- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 2 Feb 1994, p. 288-308
- Drabinsky, Garth, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- A "cautionary tale" about how freedom of artistic expression can be comprised, and lost through the political struggle of individual liberty vs. collective rights of specific groups. Anecdotal reviews of several incidents of censorship or attempted censorship of artistic expression. Problems and origins of the concept of "political correctness." The importance of artistic expression in a democracy.
- Date of Original
- 2 Feb 1994
- Language of Item
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- The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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- Full Text
Garth Drabinsky, Chairman, Live Entertainment of Canada Inc.
LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGEFREEDOM OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION
Chairman: Dr. Frederic L. R. Jackman President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests
Larry Stout, Broadcaster, CTV Television Network Ltd. and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Robyn Burnett, grade 13 student, Northern Secondary School and Director of the Drama Production Emily's Show entered in the Sears Drama Festival; Rabbi Dr. David Monson, Rabbi Emeritus, Beth Shalom Synagogue; Nicola Clayton, Director, Marketing and Research, MacLean's Magazine; Douglas Knight, Publisher, The Financial Post; Pierre Berton, Author, Journalist and Broadcaster; The Hon. John M. Godfrey, Q.C., Counsel, Fasken Campbell Godfrey and recently retired from the Senate of Canada; J. A. William Whiteacre, M.M., C.D., Q.C., Counsel and Honorary Solicitor, The Empire Club of Canada; June Callwood, O.C., Journalist and Broadcaster; Moshe Safdie, O.C., Architect and Urban Designer; Bradley D. Griffiths, Director of Corporate Finance, Gordon Capital Corporation.
Introduction by Dr. Jackman
In Garth Drabinsky's address to The Empire Club eight years ago (October 23, 1986) he talked of the need for more entrepreneurial spirit saying, "...the only things we Canadians need feel inferior about is our well-known inferiority complex. It saps our will and stands in the way of our achieving all those wonderful things that are well within our capabilities."
Well, Mr. Drabinsky did not grow up with a silver spoon. As a young child he was a victim of polio involving multiple surgeries over five long years. Showing early signs of leadership, he became President of the Student Council at North Toronto Collegiate. He later studied at the University of Toronto earning a law degree and was called to the Bar in 1975. While developing a successful entertainment law practice, he wrote what has become a standard reference text titled Motion Pictures and the Arts in Canada--the Business and the Law (McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1976).
His love with the performing arts began with the publication of cinema journals and producing television programmes. Then he produced movies. Both The Silent Partner and The Changeling won Canada's vote for best picture of the year. Becoming involved with the cinema, he developed the idea of showing several different movies in the same location, using small theatres accommodating only a hundred or so people each. Cineplex, as it has become known, opened at the new Eaton Centre with 18 screens in 1979. Now 1,800 Cineplex Odeon movie theatres can be found all over North America. Indeed, Mr. Drabinsky built Cineplex into North America's largest movie chain. The Montreal World Film Festival named him "The Renaissance Man of Film" for his contributions to the rejuvenation of the movie-going experience. Part of this experience was his commissioning of original contemporary art to decorate all the new Cineplex theatres in the United States and Canada (60 theatre complexes in all).
Later, in a struggle for control of Cineplex, Garth Drabinsky and his partner (since 1978) Myron Gottlieb settled the dispute by negotiating from Cineplex some live entertainment properties. They negotiated the rights to the Pantages Theatre and to the musical mystery story known as Phantom of the Opera. The Phantom, now in its fifth year, is the most successful production in Canadian theatrical history. You know the rest of the story. These two achievers Drabinsky and Gottlieb have been named "Canada's Comeback Kids!"
Thus began the company known as Live Entertainment of Canada Inc. It is a public company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The company, known in short, as Livent, has also brought us Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and multi-award winning Kiss of the Spider Woman which also won "best musical" of the year (1993) at the Tony Awards. Livent's production with the greatest controversy, Show Boat, is now playing at the North York, Mayor Mel Lastman's dreamboat of a Performing Arts Centre. Mr. Drabinsky is responsible for the programming, managing and operating of this theatre complex.
We invited Mr. Garth Drabinsky to address The Empire Club because of the political issues around race relations that surround the Show Boat production.
Not everything is work however. Mr. Drabinsky engages in several charitable activities. He co-founded the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies in Toronto. He is a board member of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, the Mount Sinai Hospital and Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah, which is similar to our Banff School of Fine Arts, as well as The Actors Studio Inc. (New York) and The American Film Institute (Los Angeles) and the list goes on.
