Free Speech is a Double Edged Sword

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I don’t know the details of the play or the historical event that inspired it, but I struggle to see how giving the “bad guys” beautiful voices/music is anti-Semitic.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      And I put “bad guys” in quotes not because I doubt they were bad guys (regardless of politics, shooting innocent people in the head is bad), but because you referred to the folks in question once as “hijackers” and once as “a murderer” so I just went with a generic catchall term.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      It’s not just the music, but the actual lines given to the bad guys. The criticism, from the beginning, has always been a.) that they have anti-Semitic lines (they do; they’re anti-Semites!), and b.) that it paints them in a positive light because it lets them explain themselves.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        Thanks for fleshing that out. That seems to create a no-win situation. If you don’t let the anti-Semites be anti-Semites AND you don’t let them be fleshed out characters, than you simply want to pretend that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. Which itself seems problematic if the goal is to stamp out anti-Semitism. It makes sense that an anti-Semitic character — one who is worth making a play about because he killed a Jewish man for being Jewish — would say anti-Semitic things. And it seems reasonable to allow that character to be a three-dimensional one.

        Unless the objection is to the combination of those things. Do the protestors want every Palestinian presented as a blood-thirsty Jew murderer? That’s ridiculous.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I remember in the months after September 11, when some people made attempts to understand why the people who attacked us had done so, they were criticized for excusing or justifying the attacks. The criticisms of the play are, I believe, of a similar sort. Some people simply feel like it’s better for any evil act to be absurd, incomprehensible except as evil in and of itself with no other motive but evil, no reason but evil, and any attempt to provide more mundane reasons is seen as a diminishing of the evilness of the act. There is no doubt that the murder the play is about was an evil act, but there were reasons, there was a causal chain, and to simply tell the story as one of incomprehensible evil would not only not make for a very interesting play, but would also not make for a very truthful one.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Well, there are two ways to do that, though.

        The first is to take what the guys themselves said and to present those arguments. The second is to ignore what the guys themselves said and to present the best arguments possible for what they did.

        One of the things I remember my mom telling me about the shooting when I was a little kid is that the cultural differences were so vast that the Palestinians didn’t understand how horrible they made themselves look to Western eyes by deliberately picking a guy in a wheelchair.

        Anyway, if the opera includes such details as “the PLO originally questioned whether Klinghoffer wasn’t instead killed by his wife for insurance money”, then it’s a lot easier to conclude that the opera is trying to do the thing where all of the angles are looked at. If, however, a number of details are overlooked and if the details are regularly overlooked to the benefit of one side or the other, then it’s a lot easier to say that the play itself has an ideology.

        And, hey, why wouldn’t you protest an ideology?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        made attempts to understand why the people who attacked us had done so

        I remember is Republicans saying “we were attacked because we weren’t Republican enough”, Democrats saying “we were attacked because we weren’t Democratic enough”, Libertarians saying “we were attacked because we weren’t Libertarian enough”, and ice cream shoppe owners saying “we were attacked because people didn’t eat enough ice cream”.

        “If you had just listened to me, we’d still be safe!”Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I mostly remember “They hate us for our freedom” vs. people noting that their explicit reasons for attacking us had to do with our support for Israel, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and stuff about us being degenerate and immoral (which is sort of like, “They hate us for our freedom”).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I remember reading Osama’s Open Letter and it talking a great deal about the Palestinians. I didn’t know a better source for “If I did it” than Osama himself but the letter was considered pretty distracting by everybody I discussed it with. “We need to have worked out more!”, the physical trainers told me.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        There are a myriad of ways to tell this story and/or represent the murderers in an anti-Semitic way. I just haven’t yet seen the case made. Beautiful voices, nice music, historically accurate anti-Semitic remarks, and/or making the murderers three-dimensional do not seem to make the case.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Surely there’s a libretto somewhere.

        “We are here to bring a ruckus! We want you to hear our appeals!
        We hope to achieve justice! So lets kill a Jew on wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeels!”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I’m a Palestinian about to break through,
        I know what this embarking faces!
        For justice I’ll know I’ll not just kill a Jew
        But one with the best parking places!Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        This Jew is too burly, that Jew is too tall
        This Jew must work out, he’s built just like a wall!
        This Jew is too angry, that Jew is untamed!
        Why can’t I get lucky and find a Jew that is laaaaaame?

