Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?



There’s an old personality test—introduced to me in middle school and lovingly preserved on the interwebs—involving a woman who gets herself killed journeying between her husband and her lover.  The “test,” as it were, centers on the question of who is most to blame for the woman’s untimely death.  Is it the bored husband who neglected to take his wife along on his business trip?  Is it the greedy boatman who refused to ferry her across the river to safety?  Is it the heartless boyfriend who didn’t lift a finger in her defense?  Or is it the woman herself for being unfaithful and blundering into the wrong place at the wrong time?

It’s a ridiculous conceit, but the idea is that how you assign blame for the woman’s murder is determined by what you value most in life.  The options, in this case, include such things as “fun,” “sex,” “money” and, my personal favorite, “magic.”

Anyway, that story’s been on my mind for the last few days as I’ve seen Donald Trump campaign events descend into violence and mayhem whenever a gaggle of anti-Trump agitators has sneaked its way into the arena.

With regards to these unholy scuffles, everyone seems to have a firm opinion about who is most at fault.  Interestingly, however—and I think you know where I’m going with this—no one can quite agree on who, exactly, that is.

Obviously, then, what we need is to update that silly game about the two-timing wife so that it applies to our own time and our own values.  With Trump—a man who stands as America’s signal Rorschach test of 2016—we can learn a great deal about how each of us thinks just by how we interpret what is happening directly in front of our eyes.

From a sampling of reactions, we find that most people trace the cause of this campaign unrest to either a) the protesters, b) Trump supporters or c) Trump himself.  To an extent, one’s opinion of these incidents is merely an affectation of one’s politics:  If you find Donald Trump generally detestable, you generally attribute all detestable acts to the man himself.  Conversely, if you think Trump speaks truth to political correctness, you find fault only with those who are preventing him from speaking.  It’s confirmation bias in action:  You see what you want to see and filter out everything else.

But of course, all of that is but the tip of the bloody, bloody iceberg.  However illuminating it might be to debate which side threw the first punch, it’s not until folks start to blame those who weren’t even in the room that the real fun begins.

We might start with the Donald himself, who has fingered Bernie Sanders as the main culprit for the madness, saying that the party crashers at his gatherings are on direct marching orders from the socialist from Vermont.  It is noteworthy that Trump bases this claim on no evidence whatsoever, while he has simultaneously blamed other outbursts on ISIS—yes, that ISIS—due to a YouTube video that was swiftly exposed as a typical Internet hoax.  As Trump explained on Meet the Press, “All I know is what’s on the Internet,” reminding us that he is apparently the one person in America who believes, with all his heart, that if it’s online, it must be true.

Farce that this undeniably is, such behavior nonetheless offers real insights into Trump’s personality and that of his fellow travelers.  Strongest among these, perhaps, is the value of “truthiness,” a.k.a. believing something to be true simply because your gut tells you so.

In fact, Trump’s entire movement is dependent on truthiness, since at least 80 percent of his campaign’s major claims are demonstrably false and his promise of “restoring America’s greatness” is one big fatuous smoke-and-mirrors routine containing nary a whiff of substance or honest reporting.  If all presidential candidates engage in hyperbole, Trump is unique for engaging in absolutely nothing else.

The real problem, though, is how sinister that hyperbole has been for the last nine months and how deeply it has metastasized within the GOP.  While this week’s outright physical violence might be relatively new, the truth is that Trump and his flock have been blaming other people for America’s problems for his entire presidential run.  Like any seasoned demagogue, Trump has invented most of this blame from whole cloth, while at other times he has even managed to invent the problems themselves.  (Who would ever know, for instance, that net immigration from Mexico is actually negative over the last five years, or that U.S. military spending increased from 2014 to 2015?)

Which leads us, as it must, to the most disturbing personality quirk of all:  The one that blames all of this turmoil on African-Americans and views the entire American experience in terms of white supremacy.

While it would be irresponsible to peg every Trump voter as a white supremacist—or, specifically, a Nazi or a Klansman—the point is that Trump rallies have become a safe space—if not a veritable breeding ground—for white people who think that punching, kicking and spitting on black people is their God-given right as members of a privileged race.  For all Trump’s claims that the protesters are the true instigators of these melees, most video clips suggest otherwise:  Largely, we just keep seeing groups of young, mostly black people nonviolently holding up signs and chanting cheeky slogans while white guards and white attendees proceed to manhandle them with the greatest possible force—egged on, every single time, by the candidate himself.

