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The United Nations as Theater

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Good news, fellow theater majors: Yesterday's U. N. conference on racism was a wonderful example of how our academic work applies to daily life.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's grandstanding in Geneva, and the immediate protests it caused, can be observed through many lenses -- ethnic, political, cultural, historical -- but they also can be understood as acts of theater.

The video of the event makes the drama clear. First of all, Ahmadinejad's comments about Israel's long campaign of racism were part of a shrewdly crafted one-man show designed to provoke a reaction from his live audience. The New York Times said he took "visible delight" in provoking listeners, making him the latest political leader who knows how to stoke a crowd like a seasoned entertainer.

The protesters in the clown wigs were obvious actors, of course, dressing in costumes and hurling pieces of those costumes, red noses, at the Iranian leader. Meanwhile, the delegates who stormed out during Ahmadinejad's talk and those who clapped for it were all blatantly performing roles in a dramatic conflict between two views on Israel, race relations, and politics.

Now, I'm not saying that any of these people were faking their responses. In fact, I think you have to believe something intensely if you'll turn yourself into a piece of theater to make your point.

Because when you turn a discussion into theater -- when you consciously heighten its performative nature -- you are doing more than just expressing yourself. You're asking people to understand your point of view as representative of something bigger than yourself, and so react to you as not just a person, but as the embodiment of an idea.

Ahmadinejad was so self-consciously inflammatory that he essentially required his audience to see him not only as a world leader making a speech, but also as the symbol of an extreme point of view. He was both a man with individual beliefs and intolerance incarnate.

Similarly, the men in the clown wigs must personally loathe Ahmadinejad's ideas, but when they ran down the aisle hurling props, they became more than guys who disagreed. They became Resistance, racing through the crowd the way a god might barge onstage in a Greek play. By donning a costume, they asked us see that they stand for a surging force of people who believe Ahmadinejad is a fool.

Politicians and protesters make these gestures all the time, and it's always good to think about why. Why choose this moment to raise the stakes? Why choose now to become such an obvious symbol?

In the case of the U.N. conference, both sides were drawing battle lines for the entire world to see. They were defining two attitudes and asking their audience to decide which was good and which was evil.

And now we've got a part to play. As the audience of this little drama, we're meant to choose a hero and a villain, though our choices might not be so theatrical. They might affect our actual lives. And when it seeps into the real world, the theater is doing its job.

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