        (spotlight on Klinghoffer) (chord change)

        Oh I thought I’d go dooooown without making my mark
        One more freedom fighter gone without a ripple
        But now I see someone I can bite not just baaaaaaark…
        I’m glad that this boat had a Jew that’s a cripple.Report

  2. Avatar James K says:

    Sounds like you have the right of it. One of the hard things about having loyalty to principles over groups of people, is that no faction will think of you as an ally for long. Plus, a over abundance of binary thinking will leave you scrabbling to distance yourself from people who share some superficial views with you, despite having very different moral schemas to you.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I am told that the real goal of the protestors is to silence pro-Palestinian voices…

    Told by who? By the Met? By pro-Palestinian advocates?

    Seems to me that the real goal of the protestors is to protest the thing that they are protesting. They aren’t protesting Swan Lake, they’re protesting Death of Klinghoffer, based on its content. If you’re on the side of free speech that means you say “The government gets to sit this one out until and unless there is violence.” That’s it.

    Whether it’s morally good (or morally neutral) to go see this opera, or on the other hand whether it’s morally repugnant to support it, is a different question entirely and I don’t see how “supporting free speech” means that you have some sort of obligation to a) go see it, b) refrain from seeing it, or c) give a damn about it after satisfying yourself of the government’s neutrality.

    None of that means that you are necessarily free from moral contemplation and deciding for yourself if you will, or at least would, support the opera by paying money (hypothetical, if you don’t have the coin for a couple of seats at the Met) for it. All I’m saying is, that’s a different axis of inquiry than supporting freedom of speech. The point where moral judgment and free speech advocacy overlap is pretty small (and uncontroversial) here.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Seems to me that the real goal of the protestors is to protest the thing that they are protesting.

      To me that sounds like saying that the goal of my swinging a hammer at a nail is to swing a hammer at a nail. But I’m swinging the hammer to achieve some end–the swinging is just a means.

      Likewise, the protest is not, presumably, an end in itself, but is a means directed toward achieving some outcome beyond the waving of signs and chanting.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Well, if you want to split hairs I suppose that’s right; there may be more than one level of intent but if the focus of analysis is on an intent that is very broad in scope, we lose the ability to understand the immediate action.

        If you protest The Death of Klinghoffer isn’t your obvious goal to induce the Met to bring performances of The Death of Klinghoffer to an end? To say that the goal is to somehow politically agitate against the creation of an independent Palestinian state is getting into the realm of multidimensional chess.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        @burt-likko I think the fact that Israel-Palestine is still a live conflict that’s unresolved and important to many living people means that any protest of the opera can’t be confined to wanting to stop the opera. I highly doubt that the protestors would be up in arms about an opera about Gilgamesh because they felt it unjustly glamorized the Hittites.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        I think you’re onto something there. There’s the old joke about jokes about tragedy or Hitler: “Too soon?” Given that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is still hot and there are no indications it’s nearing an end “too soon” is inevitably a response for some people in a case like this.

        That doesn’t prove that they’re actually protesting Palestine in general, of course, but it does suggest it’s not at all implausible.Report

      • I wouldn’t completely discount the “it’s protest in order to protest” idea, although the points raised by James Hanley and Dan Miller can’t be dismissed either.

        I can see protesting a play or opera just to be voice to the playgoers/opera goers that says, “hey, this isn’t really good thing you’re going to, and it’s certainly not okay. If you read my protest sign or, even better, ask me why, I’ll explain.” The protest need not necessarily be an effort to shut down the play. It can be, and probably usually is, but it need not be. And I imagine that protesting an opera at the Met has very little likelihood of discouraging its continued performance, so it functions, largely, as a way to make known a certain message about the opera in question.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I’d be interested in knowing who told him that too.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I only know one or two people connected to the Met. They are basically Opera extras on the large productions for crowd scenes. Think the people like Parisians in the Christmas festivity scenes of La Boheme.

      I do know plenty of people involved in the arts scene who seem to have a reflex whenever any piece of art gets protested. Some of these people are also stridently pro-Palestinian attitudes. The general assumptions seem to be that the people protesting the Opera have not seen it or heard it and it is just a reflexive swipe against anything that shows some sympathy to Palestinians.

