Monday, June 15, an advertisement by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights appeared. It was prominently placed in The New York Times at the bottom of the Op-Ed page. It had an eye-catching headline: “‘Shylock and Sambo’ Hits Broadway.” The ad was an attack on Terrence McNally’s play, Corpus Christi , scheduled to appear at the Manhattan Theater Club in the fall. The theater had been threatened with murder and mayhem and had-in full flight, the flag of surrender raised high-pulled the play. Then, as outrage rose among artists and writers and First Amendment warriors, the play was reinstated. The Catholic League washed its hands of the death threats, but it continued to demand that the play be flushed right down into the censor’s sewer, where it could ride among the turds out to sea with Salman Rushdie’s poke at Islamic solemnity.
So far, this is business as usual. But the ad of June 15 brings up a disturbing issue. Why, it asks, is it all right to make fun of Catholic belief, why do so many liberals think that offensive images of Jesus Christ are examples of free speech but anti-Semitic or anti-feminist or anti-gay material ought to be repressed? Do we indeed have a double standard? The Catholic League is calling for an end to hate speech, and it claims that “legal rights are not necessarily moral rights.” Since this seems fair enough, we need to talk about it.
Does my ulcer burn more brightly when Jews are ridiculed than when Catholics receive the same treatment? Am I in fact a hypocrite, or is something else going on here? First, those of us who believe in the right to attack the religious imagery of your choice do not believe that anti-Semitism or anti-black or anti-female material should be legally removed from our vision. The people who wish to attend such media events, to read such drivel, are more than entitled to their free and unobstructed experience. The state, the law, the government, has no business blocking even the most odious of views. That is the first and basic premise of freedom as we so blissfully praise it in the United States. The wrestling mat that is our culture allows all kinds to hit the floor, and if the anti-blacks want to show up at the Apollo Theater in Ku Klux Klan robes, I would expect our Finest to protect them, not out of agreement but out of commitment to even our most difficult social exchanges.
Let me make this harder for myself. If someone writes a play, maybe even an artistic triumph of a play that takes as its theme Holocaust denial, would I still cling to the playwright’s right to be heard? What if he or she tried to perform Elie Wiesel’s Night as a male stripper vaudeville act? I might stand outside the theater and picket. I might write a few chosen words to the drama critic, begging him or her not to review it. I might write another play exposing the first for what it is, dung thrown at our brains. I might put an ad in the paper telling the audience that the play is lying, the truth will not be denied. I would be upset and hurt, just as members of the Catholic League are now. But I wouldn’t accuse the Catholic League of double standards, because we are all allowed to object and to object to the objections. Today’s hysterical politically correct atmosphere does deputize us all as culture cops, but the shiny badge only grants the right to sound off, a right we already have, anyway.
That is why I don’t give myself gray hairs over the evils of pornography or the Southern Baptists’ wistful call for female subservience. Everyone’s entitled to a grief disguised as an opinion, and with it all in each decade we seem to get a little less small-minded than we were before. The haters among us simply try ever more anxiously to divert our attention from the fact that they are standing on a margin that grows ever and ever thinner.
There is another important matter here. The Catholic League in its reference to Shylock and Sambo is granting itself rather gratuitously, and with slippery skill, a victim status equal to all other victims of persecution and hate. The league wants to claim that Catholics, too, are maligned and unjustly ridiculed by popular forces in America. True, there was a time when to be Catholic in this country was not a door to high society or elected office. But those times are long gone.
The suffering of Catholics in America pales to a fine ghost when compared to the suffering of the black slave and to the long history of Jewish pogrom and exile caused quite frequently by those who thought Jews responsible for their God’s death, or just simply unworthy of life itself. In America, the Native Americans, the poor Hispanics, the migrants and the immigrants, the gays hidden and open, have long suffered the slings and arrows of a vicious, cruel world. The Catholics might wish to see themselves as Christlike-impaled on the cross of an all too liberal American society-but that would be pure fantasy.
The object of the humor in the McNally play is not the powerless among us who are vulnerable to mob attack and have historically been murdered and persecuted, but rather the majority, the followers of Christ, whether they belong to the Catholic Church or to some other breakaway branch. It seems a strange irony that the Church of the Inquisition, the Church that protected Nazi officials and sped them on their way out of Europe, the Church that failed to denounce the murder of the Jews as well as the imprisonment of homosexuals, the Church that still denies its pulpit to women, should now be claiming equal victim status. Especially odd that it should be doing this while it is actively attempting to deny homosexuals their full human dignity. Unlike the so-called “Christian bashing” by Mr. McNally, when some Christians go into the streets to bash, real blood tends to flow.
It is the nature of humor, essays, plays, novels and cartoons to go after the powerful, not the powerless.
Of course, legal rights are not necessarily moral; i.e., Jim Crow. But the problem in a diverse society is that we don’t all agree on what is moral. This is the rub. I think it’s immoral to think gays are immoral.
I would not stop the Catholic League from advertising its views even if a stomach spasm arrives along with my breakfast coffee. But we should call this “victim me-tooism” for the fraud it is. You can flash pictures of fetuses all you like, but don’t complain if you become the butt of a public joke. Groups that have agitated to keep gays from enjoying equal rights in the community are hardly victims of anything but their own bile. The Jewish joke and the Terrence McNally play are kissing cousins, samizdat for people the authorities hound. Royalty’s minions are forever trying to tear out the tongue of the child who pointed out that the Emperor was naked as a newborn babe.