Delta and Bank of America Defund Shakespeare as False Equivalency Reaches New Heights (Column)

In some ways, we have United to blame for this.

That airline’s total incompetence in handling their public relations nightmare — in which a passenger was dragged from his seat and down the aisle while others screamed, all caught on cell phone video — has made other airlines especially scandal-averse.

Fox News’ multiple scandals this spring have not helped, either. Advertisers and stakeholders in the conservative news network came under fire as the company struggled to square its purported standards with the behavior of its employees. Eventually, several Fox News employees were fired — but not before advertisers, facing public pressure, announced that they were pulling out. Fox News isn’t alone here: Advertisers implicated in a range of conservative outfits, from Breitbart media to the LPGA (held at one of President Donald Trump’s golf courses) have been asked to defend and justify their corporate mission, during one of the most scandal-ridden presidencies in history.

This may explain why, mere hours after Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” published a misleading report on Sunday morning about how a “NYC Play” showed Trump being assassinated by “women and minorities,” Delta announced that it was ending its sponsorship of the venerable Public Theater, which is currently staging a production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

Never mind that the play was written by one of the giants of the English language. Never mind that as an interpretation of “Julius Caesar,” it is still depicting, you know, Julius Caesar. Never mind that the article was only updated to explain that the play was by Shakespeare after Delta pulled out. Never mind that “Julius Caesar” got a similar treatment for then-president Barack Obama, and that television shows like “House of Cards” continue to imagine and re-imagine murderous Clintons. Never mind that throughout history, humans have burned their leaders in effigy (including, by the way, endless racist depictions of lynching Obama). Never mind that just a few weeks and months ago, “Fox & Friends” was falling over themselves to defend “free speech” on university campuses at both UC Berkeley and Northwestern. The appearance of incivility is enough to ensure that the Public Theater — an institution that tries to spread the footprint of theater outside of just the privileged classes — is denied millions of dollars in corporate funding. Bank of America, sensing a trend, quickly followed suit.

It is a distinctly American thing, to rely on corporate funding for the arts. On one hand, it is a sign of how wary our domestic establishment still is about taxpayer money funding the arts. On the other, it is a signifier of our social compact with our corporations: We rely on them to fund the arts because we, and they, believe that the arts contribute something important and lasting to the public firmament. One of the reasons that art needs to be funded is because it should exist at least partially outside the world of endlessly pursuing profit; art reminds us that there is more to life than punching a time card, and nourishes us outside of the daily grind. This should go without saying, but it is not “offensive” to criticize the most powerful man in the world, especially when done so without even naming him. The power dynamic at play there operates against the theater, not against the president.

But then again, outrages like this — especially as advanced by an embattled Fox News now determined to re-establish its conservative stripes after committing the grave sin of having compassion for the women who work there — are a distraction from that same president’s abuses of power. These faux scandals are disingenuous in the extreme: They’re distracting from a president who demands televised expressions of admiration from his cabinet by focusing on the slightest gestures of commentary and criticism in his opponents.

It’s especially unnerving that Delta acted so quickly to pull out its funding not just from this production but from the Public Theater as a whole — on a summer Sunday, when few others were watching the news. It’s revealing as to how hair-trigger our current climate for outrage is. It’s also indicative of how poor our general understanding of what really counts as free speech.

Beyond the Public Theater debacle, it is difficult to not feel that a virulent double standard is emerging in commentary, critique, and comedy: While CNN keeps batterer Corey Lewandowski and racist Jack Kingston on its payroll — and while former rocker Ted Nugent, who threatened President Obama with death, was invited to Trump’s White House — CNN last week let go of Reza Aslan for the grave sin of using “piece of s–t” to describe our dear leader, while Fox News frothed over Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand dropping an f-bomb in a speech. Bill Maher uses an incredibly racist slur rooted in black slavery and gets to keep his HBO job, but insult comic Kathy Griffin made a bloody depiction of decapitating Trump and was rapidly let go from (sensing a pattern here) CNN.

Griffin, here, is being held to a higher standard than the president himself. Let us not forget that the tenor for conversation, set during the campaign for the highest office in the land, is one of vulgarity and abuse: The president was caught on tape and enthusiastically defended or used the phrases “grab them by the pussy,” “I moved on her like a bitch,” and of course, “I did try and f—k her.” Last week, he was under investigation for possibly obstructing justice when he fired the director of the FBI. How convenient that liberal “respectability,” especially as practiced by a Muslim author, a female comedian, and a New York politician, would all become conservative talking points.

Shame on Delta. Shame on Bank of America. Corporations should not be rewarding disingenuous, overt attempts to sow outrage from a conservative media machine that is working overtime to profit off of American polarization and instability. This is a pattern of self-congratulatory normalization — one that makes the excesses, abuses, and vulgarities of the leader of the free world into just another day on the job, while the individuals who might oppose his agenda, or even simply comment on it, are told their methods of expression don’t merit funding. I wonder if, 10 years from now, Delta and Bank of America will be patting themselves on the back for depriving people of the chance to see Shakespeare. It seems more likely that by then, no one will have any idea who Shakespeare is, at all.

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