Yesterday I abused the Yakima School District for canceling a student production of The Laramie Project, a play that explores the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, WY, and the impact the ensuing controversy had on the community. Like the media reports at the time, the play largely portrays the murder as a hate crime… a vicious, premeditated attack on the openly gay Shepard.
District administrators halted the production out of concern that some in the community might perceive the play as promoting homosexuality… you know, in the same way a recent broadcast of the movie Mississippi Burning caused so many of Yakima’s youth to suddenly turn black.
Well apparently, (un)Sound Politics contributor Matt Rosenberg agrees with the district’s decision. Rosenberg suggests that such a “pro-tolerance” play might be inappropriate subject matter for a high school production, stating that “there is a legitimate question of whether we want public schools instead of families teaching tolerance.” Yeah, because we wouldn’t want to offend the values of those anti-tolerance families, I guess.
But Rosenberg’s biggest complaint is that the details of the incident as portrayed in the play — which was based on over 200 interviews conducted in the immediate aftermath of Shepard’s 1998 murder — differs from those presented in a 2004 segment of ABC TV’s 20/20. Rosenberg writes:
The reasons for his killing are highly disputed, in fact. There is no certitude to it whatever. True, the play’s script echoes dubious claims by the killer’s girlfriend and the killer himself that his rage about a purported gay come-on from Shepard led to the fatal attack. However, an in-depth report on ABC-TV’s “20-20” casts that claim as likely manufactured to aid the killer’s defense and pegs drug-money robbery and a methamphetamine-induced rage as the likely motivations in the killing.
Okay. Let’s just forget for a moment that the play’s hate-crime premise — a premise based on extensive, year-long interviews starting just 5-weeks after the murder, on contemporary news accounts, and, oh yeah… on the courtroom testimony of both the killer and his girlfriend — is so dismissively rejected by Rosenberg simply because it is contradicted by a single TV newsmagazine segment produced six years after the fact. Forget all that. It’s entirely besides the point.
The point is, Matt… it’s a fucking play!
It’s not a documentary. It’s not a history book. It’s not even a Wikipedia entry. It’s a play. A work of art. It’s theater.
The Sound of Music by comparison is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of the real von Trapp family, yet high school productions run nationwide without protest. The Miracle Worker? An historically iffy stage adaptation of an autobiography of a deaf and blind girl, for chrisakes. Amadeus? A complete and utter load of bullshit. And Shakespeare’s much lionized histories? Each and every one a work of fiction.
If Rosenberg had bothered to see the The Laramie Project before criticizing it he might understand that it doesn’t matter what the primary motivation of the killers really was, for the play isn’t about Shepard or his death, it’s about the people who survived him. The play is about the Laramie community coming to grips with the possibility that two of their own committed a brutal hate crime, and about how this experience changed their lives. The play is about how intolerance can tear communities apart, and about how unspeakable tragedy can sometimes bring communities together.
And whatever the truth about Shepard’s murder, the undisputed fact is that hate crimes do occur, and that in America — like all over the world — people are indeed discriminated against, ostracized, brutalized, even killed because of their race, their religion, their politics and their sexual orientation. Thus in its heart, The Laramie Project would be a truthful play, even if it were a total work of fiction. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand art.
So when I read a piece like the one Rosenberg posted to (un)Sound Politics yesterday, I have to ask myself: what the fuck is wrong with these people? Why would they go so far out of their way to trivialize a play that does nothing more than dramatize the tragic consequences of intolerance? What are they defending?
If the students of the Davis High School drama department had elected to perform The Diary of Anne Frank, and the production was halted out of concerns that some in the community might perceive the play as promoting Judaism, would Rosenberg jump to the defense of district administrators? Would he criticize the play for its historical inaccuracies? If 20/20’s Elizabeth Vargas were to deny the Holocaust, would Rosenberg insist that any staging must include a post-production discussion forum to fully air the differences between Frank’s diary and that of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf?
An absurd analogy?
Rosenberg closes by writing about “the Leftist meme of ‘politically constructed realities,'” a hefty turn of phrase intended to dismiss the very notion of hate crimes as some sort of lefty political construct. Whatever. I suppose I understand the legal arguments of those who insist that hate crime laws are unnecessary. But I simply can’t comprehend how a fellow Jew like Rosenberg could deny that hate crimes exist at all. Still… I’ll try to be tolerant.
It turns out that David Neiwert over at Orcinus thoroughly debunked the 20/20 segment, way back around the time it first aired. Neiwert also debunks Rosenberg’s apparent opposition to hate crime laws in general:
This myth arises from one of the realities about hate-crime laws: they only exist on the books as laws dealing with a special category of crimes with which we already are well familiar (murder, assault, threatening, intimidation, vandalism, etc.) — that is, a hate crime always has a well-established “parallel” crime underlying it, upon which is added the layer of motivation by bias (racial, ethnic, etc.). Thus, opponents argue, the laws for those parallel crimes should be adequate for punishing perpetrators. (If this argument sounds familiar, it is; the identical points were raised in the 1920s and ’30s by opponents of the anti-lynching legislation that was the NAACP’s raison d’etre during its early years.)
Are hate crimes truly different from their parallel crimes? Quantifiably and qualitatively, the answer is yes.
The first and most clear aspect of this difference lies in the breadth of the crimes’ effects. Hate crimes attack not only the immediate victim, but the target community — Jews, blacks, gays