First, a disclaimer. There is no question that the recently enacted Russian law against homosexual “propaganda”, which not only makes it illegal to be openly gay in Russia, but in fact bans any public mention of homosexuality, is vile. It is a shocking assault on human rights and a prime example of the Russian government’s attachment to tyranny.
That said, I have to take issue with the protest at the New York Metropolitan Opera on September 23, 2013, whose participants demanded that the visiting Mariinsky Opera troupe dedicate their opening gala performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin to LGBT people and denounce their government’s action from the stage.
There is also an online petition accusing the musicians of supporting the anti-gay law by not publicly repudiating it. Anna Netrebko, as the leading soprano and one of the most celebrated opera singers in the world, has been drawing quite a bit of vitriol for some time for her failure to take a “clear stance” on the issue, instead of publicly saying, as can be expected of someone in her position, that she does not discriminate against anyone in her work.
All this betrays a stunning ignorance of the political and social situation in Russia and a shocking degree of callousness towards Russian artists. What the protestors and Netrebko’s critics are saying is “I really don’t give a shit what happens to you as a result of publicly supporting my cause, which you are morally obligated to do. Why don’t you care about what happens to ME??”
It is very hard for most Americans to comprehend what it’s like to live in a society that has no freedom of expression; moreover, what it’s like to be in a creative profession in such a society. This is not to say that America has not seen its share of discrimination or that it’s completely unfamiliar with governmental repression. What’s lacking in the collective consciousness here is any understanding of scale. McCarthyism, while deplorable, was a mild and short-lived exception to the norm that American entertainment stars, writers and intellectuals can explicitly embrace and promote progressive causes without fear of prosecution, imprisonment or permanent banishment from their profession. That is not, unfortunately, the norm in most of the world, and it is not the norm in Russia.
Russia’s intellectuals and creative types have always been hostages to the establishment. This is not anything new, nor is it a legacy of the Soviet times — it is a reality going back to the very beginnings of the Russian State. (Alexander Pushkin, hardly a Man Of The People, had to contend with having his works banned, as well as occasional house arrest.) Theater companies and educational institutions are either owned by the government outright or are utterly at its mercy; printing houses and entertainment companies are subject to blatant censorship. Journalists get murdered in Russia at a rate probably greater than anywhere else in the world. Artists who piss off those in power find themselves banned, exiled, imprisoned and occasionally dying in freak accidents.
If Netrebko were to speak out against her government from the stage, it would subject her, at the very least, to dismissal and fines upon her return. She may even face jail time. That’s a steep price to pay for a “clear stance”, and I find it dismaying that her critics waive off those concerns as unimportant. Unquestionably, artists who speak out against human rights abuses despite terrible consequences to themselves are heroes. But is heroism something that’s to be expected of everyone? How many of those who are bashing Netrebko would rush into a burning building to save a stranger? How many would rush into a burning building to make a point?
Is there a moral obligation on each and every artist to sacrifice his career and liberty for a noble gesture? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I think this is a complicated moral dilemma. What I’m certain of is that vociferously demanding that people throw themselves under the bus for the sake of another’s political cause, even a worthy political cause, is over the line. Particularly when such expectations and demands come from people who themselves have no fear of losing their careers, freedom or lives as the price of speaking out.
There are boycotts I can get behind. Don’t buy Russian vodka. Don’t fill up at Lukoil. If you don’t buy Russian products, merchants will lose money and shareholders will hurt; but no one will be put in a cage in a Russian courtroom, beaten to death at Lubyanka or sent to a gulag as a result of you withholding your money. Economic pressure is fine. But forgoodnesssake, as long as Netrebko isn’t posting homophobic rants on Twitter (which she isn’t), leave her the hell alone. Just as merchants are not entitled to consumers’ money, so activists aren’t entitled to random people’s blood — and that goes double for activists who have never felt the weight of political repression.
In reading up on this incident, I was heartened to see that some activists protesting Russia’s anti-gay laws retained a fair perspective on the issue. And so I’ll end with this quote from actor Patrick Stuart, who attended the gala wearing a ribbon in support of the LGBT community:
There’s a very simple answer as to why we’re wearing these pins tonight. Because we can, because we live in a democracy, and wearing these pins is not going to see us arrested and thrown in jail.