Saturday, October 25, 2014

"Death of Klinghoffer": First Amendment vs. Intellectual Honesty and Moral Decency

Tensions have arisen outside New York City's Metropolitan Opera House, or "MET" for short, over a controversial operatic piece called The Death of Klinghoffer. Why the controversy? Let's start with the actual story itself. Leon Klinghoffer was a 69-year old, disabled American Jew enjoying a cruise on the Achille Lauro with his wife to celebrate their thirty-sixth wedding anniversary back in 1985. Four hijackers from the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), a known terrorist organizations, commandeered of the ship, and took the passengers and crew hostage to put pressure on the Israeli government to release Palestinian prisoners. Since the Syrian government didn't allow the boat to dock, the PLF singled out Klinghoffer, shot him, and threw him overboard simply because he was a Jew. VoilĂ , a synopsis of the Achille Lauro hijacking of 1985. The Death of Klinghoffer was first produced in 1991, so it's not as if the controversy is new. The controversy reignited because the opera is being viewed at the MET and has received protest-worthy attention. The reason for its controversy behind the piece in the first place is that it presents the view of Klinghoffer and that of the terrorists as equally valid. Those who criticize the libretto opine that it is an anti-Semitic opera. It is moments like these that can simultaneously and truly test my libertarianism and my Judaism, not to mention my sense of moral decency.

Do I believe that such a piece should be censored? Absolutely not! We live in a country that very much protects the freedom of speech and expression via the First Amendment. We do not have the right to not be offended. To live in a free society, we need to be able to protect opinions we find unsavory or disagreeable. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the issues of the government censoring pieces that people find offensive. If you don't like The Death of Klinghoffer, don't go to it. Boycott it. Protest it. Put pressure on the funders of the MET. Downright government censorship does not do any favors for citizens in a free society. Conversely, this also means that the government should not be funding The Death of Klinghoffer, which is why it was dismaying to find out that $0.7M of MET funds come from the government (see MET financial statements, p. 17). Even though it's a small amount in comparison to the $140.8M, the government has no business in funding the arts.

That being said, a free society implies that there is a vibrant, intellectual marketplace. Ideas are free to expressed, and ideas are also free to be criticized. To quote the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer, "We are strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theatre and music can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events. 'Klinghoffer' does no such thing. It presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. The opera rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder." For both conductor John Adams (also see hereand Peter Gelb, the director of the MET, the opera is presented to understand the other side, and to understand the motivations of those who would commit such an act. If The Death of Klinghoffer was merely a springboard of discussion, why cancel the global simulcast?

I know that one of art's potential functions is to provoke the consumer, but who cares if the PLF had profound motivations or grievances? People who commit despicable acts have had grievances or profound motivations, and there are plenty of issues that merit and require nuance. However, there are some issues that are quite simple, and I wish more people and the moral fortitude to say so. There is no other side to this scenario. To quote Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl's father, "We do not stage 'nuanced' operas for rapists and child molesters, and we do not compose symphonies for penetrating the minds of ISIS executioners. Some coins do not have two sides. And what was done to Leon Klinghoffer has no other side. What we are seeing in New York is not an artistic expression that challenges the limits of morality but a moral deformity that challenges the limits of the art."

There is a fine line between maintaining a sense of open-mindedness and regressing into moral and intellectual relativism, and the defenders of The Death of Klinghoffer have crossed that line. Go down this path and we might as well give equal credence to Flat Earthers or 9-11 Truthers. We should be able to have the intellectual honesty to call a spade a spade: rationalizing, romanticizing, or legitimizing coldblooded murder under the guise of a non-existent moral equivalency is not art, but morally reprehensible propaganda.

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