Free Speech and the Mikado

This past weekend my wife and I got to see Lee University’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.  It was a strange production; it was one of those things where the audience sat on the stage and the performers did their thing in the seats.  The program regaled us with the usual politically correct rubbish of “it isn’t about Asians.”  (They could have chosen an all-Chinese or Korean cast; both would welcome a shot at making fun of the Japanese.)  It had the potential of being a serious dud, but Lee University, as all the world knows now, has a deep bench of talent in singing and the performing arts and the faculty to make the most of it.  So it was good.

I’ve heard the highlights from this, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance most of my life, but it’s only been this late in the game when I got to see them.  One of those highlights came at an unhappy time and in an unhappy place, but as always there’s a lesson to be learned.

I think one reason I ended up in STEM and gravitated towards French and Latin literature came from my less than satisfactory relations with most of my English teachers, from elementary school to my last English course at Texas A&M.  I’ve documented one of the more egregious incidents in The Geniuses Commit Suicide, but for mutual non-admiration the award must go to my first junior high English teacher at Palm Beach Day School (now Palm Beach Day Academy,) Robert Bayless.

Both in class and on the football field (a sport I should have never tried,) Bayless thought I was a sissy, and wasn’t shy about expressing that opinion.  Having an English surname only made matters worse because he was a devotee of all things Scottish.  What neither one of us realised is that I had more Celt in me than was clear.  On my father’s side, I had the McArthurs.  On my mother’s, I had all the Scots-Irish worthies (“horse thief types” as she put it) whose foibles are well documented in this blog.  Had I discovered my inner “hillbilly wildman” then, it would have ended badly.

In spite of all this, he could make profound points that stuck.  Probably the most profound one was in connection with Gilbert and Sullivan; in playing the highlights in class, he observed that G&S lived in a country (the UK) where you could make fun of the government and other social institutions.  In other parts of Europe (like Tsarist Russia) such satire was forbidden.

At the time I really didn’t understand what he was saying; like many raised at the top of this society, I lived in a world where the benefits of real freedom didn’t mean a lot.  Getting away from that was educational.  But now those who haven’t gotten away from that have the upper hand, and one of the casualties of that is an erosion of freedom of speech, especially on college campuses.

A lot has been made about the pressure on free speech from the students.  And that’s a problem.  Today we have a generation that, faced with a society which changes at a blinding pace, is running scared.  The last thing anyone wants to hear is someone advocating changing something else, especially when every change makes a new set of people unemployable, either temporarily or permanently.

But none of this stifling could move forward without the acquiescence of collegiate governance.  And it’s often more than acquiescence; they write many of these speech codes and carve out these “safe spaces” which make free expression on campus tricky.  That even applies to what gets performed on campus; one victim of our obsession with not offending anyone is The Mikado itself, which can’t be performed in many places.  I should be thankful that Lee actually put it on, politically correct drivel notwithstanding.

If we allow this trend to continue, we won’t be any better off than Russia, Tsarist or Putinist.  And that’s going to cost us in the long run.  Without the free exchange of ideas we won’t have any ideas, which only works in a corporatist bubble.  And we’ve had enough bubbles to burst the last few years to last us a lifetime.

But back to Bayless…I would be remiss in not mentioning that I wasn’t the only student/athlete who lived on his bad side.  There was one other, and I think he gave him a harder time than he gave me.  His sister teaches at Palm Beach Day Academy, along side Bayless’ own daughter.

God still has a sense of humour.  I wish our elites could say the same.

2 Replies to “Free Speech and the Mikado”

  1. Indeed – you must not offend anyone – unless they are a disciple of Jesus Christ in which case you can say anything you like – the more offensive the better. Let me commend an excellent book “The Rage Against God” by Peter Hitchens and published by Continuum (ISBN 978-1-4411-0572-1) Peter is the brother of the deceased and well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens.

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