It was an interesting weekend for free speech.
VP-elect and occasional theater-goer Mike Pence got a mixed review on Friday after he was booed by some audience members who spotted him slipping into his seat at Hamilton. After the performance, Brandon Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, thanked Pence for attending and read a statement from the cast. It was a theatrical reflection of what many people are feeling:
“We, sir — we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
The President-elect, upon hearing of the affront, took to Twitter several times to demand an apology.
“The theater must always be a safe and special place,” he said in one tweet. “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior,” he said in another.
On Sunday, Trump took to Twitter again, this time to complain about SNL’s “biased” show. That prompted his impersonator, Alec Baldwin, to fire back with a suggestion to retrain Americans to create jobs. It was downhill from there.
To his credit, Pence said he wasn’t offended by the Hamilton reception. “When we arrived we heard a few boos, and we heard some cheers,” he told Fox News Sunday. “I nudged my kids and reminded them that is what freedom sounds like.”
Pence has heard the sound of freedom before. Like last April, for example, when he was heckled while throwing out the first pitch at the Indianapolis Indians’ home opener. “A lot of people were booing him,” Lindsay Watson helpfully told the Indiana Star, sounding one part reporter, one part Midwestern nice. “There were a few people cheering but not many. More boos than cheers.”
More boos than cheers is how democracy often goes; at best, it’s a messy and imperfect way to do business. But the freedoms of assembly and speech, among others, are pretty central to its success. Anything that dampens those fundamental rights – to help the public parse the extraordinary conflicts of interest facing the Trump administration, for example – should be deeply alarming.
Hamilton, Broadway’s breakout hit and tribute to diversity, grosses about $2 million a week in ticket sales. Chances are the #BoycottHamilton “movement” which erupted after the booing died down will have little to no impact on their momentum. Donald Trump’s demand for “equal time” on SNL probably won’t hurt the franchise or Alec Baldwin much either. But, free speech is always a risk, particularly for anyone in the for-profit sector. Speaking truth to power means speaking directly to yourselves, and your own bottom line. Always a messy bit of business, but these days, an increasingly necessary one. The trick is not to throw away your shot.
With more business leaders taking the unusual step of addressing the subject of race and inclusion in both public and private ways, I’m hoping for more cheers than boos in 2017.