Songs from Musicals: #14, “Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office,” from Parade

Honorable mentions: “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall,” “The Old Red Hills of Home”

There’s a pleasurable simulacrum in “Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office.” It’s not merely the fact that the girls are lying about what they’ve seen Leo Frank do, and about what he’s done to them, and how that influences the jury to believe that he has raped and murdered Mary Phagan, one of his full-time employees and still very much a child. The fantasy of Leo Frank, the ravenous sexual predator, makes for scintillating music and for a strange image. People performing a lie on stage, and then another lie on top of it, one as clearly made up as the play itself, makes for interesting viewing, at the very least.

The three young female voices who sing the round of “Factory Girls” depict an easily visualized image. A boss, much older, much more powerful, a man among girls. His eyes and his hands seem constantly to touch their shoulders. Even when the girls try to desexualize themselves, his interest is not muted. He tries to lure them up to his office with trinkets, with food, with money, with fun and dancing and music. He practically salivates as he stumbles through his invitation: “Come on and come up, come on and come up, come on and come up, come up and come on!” He doesn’t do anything illegal, but the stench of his actions drifts through the courtroom. He is distasteful. He is the Jew hungry to violate Christian flesh; it’s the same blood libel that was popular during the Middle Ages, so popular that it made it into The Canterbury Tales.

Again, no scrap of this story is true. Propriety is Leo’s calling card to the point of aloofness, even with his wife. No man in Atlanta is less likely to try to seduce his employees, but it’s Leo on the stand, and it’s the devil-Leo who appears to the audience in the courtroom and outside it, whose plans are translucent as wax paper and as easily torn as a lace veil.

It’s one of the best songs from the musical. So much of Parade revolves around the mob, the mass of WASPs who seem to be everywhere: at parades, in courtrooms, cakewalking and swearing emotional fealty to a Confederacy that was, in the words of one official, never defeated. “The men of Georgia,” he tells them, “and the women of Georgia, have never been defeated.” The African-Americans who have roots hundreds of years old in that state would disagree, and do so vocally in “Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.” Leo and his wife, Lucille, taxpaying residents of Georgia, would disagree as well. So too, if she were wise enough to see it, middle-school-aged Mary Phagan, who works for a dime an hour in a pencil factory. But the rhetoric would suffer if those people counted, really, as men and women of Georgia. The mob that believes it hasn’t been defeated cannot be a sympathetic group, though the play identifies the villains and instigators and leaders of that mob pretty clearly. Only in “Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office” is there physical evidence of what it is they fear. And while that doesn’t make them sympathetic, or right in their prejudice, we at least get to see what they say.

I’m overstepping the bounds of the song quite a bit here, and if you came for Parade only, which was of course all that was advertised, then you should close the tab.

There are a host of actions and thoughts which are described charitably as “problematic.” You can recognize these problematic actions and thoughts because they side with power rather than the historically disenfranchised. Some are seemingly innocuous, perhaps even common sense. “Professional athletes make too much money” is such an idea. It translates, roughly, as “I side with our capitalist overlords instead of fellow workers, because I hope to rise from serfdom to become the lord of the estate one day.” Others have been more or less quashed in politically correct circles: using “gay” synonymously with “weak” or “undesirable” falls into that category. Or this double feature: “A woman can do something which induces rape,” and “Rape is about sex.” And then there are some truly insidious ideas that are, in fact, policy. “Poor minority children should be taught differently from bourgeois white children.”

The Internet, where I spend a fair bit of time, is not, as a whole, very good at addressing the root causes of those opinions. The Internet is borderline excellent at pointing out problematic actions and thoughts. (As far as I can tell, this may one day turn into the primary function of the Internet, especially if pornography becomes passe.) The Internet allows for significant obstinacy. One can curate it more easily than which church one attends or what state one lives in or what friends one makes. It is simple to find a hole, pre-dug, lie down in it like a hibernating badger, and react as pugnaciously to opposing views as any badger would if its hibernation were interrupted.

I’m not here to make a speech about improving communication and civil discourse and all of that manure, which I think exists mostly to obfuscate meaning and reduce polemics to tame centrism. But I do think that the problematic police on the Internet – who are real people, obviously, and find problematic things at work or at the gas station or at restaurants – often fail to recognize that people are not closed-minded because they are closed-minded. They’re closed-minded for reasons, reasons that typically have explanations far more complicated than “Her parents make so much a year” or “He’s from this state.” If pointing out what is problematic is to be more than a way to prove one’s own superiority over less-evolved members of the species, then it ought to be empathetic enough to try to change minds. No good doctor starts surgery without knowing which organ is in jeopardy, and no good teacher begins instruction without knowing what skills his or her students must have improved. The same idea holds for trying to mend errant beliefs, or at least it should. Activism cannot coexist with egotism, at least not sustainably. I’m tired of good liberals who only know that they’re right but cannot express what, in their opponents’ background, makes them wrong. Until they can read that wrongness and know how to address it in convincing ways which will make better people, the good liberals can shut up and post pictures of their pets and babies instead.

The mob in Parade believes that there’s something about Jews which makes them untrustworthy and wicked. They’re wrong. The play – and, more importantly, life outside the play – doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you can recognize their perception of Jews is baseless and hateful. But while their descendants live, and by God’s lenient sense of humor make more like-minded descendants, people who know better have a responsibility to change others for the better by understanding where they come from, to baptize with fire instead of dumping buckets of water over people’s heads and calling it enlightenment.

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