In England, Art Designed To Show The Ugliness Of Racism Exposes The Ugliness Of Political Correctness And Censorship Instead

Human zoo

Then the question is: would this happen here?

The performance art piece “Exhibit B” evokes the spectacle of “human zoo,”in which Africans were put on show for the entertainment and gawking curiosity the 19th and early 20th Century Americans and Europeans. Visitors tour a room in which black actors portray the human exhibits as well as portrayals of what modern-day equivalents would might be like. Created by white South African theatre-maker Brett Bailey,  “Exhibit B” has recieved rave reviews in several venues.  In Edinburgh, The Guardian’s theatre critic Lyn Gardner saw the results as “both unbearable and essential”:

“Creator Brett Bailey has been fearlessly uncompromising in his approach. The experience in the exhibition hall is entirely without comfort. Confronting us with the appalling realities of Europe’s colonial past – the stuff I definitely wasn’t taught at school – isn’t just some kind of guilt trip. It reminds us that most history is hidden from view; it reminds that Britain’s 21st-century ways of seeing are still strongly skewed by 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century colonial attitudes. The masterstroke comes at the end: the pictures and the biographies of the ordinary black Edinburgh men and women who are taking part. Tomorrow, history will look a little different.”

Never mind: Sara Myers, as well as others, don’t want to see it, so they have conspired to stop the work from being seen, at least in England, by anyone else. In her petition at Change.org, she writes:

“I’m a Black African mother from Birmingham. I campaign and work with my community to try to breakdown the stereotypes that black people have to struggle against in society on a daily basis. I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now.

If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery this is not the way to do it. The irony gets lost and it’s not long before the people behind the cage begin to feel like animals trapped in a zoo. One of the actors in his piece said “How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?”

Sara wants her children to grow up in a world where the terrible ways less enlightened human beings treated each other stay so far in the past that nobody knows the happened at all. Sara is wrong. When my theater company performed a reconstructed version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” before it had become a virtual minstrel show, we included a slave auction. I was amazed to hear black teens asking their parents if such things really happened. Sara, who obviously doesn’t comprehend the power and techniques of live performance, actually thought that question from one of the actors was an indictment of the artwork. It was, instead, the point of it.

But because Sarah and others are offended by history and truth, and ignorant of the expansive emotional power of drama, she believes she should be able to keep the experience and enlightenment from everyone else.

And they succeeded.

The Barbican Theater issued cancelled the five-day run, stating that “the extreme nature of the protest” outside the theater had created a “serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff….We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work. Exhibit B raises, in a serious and responsible manner, issues about racism; it has previously been shown in 12 cities, involved 150 performers and been seen by around 25,000 people with the responses from participants, audiences and critics alike being overwhelmingly positive.”

The statement added it was “disturbed at the potential implications this silencing of artists and performers has for freedom of expression.”

First of all, the Barbican deserves criticism for failing to understand its own community, the power of the heckler’s veto, and the importance of never, never, allowing censorship, ignorance, and political correctness stifle art of any kind. This is exactly the kind of work that can save live theater, reminding society that its power to move is unmatched by all other alternatives. If theater managers and producers capitulate when the state does its traditional and historic duty to causeawe and emotional turmoil among its audiences, and retreat to the warm, safe idiocy and irrelevance of “The Lion King” staring some lapsed TV star, or the latest West End sex farce, theater is doomed. The Barbican is among the stewards of life theater, and failed its mission miserably. It had plenty of notice that this storm was brewing, and it should have been ready to do whatever it took to insure that those who think darkness and amnesia is preferable to light failed to pull teh curtains.

As for the protesters, they are fools, and unwitting allies of those whose values they revile. Self-righteous fools should not be permitted to dictate what are proper subjects, themes or messages of art. Hiding and forgetting the ugliest of human cruelty, bigotry and oppression just allows it to silently grow and gain strength again.  The process begins with someone saying, “It wasn’t as bad as people say.” Exhibit B, and art like it, shows that it was, and why it was.

