Rudolph Giuliani informs us that he is serious about
empaneling a decency commission to rule on matters artistic, and the first
prospective commissioner mentioned in the press is the new Roman Catholic
Cardinal and Archbishop of New York, Edward Egan. His Eminence wisely parried
questions concerning his possible appointment to this prospective panel, but
nobody is ruling anything out at the moment.
Mr. Giuliani has spent a portion of his time in City Hall
monitoring taxpayer-supported art exhibits for traces of anti-Catholicism, a
mission that has earned him scorn in the usual circles and admiration in
others. Even some Catholics who are not as defensive as the Mayor privately
enjoyed his taunting of the cultural elites, in the same way that some
middle-class and upper-middle-class African-Americans chuckle to themselves
when the Reverend Al Sharpton screams “race” in front of the television
Nevertheless, this decency commission business is a really
bad idea, and it’s time one of the Mayor’s fellow Catholics told him so.
(Actually, one just did.) If the Mayor truly wishes to seek out and destroy
anti-Catholic stereotypes, a decency commission would be less a thumb of the
nose at the artsy crowd than an avenging sword destined to leave Mr. Giuliani’s
face nasally challenged.
There is-and this hardly comes as news-a not-insignificant
portion of Manhattan island that expects people with names like Giuliani or
Egan to make a public spectacle of themselves on such matters, and is delighted
to see its learned opinions confirmed. Such people no doubt have persuaded
themselves that their opinions are not based on prejudice or ignorance, but on
hard scientific data. They have, for example, observed such representative
rituals as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and they have considered Hollywood movies
featuring corrupt lechers in Roman collars and dumb-as-sin white ethnics (and
we all know who they are). So their views are clearly based on fact.
Besides, how could our cultural elites be anti-Catholic? Why, don’t they just
adore Anna Quindlen?
Equally regrettable is the undeniable fact that prelates and
public officials have contributed to the caricature of the censorious Catholic.
The old Legion of Decency, which scrutinized Hollywood offerings for moral
offenses during Mr. Giuliani’s formative years, sought to do for the movies
what Mr. Giuliani would now like to do for taxpayer-supported art. It’s not an
exact correlation, because the condemned movies were not funded with public
dollars, but the intended effect is approximately the same.
There are few things a columnist for The Nation or a Park Avenue patron of the arts would enjoy more
than hooting at the photo op that Mr. Giuliani seems determined to bring about,
the one with him alongside either Cardinal Egan himself or some other
high-ranking Catholic clergyman and a dozen or so other would-be adjudicators
of artistic merit. A decency commission sounds like something out of the
1940’s, the kind of thing that Father Charles Coughlin or Joe McCarthy no doubt
would have supported. And it would be foolish indeed to think that American
Catholics have been forgiven for Coughlin and McCarthy.
Elite opinion has it that the Mayor’s fixation with
supposedly anti-Catholic art is nothing more than political pandering. Without
betraying the details of a private conversation I had with the future Mayor
more than a decade ago, I’m convinced he is motivated not by poll numbers but
by genuine, though misplaced, outrage. In any case, it would be rather
extraordinary for a lame duck to attempt to curry favor with voters who are
about to move on to somebody else.
So I don’t doubt his sincerity; I do question his judgment,
and I fear what will be said about Catholicism if the Mayor goes ahead with his
plan. If he wishes to continue this crusade, flawed vessel though he is, the
Mayor would do better to challenge the assumptions of his cultural enemies,
rather than round up a few clerics, bluenoses and philistines (as they
inevitably will be portrayed) to get into the art-banning business.
In simply pointing out that few public institutions would
dare transgress the sensibilities of more fashionable groups, Mr. Giuliani
would expose the cant of cultural leftists, those stout-hearted warriors
against hate speech who become First Amendment purists when religious belief
comes under attack. By expanding his critique, Mr. Giuliani might inspire a
conversation about the cultural elite’s hostility not simply to Catholicism,
but to religious belief in general.
Mr. Giuliani’s enemies expect him to dictate, and no doubt
hope that he will make a fool of himself, and others like him, by commissioning
a decency police.
So, like the Allies at Normandy, Mr. Giuliani ought to
launch an attack where it is least expected. By engaging his enemies with
confident argument and exposing their intellectual hypocrisies, he could ruin a
perfectly useful stereotype. Imagine the horror: outwitted by a Catholic Mayor!