“That’s What Freedom Sounds Like”

So suddenly we’re all supposed to switch sides again on whether dissent is patriotic.

In a continuing effort to prove that it all depends on whose ox is gored, a lot of people on the right suddenly now think that it’s super-rude for constituents to send a public message to their elected officials. They are denouncing the cast of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” for making an impassioned appeal to Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence at the end of a performance he was attending on Friday night.

On the one hand, I get why this could rub people the wrong way. Yes, you’re tired of getting political lectures from left-leaning cultural elites embedded in your entertainment every time you turn on the TV or go to the movies. So when the cast of “Hamilton” gives a speech aimed at Mike Pence, it might feel to you that they’re once again lecturing Middle America.

On the other hand, I don’t get it. They didn’t lecture Middle America, they made an appeal to the incoming vice-president of the United States.

One of the basic concepts of American government is that the people don’t answer to the politicians, the politicians answer to the people. Every time a politician steps foot in public, he should be prepared to get an earful from his constituents—and actors in Manhattan are now Mike Pence’s constituents. So he should be prepared to receive it graciously.

And that’s precisely what Pence did. He knows the rules of American politics, and he told Fox News that even when he was booed by members of the audience, “I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like.” He went on to add, “I wasn’t offended by what was said.”

And he had no reason to be offended. Here is what Brandon Victor Dixon, representing the cast of “Hamilton,” had to say.

You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-Elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out.

Vice President-Elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at “Hamilton: An American Musical.” We really do. 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, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.

You know how we’re always lecturing people about the need for more civility in American politics? This is what more civility looks like—both the actors’ message and Pence’s response. If every political exchange sounded like this, we’d think we were living in some kind of utopia.

Ah, but we’re not, so we got the predictable response from the president-elect, in the predictable medium: Twitter.

“Harassed”? A “safe place”? It’s an absurdity, but that didn’t prevent Trump’s supporters from denouncing the cast of Hamilton, threatening an ineffectual boycott, demanding apologies, and even calling for the repeal of a tax break for theaters—not on the general principle of tax reform, but as a direct reprisal for an insult to their leader.

Should the cast of “Hamilton” have been more polite? Should they have welcomed him more and said “sir” more? Absolutely not. Any more polite and it would have become deference, and the people should never defer to the politicians. Yet you get the sense that Trump and his supporters want deference. The rise of Trump is all about tribalism, and in true tribal fashion, they want one standard of behavior for their gang of political supporters and another standard for their political opponents.

And no, the tribes aren’t just identified on the basis of race. Consider the case of Ben Carson. Does anyone remember how he launched his political career? By giving a bluntly worded lecture on health care to President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. Was that unacceptable? Was it rude? Should the prayer breakfast have been a “safe place” for President Obama? Of course not. So why is the cast of “Hamilton” suddenly not allowed to do the same thing?

Worse, Donald Trump’s whole style is to throw barbs and insults and put-downs, to call everyone who disagrees with him a loser and a failure. So to expect the American people to treat him and his vice-president with a special deference is to expect that the highest-ranked politician in the land is free to insult whomever he likes, but nobody should dare say anything back to him.

The Founding Fathers wouldn’t be having any of this. I know I should probably be quoting Alexander Hamilton on this, but as a Virginian, I can’t help quoting Hamilton’s rival, Thomas Jefferson (even if I might trigger some UVA students). In 1774, Thomas Jefferson urged representatives of the Commonwealth of Virginia to present their grievances to King George “with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. Let those flatter who fear; it is not an American art.”

By that standard, the actors in “Hamilton” got it right—and so did Mike Pence. Too bad the man in charge doesn’t.

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