Mr. Drabinsky has received numerous acknowledgments, as you might expect, for his professional achievements and volunteer activities (in both Canada and the United States of America). B'nai Brith International presented Mr. Drabinsky with its Distinguished Service Award while simultaneously creating the Garth H. Drabinsky Lecture Series. He was the recipient of the Air Canada Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Business of Film Making in Canada (1987) in addition to Canada's prestigious Vanier Award (1987). Numerous other recognitions have been received, as well as fellowships at Ryerson (Polytechnical Institute) and York University.
His hobbies show his passion for culture. He has collected Canadian contemporary art since his early twenties and for the last four years has operated The Drabinsky Gallery in Toronto's Yorkville. Given the time, he turns introspective. His autobiography, for those who wish to follow his amazing dream more intimately, will be published by year end. He lives at home with his wife Pearl and their two children Elicia and Marc.
Ladies and gentlemen, would you welcome this amazingly accomplished and extraordinary Canadian, Garth Drabinsky.
Mr. President, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, before I begin, in case you missed the news report today, I want you to know that when I woke up this morning, I saw my shadow. This means there will be six more years of The Phantom of the Opera.
"Life upon the wicked stage, ain't ever what a guy supposes," wrote Oscar Hammerstein II in Show Boat. In the case of my career in entertainment, truer words were never spoken.
One of the joys of my life in the theatre is that things are often not what they seem. I am reminded of when Shaw's Candida opened in New York with Cornelia Otis Skinner in the title role. The critics were enthralled.
The playwright cabled the actress: "Excellent, Greatest." George Bernard Shaw. Miss Skinner replied: "Undeserving such praise." Shaw cabled back: "I meant the play."
She answered: "So did I."
My topic today--freedom of artistic expression--is a constant focus of public debate. Dominating the headlines, it is a subject that affects not only those working in the performing, literary and visual arts, but one that has an impact on all of our lives.
My speech today is a warning, a cautionary tale based on my professional experiences, about how freedom of artistic expression can be compromised and, alas, lost in a vain effort to placate specific groups and demagogues whose goal is to limit rational discourse and stifle thought through the unwieldy politics of anger, ignorance and obfuscation--tactics that impinge upon civil liberties that we often take for granted.
The struggle between individual liberty and the collective rights of specific groups is at the heart of this issue. Professor Northrop Frye of the University of Toronto predicted this strain in 1962 during his Massey Lectures titled "The Educated Imagination." He said, "The democratic ideal is one of equality, where everyone has the same rights before the law, but not, except indirectly, one of freedom. It tries to provide the conditions of freedom, but freedom itself is an experience, not a condition, and only the individual can experience it. So for freedom there has to be some tension between society and the individual."
A contemporary phenomenon related to this strife is the emanation of self-proclaimed "victims" who try to further their own, tendentious agendas by manipulating public opinion. As a result, once-considered-important and praiseworthy books, plays and musicals written in a different historical, cultural and social period can now be attacked, stigmatized and threatened with removal from library shelves and public display rather than discussed or analyzed within a proper, rational context. It makes one wonder: Is there such a thing as freedom of artistic expression? Was George Orwell right when he wrote, "No matter what laws exist, the only real protection is the force of public opinion?"
As one educated in law, I could talk at length today about attempts by the Canadian courts to abridge or expand the notion of freedom of artistic expression and, by association, freedom of speech in such cases as Butler v. Her Majesty, where the courts struggled once again with re-defining obscenity, and, of course, the famous Keegstra case. I could also delve into the detailed provisions of Sections 1 and 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or discuss how the United States courts, by comparison, have dealt with freedom of artistic expression under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. But I am not interested in following this approach.
Rather, I will explore a more subtle and fundamental question: What happens when certain ad-hoc groups curtail other people's freedoms while asserting their democratic right to argue their own cases of alleged intolerance, racism, prejudice and inequality?
As a theatre producer and, previously, a movie producer, distributor and exhibitor, I know that freedom of artistic expression is an elusive ideal. It is always at risk. Its root--freedom of speech--is the foundation of liberalism and democracy. As the 17th-century philosopher, Voltaire, said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Most reasonable men and women consider this principle to be axiomatic. However, in the heat of argument, some people find it difficult to rise above their own perspectives in an effort to preserve their opponents' right to hold contrasting beliefs and opinions. Many people would prefer to silence their antagonists rather than engage them in a rigorous debate. Yet, we know that truth and learning emerge from unfettered discourse and discussion.
