To understand how conservatives feel about the disgraceful decision of a Broadway actor to single out Vice-President-elect Mike Pence from the stage following a performance of Hamilton and lecture him, picture a young black man walking into a jewelry store to buy a present for his mother. He’s never been in the store before, but he’s saved up his money to buy something nice. He notices other patrons looking askance at him, but maybe he’s used to that kind of thing. Suddenly the store manager takes to the P.A. system and says, “Attention, young black man. Yes, you! Hi, I’m sure you’re a very nice person, but we’re all a little apprehensive about your presence. I just wanted to remind you that shoplifting and armed robbery are against the law, not that we are suspicious of you or anything. Have a really nice day!”
Defenders of Brandon Victor Dixon, the costar of Hamilton who plays Aaron Burr, are contending that he said nothing objectionable. Hey, we’re all in favor of tolerance, right? Who could disagree with the message, “We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us”? But surely no one objects to the message that shoplifting is wrong either. Dixon’s remarks were clearly an accusation, an act of hostility. Dixon said he spoke for “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us. . . or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir.”
— Hamilton (@HamiltonMusical) November 19, 2016
Dixon’s act was actually worse than that of the hypothetical jewelry-store owner because Pence was not just a random person off the street. When he set foot in the Richard Rodgers Theatre last week he was presumably a paying customer who had paid handsomely for the privilege, although it’s possible he was given house seats by the management. Either way, he had already established a relationship with Hamilton, as either a guest or customer. Moreover, Pence isn’t a private citizen but a man who represents the 60 million Americans who voted for him. In a very concrete sense he (as of January 20) represents the country as a whole. That patrons of the show who evidently didn’t vote for him booed him as he was taking his seat is regrettable and rude, but after an emotionally charged election season, a momentary spontaneous crowd reaction isn’t so surprising. What’s nauseating is that audience members evidently felt the need to interrupt the show with jeers, meaning their need to publicly signal their political leanings was inconveniencing others and diminishing the value of a costly experience.
I’ve attended scores of Broadway shows over the years and I’ve never seen a cast member single out an audience member for the purpose of lecturing him. Broadway is a left-liberal institution, and many of its plays promote progressive themes. Shows often conclude with a plea for a charitable contribution to a group that fights AIDS. If a show ended with a cast member begging the audience to vote for a Democrat, that wouldn’t be particularly newsworthy. But singling out someone who is giving you his time, attention, and money? It’s beyond rude, it’s absolutely contemptible.
Entertainers lecture their customers all the time during performances; witness the unabashedly progressive Bruce Springsteen, who frequently delivers political homilies at his shows. These may be annoying to the millions of Springsteen fans who don’t support Democrats and would rather hear singing than preaching, but given Springsteen’s outspoken leftism, fans can hardly be surprised. But as Springsteen’s equally liberal guitar player Steven van Zandt pointed out, Springsteen would never single out an audience member for humiliation. “When artists perform the venue becomes your home,” Van Zandt said on Twitter. “The audience are your guests. It’s taking unfair advantage of someone who thought they were a protected guest in your home.” He continued, “A guy comes to a Broadway show for a relaxing night out. Instead he gets a lecture from the stage! Not a level playing field. It’s bullying. You don’t single out an audience member and embarrass him from the stage. A terrible precedent to set.” Imagine the reaction in the media if, in November 2008, Carrie Underwood had concluded a show by singling out Joe Biden in the audience and told him that Americans like her were anxious and alarmed about what the newly-elected Obama Administration might do to people like them. Underwood would not only have been widely denounced; she would have been called a racist.
Dixon’s claim of victimhood is fatuous bordering on absurd—you don’t get to bemoan how downtrodden you are when you’re the star of a musical that charges $849 for a ticket. What is doubly galling is that Dixon’s lecture typified so much of left-liberal discourse by passive-aggressively turning a claim of victim status into a weapon. Telling someone he makes you “alarmed and anxious” is an unmistakable insult, and many of the 60 million Americans who voted for Mike Pence are feeling insulted by proxy. Many of those who didn’t are begging entertainers and athletes to stop poisoning every football game and evening of light entertainment with sanctimonious political declarations. To advance from making blowsy left-wing statements to tarring individual right-wing audience members as scary, though, opens up a disturbing new front in the culture wars.