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.