Empathy begins at home. Before we can understand others, we should focus on understanding ourselves—hence the Socratic dictum, “Know thyself.” Unfortunately, when it comes to self-knowledge, Meryl Streep appeared clueless at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony. As a self-appointed representative of Hollywood, she wants to defend Hollywood from the charge that it is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans, noting that Hollywood actors and actresses were “just a bunch of people from other places.” During her Lifetime Achievement Award speech, she singled out those who came from humble origins, such as Viola Davis, who “was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina,” or Sarah Paulson, who was “raised by a single mom in Brooklyn.”
She also wanted to stress the number of stars who were born abroad and came to Hollywood to share their talents with the world. And we all know that these stars have achieved not only fame, but fortune, too. But this latter fact was notably absent from Streep’s sermon. While some, perhaps most, of the stars on Streep’s list may have come from modest backgrounds, they have come a long way. A quick survey of the Celebrity Net Worth website reveals—not surprisingly—that all of the stars she mentions are millionaires, and most of them are double-digit millionaires. Streep herself is worth $75 million, Sarah Jessica Parker is worth $90 million, and Natalie Portman comes in at $60 million.
Admittedly, there are laggards in this group, like Sarah Paulson at $4 million. But such comparative poverty is unlikely to elicit the sympathy of most Americans. Hollywood stars are a wealthy group who often pride themselves on ostentatious displays of wealth, live in the cultural bubble that is Hollywood, and support left-wing political causes. As if we needed Streep to remind us, they don’t like Donald Trump.
The actors and actresses that Streep identified are talented individuals who work hard and earn the money they have acquired. Perhaps none are more deserving than Streep, who surely earned the Lifetime Achievement Award she received that evening. Nor was Streep off the mark in identifying a capacity for empathy as the distinguishing characteristic of great actors and actresses. It is only to be regretted that the limits of Streep’s capacity for empathy were so evident in her remarks.
But it wasn’t just the one-sided caricature of Trump as dictator-in-the-wings that revealed the limits of her empathy. It was the condescending reference to those who watch “football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” The Trump supporters who vilify Hollywood are clearly uncultured louts—xenophobes who can’t appreciate the cosmopolitan openness of Hollywood to foreigners—the basket of “deplorables” that Hillary Clinton referenced during the presidential campaign. It would require genuine empathy for the financially secure Hollywood elite to understand the economic hardship that led many working-class Americans to see Trump as their only hope.
If Streep would take the time to look at voting data, she might be forced to recognize that many of the voters who put Trump over the top in this election had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, which does not support the theory that Trump voters are bigots if she indeed supported Obama.
Streep focused attention on Trump’s mimicry of a disabled reporter as the act of a bully. This was Trump at his worst. What she doesn’t take the time to consider is whether inciting Hollywood to declare war on the president-elect promotes the causes she supports. If Streep is right when she said “disrespect invites disrespect,” then her disrespectful treatment of Trump will only invite Trump supporters to disrespect Hollywood, undermining its capacities to expand our empathetic horizons. A renewal of the culture wars may win Streep accolades in Hollywood, but focusing on her craft and leaving the political implications to others is a more effective strategy for strengthening the forces of cosmopolitan humanitarianism.
Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.