The word “censorship” generally refers to cases where “an instrument of government” uses the power of state to prevent citizens from exercising their right to free expression in the arts, politics or in the media.
Often, however, the debate about this important subject gets blurred by unserious assertions about the West’s supposed ‘creeping descent’ into censorship, sometimes after a theater company or cinema decides not to show a controversial play or film, or merely because the production is the subject of a peaceful protest or mild rebuke.
A Nov. 20 column by playwright Peter Sellars (in the Opera section of the Guardian) calls upon this hyperbolic tradition by conflating mere criticism with outright suppression.
Sellars helped create the original opera The Death of Klinghoffer and directed its first performance – an opera based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship, in which a wheelchair-bound Jewish man was shot in the head by a Palestinian terrorist before being thrown overboard. And, Sellars devotes most of his Guardian article to the controversy surrounding the recent New York Metropolitan Opera production of this opera.
After lamenting how putatively fragile free speech is in America today, Sellars gets to the point:
Nearly 30 years ago, the passenger liner Achille Lauro was hijacked by Palestinians, who murdered and threw overboard an American Jew called Leon Klinghoffer. The story occupied the news for two weeks, then disappeared. What was the story of the century that preceded this? What was its aftermath in real terms?
John Adams took up this challenge in 1991 with his opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Opera has always spoken to a cross-section of society. Its roots lie in Greek dramas, which were about the most difficult and dangerous topics, recognising that we can only face them if we face them as one.
Looking at something does not mean you’re endorsing it. One can abhor an event, yes, but one also needs to understand it.
He then turns to his central thesis:
Yet the US today is coming close to censorship.
Now, to his larger point about “Palestine”:
Nobody is allowed to discuss Palestine. Nobody is allowed to mention Palestinians, much less depict them. Most Americans have no idea about the history of Palestinians, or what their situation is now. When The Death of Klinghoffer was staged at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last month, it was picketed – and exploited – by extreme special-interest groups who had no interest in the actual opera, or indeed any opera.
First, the Opera was not cancelled by The Met, so it’s unclear what precisely is being censored.
More broadly, the assertion that “nobody is allowed to discuss Palestine” or “mention Palestinians” is so cut off from reality that it rises to the level of parody.
Indeed, the issue of Palestine is of course nothing short of an obsession at international bodies like the UN, and within much of the Western news media, and to claim just the opposite – that there is a dearth of conversation about Palestine and Palestinians – represents an astounding inversion of reality.
Simply because The Death of Klinghoffer was criticized and was the object of a peaceful protest campaign – by those exercising their own right to free expression – doesn’t mean “you can’t discuss Palestine”.
It only means that you can’t expect to be immune from criticism when doing so.
- New York Times opinion bias by the numbers (CAMERA.org)