Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Class Aspects of the Mike Daisey Affair

Over at Rat Sass, Nick raises an interesting aspect of the ongoing Mike Daisey controversy called "Us vs. Them." Late in the article, he raises an issue with class implications that shouldn't be ignored:

Collateral damage in the war with the Boogieman gang that attacked Mike that night goes beyond just the branding of the Norco kids as the Christian Crazies. We are also instructing other teenagers, including the 22 kids who remained in the audience that night (referred by ART as the other high school group), that theatre is a battle between Us and Them. “Us” signified as elite high school kids from a private school “studying” theatre as part of their senior seminar. “Them” are public school kids on a bus tour from Anytown, USA looking for a night of suitable entertainment.

Once again, the intelligentsia ends up bashing the religious and the lower class. For instance, over at Histriomastix, David Cote refers, in a post tagged "Goddites," to those who walked out as "a bunch of church-infantilized fools who can’t deal with Daisey’s salty language and lefty attitudes." This kind of classist, intolerant language reflects the us vs them, private vs public, educated vs less educated attitudes that permeate the American arts scene. When I look at European theatre, where many, many artists identify with and support the working class audience, and create art for that class, I despair about the American artists who mainly want to play to the upper 15% of the economic continuum -- although they will tolerate others as long as they share the college-educated secularism of that class of people. Until American artists make an effort to reach out to this audience, instead of expecting them to reach out to you (the Rilkean cry "You must change your life" is a motto, and one that is unidirectional), there will be less and less state funding, less and less public support, and smaller and smaller audiences.


Laura said...

I agree. Not sure I can say anything more than that. Well said, Scott.

parabasis said...


While I find the class dynamics in this discussion fascinating, there's one thing I'd like clarification on, if that's alright. You quote David Cote (i'm going to requote it here):

"a bunch of church-infantilized fools who can’t deal with Daisey’s salty language and lefty attitudes."

While I agree the language used is perhaps harsh and intolerant (althoughI think we should save the debate about whether there's anything wrong with that until later)... I don't get what you mean when you label this particular quote "classist".

He wasn't saying they were church-infantalized fools because they were working class. If anything, I don't think Cote knew (or that I know or you for that matter) their class background when he wrote that. There are plenty of upper class church-infantalized fools.

Can you clarify for me where you find classism in his language? Because to me your response to it indicates class assumptions on your part about the Norco, CA group, rather than on Cote's part.

(his assumption, which was based on misinformation was that they were a conservative christian youth group as opposed to a public school group)

But I think I'm missing something here in not seeing the link... so any clarification you can give on this one would be much appreciated.

Scott Walters said...

Isaac, you're right -- I am making leaps from this, which occurs earlier in the post: "ignorant, paranoid, wasteful, culturally desolate, ahistorically pious middleamerican boobies." (I am reminded of the "commie-pinko-fag-junkies" reference of a classic George Carlin routine). So I stand corrected. It is simply intolerant and uncivil.

parabasis said...


Thanks for the clarification! The reason why I bring it up is that I think we have an assumption that fundamnetalist christianity is some kind of working class social movement. Seeing it this way keeps us from criticizing it or attacking what makes it so problematic-- virulent homophobia and sexism, and at its root a hatred of Jews. But even if we accept that it is primarily working class people who belong to such groups, that shouldn't stop us from critiquing it any more than the poverty, racial identity and other ness of africans should stop us from protesting Female Genital Mutilation.

If anything, it becomes a classist defense... working class people aren't expected to treat women and gays equally because they poor, which means somehow we're supposed to expect less from them.

Laura said...

Not all Christians are sexist, homophobic or anything else. I think the theater community's reaction to Christianity or those who identify themselves as Christian is problematic. It is based on a bunch of assumptions, and discounts a wide array of people who don't deserve the stereotype.

parabasis said...

I was pretty careful in choosing my words in the above comment. I said "fundamentalist" christians for a reason, although I should've been more clear that I was sort-of changing the subject.

And for the record, I was raised as a christian. I've written about it extensively on my blog. Most really sincerely anti-Christian people I know (and I'm not counting myself amongst their number, I'm pretty much against organized religion in general, but what someone does privately is their own business) are ex-Christians themselves.

Anonymous said...

I should have posted an update about the fact that the whole group wasn't technically Christian. As to "ignorant, paranoid, wasteful, culturally desolate, ahistorically pious middleamerican boobies." Yes, I'm engaging in broad-brush invective and caricature there. But I'm sorry, but there is a tradition (H.L. Mencken, anyone) of calling out the worst of our nation. And, um, these people exist. Is tolerance pretending they don't? I'm against proscriptive theology, historical ignorance, cultural narrowness and excess production of garbage. Live green, support the arts, give to the poor and shut the !#$% up about God. So sue me.

David Cote said...

anonymous was me, actually, DC.

Laura said...

LOL on the last comment.

The worst of our nation come out in all forms, not just one. Any belief system, taken to the extreme, isn't healthy. Even those we open-minded, tolerant, and accepting theater folk tend to hold sacred.

One has to admit, in the urban theater world, people tend to have familiar targets - Christianity being one of them.

