Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why I'm not writing about "The Death of Klinghoffer"

Glass flower, Harvard Museum of Natural History

     Mostly readers limit themselves to commenting on something I wrote or, frequently, on something they imagine I wrote.
     Though occasionally readers will notice something I haven't written and call for it. 
     The Metropolitan Opera opened its production of  the John Adams opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" Monday night, drawing several hundred protesters because of its depiction of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 and caused the death in the title. They are portrayed as people with a grievance.
    "My father's house was razed in 1948..." goes one line in a haunting chorus. 
     You're Jewish, the readers—and more than one have mentioned this—insinuate, why aren't you addressing this? It's your table, clean it up. And by their tone, I get the sense they think they've have me boxed into a corner, either being forced by faith to support something dubious, like the shouting down of an opera, or go against my fellow Jews and be some kind of turncoat. A quandary! 
     When of course it's nothing of the sort. Knee jerk support of whatever folly your kinfolk happen to endorse is perhaps the second greatest cause of suffering in the world, after disease. I had no trouble mocking the Spertus Museum for staging, then abruptly yanking, a show that illustrated the plight of Palestinians, I doubt I'd have trouble pointing out that those trying to stifle an opera are also wrong.
     How do I know that? Particularly not having seen the opera in question? Easy. Because they're always wrong. I can't think of work of creativity ever created since the dawn of time that should be suppressed, including The Essential Hitler: Speeches and Commentary, an 850-page collection that I not only have on my shelf, but I bought, just in case it comes in handy. "No woman was ever ruined by a book," future New York mayor Jimmy Walker said in 1923, words that hold true for either sex and any act of creativity from doodles to encyclopedias. The harm is always notional, imagined, self-assigned.
     That said, I'm tempted to respond to those readers demanding I jump into this pond: "Screw yourself. I'm not a short-order cook." No requests, thank you. Rowdy readers shouting out "Free Bird!" will be politely ignored.
     But what the heck. I have to write something. Why am I reluctant to write about this?
     First, it's unimportant, a tiff, a spat over an opera being performed in New York that most readers have never heard of and don't care to hear and wouldn't attend were it free to go. The Met made the right decision and is still putting it on, except for one slip, its decision not to broadcast it on pay-per-view, under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League, roundly denounced as the cowardice it is. No need for me to chime in.
     Second, writing about "Klinghoffer" would obligate me to actually listen to the opera. Not doing so is lame. With that in mind, I grumbling trotted off to the Northbrook Public Library Monday night to retrieve their boxed set, anticipating the three hours of atonal moaning that is John Adams music. The computer says it hasn't been checked out—of course, who in their right mind would?—but it wasn't on the shelf either. Perhaps some avenger trying to reduce the net total sum of anti-Semitism in the world pinched it. Whatever the reason, I haven't the stomach or the time to buy it, since I already own John Adams "Nixon in China," and, owning it, that means my older son is free to subject me to it, repeatedly, during long car rides.  Some people consider "Nixon in China" brilliant. I am not one of those people. It drones.
      Third, there's nothing to say. It's obvious. All who believe that works of art should reflect their politics are invariably wrong. I don't care if it's D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" or Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will," the notion that artworks, even vile, propaganda artworks, should be banned is cowardly and mistaken. The harm is imaginary. I've talked to enough bigots in my life to know they ain't taking their cues from opera. We believe in free speech because it works; the truth will out.
    So what if Adams and librettist Alice Goodman (both Jewish, at least at one point) give the terrorist personalities? So what that they air a rationale before they kill an old man on a wheelchair on the Achille Lauro? That's what happens in life. Right or wrong, they spout justifications. And that's what happens in the art that reflects life.  Iago explains himself, and the audience gets to not like him on his own terms. Satan is also a pretty attractive guy in "Faust"—if the King of Darkness gets to be portrayed in a good light, why not the PLO? 
     What are the protestors upset about? That the justifications for terrorism are given? Or that a growing part of the world—wrongly, in my view—seems to accept those justifications? Shouting them down isn't going to help.
     So yeah, the Jews look bad, not that I believe in collective guilt: if some idiots want to picket and protest and fire off huffy letters, well, it doesn't reflect poorly on me. We're not fungible. I didn't kill Christ either. So yes, cack-handed of organized Judaism, such as it is. The model for doing this right is the Mormon Church. The subject of the sharpest, most obscene put-down ever to cross the footlights, "The Book of Mormon," the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had the savvy to not only fail to oppose it, but to run ads in the Playbill saying, "You've seen the play; now read the book." Clever.
    A shame professional Judaism couldn't be as sharp, but that's how it's been for us lately.  An unwillingness to view Palestinians as human beings is part of what's stoking the PR nightmare that Israel is going through in the first place. Though really, world opinion has never been Judaism's friend, so maybe Israel's right to ignore it. Me, I'd say solve the damn problem and go on to whatever problem's next. But they're a democracy, remember, like us, and can be just as paralyzed and in thrall to their Right Wing as we are. How can anybody marvel that Israel neglects this thing when American manages the same? We don't need to look to the Middle East to find injustice; it isn't as if America doesn't have 12 million people living here in rightless limbo, decade in, decade out. That's probably why Israel is such a favorite whipping boy among the young; sure beats fretting over your own nation's woes, which is too bad, because a few big campus rallies on immigrations might actually help.
     Just to show how maddening, what a seductive time sink this topic is, the above was meant to be a brief introduction to what I actually wanted to write about: my older boy going off to college, another topic that I haven't written about and nobody asked about, and I thought the Klinghoffer trope would make for an opening paragraph or two.  But it is one of those slopes you once you start sliding down you sort of just keep going.  I blathered on so long that it's time to ring down the curtain. It would be strange to stick college boy here. So we'll get to that actual thing I wanted to write about tomorrow. Or at least try to. One gets distracted by nonsense.


