What Willy Wonka has to teach us about this insane election season
…And about the nature of being human.
I’m lucky to be a thirty-something not in need of dentures, as I used to have a sugar problem.
Back in college, I ate my weight in ice cream many times over. During my senior year, I appeared so often in the dining hall that staffers had a code name for me (“The Russian”), which I assume they chose because my accessory of choice was a babooshka.
A few years before that, in high school, I had it bad for Sour Stix. I would purchase these tart, strawberry-flavored gummy lanyards at a nearby bodega. I recall that bodega poignantly because, a block away, I was hit on by a stranger for the first time. (The young man’s line was, “Yo, you got digits?”)
Several years prior, digits and Sour Stix weren’t even on my radar — just the charms of fried french toast. One junior high school buddy would prepare it for me on the regular. The process involved defrosting and frying chunks of fat-infused dough, which yielded a flavor best described as “sweet, buttery adobe brick.” It so satisfied me that when my friend, who was a bit of a wild child, would offer me post-toast cigarettes and alcohol, these held little appeal.
Venturing even farther back, one of my earliest memories involves junk food. Picture me in kindergarten, amidst a sea of pretzel rods, marshmallows and fellow students. My teacher, Mrs. Shoglow, had just informed the class that we would be honoring Abraham Lincoln by re-creating his famed log cabin with the snacks that lay before us. I had a better idea, and dove under my desk to eat the construction materials. Upon discovering this, my teacher sent me to a corner, where I had to sit alone and think about the terrible thing I had done.
It was around this time that I discovered the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). I watched it devotedly until my early teens. It thrilled me to behold Wonka’s opulent world — one in which wallpaper tasted like berries and lollipop topiary was an actual thing. But it was Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper — a sucking candy able to maintain its size and flavor for all eternity — that really got me.
That ‘ole Gobstopper still rattles around in my memory box, and, oddly enough, it has been helping me get through our election cycle.
How so, you ask?
Well, it has to do with a scene near the end the film — the one in which Charlie Bucket hands his Gobstopper back to Wonka. Do you remember that moment? And Charlie Bucket, too? Charlie, the sweet-hearted paperboy who lived in a single room with his entire family? The kid who was down on his luck until he won a Golden Ticket, which earned him a visit to Wonka’s factory?
If you’ll recall, Charlie wound up going with his grandfather to that factory, where Wonka gifted him with a single Gobstopper on the condition that he not show it to anybody (the candy still being in secretive development, and all). That freshly minted Gobstopper was worth big bucks, and didn’t Charlie know it: he had to suffer through the solicitations of Wonka’s competitor, Mr. Slugworth, who kept whispering in everybody’s ear about his willingness to pay $$$ for a little “advance copy” of the candy.
Even though Slugworth was a repulsive character, I always sensed by the end of the film that maybe Charlie should broker a deal with the guy, as Wonka’s behavior was poor enough to merit the betrayal. After all, Wonka came across as rude, mercurial and downright dream-crushing (especially when, towards the end of the film, Wonka reneged on an early promise to grant Charlie a lifetime supply of chocolate).
And when that happened — hoo boy! — Charlie’s grandad confronted Wonka, and the two old farts had an argument that neared aneurism-level rage. All the while, Charlie hung back in silence … until, just before his grandfather whisked him off to go sell that Gobstopper to Slugworth, Charlie reached into his pocket, retrieved the coveted candy and returned it to Wonka, gently setting it on the candyman’s desk.
Dude!! That moment was exhilarating for me, and it still is. In fact, it’s, like, the basis of my activist life — the idea that a little person can do big things. For, in that moment of Gobstopper-returning, Charlie: 1) refused to be driven to anger by the fools in the room; 2) symbolically flipped the bird to big business by refusing the temptation of money, and; 3) upheld his promise to Wonka (because word is bond, etc. etc.).
Even as a kid, I took to heart that Charlie made this courageous choice without consulting anybody. And he didn’t just feel through it — he reasoned through it. Bonus: he did this despite his young age, and his station in life.
This earned him big rewards, for, in deciding to return the Gobstopper, Charlie wound up winning Wonka’s trust, and, in so doing, his entire candy empire. That’s not necessarily besides the point. In the person of Charlie, the movie Willy Wonka suggests the great human capacity for goodness and reasoning, and it also hints that exercising that capacity has a payoff.
But that message has a flipside, too: Willy Wonka is a film about candy and a charismatic candy purveyor, so it is also, by default, a film about people being tempted by sweet and rich things. The whole basis of the movie is its acknowledgement that humans are prone to being done in by their own gluttony, delusion, and short-sighted decision-making. (Need I say more than“Augustus Gloop?”)
Considering this, I began to see our presidential election in a different light. Trump has a certain mad-hatter charm and appears to be in command of a delectable empire, much like Wonka. On top of that, Trump is easy to bend towards because he represents — also like Wonka — appetite, wealth, and consumption. Where such things cohabitate, there is often rage, too, and Trump’s rage is what gives him his true political power. Rage is an important part of his schtick because it inoculates his followers against logic.
