Ethics Train Wreck Report: Lessons, Ethical and Otherwise, of the Missoula “Mikado” Mess

Much of my weekend was occupied by reading, writing, thinking, and talking about the bizarre controversy over a community theater production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” which, by a series of misunderstandings, misdeeds, hypocrisies and journalistic malpractice, has created much anger and unhappiness for no legitimate reason at all. If you are late to the story and want to catch up, you can do so here, here, here, and here.

For the first and perhaps only time I can honestly say that Ethics Alarms is the most reliable source on a story. There may be plenty of ethicists who are more knowledgeable, scholarly, prudent and experienced than I am regarding ethics theory, but none of them knows this topic—Gilbert and Sullivan and “The Mikado”, like I do. I have 50 years experience performing, directing, studying, parodying and laughing at the works of these Victorian geniuses. The second I read the astoundingly wrong-headed interpretation being attached to the Missoula Community Theatre’s inclusion of Sarah Palin in Ko-Ko’s famous song “I’ve Got a Little List,” I surmised exactly what was going on, and my assessment has been confirmed by everything that has come to light since.

I will summarize what we now know in brief (well, briefer than reading all the posts) form:

  • In the Missoula (Montana) Community Theater’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, almost certainly the most performed, most seen, most acclaimed and most popular satirical musical comedy ever written, Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner, sang his song about people “who never would be missed” including, as has been the tradition since 1885, some updated lyrics.
  • Among the contemporary references was one that placed Sarah Palin on the “list.”
  • The added lyric: “And that crazy Sarah Palin, needs a psychoanalyst!  She never would be missed.  No. She never would be missed.” The horror.
  • An outraged and musical theater-challenged patron, Ms. Rory Page, wrote the local newspaper protesting that the production called for the beheading of Sarah Palin. I kid you not.
  • The paper foolishly printed the letter without checking the facts. (Presumably The Missoulian would have done the same if Page had said that the production was torturing cats or burning effigies of the President. The entire episode is a media disgrace, which has been having a lot of them lately.)
  • Among the misstatements in Ms. Page’s letter: she wrongly attributed the production to the Missoula Children’s Theater. That company is operated under the same organization as the Missoula Community Theater, but “The Mikado” was presented by the latter.
  • Now we had a report of a children’s theatre show advocating the violent and bloody beheading of Sarah Palin, who had already been victimized (for real) in the previous effort by the Palin-hating mainstream media to tie Jared Loughner’s shooting spree to her rhetoric. The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, who is usually better and smarter than this, took the bait, and condemned these hateful adults singing to children about how Palin should be killed.  None of this was true, of course. Slow news day at the Journal.
  • Never mind: Fox News, via Greta Van Susteren, also weighed in on the outrage that never was, as did local blogs, letter writers and journalists….not one whom apparently had ever seen a production of “The Mikado,” or had ever heard of satire…or journalistic ethics either.
  • The shocked and beleaguered theater troupe, undoubtedly puzzled as to why past Ko-Kos, over more than a century, had mentioned Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, F.D.R, Robert Kennedy, Mother Theresa,  Walter Cronkite, Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush and Princess Diana, among many other luminaries, and never heard a peep of protest from anyone with two brain cells to rub together, but now all of America was calling this little Montana production evil*, prudently decided to pull the lyric.
  • Despite this, they are receiving hate mail, threats of canceled grant money, and threatening phone calls…all be people who never saw the show, don’t know the context, and are going by the second and third hand accounts by commentators whose only source is Rory “What’s a ‘joke’?” Page’s letter to The Missoulian
  • And this headline still stands on a local blog: Palin Beheaded in Local Play.

So…What have we learned from this saga?

1. The extreme, uncontrolled, often irrational political passions in the culture now risk making humor, levity, and satire impossible. That is a threat to our society’s perspective and sanity.

2. Ignorance is the foe of fairness. Rory Page didn’t understand that “the Mikado” is satire, and wasn’t paying attention to, or didn’t understand, the script. W.S. Gilbert was apolitical, and his shows always took the position that everything, including love, courage, and nobility, and everyone, including judges, lovers, aristocrats, military heroes, kings, queens and elected officials, were ridiculous. The editors who printed her letter didn’t know what “The Mikado” was, or they would have known how silly and inaccurate her letter was. Taranto and the rest jumped to an absurd conclusion because they were also ignorant of the operetta…which, I will opine, is as much a core part of Western culture as “Hamlet.” And a lot more fun.

3. The internet makes careful fact-checking, responsible reporting and a sense of proportion an ethical imperative for those who post stories of any kind. Mark Twain’s observation that “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on” was prescient: it is literally true now, except that the lie gets all around the world. Most of the hysteria over the production erupted from the false information that this was a children’s show (not that it should have mattered: “The Mikado” is an excellent children’s show).