You see pictures like these—paired with people like Mike Huckabee calling the protesters “thugs,” a word that Republicans only ever use to describe African-Americans—and you realize all that’s missing are the dogs and the fire hoses.

Among the many sick ironies of Donald Trump is his supposed fidelity to the First Amendment, which he claims the dissenters at his rallies are attempting to suppress (as if Trump has ever lacked an outlet for expressing himself on a moment’s notice).  Historical ignoramus that he is, he doesn’t seem to realize that, when it comes to muzzling free speech, few things are more effective than riling up a large gang of angry white people by telling them how to mistreat a small gang of dark-skinned antagonists.  (And then, of course, pleading ignorance when those same white people do exactly what you suggest.)

Even if there were nothing at all race-based in Trump and company’s behavior, we would still be left with this profoundly dangerous idea that all problems can, and should, be solved with physical violence.  To hear Trump talk, you’d think his were the first-ever campaign events to feature any sort of disruptors and that there is no rational response except to treat them like enemy combatants.  (How long before Trump recommends waterboarding?)

The relevant terms here are “escalate” and “de-escalate.”  As any honest police officer knows, whenever you are faced with a potentially explosive situation, it is your moral responsibility to try to de-escalate tensions and not make matters worse.  Indeed, for anyone who wields authority or influence over others—not least in politics—the obligation to lead by example and get your minions under control is absolute and non-negotiable.

Donald Trump has failed that charge over and over again.  In so doing, he has revealed which values he holds dear and which values he does not—if, that is, he can be said to possess any values at all.

It proved quite prescient that Trump opened his campaign while riding an escalator in Trump Tower in Manhattan:  As it turns out, he is an escalator.

Terrorism is a Cliché

If there is anything more depressing about the attack on Charlie Hebdo than the attack itself, it is the fact that there is nothing new or interesting to be said about it.  The context and apparent reasons for the assault are old news; as such, everything has already been said many times before.

Indeed, as I attempt to formulate my own response to this latest obscenity against human decency and the freedom of expression, I find myself merely repeating other people’s responses to other such obscenities over the last many years, both before and after September 11, 2001.

Charlie Hebdo—for the few of you who miraculously still do not know—is a French satirical newspaper operating out of Paris.  It ran continuously from 1970-1981, and then again from 1992 to the present day.  (“Hebdo” is French for “weekly,” and “Charlie” is an inside joke involving both Charles de Gaulle and Charlie Brown.)

Like The Onion here in the States, Charlie Hebdo operates on the principle that just about everything is fair game for parody and ridicule, including and especially organized religion.  As a result, the publication has regularly come under fire for its treatment of such revered figures as the Prophet Muhammad, among others.  In November 2011, such ire turned violent when the paper’s headquarters was firebombed by Muslim extremists, in response to an edition featuring a cartoon of Muhammad on its cover.

Further threats of violence against Charlie Hebdo have periodically surfaced in the three years since, and this past Wednesday, three would-be jihadists made good on that threat by storming the paper’s newsroom and murdering 12 people, including its editor-in-chief and several of its famed cartoonists.  On their way out, the assailants were heard shouting, “We have avenged the prophet!”  The killers have since been killed.  They are believed to have been connected to al Qaeda, although many details are yet unclear.

For those of us on the sidelines—we who have taken it upon ourselves merely to make sense of senseless acts like this—there is a great deal to say:  many principles to defend, many facts to establish.  However, in doing so, we are forced to repeat ourselves rather than come up with anything new.  It’s a shame we have to expend such efforts in the first place—we are, after all, applying reason to people who have none—but then again, it seems we have no other choice.  Better to reintroduce ancient clichés than bear witness to barbarism in silence.

We could start, for instance, with the old trope, “Not all Muslims are terrorists”—an assertion that is invariably preceded and/or followed by its rejoinder, “Yes, but virtually all terrorists are Muslim.”  The first statement is obviously true—only a complete idiot would argue otherwise—while the second is obviously false and yet is nonetheless, shall we say, a bit more true than most of us would like to admit.

