Saturday, November 19, 2016

Of Mike Pence's Evening at the Theatre - and Authoritarian Culture

Vice President elect Mike Pence scored tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway, and good for him. I hope he enjoyed the show.

As you may have heard, his presence was noticed and much of the audience booed him. It was enough of a distraction that the cast of the show decided to address it rather than ignore it, and they addressed the Vice President in-waiting with a respectfully worded, earnest, and humane statement about the concerns that led to the boos.

Before we proceed further with this case, here is a link to where the statement can be read and viewed. It is important to be aware of what they said, because a lot of the kibbitzing suggests to me that some people are formulating their conclusions without regard to what was said - just the fact that they had the audacity to speak to the Leader.

This was certainly the reaction of President-elect Donald Trump, who immediately demanded that the cast apologize to Pence for this, despite the fact that the performers actually stopped the booing and channeled the energy into more constructive words. For his part, Pence - who was never in physical danger - smiled and seemed unphased. He's been in this business for a while.

It has been interesting to see journalists (like Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times) and artists, including some who identify as liberals, falling into an authoritarian trap here. For instance, musician Steven Van Zandt typifies the line of argument in this article. Since Van Zandt enfolds the basic shape of the argument, I'm going to respond directly to him.

Van Zandt's case is basically logical, but as a theatre artist I take issue with his two central premises:

* Feeling comfortable and safe from real world issues is not part of the contract when you go to the theatre. This idea that theatre is an intellectual "safe space" is news to me and generations of actors, playwrights, directors, designers, and choreographers who came before me.

* Since Van Zandt is addressing the cast of Hamilton, I assume what he is describing as a "bullying tactic" is the curtain speech that was addressed to Pence - which, again, was respectful and humane and called for the audience to stop booing. What Steve calls "bullying" was actually a polite address to a person in a position of considerable power, and which we once were taught to believe is an inalienable right.

There have been suggestions that Pence should have been allowed to enjoy a private evening of entertainment. Oh no, sorry, no no. The theatre is not your living room at home: that's a private space. The theatre is a public space. And Presidents and Vice-Presidents don't get to go out in public and not be President or Vice-President. Out in the world, you are always "on." It is part of holding office.

We really must resist the conflation of a respectful, humane statement of concern addressed to a person of considerable power (the second highest office in the republic), at a time where there is well-founded public fear about the incoming government, as somehow being "bullying." The right to address our office holders in such terms is a self-evident right that supersedes deference to authority.

It is especially disquieting to observe an artist yield that distinction so readily. I suppose he thinks he is being fair and balanced; but he is actually being too deferential to authority, and this is a symptom of our creeping authoritarian culture: when bias towards authority, protecting them from criticism, begins to feel "neutral." 

If Mike Pence has the mettle to stand in legislatures and seek laws forcing women to organize funerals for aborted pregnancies and allowing shopkeepers to refuse service to gays, and defend Donald Trump's categorical threats against entire religious groups and nationalities, he can jolly well handle an articulate statement of concern proffered by an artist who is every ounce as much a citizen as Mike Pence.

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