A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
In a range of different realms, prominent people fell victim recently to their own controversial comments and associations, illustrating the application of political correctness at both its most appropriate and most oppressive.
In the world of Grand Opera, a Russian bass-baritone got bounced at the last moment from a crucial starring role when news footage revealed a huge swastika tattooed across his brawny chest.
At the Olympics, the Greek team banned the participation of a controversial (and, not co-incidentally, very beautiful) triple jumper because she tweeted disrespectfully about African immigrants in her homeland.
And in the arena of fast food franchises, political leaders in two of the nation's major cities threatened to block chicken-sandwich outlets because the company’s owner expressed his disapproval of redefining marriage.
These more-or-less simultaneous episodes of public figures plunging recklessly into hot water featured a number of common elements but enough significant differences to reach very different verdicts on the responses they provoked. Fairness and common sense argue that Bavarian opera authorities acted appropriately, Greek Olympic officials exercised faulty but defensible judgment, while self-righteous mayors of Chicago and Boston outrageously assaulted freedom of expression in order to score cheap political points.
In the case of rising opera luminary Yevgeny Nikitin, he chose to identify himself with the one symbol on earth that registers as most universally despised. Some news accounts described the swastika on his torso as a “controversial emblem” but there’s no real controversy over an insignia associated with genocide and xenophobia. Who, exactly, today defends the swastika and the Nazi system it represents? Nikitin now claims that “I was not aware of the extent of the irritation and offence these symbols would cause,” but that’s hardly credible for a 38-year-old international star who grew up in a nation that lost 20 million souls to ruthless German invaders. The baritone also explained that he never meant to invoke Hilterism with the twisted cross on his chest, but additional “body art” on his heavily inked corpus features Nordic runes used by the dreaded SS. In various interviews, the inevitably embarrassed artist says he got his Tuetonic tats when he was only sixteen and performed with a Russian heavy metal band, but the video that exposed his loathsome little secret clearly shows a performance involving a much older man. The scandal only exploded with such a resonant roar because he had been engaged to play the title role in an eagerly awaited new production of Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” at the Bayreuth Festival – permanently tainted as the Fuehrer’s favorite opera house (yes, he visited frequently) and still run by the great grandchildren of the venomously anti-Semitic great composer who established it. To their credit, Wagners of the new generation have gone to great lengths to separate their festival from all associations with Nazism, so the employment of a gifted singer who willingly decorated himself with Third Reich insignias became utterly unthinkable. Nikitin will now pursue his glittering career elsewhere, while shrugging off his tattoos as “a mistake of youth.” The bizarre case reminds us that everyone may make youthful mistakes but inscribing them on your flesh means they’re indelible.
The lissome Greek track star Voula Papachristou boasts a tattoo of her own but it’s a discreet and indecipherable squiggle on her right wrist with no discernible message. More noteworthy, in all the abundantly displayed photos of her spectacularly well-toned form, is the ornamental stud prominently piercing her navel, but that’s also played no role in pushing her team’s leaders and sponsors to ban her participation in the London Olympics. Unfortunately for the 23-year-old Papachristou, she foolishly tweeted an “insensitive” message to the world about unpopular immigrants to her homeland, declaring: “With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will at least eat home food!!!” With Athens recently alarmed by a half-dozen cases of West Nile virus, the attempt at humor went mostly unappreciated. The Greek Olympic Committee pulled her from the team because her tweet “violated the Olympic spirit.” The Democratic Left Party, which shares power in Athens, applauded the decision, saying that Papachristou “can make as many vile ‘jokes’ as she likes on social networking sites when she watches the Olympic Games on TV. But she certainly cannot represent Greece in London.”
Considering the athlete’s immediate and unequivocal apology, her coach, George Pomaski, called the shattering of her Olympic dreams “too much, the penalty should not have been so strict.” Many Greek fans emphatically agreed with him and took to social media to support the suddenly celebrated triple jumper. Some pointed to the example of two Australian swimmers, Nick D’Arcy and Kenrick Monk, who ran into trouble last month for posting photos on Facebook and Twitter in which they brandished guns, a display ferociously frowned upon Down Under. Their penalty involved a strict social media ban and a requirement that they leave London immediately after competing in their own events.