      It probably doesn’t help that Rudolf Giuliani latched onto the protest and lots of left-leaning New Yorkers still dislike that man very strongly.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Can you link to someone saying that the protesters are just trying to silence pro-Palestinian voices?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Yeah, I noticed Rudy! inserting himself there. I also noticed him arguing against a defamation suit here in Los Angeles brought against Activision for an unflattering portrayal of Manuel Noriega in a video game. (Rudy!’s client is the video game publisher, not Noriega.)Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    People who feel very strongly about a particular issue have difficulty grasping that other people might have different opinions. It isn’t about different ideas on a particular subject but an epic struggle between the forces of light and good on one side and dark and evil on the other. When the I/P issue comes up than you are dealing with some very powerful emotions.

    Another issue is that many people have a poor notion of what censorship is these days. Lots of people seem to think that any attempt to protest or disagree with something is a type of censorship for some reason.Report

    • Avatar j r says:

      Lots of people seem to think that any attempt to protest or disagree with something is a type of censorship for some reason.

      It is a type of censorship. That is not to say that it is necessarily wrong, but it is most certainly a type of censorship.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        it is most certainly a type of censorship.

        I’m not sure about that. How are you defining things? Here’s how I’d break that down:

        1.) If the protest or disagreement results in the thing’s suppression, then the protest or disagreement may possibly be considered “censorship” (though I’d argue against it, preferring to call the suppression *itself* “censorship” and the preceding protest or disagreement “impetuses to that censorship”.)

        2.) If the protest or disagreement attempts to have the thing suppressed, but fails, then it is probably not “censorship” (see #1; the thing hasn’t been suppressed; but since the attempt was made, if you call #1 “censorship” then you might do so here).

        3.) If the protest or disagreement makes no attempt to have the thing suppressed, but (figuratively) simply sits outside the thing and shouts, “this is bullshit, and here’s why”, that is definitely *not* censorship, but simply the presentation of alternative or additional views.

        4.) Shouting loud enough to drown out the thing might be a sort of de facto censorship; but as with the Streisand effect, the shouting will presumably draw attention to the original thing, so I’m not sure we can say it’s being “suppressed”, exactly (though its message may be distorted and/or relatively-minimized).Report

  5. Avatar dhex says:

    the met finally found a way to consistently draw large crowds!Report

  6. Avatar James Hanley says:

    The librettist speaks. Very interesting.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      When Alice Goodman was writing the libretto for The Death of Klinghoffer, she sensed she was creating something extraordinary. “I was thinking, ‘I have never done anything as good as this! By God, I can write! It’s great! I’m going to be famous! I’ll write another opera! And another! And another!’ That’s what it felt like.”

      I know exactly what you mean, Alice.Report

  7. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    Here is a review of the piece by someone who saw the performance.

    I think it’s noteworthy that the chorus of Palestinian refugees is booed. This seems both a normal human thing to me, and a problem. It is the very denial of the pain of our enemies that makes any resolution of conflict impossible. Dehumanization can only end in genocide, or perhaps chattel slavery.

    Honestly, when I read this piece, I started thinking about the Narn-Centauri conflict, and GamerGate. Recently I read someone (not a comment, a post on a well-known site) say, “If you go to you are an awful person”. How easily we dehumanize our enemies, and how easily we construe those as traitors who still hold them as enemies, but refuse to dehumanize them.

    And furthermore, we defend this as our feelings. “I’m just expressing my feelings”. I don’t agree with that at all. Feelings are things like anger, despair, hurt, fear, and helplessness. One expresses contempt for others precisely because the do not want to expose those feelings of hurt, fear, hopelessness and despair, or even, really, honest anger.Report

    • Avatar Lenoxus says:

      Can he dehumanization of gamers only end in genocide or enslavement? Not that I disagree with your broader point.