In other words, the argument here is exactly the same one we had after the September 11 attacks—namely, “Is Islam the problem?”  If Islam is truly “a religion of peace,” then why are there so many officially Muslim nations that traffic in violence and war, using certain Islamic doctrine as justification?

Alternatively, we could expand the question to encompass religion as a whole, since there is no shortage of Christian and Jewish extremists who also take the dictates of their faiths into their own hands.  Could the root cause of ideological mass murder in the 21st century not be Islam but rather religious-based intolerance of every sort?  Have we really made no progress in this debate since the Twin Towers fell?

Whichever side you take (there are more than two), perhaps the more salient point in the present context is the level of risk one assumes in broaching this subject at all.  The way that Bill Maher’s old joke, “Never say Islam isn’t a religion of peace, because if you do, they’ll kill you,” manages to be funnier than it should be.

Because of course our primary subject of concern in the Charlie Hebdo assault is the inalienable right to express one’s views—yes, even when such views make some people uncomfortable, angry or—perish the thought!—offended.

As many of us well know, Charlie Hebdo is not the first Western publication to be physically targeted for printing provocative caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.  In 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten similarly rendered Muhammad in cartoon form, in order to make a few points about free speech and religious prohibitions thereof, and within days all hell proceeded to break loose from one end of the continent to the other—an uproar that included riots, attacks on multiple European diplomatic missions and some 200 deaths, all told.

As such, because exactly this sort of thing has happened before—and quite recently, at that—we don’t need to wonder what it all means:  We can just dig up what all the smart people wrote in 2005 and 2006.

As it happens, one of the smartest and sharpest of those reactions came from an old favorite of mine, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote passionately in favor of the right to insult organized religion at all costs.  (“The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.”)  And so we have a perfectly cogent analysis of the Charlie Hebdo situation penned by someone who’s been dead for three years.

As well, in case you need further proof of the dull repetitiveness of the West’s run-ins with theocratic loony toons, I would direct you to a wonderfully illuminating chat in 2010 between Hitchens and Salman Rushdie—a man who, despite radical Islam’s best efforts, is still very much alive.  Their talk considers several key points about the Danish cartoon fiasco, and watching it today, one is taken aback by how perfectly it corresponds to the mess at Charlie Hebdo, as if the two events were completely interchangeable.  In many respects, they are.

For instance, Rushdie proposes dividing the central question about free speech into two parts.  First:  Are news outlets duty-bound to reprint offensive cartoons out of solidarity with a publication that has been attacked?  And second:  Should that first paper have been more circumspect about printing those images in the first place, knowing the fuss that it would cause?

In other words, is the right to be offensive sometimes trumped by the wisdom to hold back?  Is there a distinction between offending in order to make a point and offending for its own sake?  Is the First Amendment not always as important as good taste?

By now, there has been exhaustive back-and-forth online and in print about these very important questions, including the charge that some of the folks at Charlie Hebdo are just plain racist.  That the “I am Charlie” solidarity is a function of the relatively high level of anti-Muslim prejudice around the world today, and that a comparable paper that had published anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic cartoons would not enjoy such international goodwill following a terrorist attack.  As many have said, it’s easy to defend free speech when you happen to agree with the speech in question.

My answer to this:  Who cares?

The right to free expression should be defended regardless of the content, and the fact that we’re less likely to defend speech we don’t like is precisely why we have the First Amendment in the first place.

The question about good taste is an interesting one, but in this instance it’s also, finally, beside the point.  The only reason we’re wondering whether the editors of Charlie Hebdo should have used more discretion is because their cartoons yielded a violent response.  If satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad were not so radioactive—if they didn’t so predictably lead some people to go out and commit mass murder—then taste would be the only thing to discuss, and the First Amendment would hardly enter into it.  We would talk about provocative religious images the way we talk about provocative non-religious images:  With passion and indignation, but without the hysterical claim that they should not exist at all.

No, the real problem here is the lack of sophistication inherent in those who don’t have the stomach for ideas they don’t share, and who would rather such ideas not be uttered and are prepared to threaten and/or attack those who utter them.

