Few things are sadder than when a family is divided by politics. But when it happens because of outside pressure and false accusations that threaten to destroy the legacy of a beloved father, what happens is not just a personal tragedy but also a cautionary tale about the perils of cancel culture.
The family in question refers to the sons of Richard Tucker, a Jewish operatic legend who was one of the most popular and deeply beloved figures in the world of American classical music during a long career that stretched from the 1940s until his untimely death at the age of 61 in 1975.
Tucker was one of those quintessential role models of the 20th century who embodied the rise and acceptance of Jews in every part of American society, including some sectors where they were not always welcome. But he was more than just a perennial star and the leading tenor of the Metropolitan Opera and its international radio broadcasts that popularized the art form. While he played everything from an Egyptian general to a French aristocratic poet on the stage of the Met, he never walked away from his Jewish identity.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born singer was an accomplished cantor who throughout his career conducted High Holiday services and was fastidious about keeping kosher. Famously, he also refused to work with those whom he considered enemies of the Jewish people. That placed him at odds with superstar conductor Herbert von Karajan, who had been an active member of the Nazi Party and Joseph Goebbels’s favorite conductor. At a stage in his career when Tucker was in even greater demand than the conducting legend, the singer got von Karajan kicked off of a recording session because he refused to perform if the ex-Nazi was on the podium.
But more than his many recordings of operas and Jewish liturgical music, which are still available, or even the square opposite New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which is named in his honor, it is the foundation created by his family after his death that keeps Tucker’s name alive. The Richard Tucker Foundation helps young American singers and has given out cash grants to promising artists since 1978. The foundation, whose annual gala at Carnegie Hall is one of the highlights of the New York fall arts season, is a widely respected organization that can point to the subsequent stardom of many of its honorees.
Or at least it was until this past week when a remark on social media posted by one of Tucker’s sons has put its future in jeopardy.
The problem began when David Tucker, a 79-year-old retired ophthalmologist and a member of the foundation board, responded to an article posted on the Facebook page of Julia Bullock, a successful African-American soprano, about the riots in Portland, Ore., and the use of federal law-enforcement personnel to control them.
Tucker blasted the rioters and cheered the efforts to rein them by writing: “Good. Get rid of these thugs and I don’t care where you send them. They are a Pox on our society.”
When Bullock took issue with his remarks, he then responded: “The real violence is with many of the so called peaceful protesters … About time someone tough will try to crush the mob before they destroy and kill more innocent people Bravo to Trump to [sic] send in Federal troops.”
Rather than debate these points, one of the other participants in the discussion decided that the way to shut Tucker up was to declare that not only were his remarks beyond the pale and justification for losing his job, but that his family foundation was racist. The evidence for that was the fact that only one African-American singer had ever received its top award (although many blacks have won other grants from it) and his assumption that everyone else in his family must share David Tucker’s pro-Trump viewpoint.
In response to this accusation, Tucker snapped back, saying “pulling the race card is another convenient excuse to modify excellent standards of vocal artistry.” Even though he went on to note that neither he nor his 82-year-old brother Barry, who has led the foundation, has any part in the selection of award and grant winners, which are chosen by a panel of artists, this statement was seen as more proof of his perfidy.
Long before the Black Lives Matter movement or social media, it was understood that it was unacceptable for anyone involved in the arts to articulate conservative political views. Like Hollywood but only more so, the classical arts world has always been almost the exclusive preserve of the left. However, David Tucker may have thought those rules didn’t apply to a man who had done so much to help from the sidelines.
If so, he was dead wrong.
The exchange was widely shared. Soon, Tucker was being blasted throughout the arts world as a “racist,” a “fascist” and a supporter of “Nazis.” Within hours, a group called the Black Opera Alliance was demanding that the foundation oust David from its board, publicly denounce him and the policies he supports and, in true Cultural Revolution-style, undergo a review of its practices to rid itself of alleged racism.
The demands were echoed throughout the opera world, including by some of the foundation’s recent honorees. Their hypocrisy is astounding. If they really believe that Richard Tucker’s sons are racists and that their awards are tainted by the fact that most of them were not African-American, then they can give back the money they received or pass it on to those who they think are more deserving.
Perhaps in another era, the foundation could have weathered this storm without sacrificing one of the Tucker sons, but not in 2020. Barry Tucker and the professional leadership of the foundation were faced with a choice between throwing David to the wolves, or sticking with him and watching as decades of work was trashed as the organization wound up being ostracized by the very people it had helped.
Within a day, the foundation bent the knee, tossed David overboard and began the requisite struggle-session confession process. Whether that will be enough to allow it to maintain itself in the future is open to question since it’s unlikely that the woke mob that has come for it will be satisfied with only the sacrifice of one of the brothers.
However, this story is more than just an illustration of the ideological uniformity demanded of those in classical music or how uncomfortable future Tucker family dinners may be.
It’s possible to disagree with David Tucker about the chaos in Portland and whether or not federal agents should be defending federal facilities against violent mobs. But to characterize a desire to stop groups that appear to be primarily bent on violence as opposed to peaceful protests or support for anything that Trump does as inherently racist—let alone evidence of sympathy for Nazis—is irrational. And the instinct to destroy anyone who would voice such views says more about the toxic nature of contemporary public discourse than it does about David Tucker or Donald Trump.
This is a shame because partisans and ideologues are prepared to cancel both an individual and his father’s legacy for no good reason. It’s also another sign that political divisions over issues that would have once been a matter of consensus—like the need for law enforcement to defend public buildings against violent anarchists—are now so deep that Americans can no longer tolerate any dissent from their positions. Cancel culture isn’t just wrong because it’s unfair; it’s wrong because extremists and partisans are using it to transform political disagreements into culture wars in which there can be no compromise, let alone the agreement to disagree that is essential to any working democracy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.