By Tibor Machan
“Those who complain that (Linda) Ronstadt should just sing, rather than express her opinions, forget that all art has a responsibility to inspire and provoke, not just soothe and entertain.”
Those are the words of George Varga, the pop music critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, in the wake of Ronstadt’s controversial endorsement of “Fahrenheit 9/11” filmmaker Michael Moore during a recent concert in Las Vegas.
However, when performers like Ronstadt address their paying audience with propaganda unrelated to what the audience came for, what is one to think?
Malpractice? Well, that is surely one plausible take.
Imagine your dentist working on your teeth and spouting political, religious or some other non-dental messages to you while you lie there unable to answer. Is that decent, professional conduct?
Imagine a chemistry professor giving out all kinds of pointers to his students about how to vote in the next presidential election. Would that be right?
Even academic freedom — which is a policy that protects teachers from harassment in how they approach their subject matter — does not mean changing the topic of one’s course. Not that professors aren’t frequently guilty of turning their classrooms into indoctrination forums, but it is wrong.
When Academy Award-winning actors stand up to accept their little statue, they often make speeches about who influenced their career, etc. Some, of course, claim they are doing their civic duty by injecting their acceptance speeches with political or other opinions, urging people to join their cause and thereby criticizing competing causes.
Ronstadt — who decided to dedicate a song to Michael Moore because, as she is supposed to have put it, he is a “great American patriot” for having raised issues about 9/11 — may view herself as a hero. But that would be wrong.
An element of professionalism is to stick to what one professes. Of course, there can be exceptions — in an emergency, a performer can change the topic (show people where the fire escape is located, to use a plain example). If a drastic need for supporting a cause exists in a community, even the dentist could mention this to the nearly immobilized patient, and a teacher could certainly make a small pitch, too.
But all this is very different from taking advantage of an audience interested in one’s professional offering and injecting the venue with something entirely unrelated.
Is this a tough task? You bet. As a teacher with 35 years of classroom experience, and someone with strong opinions on vital matters, I am constantly tempted to turn my classroom into an indoctrination center.
But, alas, when it comes to political partisanship, too many folks think their cause warrants whatever means they can deploy to give it a pitch. And certainly it should remain a matter of the employer’s policy how the matter is to be handled — whether to cancel an engagement, reprimand the performer, apologize to the audience or leave matters alone and let members of the audience deal with it as they will, provided they are being peaceful in their response. But not all conduct is a matter of public policy or law, not usually, so it makes sense to point out the professional ethics involved here.
Ronstadt misbehaved — even while she is certainly not alone, since celebrities routinely take advantage of their audiences (who paid to be there for something other than political propaganda). And it is good to know what she did wrong. She broke her implicit professional promise, period. She didn’t just sing a song about Michael Moore; she gave an endorsement of his political message. So this isn’t about art at all.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at