After the closing, Myers exulted, saying that she couldn’t understand why it too the protest to shut the performances down: after all, she had been quite clear about why Exhibit B was “offensive” and the fact that she and the protesters “didn’t like it.”

A note of pride: This is Ethics Alarms’ 5000th post.

Thanks for reading, commenting, arguing, and coming back everybody.

_________________________

Pointer: Fred

Sources: BBC 1,2; The Guardian

 

41 thoughts on “In England, Art Designed To Show The Ugliness Of Racism Exposes The Ugliness Of Political Correctness And Censorship Instead

  1. “Hiding and forgetting the ugliest of human cruelty, bigotry and oppression just allows it to silently grow and gain strength again.”

    Yes. I remember when I first read Elie Wiesel’s “Night”. I’d make it through maybe three or four pages and then I’d have to put the book down and get up and take a walk, pace my apartment, just breathe – just frigging breathe. Reading that book was so uncomfortable; so painfully, brutally uncomfortable, and yet so vitally important and so I trudged my way through it, my heart in my throat, tears spilling…

    We must always remember how cruel we are capable of being. Always. I see it in my own children when they will ask cavalier, albeit naive, questions or crack an off color joke that walks that fine line and catches me off guard. That’s when things get serious in this house.

            • If you’ve ever seen “The Prestige”, you’ll understand. But Jack does it one better… He hasn’t told anyone, but he is from a group of triplets. He and his two identical brothers agreed at age 10 to pretend to be one person.

              This is why he can run an ethics consulting business, a 2.5 million spammed blog producing about 3-4 posts per day while actively commenting, run a theater, have a family, complete th Tour de France, appear in a Las Vegas variety show nightly, publish one new dime romance novel per month next to 1 major historical analysis quarterly, manage both political campaigns for the republican and democrat candidates for Pascatooly, Minnesota mayor election, and teach himself to play guitar in his spare time.

              Remarkable, really.

  2. Self-righteous fools should not be permitted to dictate what are proper subjects, themes or messages of art. Hiding and forgetting the ugliest of human cruelty, bigotry and oppression just allows it to silently grow and gain strength again.

    Did not Prince Harry once dress up as a Nazi? I wonder if it was due to the fact that his generation barely remembers the Holocaust.

    • Or didn’t know about it at all? I know that growing up, even with a father who fought in WWII, I was pretty ignorant of the Holocaust or what the Nazis stood for until I saw “Judgment at Nuremberg” in a movie theater.

      My mother made the huge Nazi flag my father brought home from Berlin into curtains. i didn’t realize that until I was in law school.

      • The ugliest of human cruelty, bigotry, and oppression can easily hide through the decades. The generation that witnessed the Holocaust has mostly died out, and the same will be true of the following generation in about thirty or so years. The fourth generation would not understand the cruelty of the Holocaust in the same way as the generation that witnessed it, or even the first generation removed, even if they understand in the abstract that it was evil.

        • Unfortunately, the Holocaust was not sui generis. If there is one constant in this world, it is man’s inhumanity toward one’s fellow man.

          • To be clear, people think Europeans learned their lesson after WW2. They didn’t. They are just as anti-Semitic and xenophobic as before. The attitudes and hatreds are still present. Just because the willingness to turn those views into policies and elect people willing to do so doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Post-WW2, those types were sent scurrying into the shadows where they lurked. Yet, those cultural attitudes still exist en masse, and will always represent a threat to elect those types again.

            Indeed, in France, for the first time, Senate seats have been won by politicians whose platforms are based on anti-immigration and pro-exclusion.

            No, Europeans never learned their lesson. Sure, they were shamed– who wouldn’t be shamed when one of the two historic culminations of their culture was the cooperative “consigning of millions to flames”**? But they were resentful, after all, the second of their two historic culminations of their culture, which they wholly rejected, was the rebel upstarts across the ocean who came and rescued them from the 1st culmination. No, they didn’t learn, they still have their old world hatreds.