In my previous career as Chairman of Cineplex Odeon, I found myself in 1988 at the centre of a very contentious controversy over Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Kazantzakis was an intellectual who had written treatises on Nietzsche, Bergson and Russian literature. He was a student of Buddhism and translated Homer, Dante and Goethe into modern Greek. The great humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, was one of the first to recognize his greatness. The Last Temptation of Christ was Kazantzakis' attempt, through his personal conflicts, to find spiritual and religious relevance in his own life.
The premise of this provocative novel was that in addition to the three temptations Christ faced in the desert, He struggled, in state of delirium, with a fourth one during the final moments of His crucifixion. The Devil tempted Him to climb down from the cross and live the rest of His life as a normal human being. Christ marries Mary Magdalene, makes love to her in order to procreate, and then dies as an old man. Christ ultimately rejects this temptation and fulfils His destiny as the Saviour of Mankind.
Essentially then, this story is an exploration of a centuries-old debate about the nature of Christ's divinity and humanity. Martin Scorsese wanted to film this courageous novel because, he said, "I thought this would be great drama and force people to take Jesus seriously--at least to re-evaluate His teachings ... I wanted to make the life of Jesus immediate and accessible to people who haven't really thought about God in a long time. I certainly didn't think the film would destroy the faith of those who believe strongly."
Because of its unconventional subject matter and, therefore, its questionable commercial potential, Scorsese had trouble finding financing. I believed this project was bold and daring, so when I was approached by my partners at Universal Pictures, I agreed to put up $4 million--half of the financing--and to distribute the film in Canada and exhibit it everywhere we operated theatres.
When the fundamentalist Evangelical Right learned about the production of this movie, they launched a tirade against it, labelling it "blasphemous" and issuing repeated death threats. They resolved to suppress the movie and to take their revenge on anyone who was associated with making it or distributing it. The Reverend Don Wildmon, who headed the American Family Association based in Tupelo, Mississippi, threatened, "We will do everything possible to knock the financial props out from under Universal." Bill Bright, president of the Campus Crusade for Christ, said, "A handful of people with great wealth and depraved minds were corrupting the world."
As might be expected in the motion-picture business, many of these targets for revenge were Jewish. So, a wave of anti-Semitic propaganda was unleashed as protesters claimed that "Hollywood is attacking our Lord." Baptist zealots hired a plane to fly over the mass demonstrations held in front of the Beverly Hill's house of MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman pulling a streamer saying, "Wasserman fans Jew hatred with Temptation."
Thousands marched in front of the Universal Studio lot. Campus Crusade for Christ offered Universal $10 million to buy the film outright. Universal adamantly refused. It was one of the most highly-visible series of protests over a film in the history of exhibition in America.
These protests made me realize just how thin is the veneer that masks the bigotry and prejudice constantly smouldering just below the surface of our society, and how little it takes for these hateful passions to pierce through and burst into public view.
With the cover of Time Magazine and a plethora of national media attention, The Last Temptation of Christ should have attracted sizeable audiences. But, instead of playing the film in the 800 theatres as we wanted during its opening week, we were thwarted by political considerations, threats of violence, reprisals and boycotts.
I was the only exhibitor who dared to play the movie in the first week of the film's release in August of 1988. Throughout North America, the film opened in only eight Cineplex-Odeon theatres amid enormous security precautions.
Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America stood firmly on the film's side, and so did the other studios which purchased advertisements in major newspapers nationally supporting the film's release. But, exhibitors were not so brave. Universal Pictures, with all of its influence and power, could not compel the U.S. movie chains to play the film, including the giant circuits General Cinema Corporation (GCC), United Artists (UA), and American Multi-Cinema Corporation (AMC). In effect, every U.S. exhibitor blackballed the picture. Hence, so much for the bastion of freedom of artistic expression so enshrined in the U.S. Constitution!
Although one might assume that the heart of the controversy regarding The Last Temptation of Christ was religious intolerance, it really was an effort by the fundamentalists and other ad hoc groups to assert their power. The film provided them with a high profile opportunity to gain renewed support for their agendas and, naturally, their fundraising.