  1. At one time I owned both Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto. I didn't buy them to subscribe to an ideology, I bought them to try and understand history and what moved people to reshape their societies. But I remember having to sign some papers when buying one of them in the late 70's. I thought nothing of it then, but now I wonder what that was about. ??

  2. There are a number of videos on You-Tube with portions of this opera, which accurately portrays the justice of the Palestinian struggle against Zionism. Shame on the Met for caving into the fascistic demands of the ADL and the vile Klinghoffer daughters. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FTafFgwoCg&list=PLkzyBE-GRz604O9z4aYatvd-KRjapQaDE

  3. Reminds me of protests over the Last Temptation of Christ, a great film.

  4. For not writing about Klinghoffer, you said a lot. Me, I'm looking forward to the "rowing in Lincoln Park Lagoon."


  5. At least the "vile Klinghoffer daughters" aren't murdering the Opera's writers or the people who run the Met.

  6. I read the article in the New Yorker and it was delightful! The computer Gods decided that an ad for getting your ESA animal certified was the most appropriate one for this particular article :)

  7. I was one who wondered if you would address the subject but said I wouldn't blame you for giving it a pass. However, I think you had to do it, and your commentary was both eloquent and wise. The kid going to college can wait a day.

    I do disagree with your comment that it's unimportant, being only an opera in New York that most of your readers don't care about. No opportunity to decry wrong-headed censorship anywhere should be passed by lightly, and, the Met's craven decision to cancel the broadcasts, has denied operaphiles worldwide an opportunity to judge for themselves. (And this morning's New York Times review suggests we will be missing a good show.)

    Jimmy Walker's famous comment about no woman ever being ruined by a book has a sexist ring to it these days, although it makes a point. I like what Thomas Hardy, who endured attempts at censorship from church, state and a bluenosed public had to say on the matter. "A novel which does moral injury to a dozen imbeciles, and has bracing results upon a thousand intellects of normal vigour, can justify it's existance; and probably a novel was never written by the purest minded author for which there could not be found some moral ivalid or other whom it was capable of harming."

    1. THough I generally agree with yoru take Mr. Evans, one pet peeve is that these kinds of things are "censorship." I don't think these protesters would care that much if some off-broadway company was putting on this opera and not "The Met." Censorship is when the government prevents free speech from happening, not when a private entity decides something is offensive or not. With the internet there are more ways than ever to let the world "judge for themselves" (stream the CD, for example) if the copyright owners so choose. When the Sun-Times stopped running Joe Sobran's column years ago, it wasn't because they wanted him silenced, it was because they didn't want to be associated with giving him a platform - that's a type of freedom too.

  8. I wonder if Darren Vann was just a man with a grievance...

  9. Technically true. From its Roman origins the term has been associated with official action, but in this instance "private entities" have managed to keep people from seeing a good representation of the stage action, so the result is the same. Seeing an opera on a movie theater screen is not quite like having a seat in the opera house, but viewing it on the internet comes in a very distant third place..

  10. "Third, there's nothing to say." Well, that's a bit of a tough sell in the midst of all those paragraphs. ; ) Seems like you had SOMETHING to say, and you did so, effectively, and in your inimitable style.

    "the three hours of atonal moaning that is John Adams music." Though I agree with you about the "cowardice" of the Met's decision to nix the national broadcast, I don't think a whole lot of folks will feel deprived in missing out on the chance to take in this particular work, whatever its political implications.

    I also agree that the Mormon Church's response to "The Book of Mormon" was masterful and impressive. The most clever corporate "lemons into lemonade" response I've seen lately is this letter from POM Wonderful to John Oliver after he ripped their health claims on his show. I don't think one needs to have seen the original segment to enjoy this 4-minute video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bml8KwCmob8

    Finally, back to music, say what you will about those of us shouting "Free Bird!" at this point; at least it's a crowd-pleaser!

    Damn! Politely ignored, again...

  11. An important (belated) point from Walter Russell Mead: "John Adams’ Klinghoffer may portray Leon Klinghoffer’s murderers in a more sympathetic light than many might prefer, but it is neither an endorsement of nor an apology for the murder. It is, however, a morally questionable production, as the composer and librettist turned a family’s private grief into a public spectacle—against their will."

    1. That's particularly silly. The hijacking of the Achille Lauro was not a "private grief." If I wrote a play about 9/11 am I shanghaiing the "private grief" of the victims' families. Does "Schindler's List?" If creative sorts had to get the families to sign off, there'd be no art at all.


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