            **This allows me to quote one of my favorite authors, David Fromkin. From “In the Time of the Americans”-

            “MAGNIFICENCE SUGGESTS a polished style and culture, but these were not the traits that Europeans discerned in their liberators. The GIs were friendly, open, generous, and decent; but the peoples they freed, and who by and large had cut a poor figure in the war, salvaged some of their pride by looking down on the Americans for lack of manners, learning, and breeding.
            This European sense of superiority was not easily supportable—even though it continued to be maintained—once the troops had seen the death camps. True, the immensity of the horror made it not at first comprehensible—not, at least, as a whole; that took time. And it was only over time, too, that the true story came out, that the Germans were not alone in the genocide; that French, Polish, and other enthusiastic assistants joined in consigning millions to flames.
            But to see the ovens into which humans were fed was enough to implicate the high culture of Europe; its value was drawn into question once it was suspected that such a culture had culminated in Dachau and Auschwitz. And by way of contrast, how could one look down on the typical GI who showered gifts on little children—without regard to whose little children they were?*
            Observing the works of Nazi Germany and her willing aiders and abettors in German-occupied Europe had the effect of reminding the United States of what it stood for. Americans told themselves, and others, that theirs was a country in which every person was as good as everybody else—a land tolerant of differences but conscious that beneath surface differences all were children of one God.
            Those who lived through the 1940s will remember the motion picture films then and afterward about the war and the names of the men in a typical army platoon—as the movies had it: Smith, O’Brien, Campbell, Kozlowski, Jones, Giannini, Suarez, Cohen. That was the way the country wanted to be seen: as a spacious, liberal-spirited New World that had risen above the hatreds that had destroyed the Old.

            *Yet a generation of postwar European intellectuals grew up in the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and elsewhere defining their literary and artistic superiority by a deliberate anti-Americanism.”

            • France has a little problem called Islam. The Mohmamed Merah incident reminded the French that they may have to become an island to survive. There are about five million French Muslims. In relative terms, that is the entire population of Texas.

              As for French anti-Semitism, this appears to be a new phenomenon, one which was all but non-existent the last time I was there. The world’s most credible newspaper observes:

              “Jewish organisations that record antisemitic incidents say the trend is inexorable: France’s Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community says annual totals of antisemitic acts in the 2000s are seven times higher than in the 1990s. French Jews are leaving for Israel in greater numbers, too, for reasons they say include antisemitism and the electoral success of the hard-right Front National. The Jewish Agency for Israel said 3,288 French Jews left for Israel in 2013, a 72% rise on the previous year. Between January and May this year, 2,254 left, against 580 in the same period last year.”

              http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/07/antisemitism-rise-europe-worst-since-nazis

              If you want to find the cause for any war, follow the money. It is credibly suggested by some that this may be a by-product of a world-wide march toward plutocracy:

              “Arfi said that in France antisemitism had become “a portmanteau for a lot of angry people: radical Muslims, alienated youths from immigrant families, the far right, the far left”. But he also blamed “a process of normalisation, whereby antisemitism is being made somehow acceptable”.”

              While the main and proximate cause of the misery in the Weimar Republic was the onerous terms of Germany’s surrender in WWI, Jews became a scapegoat because (1) they are easily identified, (2) theirs tends to be an insular community, and (3) the friendly Jewish bankers who bankrolled the war (e.g., Chase, the House of Rothschild; the Bush family was involved) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/sep/25/usa.secondworldwar made out like bandits. See also, http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/2.209/why-did-adolf-hitler-hate-the-jews-1.2618

              History may not exactly repeat itself, said Twain, but it has a tendency to rhyme. The bankers are doing what bankers do and yes, it could happen again.

              Ag: “Observing the works of Nazi Germany and her willing aiders and abettors in German-occupied Europe had the effect of reminding the United States of what it stood for.”

              I’m not sure what America stands for today, except for the proposition that it is every man for himself. What worries me is that I am no longer certain that, under a Reaganized culture, it can’t happen here.