      I think another problem is that “People who believe or practice X are fundamentally evil people” is a far too convenient shorthand for “I think X is an evil practice.” And potentially more influential, too — I’m likelier to obey some societal rule if society percieves the rule-breakers as awful, shameful sinners, rather than focusing on the rule itself. Consider the way we might view someone who got a speeding ticket versus someone who got a ticket for, I dunno, urinating on someone’s car or something.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Fundamentally evil people are those who cannot learn better. Who prove by trial and deed that they will continue to act as they will, regardless of the consequences. Some, even, do not understand that there will be consequences.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:


        Evil doesn’t learn, it doesn’t care. And many, many times, there are no consequences for their acts-if they have the power. Cops come to mind, but there are plenty of others.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        ah, but the people I spoke of do not have the power you speak of. In fact, one might call them some of the most powerless of us all.

        Only liberals write equal laws for unequal people.Report

      • Avatar Lenoxus says:

        Kim: Do you really think that very many people are totally unaffected by the disincentive of punishment? For that matter, if such people exist, why must they roam freely instead of being imprisoned (or perhaps, preferably, kelt in some kind of institution)? If Alice is fundamentally compelled to kill people, do the rest of us just have to live with it because of the injustice of interfering in her life due to a trait she never asked for?Report

  8. Avatar Pinky says:

    Maybe this isn’t a free speech issue. Maybe we can say that the Met is wrong – not criminal, but wrong – to produce this. Maybe we can say that as a decent society we shouldn’t encourage productions like this.

    I’ve never seen it, but since it’s a John Adams work, I assume it’s intolerably bad. It can’t be presented for its beauty; it must be for its message. From the sound of it, its message is intolerably bad, too.

    It’s not a free speech issue, any more than it’s an electrical issue because the Lincoln Center is on the grid.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      From the sound of it, its message is intolerably bad, too.

      I’m reminded of opening night of The Last Temptation of Christ, when someone tried to persuade me not to see it because it was blasphemous. How do you know, I asked, have you seen it? Oh, not, they would never see it because it was blasphemous.

      You’re getting your knowledge of Klinghoffer from the equivalent of that person.

      May I recommend reading the link to the interview with the librettist, that I posted above?Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        I read the article. It didn’t persuade me either way. As I indicated, I haven’t read the libretto. I don’t know if this particular libretto about anti-Semitic murderers is more sympathetic or less sympathetic than some other libretto about anti-Semitic murderers, but I’m willing to assume that any libretto that can be labeled as such is outside the bounds of decency.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        I don’t know if this particular libretto about anti-Semitic murderers is more sympathetic or less sympathetic than some other libretto about anti-Semitic murderers, but I’m willing to assume that any libretto that can be labeled as such is outside the bounds of decency.

        I just read that sentence several times trying to discern an actual argument and I have to admit that I could not find one.

        Are you trying to argue that the subject matter is what makes it “outside the bounds of decency?” That does not make any sense. Triumph of the Will and Schindler’s List are both movies about Nazis, certainly you recognize the difference between the two.

        Or are trying to argue that because someone somewhere could call this opera anti-semitic, then it must be anti-semitic and, therefore, “outside of the bounds of decency?” If that is the case, then I am going to take this radical freedom from the need to prove claims and label you absolutely, undeniably wrong. And since you can be labeled absolutely, undeniably wrong (cause I just did), that must mean you are wrong.

        That was easy.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        I’m willing to assume that any libretto that can be labeled as such is outside the bounds of decency.

        Given how readily people misunderstand hot button issues, and the ease with which we _can_ say the words that label things, that doesn’t sound like the strongest assumption you’ve made in your life.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        JR, I wasn’t trying to make an argument. As I said, I’m making an assumption.Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I was trying to come up with a decent analogy to why this might not have been the best moment to immortalize in song, I was thinking about coming up with other somewhat famous murder operas. I wanted to make sure that I’d pick ones where there were two sides and while one side was the bad guy and the other was the good guy, I wanted to limit myself to examples where I could tell the story of the bad guy’s side in a way that usually wasn’t explored.

    James Byrd and Matthew Shepard came to mind, but I also thought about Trayvon Martin opera and Michael Brown.

    Perhaps we’re too close to Nathan Cirillo’s shooting to make an opera about that, but maybe that’s the perfect circumstance under which an opera should be made.

    And, at this point, I admit to understanding the position of the protestors better than I did the day before.Report

  10. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    What makes this production interesting is that Peter Sellars plays Klinghoffer, the ship’s captain, and Yasir Arafat.Report