Oh, I wish we could all live the same way - especially the way David says. What a great world that would be...

Wait - isn't that what rigid fundamentalists think as well?

David said...

Sadly, fundamentalist "anythings" tend to take over the conversation, because they also tend to be the loudest people in the room.

Not all -- as we know, and have carefully said over and over again, here and elsewhere, there are variations on every theme.

But, generally put, the "live and let live" types tend not to go around proclaiming their positions or hectoring others for failing to live up to their peace-loving standards. They -- and perhaps by "they" I include "me" -- simply go about their lives... living and let-living.

The same types of discussions arose following 9/11 and the tendency (of some) to paint all followers of Islam with the same brush as the violence-loving extremists. Many in the Muslim community rightly argued that such beliefs are not typical of the majority, and that when they do arise, they are often a religious expression of socio-political concerns.

For some, the discussion then moved to a question of whether or not moderate Muslims had kept too quiet, too separate from the rest of society (by which I mean non-Muslim Western society), or if the non-Muslims had simply failed to pay attention to the moderate Muslim community in its midst.

I think the question can again be fairly raised -- where are all the moderate Christians, appalled enough by the actions of their fundamentalist brothers and sisters, and why aren't they raising their voices in a more organized manner?

nick said...


We associate Islamic fundamentalism with violence. Not so with Christian fundamentalism. So I am confused as to what you mean by “appalling actions.”

Do these American fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters of mine do something more than think and vote appallingly?

For instance, I would imagine if some Christian sect advocated the bombing of abortion clinics, every other Christian group would quickly ostracize them.

Owen Tew said...

I think you haven't heard anything from fundamentalist Christians who disagree with the actions at the Mike Daisey play because they've never heard of him.

Certainly, you hear some of them decry abortion clinic bombings or gay bashing. But, I'll be honest with you, I can take a poll of even non-fundamentalists who aren't into theater and zero percent will ever have heard of this incident. You'll have get theater atrocities reported on Access Hollywood if you want a hue and cry from the general public or fundamentalist Christians in particular.

Scott Walters said...

David -- Fundamentalist atheists are as intolerant as fundamentalist Christians. And using the anti-Semite H L Mencken to cover your ass gets you no free pass from me. Mencken was an asshole -- is that what you aspire to?

What bothers me about all this is how easily those of us in the arts elide ALL Christianity with fundamentalist Christianity, and with stupidity, the south (how many of you think fundamentalist and Southern Baptist are synonymous?) and, as Isaac notes in my case, with the lower classes. (Actually, I had just read Nick's comments on private vs public schools, which is why it was on my mind.) One person in the Daisey group says that there are Christians present as a way of justifying, not the water pouring, but their departure, and David Cote and all who think like him immediately convert them into a fundamentalist Christian hate group. Puh-lease! Can we use our intellects just a wee bit? One doesn't have to be an intolerant bigot to think that possibly discussions of fucking Paris Hilton is inappropriate for young people. (And one doesn't have to be particularly snooty to see it as a cheap laugh.) And spare me the sweeping generalities about what young people ALL hear every day and watch on HBO or whatever. Not everybody DOES watch that, believe it or not. Universalizing one's own experience is a failure to extend one's thought beyond the end of one's nose.

Daivd Cote said...

Scott, I am not going to humor people--be they southern, northern, eastern, western--who cling to supernatural beliefs, just I do not humor the insane or mentally damaged. I believe they need help. H.L. Mencken had his faults, but if you think you can dismiss his achievements with the shibboleth "anti-Semite," (it's not so cut-and-dried as that) then you are the one aspiring to hysterical intolerance.

nick said...

David, I must have missed the Dr. Phil episode where he classified those who believed in God with the insane or mentally damaged.

Your hostility and intolerance toward the beliefs of others is extreme. You have likely lost many would be friends because of it.

Scott Walters said...

David is following in the footsteps of the currently fashionable "hard" atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris whose certainty about the non-existence of God finds its echo in those who are equally certain of His existence. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, and intolerance is intolerance no matter the guise. This explains Cotes' rush to judgment in the Daisey case, and his apparent willingness to smear a group of high school kids in print. Admirable, that.

Alison Croggon said...

Ibsen was obviously an intolerant fundamentalist atheist, according to these definitions. His opinion of religion is pretty low in Ghosts, say. Yay Ibsen.

I simply don't understand how criticising an act of intolerance makes the critic the intolerant one. Talk about rhetorical reflexivity.

Alison Croggon said...

And, btw, violence is every bit as threaded through Christianity as it is through Islam. It was Christians who led progroms, who massacred those of heretic Christian faith, who thought of the Inquisition - which still exists under another name - and who massacred every soul in Jerusalem during the Crusades. It was Orthodox Christian Serbs killing Muslims in the 1990s Balkans war. Or perhaps you should read Hitler's Pope. Etc. It's a religion drenched in blood: the only people who escape that seem to me to be the Quakers. Those Rapture people are scary, and their influence in the White House even more scary.