4. The rapid dissemination of information gathered by individuals with cell-phone cameras and twitter accounts has to be tempered and controlled by some standards of proportion. Not long ago, it would have been nearly impossible for a Montana community theater production to get this kind of notoriety, and that was a good thing: that’s one reason people go to Montana, I would think. How is it worthy of national news commentary in the Wall Street Journal whom a community theater production chooses to lampoon? How long will it be before what you say in your back yard is broadcast to the world and criticized by Bill O’Reilly?

5. In case there ever was any doubt, when it comes to irrational accusations of wrongdoing, both liberal warriors and their conservative counterparts are equally shameless and indefensible. Though the Missoula Mikado’s slanderers repeatedly cited as provocation the media’s attempt to tie Palin, the Tea Party and other conservatives to the Tucson shooting, they apparently were unable to comprehend that what they were doing to a small community theater was equally unfair, and amounted to bullying. At least Sarah Palin is a public figure who is used to being abused, and who has the resources and supporters to defend herself. Condemning a small local, amateur theater company that had done nothing wrong at all in retribution for the national media’s mistreatment of the conservatives’ darling, Palin, was so unjust and illogical that it defies analogy.

6. Journalistic ethics is in its death throes. The rush to condemn Palin for Tucson showed us this, and the Missoula Mikado shows that laziness and incompetence is part of the rot along with bias and irresponsibility. “Palin Beheaded…”…that headline still up. And most accounts still say it was a children’s theater production. The clueless Rory Page, rather than anyone who actually understood what was on stage, is still being used as the primary source of misinformation. Eventually, the only rational course for the public will be to refuse to believe anything they read or hear, thus making the nation more cynical, confused, and badly-informed than it already is.

7. Until journalists start practicing better journalism, they need to re-learn the art of apology and retraction. There were almost no apologies after the rush to make Palin an accessory to a massacre, and I have seen no retractions or apologies from those who passed judgment on “The Mikado” without checking their facts and listening to some D’Oyly Carte Opera recordings. I have a faint hope that Taranto will do the right thing and retract his mistaken Friday comments.

8. Cultural ignorance has consequences. Once, schools and parents introduced students to the satirical, tuneful, topsy-turvy world view of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, sparking their children’s interest in history, politics, law, royalty, theater, music and humor, while introducing them to the concept of social satire. Now, the most performed and most popular writers for the stage after Shakespeare are ignored and unknown in whole regions of the country, and the experience of the Missoula Community Theater shows the results. Without shared historical and literary perspective, it is difficult to communicate: America is becoming a generational and class-divided Tower of Babel, and our leaders think that diplomas, rather than knowledge, is the problem.

To be blunt, the Missoula Mikado Ethics Train Wreck is about ignorance, revenge and stupidity, and it is hard to be ethical when one is ignorant, vengeful and stupid.


* One Tea Party site is telling members to “call your Congressman” over this “outrage.” Amazing.

19 thoughts on “Ethics Train Wreck Report: Lessons, Ethical and Otherwise, of the Missoula “Mikado” Mess

  1. “When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”

    I hate your NP#2 still….

      • If I were to re-write NP#2 using less words and without changing the meaning, would this be accurate?

        “It’s unethical to say something that someone will likely find offensive, even thought they ought not be offended. (Unless it’s absolutely necessary.)”

        • Assuming that there are no objections to how I have interpreted the current wording of NP #2, it seems to me that NP #2 is already an exception to NP #1.

          If NP #1 is a rule that grants a “pass” to those who are wrongly criticized:

          “No one should be criticized or penalized because someone takes racial, ethnic, religious or other offense at their conduct or speech due to the ignorance, bias or misunderstanding by the offended party.”

          NP #2 is the exception to that rule. I don’t think having an exception of an exception is good form.

          If NP #2 is truly meant to be an exception to the rule of NP #1, then it needs to be accurate and it needs to reference NP #1.

          I believe this would be appropriate in the Mikado case and generally all others:

          “No one should be allowed umbrage under NP#1 if their intent was to exploit the offended party’s ignorance, bias or misunderstanding.”

          I think this revision will pass muster and serve the purpose of having a 2nd NP.

          • I’m beginning to like it, but we have to come up with something less clunky than “should be allowed umbrage.” We can’t disallow umbrage,umbrage is free—I’m taking some tomorrow.

            • “No one should be allowed to claim the protection of NP #1 if their intent was to exploit the offended party’s ignorance, bias or misunderstanding.”


              I’m a horrible revisionist. I generally can get a good first thought, but I require someone with actual skills to polish the final product. I’m even questioning if I should have used the word revisionist where I did.

