12/21/2014 12:28 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2015

Blowing Up Heads

This game is becoming infectious.  Last week the People's Republic of North Korea managed to close down a Sony feature called The Interview by hacking a number of computers and threatening the US with another 9/11. The film climaxed with the head of the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, being blown up. (So much art imitates life these days. Is it possible that Kim Jong-un's striking haircut--close-shaven from ear to ear, with tufts of hair above--influenced the popular tonsorial style of the Irish TV series, Peaky Blinders?).

Thursday, according to Peter Marks in the Washington Post, a number of American heads were also being blown up. The Jewish Community Center in D.C. cancelled a whole program of Israeli-Palestinian plays at Theatre J called "Voices From a Changing Middle East," and fired Ari Roth, who had founded the institution eighteen years ago. Worse, Roth was charged with "insubordination" for refusing to lie about the reasons for this action, and "escorted" out of the building forthwith . I wonder if the escorts were goose-stepping down the stairs, wearing those fashionable high-brimmed military hats common to the Pyongyang officer class.

United by their common distaste for free expression, many Asian, African, European, and now American nations are finding ways to bond these days in the manner in which they banish artists and muzzle intellectuals. Of course, this has been going on for a very long time: most famously, Salman Rushdie in the Muslim world, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn in Russia, Lung Ying Tai in China, etc, all suffered from having put bureaucratic noses out of joint with heretical pens. So, of course, did radical artists during the McCarthy era, and, more recently, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano in the age of Jesse Helms.

The Jews, however, traditionally known as the people of the Book, have hitherto allowed considerably more open privileges to the literate and the informed--that is, until the state of Israel, and its more right-wing followers in the U.S., began to define itself as a closed militant theocracy rather than a peaceful liberal democracy. I can think of no more powerful reflection of the change in this country than the JCC's treatment of Roth. For refusing to have his season schedule determined by a governing board, and, worse, for failing to lie about the reasons for his departure, he was accused of "insubordination," as if he were a military recruit refusing a sergeant's order, and summarily dismissed.

Clearly, the tensions between Roth and his Board concerned not only ideology but funding. The JCC depends on generous contributions from its primarily Jewish community. Roth's new program threatened to complicate that hitherto dependable source of support by arousing anger over the nature of its offerings. The responsibility of a Board Chairman under those conditions is not to fire the artistic staff, but to encourage precisely the kind of debates being stimulated by the plays.

It has become more and more evident that the mechanism powering the arts and humanities in our country today is not visionary inspiration but financial comfort, wealth, and greed. But with figures such as Ari Roth willing to jeopardize his job rather than desert his principles (he plans to stage the banned Middle East Program in another Washington theatre), we still have hopes that artists of conviction and courage will continue to exercise at least some minimal influence on our deteriorating culture. They will certainly leave a more lasting impact than all those heads being blown up around the world in fantasy and fact.