Eventually, the film was released nationally. But by that time, all of its momentum had dissipated. Too bad we were never able to probe and dig beyond the superficiality of all the angry claims and allegations to investigate the profound issues this movie raised. What a dramatic opportunity we had to meaningfully discuss and explore the nature of religious faith in contemporary society!
I am proud of my decision to co-produce this faithful adaptation--a film that was crafted with both integrity and passion by a brilliant director. I am also proud of my steadfast determination to withstand the efforts of those who would repress our right to create a film that is now regarded as a classic of its kind.
Like religion, the subject of race can be another flashpoint in matters of artistic expression.
In Canada, the continual transformation of our country's cultural fabric is creating another kind of struggle. Today, public discourse on such issues as racism, multiculturalism and nationalism, rather than illuminating, too often tends to disintegrate into a confusing and bewildering babble of meaninglessness and recrimination.
At the beginning of my speech, I referred to Professor Frye's observation that tension between society and the individual is actually a condition of freedom. In the same lecture in 1962, Professor Frye also presciently noted in Canadian society "the rise of the small community that coheres around a cultural tradition," and predicted that this would be "the most significant social movement of our time."
I believe it is fair to say that today, radical segments, who are determined to create platforms for the advancement of their own agendas, have emerged within some of these communities. As Canada's multicultural experiment has successfully created a country based on preserving and celebrating our diverse cultural heritages, certain self-appointed community "leaders," some who are pedants, are now asserting themselves in Canada's political life. These individuals have realized there is great power in terming themselves as "victims" and exploiting the empathy of our tolerant society for their own purpose.
I believe this is what happened with the protests we witnessed last year regarding our new production of Show Boat.
To understand the Show Boat issue, let us examine this new politics of identity, of empowerment, in our fin de siecle culture.
One of the ways in which various groups and individuals attempt to empower themselves is by imposing the notion of "political correctness"--a movement of revolt that attempts to give legitimacy to self-appointed arbiters of public opinion. These confused individuals try to gain power through such tactics as irrational juxtapositions, through undermining traditional theories of literature and the humanities, and through strange obsessions with political questions that do not necessarily apply to the subjects of their attack. In the past, they would label their targets "heretics" or "witches" or, more recently, "Communists." Now, they hurl at their opponents such epithets as "racist" or "sexist."
"Politically correct" was originally used by the Leninist left as an approving description of someone who toed the party line in support of the worldwide Communist revolution. Now, political correctness is manifested as a self-defined code of behaviour. As author Paul Berman writes, these radical adherents proclaim, "Liberal humanism is a deception. Western-style democracy, rationalism, objectivity, and the autonomy of the individual are slogans designed to convince the downtrodden that subordination is justice ... Despite the claims of humanist thought, the individual is not free to make his own decisions, nor is the world what it appears to be. Instead, we and the world are permeated by giant, hidden, impersonal structures."
However, there is an irreconcilable conundrum at the heart of political correctness, as Mr. Berman points out: If the politically correct are "as devoted to every kind of tolerant and humane idea as they say ... and if pluralism is their utopia, how can they work up, some of them, so much zeal for small-time inquisitions?"
Which brings me back to Show Boat.
Since Show Boat's world premiere at the North York Performing Arts Centre last October, more than 200,000 people of all races, creeds and colour have seen this acclaimed production and the "racist" labelling has essentially disappeared. Many people are puzzled and have asked what all the fuss was about. They cannot comprehend how a musical like Show Boat, which makes a major statement against social and racial injustice, can itself be criticized as "racist" or described as contributing to "cultural genocide."
As many of you know, one year ago our then forthcoming production was attacked by North York School Board Trustee, a representative from a segment of Metro Toronto's black communities. She claimed that the musical is "hate literature in the form of entertainment." She made this allegation eight months before our scheduled opening and two years after I first announced the project. She made it without ever seeing a stage production of Show Boat, let alone our production. She based her attacks solely on Edna Ferber's novel, written in 1926. Her allegation was, and remains, false. It was a nefarious misconception based upon her simple lack of knowledge, and a cynical disregard for the truth, actually proving once again the proverb, "Art has no enemy but ignorance."
I was shocked, astonished and appalled: Edna Ferber, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II racists? How could that be? Hundreds of books, essays, and reviews by informed, authoritative and respected cultural historians, educators and theatrical experts consider Show Boat to be one of the greatest musicals of all time, a musical whose message decrying racial intolerance is as timely today as when Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote this piece in 1927.
