.

The Trump White House has tried twice to eliminate all funds for the arts and humanities, only to be overridden by Congress. The White House does not invite artists, or celebrate their achievements. As far as I know, Trump himself is not associated with support of any arts organizations. As we all know, Trump does not consider himself a book reader.

The arts, overall, raise questions rather than submit dumbly to slogans that leave out thought.

The Trump era is about self-aggrandizement, not respect, about self-promotion, not humility. Hearing Trump’s name does not bring a smile to the average American face, pro or con.

Now consider the influence in our lives of Aretha Franklin. It is pervasive. We all know the words, we follow the music, we depend on her sense of human truth.

Funny that leadership should come from an artist, the most-disdained group of all in Trump world.