Earlier on in this election process, I felt sympathy for diehard Trump supporters who couldn’t see this. I figured that anyone bamboozled by a bigot and a xenophobe must be a desperate person with a very hard life. Now, I just think that a vote for Trump is a display of intellectual and moral laziness. To say otherwise is a great disservice both to Trump’s supporters and to our country. Excusing people for their failure to morally reason denies their capacity to work out their stuff, and to appeal — as Charlie Bucket did — to their own better angels.
The writer Kim Messick, a contributor to Salon.com, echoed this sentiment the other week in the comments section of a NYT article about Trump supporters in Appalachia. He said:
Trump voters are not defined by their experience of economic hardship, but by their willingness to embrace a particular explanation of that hardship — — namely, that it was visited upon them by a black president in cahoots with the swarthy peoples who have taken their jobs, their “lifestyle,” and their status…I genuinely feel for these people and their despair; I know them and come from them. But these apostles of self-reliance have to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, one of which is to think honestly and clearly about the world. Doing that means rejecting Trump.
I believe that this same principle applies to on-the-fence voters, but for those “undecideds” I have somewhat more compassion, especially because a number of my friends are in that place. Among them is one of my most sweet-hearted and bright male friends. After the first Presidential debate, he said to me in what appeared to be mild support for Trump. “Well, ya know, the economic stuff is important, because we’re really in a mess.” When I reminded him that Trump is, in many ways, a failed businessman (and also a horrible person), he said, “I know it’s a little naive, but I just think things would work out [with Trump as President], even if we have to go through hard times.”
Because I respect this person, it became clear to me that I have a background — cultural and educational, gender- and firstborn-related — that demands that I slice through bullshit, question the world around me and think 20 steps ahead. That background lends my personality an anxious, demanding edge, but it also allows me, to some degree, to understand how events will play out.
My buddy has a different background and disposition. As a consequence, he is way more easygoing in life, and this also applies to his view of the world: he just thinks that, if Trump is elected, things might be alright. While that’s a statement of his privilege, it is also a reflection of his trusting nature, and — possibly — a reflection of some kind of affliction he carries, to which I am not privy.
So, we had a brief and respectful discussion. He honestly shared his thoughts, and I, mine. My friend is sensitive enough (as we all are — I happen to subscribe to the Marvin Gaye Theory that we’re all sensitive people) that I suspect he went home and thought about how deflated I looked when I told him it concerned me that he wasn’t thinking about how the rights of anybody who wasn’t a white male (a/k/a anybody other than himself) might be affected by a Trump presidency. There was no need to beat my buddy over the head with this, as I wanted to allow him the space to have a Charlie Bucket moment and come to a conclusion on his own.
I mention this because, in recent weeks, I’ve seen Americans engage with each other disrespectfully, especially online. Much of the online political dialogue I’ve seen has looked like this:
Person 1: You’re a freakin’ idiot
Person 2: No, YOU’RE a freakin’ idiot
This is not constructive. It’s so unbelievably awesome that this election has fired Americans up, politically, but we need to engage with each other patiently. I’m a liberal, but I don’t consider the Trumpets dummies. They may be fools, but they aren’t dummies. And third-party voters aren’t, either. They don’t need to be yelled at (even though I sometimes really, really want to yell at them Lewis Black style). But, again, like every other human, they’re capable of moral reasoning, and the best chance of getting them to undertake that exercise is to be earnest and kind. I happen to like Bernie Sanders’s approach to young voters for this reason.
It’s important that we Americans keep talking with each other about our opposing points of view.
This is not easy to do. Heck, why do you think I started this essay going on about candy? Answer: it’s because candy is fun and non-controversial. The same is true for Willy Wonka — it’s easy for most of us to watch a musical about a chocolatier and the moral compass of his junk food acolytes because that, too, is non-threatening. But it’s stickier to talk explicitly about politics, and to ask questions like: should people be held accountable for making terrible (voting) decisions? Are whole swaths of the American population to be considered deplorable? Is it ever okay to excuse people for their thinking or actions because they are down on their luck, or feel forgotten by government? Or because they’re naive, trusting souls? To opine about this is even more unseemly, for nobody likes to be told how they ought to be thinking about things. Nobody likes to be bullied into voting one way or another.
I have been resisting that reality for many months, and, in so doing, have caused myself to suffer. I have hung my head low, and thought: If I could only put the right words together in the right order, I could convince everybody (seriously! everybody!) that Hillary is worth voting for.
But I can’t find those words — nobody can. The best any writer can do is to organize thoughts, feelings and facts while being unattached to how their sum is received. The best any friend can do is tell you how they really feel. And the best any lover of American Democracy can do right now is to believe in the essential good character of the folks who currently believe that Trump (or a 3rd party candidate) is a good bet. I’m putting my faith in the idea that enough of them are gonna have Charlie Bucket moments before the election to ensure a Clinton win. And, if not … maybe it’ll happen 4 years from now. Maybe 8 years from now. Maybe 50.
If that sounds cavalier, I don’t mean it that way, for that thought is one of the only things keeping me sane. That, and a little story I’ve been keeping close to me — one I saw posted on Facebook a few weeks ago. Somebody from a pro-Hillary group that I’m a member of wrote about getting a surprise call from her redneck, trucker dad (her words), who called to let her know something along the lines of, “Grumble, grumble… I decided to (grumble) vote for Hillary.”
So shines a good deed in a weary world.