‘Pence-ive’ Moment

Jewish Light Editorial

Much dust was stirred last Friday when Brandon Dixon, of the cast of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton,” addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience, at the end of the play. 

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

President-elect Donald Trump, who had shown relative restraint in recent weeks by refraining from using Twitter to attack those who challenge him, said on the social network that the actors had “harassed” Pence and violated the tradition of a theater being a “safe and special place” which should be a politics-free zone. He demanded an apology from the cast (and also petulantly described the show as “overrated”).

Pence himself was more statesmanlike in his own response, indicating on Sunday talk shows that he was not asking for an apology and supported the free speech rights of the cast to speak out, while indicating that people might question whether the setting was an appropriate one for such a statement.

So was it appropriate? We can debate the niceties of the situation, but the answer is, it really doesn’t matter, because it’s protected speech, pure and simple.

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Free speech and expression are among the bedrock principles of the U.S. Constitution and certainly the “Hamilton” team was perfectly within its rights to make its on-stage plea after the performance was over. And everyone who has an opinion about what happened that night has the absolutely same right to respond with his or her own voice.

For instance, a New York Times article by Patrick Healy quotes a Twitter comment by the musician Steven Van Zandt, of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and “The Sopranos,” that said it breaks with theater tradition to deliver a surprise political message to an audience member after a curtain call.  

“You don’t single out an audience member and embarrass him from the stage,” Van Zandt said, adding that doing so “set a terrible precedent.”

Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, who was often critical of Trump during the campaign, said that while he would always support free expression, he was dismayed that the left was demanding respect from Pence while lecturing him disrespectfully in the eyes of many on the right.

But here’s another perspective: How often do people get to address a president or vice-president face-to-face in their lifetimes? Granted, the cast of “Hamilton,” given its immense popularity is an exception, as a bunch of them have even performed at the White House for President Barack and Michelle Obama.

But the common man and woman — and perhaps these performers, too, as they no doubt perceive their views might comprise those of outsiders vis à vis the new administration — have precious few direct interactions with our elected leaders.

Besides, there’s a much broader issue that casts a serious shadow over this incident; namely, the stated goal of the president-elect to broaden libel laws in this country to stifle dissent.

This weekend, in The New York Times magazine, a story by Emily Bazelon described how Trump and other high-wealth individuals have tried to suppress dissent through litigation aimed at those who have criticized them. While neither the president nor any individual can alone effect a change to expand state-level libel laws or to restrict the federal constitution, the “Hamilton” episode raises questions about what impact new leadership intends to impose on free speech.

Our society and democracy flourish in large part on the ability of everyone, from powerful to powerless, to voice viewpoints, opinions and perspectives about the issues of the day. This protection safeguards practically all political expression short of direct and immediate threats of violence or harm.

So whether it’s political candidates, or “Hamilton” participants, or “Saturday Night Live” actors, or political pundits, or you, or us, offering myriad takes on our society and its leaders, it’s all protected and all must be. Choosing who gets to utter which words based on the content of the speech or the context in which it appears is a recipe for democratic disaster.

Perhaps the cast could have more tactfully framed their concerns without appearing to “lecture” Pence, who had purchased his tickets for his family to enjoy a night out at the theater. But as we note above, so what? If you don’t like it, then say something about it; it’s your right, and always must be.