                • The “tin foil hat” stuff was reported by credible reporters and yes, it is the stuff of history. All too often, the history that is is a lot uglier than the one we are taught. It recently came out that Nixon’s people committed treason by sabotaging LBJ’s 1968 peace deal in Viet Nam. Think about it: 25,000 of our brothers, sacrificed on the altar of Richard Nixon’s lust for power. And then, there is the curious matter of how Abe “Spotty” Lincoln got his nickname. We caused a lot of the problems we see today in the M.E. by overthrowing democratic governments and propping up dictators. This is the world as it is, Ag. Warts and all.

                  As a general rule, war is a deliberate transfer of wealth from people to plutocrats. But don’t take my word for it; take it from a highly-decorated Marine General: http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html. The caged Herman Göring adds an uncomfortable truth:

                  “Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

                  Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

                  Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

                  We are being herded into war again, by plutocrats who cannot contain their greed. I concur with the Catholic doctrine of just war, but America’s plutocrats just want wars.

                  • “It recently came out that Nixon’s people committed treason by sabotaging LBJ’s 1968 peace deal in Vietnam. Think about it: 25,000 of our brothers, sacrificed on the altar of Richard Nixon’s lust for power.”

                    This is way, way over the top, Art, far from settled, and wildly speculative. Historian Robert Dallek, for one, says there was no peace agreement to sabotage, and that Nixon’s machinations accomplished nothing at all. What seem clear is that LBJ was using war strategy for politics (to get Humphrey elected and vindicate himself), and Nixon was engaged in counter-measures. We have tapes and we have speculation, but the only commentators who characterize the episode as you do are indeed of the tin hat species. Both LBJ and Nixon were Machiavellian, but nobody I can find really believes that Nixon actually affected the peace talks. This is pure confirmation bias, and little more.

                    • “Wildly speculative?” I have heard the conversation, taken from the LBJ archives. What is said–and the implications naturally flowing from that recorded conversation–is the stuff of history. Before the recording was released and before I looked more closely, I thought as you do now.

                      Part of my current understanding on this topic is actually FROM Dallek, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1915&dat=19980317&id=mphGAAAAIBAJ&sjid=hPgMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1340,3178383 Again with respect, as you will see in the article referenced above, Dallek claimed that Nixon was attempting to sabotage the peace talks. Before that, LBJ wasn’t sanguine about having Humphrey replace him, so much so that he bugged Humphrey’s communications.

                      History never ceases to surprise.

                    • Your interpretation remains speculative, as are Nixon’s motives and intent. “October surprises” are unethical manipulations of national interests to try to influence elections—I can see the pure political interpretation. Nixon could have been derailing what he saw as an unethical campaign maneuver without believing he was derailing a genuine peace, which he almost surely wasn’t.

                      Nixon was capable of a lot of awful things, and I don’t discourage the speculation. But stating it as fact is simply not warranted.

                      And while LBJ was no Humphrey fan, he certainly knew that HH’s election would vindicate him more than Nixon, Wallace, Bobby of Clean Gene. Come on. You can’t seriously argue that he didn’t want Hubert to win, given the alternatives. And he was, you know, a Democrat to his DNA.

            • The saddest fact is that it really isn’t. Religion and killing the other go together like peanut butter and jelly, and Australian settlers completely eradicated the Tasmanian aborigine. Cambodia, Armenia, Rwanda, and the Stalin-engineered famine of 1932-33 come to mind, as well.

              Keep in mind that the death toll from the camps is closer to 10 million, of which only about half were Jewish.

  3. “You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. On all sides they are guarded by masses of armed men, cannons, aeroplanes, fortifications, and the like — they boast and vaunt themselves before the world, but in their hearts there is unspoken fear: They are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden. These terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”

    Winston S. Churchill (BBC Radio broadcast to London and America, Oct. 16, 1938).