In a recent letter to The New Yorker magazine, Edna Ferber's great-niece, Julie Gilbert, called Ms. Ferber "an ardent defender of the oppressed." Mr. Gilbert wrote, "In Show Boat," (Edna Ferber) pointed to and described racism--she did not advocate it. Few popular novelists wrote about the existence of miscegenation. The choice to write about it, and, in the case of Julie and Steve in Show Boat, to expose its sorrowful ramifications, seems hardly racist. What Feber was up to was calling attention to racism."
Show Boat librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II also fought racism throughout his career. In his work, he preached tolerance and was deeply and devoutly committed to eliminating bigotry. The song You've Got To Be Carefully Taught from his South Pacific is a powerful indictment of racism, arguing, as it does, that prejudice and intolerance are not qualities with which one is born, but which one acquires. The song has been used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in their awareness and fundraising campaigns.
As well, the director of our production of Show Boat, Harold Prince, is renowned for his humanitarian views as expressed in such musicals he has directed and/or produced as West Side Story, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Today, another American legend, Mark Twain, celebrated for the power of his language and his ability to delight and provoke, is also under attack. Often heralded as one of America's "most powerful anti-racist tracts," his novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is actually being labelled, by some, as "racist." How can this same person, whose writings for years have been praised, loved and respected, become someone who should now be despised, vilified and eliminated from school board curricula solely on the basis of ill-conceived, regressive motions made by ignorant trustees under the guise of protecting community interests?
Let us recall the events of May 1933, when the Nazis burned 20,000 books on a square on the Unter Den Linden opposite the University of Berlin following a torch light parade of thousands of students. We remember the event, but we likely don't know who the authors of those books were. As a matter of interest, they included such great German minds and writers as Albert Einstein, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and Erich Maria Remarque who wrote the great anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front. The works of many admired and respected foreign authors were also destroyed including Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller, H. G. Wells, Arthur Schnitzler as well as Freud, Gide, Zola and Proust. Any book was condemned which "acts subversively on our future or strikes at the root of German thought, the German home and the driving forces of our people."
Today in our country, Canada customs have arbitrarily seized shipments of books by such acclaimed authors as the American David Leavitt and the French writer Marguerite Duras. Here in Toronto, a local artist named Eli Langer is facing criminal charges for creating allegedly pornographic paintings. Have we really learned the lessons of history?
The Show Boat incident got uglier. On national television, this same elected school board trustee made the insidious statement that white men, especially Jewish people, are always responsible for "racist" plays that denigrate black people.
This irresponsible and bigoted remark unleashed a corrosive torrent of vile and repugnant anti-Semitic rhetoric--talk about Jewish conspiracies and the power of "oppressors" being used against the "powerless." One flyer issued by an ad hoc group calling itself "Parents of Black Children Against Show Boat" protested the musical saying, "it constitutes an economic and cultural holocaust which transforms any performing arts centre into a gas chamber functioning at full strength at each production, in order to annihilate in the thoughts of the black child any hope of equal opportunities in the so-called multicultural and multiracial Canadian society."
Also, during a Caribbean Bacchanal last May at the Metro Convention Centre attended by thousands of Calypso and Soca fans of all races, a singer named Hollis Liverpool, who performs under the stage name The Mighty Chalkdust, sang a song called Misconceptions. His lyrics said it was a misconception that white people "invented" everything that is positive in society, and that what whites really invented was "rape, abortion, syphilis and AIDS." He went on to sing that Canada is a place where "they ram down your throat that prejudiced play Show Boat because Show Boat is the discrimination of the African by the Jewish clan." An outraged patron told us that he asked a local CITY television reporter what he thought of Chalkdust's comments. The reporter shrugged as he replied, "It's just Calypso."
His answer reminded me of the words of Walter White, then Executive Director of the NAACP, who, in 1929, wrote, "Intolerance can grow only in the soil of ignorance: From its branches grow all manner of obstacles to human progress."
In fact, it's not just Calypso, for Calypso has a proud history of fighting racism. In 1939, the famous Calypso performer who took the stage name "Attila the Hun" wrote the following lyric:
"Let's give serious contemplation, To the question of Jewish immigration, Just like our forefathers in slavery, From the brutality of tyrants they have to flee, So it's nothing but Christian charity, To give these oppressed people sanctuary."
