Boo, not boom

Once again, I am in a TV-production truck outside the Metropolitan Opera House. That’s less usual now than it used to be. Even before September 11, the Met had been cutting back on its television production, and, of all of New York’s performing arts institutions, it seems to have been hardest hit by the fall-off of foreign tourism.

In September, however, our “plazacast” — carrying a performance from the stage to a giant screen in the plaza outside — was a big hit.

Thousands of New Yorkers congregated to watch the opera, so there had been much talk of doing more — much talk but not much money. We’ve all made concessions to help make this one possible.

In September, even after the terror, the plaza was an open space, and those who came to watch the show treated it as such. Some lightweight “bicycle-rack” barricades simply identified our equipment spaces to the crowd. They were easily moved.

Since then, more substantial concrete barriers have been positioned across the front of the plaza and elsewhere in Lincoln Center’s open spaces. I wonder if someone actually feared that a terrorist driver could gather sufficient vehicular speed in New York traffic to drive up a flight of steps and wreak havoc on the plaza.

As in September, tonight’s plazacast is free. This time, however, tickets were given out in advance, and no one is to be permitted on the plaza without a ticket. This, I am told, is a security measure. I suppose the theory is that no terrorist would ever ask for a free ticket in advance.

There has been a great deal of publicity about tonight’s event. It is possible that it might be Luciano Pavarotti’s last performance in an opera. It is merely “possible” for two reasons. First, he might very well sing in an opera again. Second, he might not sing tonight; he has been ill.

He rehearsed the opera, but he missed a performance earlier this week.

The Met knew about his cancellation in time to slip a note into the program, but the general manager decided to make an announcement about it before the opera began. He was loudly booed.

The cartoon character Snidely Whiplash was often booed as part of the soundtrack. He was a classic villain — curling moustache, dark suit and top hat, greenish pallor, disregard of the law, evil henchmen, explosives, etc.

Snidely Whiplash was given voice by Hans Conried, who often played villains, from the title character of “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” to World War II Nazis. He was also famous for one lovable (if sometimes annoying) TV character, “The Danny Thomas Show’s” Uncle Tonoose from Toledo, originally from Lebanon (Conried, himself, was born in Baltimore).

I don’t know whether Uncle Tonoose’s religion was ever revealed on the show. If it was, I suspect he was shown to be a Christian, not unusual for someone from Lebanon.

Many Americans seem to think of the Middle East as a monolithic Islamic territory, except for Jewish Israel at one edge. But there are many Lebanese Christians, Egyptian Christians, and Palestinian Christians. And Islam is hardly monolithic; no major religion is.

An old New York joke says that any two Jews in a room will have at least a dozen opinions on any given subject. So it should not be surprising that Jews have booed Jews recently.

Frank Rich’s column in today’s New York Times describes one incident involving Paul Wolfowitz:

“Mr. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, is on the hawkish right of the Bush administration. He is a Jew whose father’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Nonetheless, he was booed when he spoke on behalf of the president at the large pro-Israel rally held by American Jews in Washington last month. His transgression? During an encomium to Israel, he acknowledged aloud that ‘innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well’ in the Middle East.”

Rich disagrees not only with the booing but also with other tactics directed at various media outlets, including subscription cancellations and attempts to get advertisers to withdraw their business. Those efforts may be unreasoned and misdirected, but they’re not violent. And one person’s “unreasoned” is another’s perfectly reasoned.

Here’s what John Ashcroft told Congress in December:

“We need honest, reasoned debate; not fear-mongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”

Those words don’t seem so bad (exclusive of the idea that immigrants are different from Americans), but they are often viewed as an attempt (largely successful) to stifle any opposition to Bush administration plans. They ARE — in part because of Ashcroft’s adjectives: “honest” and “reasoned.”   Who is to say what’s honest? Who is to say what’s reasoned?

Here’s the complete text of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

There’s nothing in there about honest or reasoned speech nor about an honest or reasoned press. As best I can tell, booing is protected by the first amendment, no matter who’s being booed or why.

Rich goes on:

“That Paul Wolfowitz, of all Americans in public life, would be vilified for stating the obvious was a sign, to me anyway, that justifiable rage and horror at Palestinian terrorism is, in some American Jewish quarters, boiling over into something less justifiable. Nor is the heckling of Mr. Wolfowitz the only sign. Earlier in April a Jewish couple in Brooklyn had to flee New York to escape death threats because their son, Adam Shapiro, had gained notoriety as a humanitarian worker among the Palestinians in Ramallah.”

I find death threats to be something quite different from booing.

They’re not protected speech.

Lucas Helder recently attempted to get attention for some sort of message by planting bombs in rural mailboxes. That’s not protected “speech,” either, despite its artistic content; Helder tried to plant bombs in locations that would form a smiley face on a U.S. map.

There’s a big difference between verbal (or at least oral) expressions of distaste and violence. It’s not for nothing that children are taught the “sticks and stones” rhyme.

Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik covered the booing of Met general manager Joseph Volpe earlier this week:

“‘I know you’re disappointed,’ he told the sellout crowd of 4,000. ‘You can boo some more if it makes you feel better.'”

Hear! Hear!



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