    “Don’t tase me, Bro!” “Censorship” is the opening argument of the tyrant. The practice of censorship is a presumptive admission that your arguments are weak. Invariably, the most effective antidote to so-called bad speech is more speech. It is sad when people indulge it, and even sadder when any audience approves of its practice.

    Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of censorship is that it lends power to the speech being repressed.

    J: “First of all, the Barbican deserves criticism for failing to understand its own community, the power of the heckler’s veto, and the importance of never, never, allowing censorship, ignorance, and political correctness stifle art of any kind [my emphasis].”

    I couldn’t agree more. The best way to shut down a heckler is to make him look like a fool. Banning opposing speech reflects more on the one who is indulging in suppression than the opposing speaker. Crosses soaked in urine may offend, but putting a bra on Minnie Lou offends more. A definite ethics fail here.

  4. Jack (elsewhere): “Don’t pull crap like that here. Last warning.”

    With all respect, especially given the excellent analysis you presented above, I would implore you to tread lightly. People can be misinformed, including you and me. If the facts are as Bob says, and VincentBugliosi was practically a legend in L.A., well-known for his meticulousness and arguably anal attention to detail, his analysis naturally flows from it. We can debate even the facts in the court of history.

    • I know, Art, and don’t want to be severe. But I try very hard to debate fair here, and I insist on being treated likewise. By my lights, that was a bait and switch. The section you quoted was not germane to what we were taking about, and you left the appearance that it was. If it was not intended as such, fine. No foul.

      • Jack, I’m always questioning my own facts; the appropriate response to changed facts is a changed opinion. I read Bugliosi’s laborious tome on Bush, and came away concluding that he made a powerful case. It seems that Bob, Esq. was of the same opinion, and I honestly didn’t see the bait and switch.

        To me, “debating fair” means allowing people to be wrong about the facts and holding opinions based on bad facts; the best remedy for bad facts is good ones. “Debating fair” often requires the patience of Job.

        • I was referring to your quoting a passage in the report on the run-up to the Iraq invasion as if it referred to the WMD’s intelligence, when, upon reading the entire section, it was clear that it did not. That was deceitful, a bait and switch, or in best light, a very careless reversal of context.

          To be clear, and this isn’t the first time I have written this, if there was convincing evidence that Bush et al. knew that the WMDs were not there, and intentionally claimed otherwise, impeachment would be mandatory, in my view. Logic and thee evidence simply does not point there, and any Democrat (or Republican) in office at the time and who honestly believed that’s what happened at the time and didn’t have the guts to make the case for impeachment is beneath contempt. But I doubt there were any. Instead, they chose to suggest what they knew wasn’t true, which is also contemptible.

          • I was referring to your quoting a passage in the report on the run-up to the Iraq invasion as if it referred to the WMD’s intelligence, when, upon reading the entire section, it was clear that it did not. That was deceitful, a bait and switch, or in best light, a very careless reversal of context.

            Given what we know, the worst that the Bush administration could be accused of is wishful thinking (not that Saddam Hussein did not do everything in his power to reinforce that wishful thinking).

            • Confirmation bias, in other words, and yes, that is almost certainly what was going on. Since its a well-understood bias, I expect policy makers at high levels to be aware of it and adjust accordingly. But its not lying.

  5. Jack: “You can’t seriously argue that he didn’t want Hubert to win, given the alternatives. And he was, you know, a Democrat to his DNA.”

    When can I rely on the historian YOU cited, and when can’t I? Dixiecrats were not always in the same bed with their ‘Litchfield Liberal’ party mates, as evidenced by Nixon’s famous “Southern Strategy” changing the makeup of both parties. George Romney was practically Bernie Sanders. I am relying on Dallek’s analysis, which seems consonant with the evidence.

    In the study of history, what we find out in post-mortem often surprises us. By way of example, I was surprised to learn that Saddam was actually one of our guys. What Dallek suggested back then–before the tapes were released–was essentially confirmed. History is what it is, and given that we can’t cross-examine the players, all we really can do is judge by the light we have.

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