  2. Seems like Tim is saying that if I can’t say niggardly I can’t sing that Sarah won’t be missed. Tactically (not ethically) that makes some sense: avoid using a word or a line in a song that somebody somewhere might misunderstand.

  3. Wow – unreal. IMO the intratubes has taken the “hot” type of the old media and made it like the minutia of the new technology – “moldable and shapeable” to whatever point of view seems fit. You can validate whatever point of view you seem fit, and just completely abuse the facts, which you point out in hideous, depressing detail. So sad… the facts are the solid ground, surrounded by the literal quicksand of slant, mistruths, outright lies and prejudice.

    May you live in interesting times inDEED.

  4. There is, I think, one bit of comfort for those of us who believe in a Musical Theater Pantheon. I’m sure that Gilbert is rolling in uncontrollable laughter up there about this whole mess. He’d love it.

    That’s an advantage of being dead, I guess — you can laugh at the funny parts and leave the luckless living to sort out the ethics.


    After the hate offensive directed against Sarah Palin for a massacre committed by a nutburger Leftist in Arizona – Do not expect fairness or quarter from the Right.

    It’s called civil war…

    • 1. Who’s “the Leftist”? ME? Talk about undermining your judgment from the get-go! I never write this, but “LOL!!!!”
      2. It’s called civil war, so take it out on an innocent community theater? You know, in the Civil War, they didn’t try to shoot civilians.
      3. Utter nonsense, Ronald.

  6. I do not agree with the notion that the Missoula lyrics are something that Gilbert might have included himself were he alive.

    William Gilbert was far too clever to name names when a witty description would do better, and in all of his work I am not aware of a single person he singles out by name. It is true that many list song composers are sloppy and break Gilbert’s rule, but they do so at the peril of incurring the wrath of offended parties, as we are now witnessing.

    I also wrote a list song for our local (Juneau, Alaska) production of “The Mikado”. In my song, I listed a “Woman from Wasilla who just up and walked away, while hoping she’d be missed”.

    Her name was not on my list.

    My wife asked me about that lyric when I wrote it. I replied with, “I never said who it was. Your mother lives in Wasilla, and for all anybody knows I might be talking about her!”

    Indeed, several thousand women live in Wasilla, including my mother-in-law. The joke is that I get along fabulously with my in-laws.

    Of course, I knew that most people would make their own guess as to the identity of my “Woman from Wasilla”. I even spoke with the conductor and had him put an extra pause in the music in anticipation of the response, and the audiences all roared their approval when I delivered that line (in Alaska’s capital city, months after our former governor coincidentally resigned).

    Recently, I noted several comments appearing on the YouTube page where the video of this performance resides. After reviewing them I removed the comments and left a message that such statements were better left to a different venue, but the “gentleman” persisted in telling me what a hypocritical left-winger I must be. For the record, I am a registered independent.

    In my lyrics I labeled most people in existence today, because I believe in painting with a broad brush. And I am wholly unapologetic too. As the common disclaimer states: any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

    Witty humor need never defend itself from censors of any stripe, but the authors of such humor would be well advised to follow Gilbert’s rule, and leave out names.

    • Michael: nobody has the time or patience to track down everything I’ve written about this stupid incident, but I have written in a couple of places, as an aside, the same sentiment. Gilbert would have had Palin in the song by inference, and would never be so crude as to say “she’s crazy.” Curt Olds needed defending against the notion that he was advocating Palin’s beheading, but I won’t defend his lyric-writing. It was wrong to name Palin; it was wrong to only reference one public figure.

      Gilbert mentioned the Fire Commissioner of London, Captain Shaw, by name in the Queen of the Fairies’ lament in “Iolanthe” (my favorite!) “Oh Foolish Fay”: “Oh Captain Shaw…Can thy brigade with cold cascade quench my great love, I wonder?”

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed the blog post and the commentary. It reminded me of my own Mikado experience, where I was the music director and on-stage pianist for a community theater production in Brooklyn many years ago. Our Ko-Ko, on his own, added a stanza about the pianist (rhymes with list). During the arietta, he wandered over to the piano, leaned on it, looked at me, and recited the stanza, and punctuated it with a gesture of his hand across his throat accompanied by a gruesome sound. What fun! What I was surprised about, during the above discussion, was any mention of the trivializing of the Japanese and Japanese culture. Some “woke” critic it seems, may take umbrage over a troupe of Brits or Americans, or Missoulans, with braids and accentuated eye makeup, making fun of and trivializing the seriousness of the Japanese court and culture. I am thankful that we have not come to that (yet), but would not be surprised if that day arrives.

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