By comparison, Voula’s punishment certainly looked excessive: the Olympics equivalent of a death penalty imposed for a relatively minor crime. Sending a crude, insensitive tweet involves a few seconds of bad judgment and hardly involves the conscious, long-term commitment of defacing your body with racist tattoos. Moreover, with Athens currently deluged by uncounted and intensely resented hordes of illegal immigrants from Africa, Papachristou’s expressed disrespect for the new arrivals hardly places her far outside of her troubled society’s mainstream. In the end, she may benefit more from this tormenting case than she suffers from it: leaping more than her career best 14.58 meters directly to the status of international celebrity, with talk show appearances as well as modeling and acting contracts almost certainly in her future.
Similarly benefiting from an explosive political correctness controversy would be fast food mogul Dan Cathy, president and COO of the Chick-fil-A chain with more than 1,600 outlets around the country. It hardly counts as news that the company identifies with conservative Christian values: the corporate website openly proclaims that the purpose of the chain is to “glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us” and “to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” In fact, the company takes Biblical injunctions so seriously its franchises sacrifice substantial revenue by all shutting down their operations on Sunday, to honor the Christian Sabbath and to make it easier for employees to attend church.
While most Americans of all religious outlooks should honor such idealistic commitment the company’s unwavering support for a traditional approach to male-female marriage has proven far more divisive, especially when Dan Cathy declared in an interview with the Christian press that he fears God’s judgment on our country for trying to substitute flawed modern notions of matrimony for His eternal truth. In response to his comments, and to accompanying publicity concerning Chick-fil-A’s generous support for Christian conservative organizations that oppose same sex marriage, the Muppets withdrew from an ongoing promotion with the brand and activists announced a nationwide “gay kiss in” at local outlets scheduled for August 3rd. It’s unclear whether anyone expects employees of the Christian chicken chain to try to disrupt same sex displays of affection, even if the protesters attempt to kiss with their mouths full of the company’s celebrated Chargrilled Chicken Club Sandwich.
The consequences for the corporation became more serious, however, when public officials entered the fray. Boston Mayor Tom Menino announced his implacable opposition to a proposed franchise in his town, sending a letter to President Cathy that warned that “there is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.” In Chicago, a local alderman acted to block a second Chick-fil-A restaurant in the Windy City, suggesting that in his “very diverse ward…at the very least don’t discriminate against our LGBTQ folks.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel also rushed to add his own self-righteous voice to the chorus of indignation, proudly explaining that “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values. They disrespect our fellow neighbors and residents.” Of course, His Honor neglected to explain how he managed to work for two years as White House Chief of Staff for a boss (President Obama) who also apparently violated “Chicago values” by expressing on innumerable occasions his own longstanding (and only recently altered) opposition to gay marriage.
More importantly, none of Chick-fil-A’s liberal critics managed to cite a single incident of actual discrimination by the chain against gay employees or customers – discrimination which is already illegal in most big cities. Their fury rests upon their disagreement with the company on the future definition of matrimony—a disagreement that splits the entire nation more-or-less down the middle. Advocates and activists should (and do) feel free to boycott companies that take contentious public positions with which they disagree – just as disgruntled conservative organizations launched a national “Dump Starbucks” campaign in retaliation for the coffee giant’s outspoken support for government sponsorship of same-sex marriage.
But Menino, Emanuel and other elected officials, who suggest that public opposition to that sponsorship amounts by itself to loathsome discrimination worthy of governmental punishment, assault freedom of expression as well as core notions of religious pluralism. Dan Cathy retains the same absolute right to offer his own understanding of the Bible as his critics enjoy in contesting his interpretation of Scripture. Using official authority to crack down on one side of an ongoing political dispute or, even worse, a long-standing religious argument, amounts to dangerous disregard of Constitutional guarantees, with scant legal or even logical basis.
These three controversies that recently roiled pop culture should help to sharpen distinctions between various ways of communicating divisive sentiments. Earnest defense of long-standing marital norms may outrage gay rights purists, but must reasonably count as less offensive than rude remarks about illegal African immigrants, not to mention far less outrageous than flagrant identification with a symbol of Nazi barbarism. By the same token, a thoughtless, fleeting stab at wit in social media hardly indicates the same consequential identification with a contentious viewpoint as financial contributions or media proclamations in support of a bitterly disputed cause or, worst of all, permanent disfigurement in solidarity with mass murder.
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