Applying the word "Fundamentalist" to atheists like Dawkins is utterly mistaken and makes no sense: Dawkins' position is argued rationally, and rationally applies scientific principles. You can disagree with him, because the basis of his argument is clear. Fundamentalist bigots of any stripe, Judaeic, Christian or Islam, cannot be argued with, because their argument is based on Faith. And there's no possibility of rational discussion when Faith is involved.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- Dawkins' position is argued rationally as long as you accept that only what can be perceived through the senses and current technology is what exists. To me, that is as big a leap of faith as anything a Christian might cook up.

As far as the destructiveness of religion goes, it is no different than anything else: it has been used for good and for ill. In fact, I would venture to say that a lot of things that have been called religious wars are actually wars for land that are justified by using religious reasons. 9/11, for instance, is often characterized as a religious war when in actuality it is cultural and economic.

I'm not going to argue atheism with you or anybody. I am going to argue that characterizing 87 high school kids as fundamentalist Christians because somebody in the group said that there were Christians in the group is wrong. To then create from whole cloth a conspiracy, and declare war, as David Cotes did on his blog, is doubly wrong.

If artists want to take the igh ground, then they need to use their heads.

Anonymous said...

Okay, "9/11, for instance, is often characterized as a religious war when in actuality it is cultural and economic" makes the assumption that the 'war' is the one we're fighting right now, which I presume to be the Iraqi one, with Afghanistan a lesser theater. So, in that sentence, the reason we're fighting in Iraq -- and spending most of our resources there, instead of Afghanistan -- is due to the attacks on 9/11.

Even W, in his non-propagandistic moments, admits that we didn't topple Saddam due to the WTC and Pentagon attacks.

As for "I would imagine if some Christian sect advocated the bombing of abortion clinics, every other Christian group would quickly ostracize them", please find proof of just how many mainstream Christian and Christian fundamentalist organizations *don't* condemn sects that bomb abortion clinics, shoot abortion doctors, and generally wish fags dead, in the archives of Orcinus (

And, as for "in the urban theater world, people tend to have familiar targets - Christianity being one of them", there tends to be a grudge held when actors could not find shelter in decent hotels, were considered to be just above hookers, in society, and were denied Christian burial. That discrimination might be less prevalent, now, but just ask an actor friend or two with a strict religious upbringing how his or her relatives sees their career choice -- the ostracism can be mutual, still.

It would be nice if *everyone* used his or her head, before getting on a high horse, right?

If I, evil, bad, nasty, heathen theatre lover -- discriminating against those poor, TV/radio-network owning, talk-radio-discourse-controlling, megachurch-running, university-building, administration-staffing, jes' plain folk of the religious right (who despite the Ivy League consultants they employ and the resources they control, market *themselves* as jes' plain folk, time and time again), who could buy every theatre property and salary in this country several times over -- ever say another word against them, I am obviously intolerant, and we can't have that here, can we?

So I can expect to be shunned for being intolerant, against people who are mandated by their interpretation of faith to bring the intolerant world to heel, or wait until the Rapture does it for them.


Alison Croggon said...

No, religion's certainly not alone. It's up there with nationalism and racism as one of the three major ideologies of mass murder. Human beings seem to need excuses to kill each other, which offers some fleeting hope, perhaps.

I've read all this stuff, and I still don't get the problem. Daisey's original post didn't strike me as a publicity-seeking scam, as people seem to be portraying it (out of envy, maybe?), so much as the natural response of a performer astonished and angered by what happened in his show. What should he have done: kept quiet, out of "respect"? Or is he going to defend his work?

As for the class thing: that seems a little whiffy to me. Popular "low class" culture from Commedia dell'arte on has always been ribald. It's the middle class institutions that want to control that class that keep the lid on it. I'd say in this instance certainly that it appears the repression is from the top down. How can artists support that? I find it unfathomable. But then I ally art very closely to liberty: not what self-interested capitalist machines like the political or religious systems call liberty, but actual liberty. It's about time that we took that idea back from the criminal distortions that have been made of it.

And where's the conspiracy on David's blog? He's just saying that he's "pro-artist" and "anti-booby". He says he'd like to hear the other side, but he thinks that artists need more support than those with the institutional weight of the church behind them. A fair enough and clear enough position, I'd say.

Mac said...

This is part of a comment I left at David Cote's blog:

I'm far more worried about religious zealots than I am about a handful of possibly intolerant leftists/atheists/whatevers. But here's the thing. I know quite a few Christians who don't subscribe to findamentalism, who don't decry science, and who don't advocate pushing their views on others. Their faith primarily inspires them to acts of kindness and charity, and provides their life with an element of meaning that certainly does me no harm. A few months ago I had drinks with an Episcopelian priest who declared himself to be a proud member of the "Christian left."

What I'm saying is, while all forms of religious fundamentalism need to be opposed (and I've written like five plays on that subject), I don't see the point in just picking on Christians in general. I think it's ugly and pointless. I like Andrew Sullivan's distinction between Christians and Christianists, because it separates people of faith from people who want to mobilize their faith as a political force and push it on unwilling people.

As secular liberals, we need to oppose religious fundamentalism of all stripes. But is there any reason we need to be jerks?