And the problem behind the problem, like every other cliché I’ve noted, has been astutely espoused in the past, in this case by comedian Lewis Black.  The central fact about al Qaeda and their ilk, Black surmised on his album The End of the Universe, is that they have no sense of humor.  That they take their faith literally and without a whiff of irony or self-criticism, resulting in untold misery for millions of people.

“Patriotism is important, and religion is vital,” said Black, “But without a sense of humor, religion and patriotism can get crazy […] and we see that in our enemy.”

Black once wrote a memoir titled Nothing’s Sacred, and satire is founded upon that very notion:  No subject is out of bounds, nor should it be.  This means that so long as satirists exist, someone somewhere is going to be offended by what they have to say.  There is no getting around this fact.  Individual writers and publications are free to self-censor for reasons of taste, but it should be their decision alone, and they should never be compelled to restrict their content out of fear of violence.

The problem, you see, is not the people who offend.  The problem is the people who (to quote Hitchens again) are determined to be offended and, paradoxically, will stop at nothing to prevent the rest of us from offending them.

Maybe I could explain this phenomenon better, but it would just be one more cliché.

The Right to Hate

I have no evidence that the Westboro Baptist Church is secretly a pro-gay rights organization masquerading as a gang of religious extremists in order to make anti-gay groups look ridiculous.

However, if such a cheeky cabal were formed, I suspect it wouldn’t look a heck of a lot different.

For the past many years, the Westboro Baptist Church has served two essential purposes in American public life.  First, to be arguably the most universally detested organization in our 50 states united.  And second, to ensure, beyond all doubt, that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is as healthy and muscular now as ever it has been.

To review:  The WBC are the folks who shuttle from place to place wielding signs with such heart-warming messages as “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates America” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.”  Most of its members are related, either by blood or marriage, to its founder and patriarch, Fred Phelps, who died on March 19, at age 84.

The group is perhaps most notorious for its practice of picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers, whom it claims were killed as a consequence of America’s tolerance for homosexuality, among other things.  In 2010, this ritual led to a Supreme Court case, Snyder v. Phelps, in which the Court ruled in favor of the church, arguing that protesting a funeral is a form of free expression protected by the First Amendment.

While the death of Fred Phelps does not necessarily mark the demise of the Westboro Baptist Church itself, it may well hasten its diminished presence in the public eye.  As such, we might entertain the notion of referring to the WBC in the past tense, if only for its cathartic effects.

On this subject, I have but one question:  On balance, has the Phelps family been good for America?

My answer:  Yes, but it’s complicated.

I say the WBC is the most hated organization in America—a fairly uncontroversial sentiment—but we might also say it has come by this distinction rather lazily, as far as generating mass hatred goes.

After all, what could be more of a “slam dunk” in the quest for amassing public scorn than to spit on the graves of fallen soldiers and to craft placards with the sort of radioactive language that leads even those who otherwise agree with you to recoil in disgust?

The WBC can be accused of being any number of things, but subtle is not one of them.

Quite to the contrary, they are cartoon characters—hysterical, childish, simplistic, ideologically absolutist to an extent previously not thought possible, and—surprise, surprise—completely convinced of their moral rightness on all fronts.

Indeed, the more time one spends reading the WBC’s various statements on matters of public import, the more one feels the weight of precious seconds of one’s life being irretrievably wasted away.

In other words, the WBC seems to incite the world’s rage and indignation for their own sake, as if it were all one big piece of performance art.  As such, the church can hardly be taken seriously in the first place.  To coin a phrase:  Its antics are not worth dignifying with a response.

Yet we have done exactly that, be it through satire and counter-protests, or in the case of people like Albert Snyder, through lawsuits alleging the infliction of deep emotional distress.

And we cannot blame some folks for taking WBC at face value, since its views do not exactly come from nowhere.  In point of fact, the church’s basic beliefs about homosexuality are drawn directly from the Old Testament, and its musings that God kills Americans as a punishment for homosexuality is an almost word-for-word plagiarism of Jerry Falwell’s infamous explanation for the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In any case, their flagrant ridiculousness has proved exceedingly useful in reminding ourselves that enforcement of the First Amendment can be a very nasty business, since the right to free expression must be extended even to those whose views no one else on planet Earth wishes to hear.