The Show Boat debate took on even more absurd proportions. For 30 continuous weeks, I was the subject of scurrilous, anti-Semitic commentary in Share, a weekly tabloid targeted at Metropolitan Toronto's black communities. During these weeks I heard that the white supremacist Heritage Front was organizing a rally in support of Show Boat. Another rumour was that the Reverend Al Sharpton, an agitator involved in many incidents of racial unrest in New York City including the Crown Heights riots, had visited Toronto to advise the protesters. Some would consider this fodder for a new social satire by Tom Wolfe.
What disturbed me greatly about all of this--more than the expletives--was the public silence of our political and business leaders, not only in the black and Jewish communities, but in the larger community as well. You would expect that these leaders would show the same united condemnation of these insidious anti-Semitic slurs and attempts to limit artistic expression as were expressed by such organizations as the United Way and major media including The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun. At the very least, they night have suggested that the protesters adopt a "wait and see" position and comment on the production after it opened.
But the ambivalence of our public leaders was staggering. They avoided the production and the issues raised. Despite being invited, not one of them attended our opening night. During my career, I have hosted Canada's federal and provincial leaders--both elected and appointed--at opening night performances on numerous occasions. For the first time in my career, neither the Prime Minister, nor the Governor General, nor Ontario's Premier, nor Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor attended Show Boat's premiere. Not one federal or provincial opposition leader, not one provincial cabinet minister, not even Toronto's Mayor June Rowlands--not one accepted my opening night invitation.
Remember Paul Simon's lyrics to The Sound of Silence: "Silence like a cancer grows."
Equally disturbing was the arbitrary authority exercised by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in dealing with this issue. Last September, a month before the musical opened, the Coalition to Stop Show Boat asked the Ontario Human Rights Commission to inquire into the dispute and issue a declaration that the classic musical "discriminates against black people." Despite no finding to give credence to the Coalition's allegations, on September 27, eight days prior to the first preview performance of Show Boat, the Commission made the alarming recommendation that there should be "future action" to ensure that "there is never a recurrence of such a situation." Surely, it must be obvious that anyone who engages in artistic expression can never give such an assurance because the very nature of artistic expression is to challenge and be provocative. Every idea can be deemed to be an incitement to somebody.
What the Commission was advocating was an advance form of censorship which, to say the least, is clearly "ultra vires" of the Commission's authority. This narrow-minded statement, from a government commission that should be most concerned about preserving freedoms, was an outrageous and naive dictum!
Last October, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Department Chair of Afro-American Studies and W. E. B. DuBois, Professor of Humanities at Harvard University, delivered a speech in North York on the topic of "Common Sense and Common Ground on Racism and Anti-Semitism" as part of the B'nai Brith International Lecture Series that bears my name. During that speech he said, "Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice." Based on the Ontario Human Rights Commission's statement, I would add the corollary, "Censorship is to art as arbitrary authority is to freedom."
Let us never forget that just over 60 years ago, the Reich Chamber of Culture was established under the direction of the head of propaganda for the Nazis, Joseph Goebbels. As the late author William Shirer wrote, "Seven sub-chambers were established to guide and control every sphere of cultural life: the Reich chambers of fine arts, music, the theatre, literature, the press, radio and the films. All persons engaged in these fields were obligated to join their respective chambers, whose decisions and directives had the validity of law.
"Among other powers, the chambers could expel--or refuse to accept--members for 'political unreliability,' which meant that those who were even lukewarm about National Socialism could be, and usually were, excluded from practising their profession or art and thus deprived of a livelihood."
So why did these protesters attack Show Boat? Why this selective outrage focussed at one target? If they were really upset about the portrayal of black people in popular culture and the use of the word "nigger," why didn't they go after radio stations playing hateful and sexist gangster rap music by such groups as Body Count, Dr. Dre or NWA, or television stations screening In Living Colour with its black-created racial stereotypes, Alex Haley's Queen, or Spike Lee's Malcolm X? Why this hypocrisy?
The reason? For this group, there was no local political currency in attacking movies or pop music, but there was local political currency in attacking Mayor Mel Lastman, the North York Performing Arts Centre, Live Entertainment of Canada inc. and me. The issue was not Show Boat. These people were attempting to use culture as a springboard to achieve political power. As playwright Tony Kushner wrote in his 1993 Tony Award-Winning drama Angels In America Millennium Approaches, "Power is the object, not (just) being tolerated... Ultimately, what defines us isn't race, but politics." The magnificent actor James Earl Jones wisely and succinctly explained the nature of protest against artistic productions. He says, "It's a matter of whose agenda and when?"
