Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg talks culture prior to Pittsburgh appearance
Documentaries and superhero movies are the seeds of civil discourse.
Americans may self-select their news, friends and communities based on biases, but culture is a chance for breaching silos. Whether it is committing to watching 18 hours of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” or exploring the 23 films in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, plopping down on a sofa and powering on a screen may be a way to combat cultural fragmentation, connect with those unknown or investigate unexplored ideas, said Alyssa Rosenberg, a Washington Post opinion writer, who is visiting Pittsburgh next week.
Rosenberg’s takes on controversial topics are familiar to Washington Post readers and Twitter followers.
In recent weeks, she has taken on Nike and national politicians after the apparel company dropped its Fourth of July special edition Air Max 1 Quick Strike — the shoes, which featured a “Betsy Ross” flag on the back, were criticized by former NFL quarterback and social activist Colin Kaepernick for being an offensive reminder of slavery — and called for readers “to learn how to reconsecrate what we value.”
Also this month, Rosenberg chastised those trying to get political and moral mileage out of Jeffrey Epstein’s recent arrest and encouraged greater efforts at ending sexual exploitation and violence.
Through her work, which appears both in print and on digital chats hosted for the Post, Rosenberg confronts many issues in daily life, while parrying on countless cultural products, from sitcoms to streaming movies. For the July 23 Vietnam War Speaker Series event at the Heinz History Center, Rosenberg hopes to highlight Burns’ and Novick’s choices and draw parallels between past and present.
In making “The Vietnam War,” the documentarians spent hundreds of hours interviewing people from both North and South Vietnam, as well as the United States, to broaden understanding, Rosenberg explained. One of the filmmakers’ biggest successes was in enabling viewers to “look at this not as a two-sided war, but as a three-sided war.”
Watching the documentary (which Rosenberg did multiple times, as well as record a podcast to accompany each episode) generates a recontextualization of the era, she explained. For those who lived through the period, there is a reckoning in seeing so many tales, and for younger audiences there is an edification and reassurance that “the United States has gotten itself into some really bad places over time and it has not meant the end of the project,” she said.
There is also the sense of parallels between the decades.
What frightened many Americans then was “this sense that the country was fragmenting, that there were these profound disagreements that emerged in part spurred on by the war, but that were driven by a lot of other factors,” Rosenberg said. Divides based upon age, political preferences, religion and regional residence generated countercultural movements, and “that sense of cultural fragmentation was really traumatic for people.”
What is happening now is “an even more accelerated cultural fragmentation and I think we’re still getting our minds around it,” she said.
The death of monoculture and resulting alienation are obviously less traumatic than losing 50,000 troops, but younger Americans are undergoing similar experiences in determining the role of lasting combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“America’s forever wars are not a distant topic, and sort of understanding how we got started on the road where this is permissible and possible is probably a pretty urgent tool for people,” she said.
Rosenberg’s deep dive into Vietnam was a rewarding journalistic endeavor that afforded travel abroad, work with documentarians and developing a holistic understanding of complicated matters. It was all very satisfying, she explained, but so too is the professional challenge of spitting out a quick recap. For years, Rosenberg penned immediate reactions to episodes of “Girls” and “Game of Thrones,” both on HBO.
“Those are really fun sort of spot-writing exercises,” she said. “They’re like the tightest deadline you can possibly imagine and you’re competing with a lot of other people, so it’s just a really interesting exercise on how you can formulate a thesis and put the argument together.”
And critical lessons can be derived, she said, from seemingly mindless entertainment — like the recent slew of superhero movies.
“I think that the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, is really bad at staging a certain kind of political conversation about the surveillance state, or how people in power should be regulated, but it’s really good at staging, for a mass audience, a conversation about what it means to be a good man,” she said.
For example, Tony Stark and Captain America exhibit contrary notions of power and personality, and while Disney will never decry vigilantism or America’s role as a global superpower, it can stack characters and movies in a way that features a conversation about masculinity, “which is a really tricky subject on a mass scale for millions, or the hundreds of millions of viewers around the world,” said Rosenberg.
“That’s actually a really valuable thing to be happening right now,” she added. “I mean, we have a lot of really screwed-up ideas about masculinity and how to express it that are a major driver in politics right now, and no one has found a productive way to talk about it that is politics-based.”
Positioning figures on-screen does not necessarily offend people like political discourse does, so having these conversations becomes “much easier to do in a cultural space where people feel comfortable.” What Disney is doing is “actually really important political work,” she continued. “If we don’t sort out masculinity, we’re going to have a lot of trouble sorting out the basic dynamics about politics, gun violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, the state of the economy, the changing shape of American families.”
Rosenberg is ready to continue the conversation once she arrives in Pittsburgh — and she’s looking for some Steel City advice. “If people want to send me food recommendations, I’m always up for some,” she said. “Or especially because it’s the summer, if there’s a good place to get ice cream, I would love for readers to tell me where to go.”
The Heinz History Center Vietnam War Speaker Series event is July 23 at 7 p.m. Information available at heinzhistorycenter.org. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.