A Free-Speech Test: What If You’re Offended

The problem at the Brooklyn Museum of Art can be boiled down

quite simply: Clear-headed people recognize dung for what it is. That’s why

Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his supporters are suspicious of those who are crying

censorship over City Hall’s heavy-handed intervention in matters of alleged

art. How fast would some of these free-speech lovers line up behind the Mayor

if some of their most cherished

beliefs were mocked by a bunch of snotty entrepreneurs posing as artists in a

taxpayer-supported institution? The Mayor’s supporters rightly suspect that his

critics are full of it.

Behind the Mayor’s anger is the conviction, fairly

widespread among this city’s Roman Catholic population, that anti-Catholicism

is the last allowable prejudice among the intellectual and cultural elite. It’s

a view I happen to share, based on experience and secondhand anecdotal

evidence. A friend who works for one of the world’s great communications

companies, one that proudly insists that its employees attend sensitivity

training sessions, recently found herself in a meeting in which several Latin

American nations were dismissed as “culturally primitive Catholic societies.”

Another, who works for a famous midtown cultural institution, was astonished

when a conversation among colleagues about the Kennedy family degenerated into

a tirade about Catholicism, the Vatican, Cardinal John O’Connor, et al. The

cultural elites of New York, particularly those who pride themselves on their

liberality, have always regarded Catholics with ill-disguised contempt, except,

of course, for individual Catholics (Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, Madonna,

Anna Quindlen) who can be patted on the head for their dissent or distance from

church teaching.

Author Samuel Freedman,

whose book The Inheritance traced the

lives of three Catholic families from the Depression to the 1990’s, agreed that

Catholics sense a “cultural rift between themselves and elite culture.” And

that rift only widens when publicly supported institutions display artwork

clearly intended to outrage, to offend their religious beliefs. “The odd

mystery to me is why the usual sensitivities of what is considered beyond the

pale for a publicly funded museum don’t seem to include the venerated symbols

of Roman Catholicism, as opposed to the venerated symbols of Judaism or the icons

of a kind of secular sainthood, like Martin Luther King.” Imagine the cries of

outrage from certain glamorous New Yorkers if a shock artist smeared a picture

of the Dalai Lama with dung and a taxpayer-supported museum decided to display

it. It is, quite frankly, unthinkable. No museum director, no curator, would

dare offend his or her fellow elites.

What we are witnessing in the debate over dung is the

residue of the cultural left’s campaign against what it deems offensive speech.

It’s a variation of the theme struck in Nat Hentoff’s penetrating study of

political correctness entitled Free

Speech for Me-but Not for Thee . We have been instructed that we are not to

make derogatory comments about ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation,

cultural background, height, weight, etc. To do so is to risk not only the

charge of racism and assorted phobias, but perhaps to find oneself charged with

a hate crime. All cultures, we have been told, are worthy of respect and

admiration, and those who disagree are the enemies of tolerant society,

deserving of re-education or perhaps even commitment to a mental institution.

Fine. So we walk on

proverbial eggshells in our discussions of ethnicity, cultural background,

religion, etc., until … until some publicity-seeking museum director dependent

on the tax-paying public decides to shock Catholic sensibilities (so

middle-class, so déclassé)-just for the fun of it. By doing so, and by casting

himself as a stalwart defender of free expression, the cultural elite hails him

as a man of courage. Would they say the same of him if … well, fill in the

blank. William Safire of The New York

Times speculated on public reaction to a hypothetical show featuring “a

statue of Moses wearing a Nazi swastika on his chest, a painting of a violent

Martin Luther King Jr. forcing Elizabeth Cady Stanton into submission, and an

avant-garde collage of the cutest puppy you ever saw being tortured to death by

a sadistic homosexual.” And Jack Newfield in the New York Post, in one of the best commentaries on the affair,

conceded that while he is militant on the subject of free speech, he isn’t sure

exactly how he would react to a “painting that depicted Anne Frank fornicating

with Eichmann. A sculpture mocking the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”

These are the honest voices of people who, like me, believe

that the Mayor shouldn’t cut off money to the museum, but who understand the

anger and outrage. They have tried to put themselves in the place of practicing

Catholics who, in the manner of liberal radicals who talked about withholding

part of their income taxes during the Vietnam War, resent having to help pay

for something that offends them.

The Mayor needn’t take back his money. He has won his point. A Free-Speech Test: What If You’re Offended