Demanding the right to stop the production of Show Boat was completely unreasonable and unsustainable. By polarizing the debate, by taking away the middle ground of sensible, informed discussion, the intransigent protesters showed bad faith, and no interest in resolving the controversy.
Another important subject that is central to freedom of artistic expression is the rubric of responsibility. As a theatrical producer, I am responsible for what my company presents. These productions must not only comply with the laws of the day, but must also be sensitive to changing social values and attitudes, and what is acceptable in terms of "good taste." I have always tried to discharge my responsibilities with dignity and sensitivity.
I have always believed it is a grave mistake to impose contemporary values on another era. Who knows? The images of black American hip-hop culture that are popular today may be considered to be harmful and demeaning in the year 2015.
That said, some images and dialogue in Show Boat, that may have been acceptable in the 1920s, today could be considered insensitive or in bad taste. Before mounting Show Boat, we assiduously reviewed the script and removed language or references in the dialogue which may be considered stereotypical by today's standards. We also avoided stereotypes in casting the production. All these efforts were consistently ignored by our opponents.
But, let us also remember that protesters have a responsibility. Although they may try to deny it, they are accountable for their deeds and rhetoric. In the case of Show Boat, their incendiary tactics and actions created anger and divisiveness. Violence could have erupted had cooler heads not prevailed.
After considerable reflection, I have to agree with Dr. Gates who called the production of Show Boat "a victory of tolerance and sensitivity to the feeling of an important segment of this community."
Here's what John Lahr, the esteemed theatre critic of The New Yorker magazine wrote: "The black experience, in both its triumph and its tragedy, is at the heart of the show's perception of America ... History is ambiguous, and so is the idealism of love and hate. Show Boat puts that paradox centre stage. Anyone with a demitasse for a hat can see the intention. Not, however, the Coalition, a politically correct sign of our winded times, which wants freedom for everything but thought. Adamance without information only trivializes protest. That's why the Coalition's cries have had all the impact of a popgun; and why, after seven decades, Show Boat still speaks to the informed heart of the democracy."
In the end, Orwell was right--the court of public opinion did indeed prevail.
I could not help but wish that all the newspaper ink and broadcast time devoted to the controversy could have been spent instead on the exploration of Show Boat's artistic themes and ideas, especially its message of racial tolerance. That would have elevated the discussion from the lowest common denominator of sensationalism to true learning, understanding and appreciation.
I still feel the controversy should never have occurred. The emotion expressed by the protesters was an empty catharsis. So much time and effort was wasted which should have been devoted to the pressing concerns, needs and challenges facing Metropolitan Toronto's black communities. Real racism's legacy is the hopelessness and alienation felt by those who believe they have been denied equal opportunity and fair treatment by our society, and who think that their contributions to their country are all too often ignored. Notwithstanding my very specific comments today, and the rhetoric of the more extremist segment of our community, we all must ensure that we never dim our focus on the real needs of those who suffer daily from social injustice and economic inequality. Together, we must continue to fiercely battle the true source of these problems today and in the future.
Let us remember the words of Alexis de Tocqueville who warned about the evils of repression in a speech in 1848: "Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: While democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude."
Artistic expression in a democratic society has the power to provoke, stimulate, scrutinize, inspire, engage and educate. It is the antithesis of fear, ignorance and hatred which often lead to the repression of the mind and spirit. Just imagine what we would lose if the pronouncements of the Jeremiahs were the only opinions voiced!
Indeed, freedom of artistic expression is a perilous voyage that we must navigate between the Scylla of sophistry and the Charybdis of the disaffected. Democracy is a fragile flower. If we begin limiting artistic expression, then the next step is to limit political expression. The next step after that is silence. Nothing less than these precious intangible and essential rights are at stake.
Our society and community desperately need courageous and visionary leaders, teachers and commentators who are willing to express and defend the integrity of our nation's creative constituency. We must diligently protect our right to examine and explore issues in an enlightened climate of public discourse, free from fear of reprisal of the ponderous machinations of the politically ambitious who are all too willing to pass off meretricious slogans for real debate.
Let us ensure that the song we sing is not a threnody, lamenting the freedom we once had and then lost, but rather a joyful, exalting chorus. As Paul Robeson said, "The song of freedom must prevail."