In this way, the Phelps family’s victory at the Supreme Court was a great relief, because it demonstrated that—at least in this case—our federal institutions still take the Bill of Rights seriously.  That our most sacred liberties apply even to those who probably don’t deserve them.  Yes, even organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church, which expresses nothing but scorn toward the very country in which these liberties are practiced.

For better and for worse, that is what America is all about.

Revenge of the Gays

I must confess that, in my capacity as a ranking member of the gay community, I did not expect to be called a “bully” by a member of the U.S. Congress at this early date.

Yet there was Michele Bachmann, the fourth-term representative from Minnesota, categorizing last month’s veto of Arizona Senate Bill 1062 as the result of coercion by a gay cabal against those with “sincerely-held religious beliefs.”

“The gay community thinks that they’ve so bullied the American people and they’ve so intimidated politicians that politicians fear them,” said Bachmann during a conservative talk radio program last week.  “And so they think that they get to dictate the agenda everywhere.”

The bill in question, you will recall, would have empowered any Arizona business owner to withhold services from anyone, if providing such a service would violate the dictates of the business owner’s faith.

Following a national uproar, the bill was ultimately vetoed by Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, who concluded, “Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific and present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona.  I have not heard of one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.”

Nonetheless, as Bachmann and company would have it, the death of Senate Bill 1062 came at the hands of some nefarious gay mafia that cares not one whit about the freedom of expression and seeks to suppress the right to practice one’s religion untrammeled, and to further the proverbial “gay agenda” in the process.

Never mind that Senate Bill 1062 was conceived and written specifically with same-sex relationships in mind—and along with them, the desire by some Christians to act as if such relationships don’t exist, or at least don’t deserve to be treated as legitimate.

Never mind that the final, fatal blows to the Arizona bill came almost exclusively from Republicans—John McCain, Mitt Romney and a handful of the bill’s original supporters in the State Senate, to name a few.

And never mind that, even without this bill, gay people in Arizona are subject to no legal protections whatever regarding employment.

Nope.  The true “victims” in this drama are not the gays being denied the right to be treated as equals.  Rather, it is the Christians being denied the right to treat others as inferiors.

This is not to say that the right to regard others as morally reprehensible is not real and not worth defending.  To the contrary, the First Amendment’s guarantee to free expression means exactly that.

The blogger Andrew Sullivan—himself a devout Catholic who is also gay—has written to great effect about the need to respect those who object to homosexuality on theological grounds, even while decrying the tendency by some to play the victim, as if the present-day acceptance of homosexuality is, itself, a form of persecution against those who think differently.

What I find most intriguing is the cultural role reversal implied by Bachmann’s and others’ use of the word “bully” with regards to gay rights activists.

Surely it cannot be lost on them—or perhaps it can?—that no single issue has been of more pressing concern to gay young people in recent years than being bullied—be it the outright physical abuse that has robbed innumerable high school students of life and limb, or the psychological torture that has led its targets to take their own lives or simply spend the balance of their adolescent years in abject misery and fear.  See the “It Gets Better Project” for examples.

With this reality in mind, for the gay community to then have the word “bully” deflected back at it strikes as just the slightest bit insensitive and strange, and not a little ironic as well.

To be sure, gays are the not the first minority group to face a charge that had long defined its tormentors.  To wit, the State of Israel is regularly accused of employing Nazi-like tactics against its Palestinian inhabitants, while African Americans are sometimes tarred as “reverse racists” for their support of affirmative action and like programs.

The real question, then, is whether these labels are deserved, and what it means for our culture if they are.

It is undeniably true that the gay rights movement has so successfully executed its “agenda” of achieving legal equality in America that it has become a real political and culture force—a lobby as powerful as most others.

But do this group’s tactics constitute bullying or simple, good old political pressure?  I would argue the gay community has agitated no more aggressively or unfairly for its interests than the NRA or anti-abortion groups have for theirs.  That’s what lobbying is all about.

In the absence of any strong evidence to the contrary, I would suggest that any long-repressed group that so metamorphoses into a social success story not sweat the “oppressor” label too severely, and instead take it as the backhanded compliment that it is.

