In case you’ve been living under a rock the past week (understandable given the current environment), here’s what happened…
VP-elect and anti-LGBT poster boy Mike Pence attended a performance of “Hamilton” on Broadway. Now Pence doesn’t strike me as the musical theater type, but good for him, getting out and getting him some of that big city elitist culture.
The cast and crew, being made aware of his presence, felt the urge to make a quick statement to him at the end of the show, during their curtain call.
The audience, some of them anyway, being made aware of his presence, felt the urge to boo him.
The President-elect, as he is wont to do, felt the urge to promptly lose his shit and launch into a minor Tweet-storm tirade.
The immediate reaction of most of us, on either side of the Great American Trump Chasm, is to dismiss this as nothing more than the usual nonsense. It’s Trump being Trump, responding to elitists being elitists. All sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Sure, the hard-core supporters got bent about a perceived lack of respect. And the hard-core opponents either took the opportunity to remind us about Pence’s embrace of “conversion therapy”, or pointed out how this non-event was distracting from bigger issues like Trump’s $25 million fraud settlement. But most of us, honestly, just didn’t think this was a big deal. Certainly nothing to get worked up about.
And that is where we are dead wrong.
Allow me to explain. But first, let’s clear up some of the details.
It has been said that the cast of Hamilton booed Pence. They did not. The audience did. If you’re whole problem with this is that the audience was disrespectful to Pence, you have a valid point. You’ve completely missed the larger point, but your point is valid. And by all means, please, feel free to criticize an audience for booing someone they don’t like.
It has been said that the cast of Hamilton made a disrespectful statement to Pence. They did not. Below is the entire statement, as read by Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who played Aaron Burr. Judge for yourself…
“We, sir, 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 this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”
That’s it. That’s the entire statement. You will notice that, despite what I imagine was an overwhelming desire on their part, not once did they include the phrase “hey, asshole…”. Instead, they opted for the far less offensive “sir…”
If you find their statement disrespectful, you may want to go to your nearest college campus, find yourself a nice quiet “safe space”, and re-calibrate your sensitivity threshold. You may find it has been accidentally set to “liberal”, or worse yet, to “millennial”. As quickly and calmly as possible, you will want to move that setting back to “conservative”, or if you’re feeling particularly frisky, to “suck it up, buttercup”.
Seriously though, the statement made was a respectful yet earnest call for inclusion, a reminder of shared values, and an expression of hope. It might be viewed as presumptive, not without reason, but I fail to see anything about the statement or the way it was read that is intrinsically offensive.
It is also, and this is the important part, a perfectly valid expression of Constitutionally protected free speech.
And here is the problem, and here is why this incident is a big deal. Donald Trump described this statement as “harassment”. At that moment, this became a big deal, because, as hopefully you already know, harassment is not Constitutionally protected free speech. Nor should it be.
In one tweet, less than 140 characters, our President-elect has transformed a protected statement of hope and inclusion into a potentially criminal act of harassment. Let’s just stop and think about that for a moment.
Now obviously, if something like this were to go to court, I think we all feel comfortable that the court would not agree with this Mr. Trump’s transformation. And that is some comfort, but… It shouldn’t have to come to that.
The leader of the free world should understand the difference between free speech and harassment. The President of the United States should respect the Constitutional right of his country’s people to speak to power without condemning it as a criminal act. Criminalizing political speech is the exact kind of tyranny our Bill of Rights was designed to prevent in the first place.
If this is how our future president is going to regard the First Amendment, and if this is how he is going to regard anything said that remotely questions him or his administration, we are in for a very difficult time.
Shake up Washington if you like, throw out what you want, but that cannot include the Bill of Rights. Above all else that must be preserved. Too many brave men and women have fought and died for those rights to just toss them out on the whim of an orange man-child who has never bothered to read them.