The horrifying, almost tactile ugliness of the noise that Scarpia makes is a form of moral distillation. It disgusts us, without nuance, and functions in the memory and the moral life rather like an allergen. Puccini's Scarpia strengthens our natural immune reaction to tyranny, to names such as Pinochet, al-Assad, Amin and Mubarak.
If art in so many other ways expands our capacity for tolerance, there are occasional moments when it does something just as powerful - refreshing our intolerance of cruelty, torture and men who use fear to keep power. Simon Legree may not be the most subtle character in American literature, but the vicious slave owner who brings Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to the brink of bad melodrama serves a purpose. Our loathing for him makes his worldview forever abhorrent to us.
But this is not, as Milton would say, to compare great things to small. Villainy, in art, can touch the conscience, but not wound the body. What was happening in Egypt was far greater than anything that will ever happen on any stage or in any novel. By intuition, or some natural wisdom of the crowd, the people in Cairo protesting the 29 years of Mubarak's regime created images as vital and clarifying as anything that could be fabricated through the mechanism of art: a crowd kneeling in prayer in the presence of tanks; a surge of bodies against a phalanx of batons and water cannons; men and women celebrating with soldiers who, for the time being, had chosen humanity over murder. One would have to tame these images, dilute them somehow, before they could serve an artistic purpose. Reality is too dramatic.
The power of the kind of art Puccini was making isn't as a second-rate substitution for these far more intense, far more terrifying and inspiring visions. Rather, it is to remind and refresh the moral sensibility, when the mind is otherwise preoccupied with the tedium of normal life. Art keeps us raw, susceptible to the power of the kind of images that were emerging from Cairo.
Which is why it was so maddening to listen American political leaders. The administration opted for caution, for words such as transition and reform, for avoidance when it came to a clear statement that its sympathies were with the people rather than the tyrant. On the right, a campaign of vilification against Mohamed ElBaradei - courageously presuming to play the role of democratic leader - was already underway, as if he can never be forgiven for having been right about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Pragmatists and ideologues from across the political spectrum were in agreement, alike in their immunity to the images emerging from a land on the cusp of liberation.
There's a reason that we use the metaphor "tone-deaf" to describe a particular kind of political failure. Perhaps the most infuriating thing about the American political establishment's sudden frenzy for nuance was how contrary it runs to the fundamental American loathing of authoritarianism. Even more frustrating is the inability to reach through the television screen and say directly to a people facing great peril and immense promise that while our political leaders are tone-deaf, we are not. It's been a long time since we sang it, but we know how this song should go.