Independent's Eye by Joe Gandelman
Is Mel Brooks smiling?
Brooks' 1968 comedy "The Producers" dealt with an outrageous, fictitious Broadway musical called "Springtime for Hitler" that trivialized Nazism and became a surprise hit. The New York Metropolitan Opera is now presenting "The Death of Klinghoffer," which tries to explain the point of view of PLF members who hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, shot elderly American Jewish businessman Leon Klinghoffer, and threw him overboard in his wheelchair.
The opera's composer, John Adams, was quoted as explaining that "pro Israel lobbies" had power in Congress, while Palestinians were "forever scolded or ridiculed for their violence." His opera is a critical hit -- and a monster controversy due to its depiction of Israel and anti-Semitic lyrics like this sung by a hijacker: "America is one big Jew." Or terrorists singing that it's an "action of liberation" and they're "men of ideals." Jewish groups protested, but theater goers included prominent Jews. New York newspapers ran columns and op-eds denouncing and defending its right to be seen.
The Metropolitan Opera scuttled plans to air it on radio, and ran Klinghoffer's daughters' dissenting statement in the opera's program: "Terrorism is irrational," they wrote. "It should never be explained away or justified. Nor should the death of innocent civilians be misunderstood as an acceptable means for drawing attention to perceived political grievances. Unfortunately, 'The Death of Klinghoffer' does all of this and sullies the memory of our father in the process."
Yes, there are issues here about free speech and the freedom to create and display art . And there's precedent for eyebrow-raising definitions. "Piss Christ," artist Andre Serrano's 1987 photo of a small plastic crucifix in a glass of urine, won the Southwestern Center for Contemporary Art's "Awards in the Visual Arts Competition." Finger paintings by the late Cheetah the Chimp, the simian scene-stealer in Tarzan films, sold at auctions for some $20,000.
Art is in the mind of the beholder, isn't it? As humorist David Sedaris noted, just call it "a piece." Crass plebeians may find a photo of a cross in a glass of pee gross, but only the truly ENLIGHTENED understand it's a work of breathtaking genius. But there's another issue being missed in the furor over the opera's anti-Semitic overtones and its attempt to show that the monsters who murdered an ill, disabled man in a wheelchair and hurled him overboard somehow had their reasons.
This is the 21st century, where notoriety and outrageousness sells.
It's the century where loudness, crudeness and rudeness are considered intelligence and talent, where left and right ideologues make mega-bucks attacking one political party to the cheers of like-minded partisans, and the eager nods of their media corporation bosses raking in big bucks. Controversy means free social media, book deals, audience share, ticket sales -- and lots and lots of money.
If it shocks, it financially rocks, and if it divides, it REALLY rides. The Daily Beast's John Avlon writes that "our fellow citizens are self-segregating themselves into separate political realities."
So what next? If "The Death of Klinghoffer" is a hit, does this mean within a few years we'll see an opera about American Airlines Flight 11 with terrorist tenors singing as they slit stewardesses throats on 9/11, and Al Qaeda members warbling how they love flowers, but since the American military dominated the Middle East and killed Middle East kids, thousands of Americans must die?
Will we see a musical displaying ISIS members tap dancing to the sounds of bloody heads rhythmically plopping on the floor after being sawed off, plus a scene where a chorus line of young ISIS recruits sing about how Americans have killed Muslim kids in bombings, so they're on the lamb defending Islam?
If this sounds ridiculous, it would have been crazy in 1968 to seriously suggest that the Met would proudly slate, and therefore tacitly endorse, an opera that would polarize people and raise widespread charges of anti-Semitism. It will likely lose some patrons and donors, but I'm sure they'll pick up new ones -- from certain countries in the Middle East.
The bottom line? Mel Brooks is a visionary.
Copyright 2014 Joe Gandelman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week's online edition. CNN's John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at [email protected] and can be booked to speak at www.mavenproductions.com. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joegandelman