Censorship, once a very dirty word in liberal circles, has undergone a makeover of sorts and, in its new guise of social responsibility, it is making an unfortunate comeback.
Let’s be clear: Chan is not saying “‘The Mikado’ offends me so I won’t go see it.” She is saying, “‘The Mikado’ is offensive so nobody should see it.” Is the offense taken by Chan regarding “The Mikado” really more genuine or reasonable than that of some Muslims regarding the work of Salman Rushdie? Why? What makes the offense she takes more objectively actual? Why should her ideas about what is and isn’t offensive be foisted upon everyone? In fact, there is no objective standard anywhere that can transform her opinion on this matter into a fact.
Ultimately, what makes the proposal of simply not performing or reading old works of racist art so insidious is that no generation is the sole caretaker of the canon. The influential works of the past helped to create our culture, whether we like it or not. Erasing them from our history books, or stages, or syllabi, cannot reverse their impact. The original impetus for the liberal program of historical and cultural revision was to highlight the complexity of our past—to expose the fact that some founding fathers held slaves, or that westward expansion came with a horrific toll on native populations, or that the heroic Franklin Delano Roosevelt interred Japanese citizens. It is precisely this critical lens with which we now teach Western Culture that prepares us to see works like “The Mikado,” or “The Merchant of Venice,” and place them in context. Studying Western culture is like putting a puzzle together and, frankly, we cannot do it without all the pieces.
We need to stop pretending that Western culture is the villain in human history. This is the story being told in every graduate Master of Fine Arts program in America; it is a story widely accepted by the artists and administrators running the cultural ground game. “The Mikado” is not a threat to anything. In fact, it has served as an inspiration to several generations of musical theater artists. Do we share Gilbert and Sullivan’s opinions and commentary on race? Of course we don’t. Can we appreciate their contribution to art without condoning racist attitudes? Yes, we can. Liberals who find themselves compelled by the siren call of censorship should wake up. And conservatives who think these subtle intrusions are a mere distraction should wake up, too. This is exactly where culture is won or lost.