Satanic Impulses

This Friday, St. Valentine’s, marks 25 years since Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death.

We can count it as a victory for the cause of freedom around the world that Rushdie is still alive today.

For those unfamiliar with the story:  In 1988, the India-born British author published a novel called The Satanic Verses, which at one point quotes a controversial would-be passage from the Quran whose very utterance is considered blasphemous by some Muslims.

By including these so-called “Satanic Verses” in his novel, Rushdie himself was accused of blaspheming against Islam, and protests against the book erupted around the world.

When word of the kerfuffle reached Iran, that country’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called upon all the world’s Muslims to hunt down and kill Rushdie, along with his editors and publishers, promising a monetary reward for those who succeeded.  This so-called “fatwa” was issued on February 14, 1989.

It wasn’t any idle threat.  Although Rushdie survived the ordeal, it was not before spending some 12 years in hiding, constantly changing his address, moving under armed guard 24/7, effectively devoting his life simply to not getting himself murdered.

While Rushdie himself was never harmed, the novel’s Japanese translator was fatally stabbed, its Norwegian publisher shot and wounded, and countless bookstores bombed or otherwise disrupted for daring to offer the book for sale.

This was the price for expressing an unwelcome thought about organized religion.

Today, a quarter-century after the fact, we might reflect on how depressingly little the world has changed.  How the act of transmitting unpopular or controversial views remains terrifyingly fraught.  And how, on this subject, America really is exceptional.

To wit:  The president of the United States has in recent years asserted his authority to order and execute the killing of an individual—even an American citizen—if such a person is found to have colluded with groups such as al Qaeda to physically harm America or American interests.

What the commander-in-chief cannot do, however, is act likewise toward an individual who writes a book or makes a speech suggesting (for example) that America is a wicked, imperial power, or that makes disparaging comments about Christianity or the NRA or anything else.

What is more, while the art of offense-taking is alive and well in American culture, it is very rarely expressed through violence within our borders.

For instance, when some prolific atheist publishes a book denying the existence of God, the usual gaggle of clergymen, “family values” spokespeople and the like descend upon cable news shows and other outlets to vent, and sometimes to call for boycotts of the offending work.  But that’s about as far as it goes.

This is no accident.  Rather, it is a direct and purposeful consequence of our country’s indispensable First Amendment.

Because the U.S. Constitution stipulates that everyone has the right to say whatever the hell they want, and can practice any religion that they want, no one has any cause to feel that their views are being institutionally suppressed or abridged, and violent uprisings thus become far less likely to occur.

Elsewhere?  Not so much.

Over in Russia, we find two members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot arrested and jailed for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” following a 2012 performance of a protest song called, “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away,” in a Russian Orthodox church.  (The women were released this past December, likely as a propagandistic show of goodwill in preparation for this month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.)

Just this week in Nigeria, the government fine-tuned its already anti-gay policies by criminalizing not only gay marriage and gay sex, but also the “public show” of gay relationships, exhibited “directly or indirectly,” as well as the proliferation and mere support of various gay organizations.  In effect, saying a kind word about gay people is now illegal in Nigeria, as well as in countless other African and Middle Eastern countries in one way or another.

In short, the dissemination of dangerous ideas will always be a struggle, and the right to free expression will always need to be fought for, so long as there are those with the determination (and the weaponry) to fight against it, often with the support—be it latent or overt—of their government.  Salman Rushdie learned this lesson more painfully than most, and he will not be the last to suffer the consequences of saying things that some people would prefer not to hear.

And so it is up to each of us, as defenders of America’s most sacred principles, to see that the battle is not lost, and that the cause of freedom lives to fight another day.

Constitutional Buffer Zones

Long have I wondered exactly where the line is between the freedom of speech and the maintenance of public order.

As it turns out, the answer is 35 feet from the front door of Planned Parenthood.  And it’s not a line, but a semi-circle.

That’s the situation in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, which today defended itself in front of the U.S. Supreme Court against a challenge to such a policy.

As reported in the New York Times on Monday, in 2007 the Bay State passed a law that created a “buffer zone” around the entrances to reproductive health care centers, marked by a painted yellow arc on the sidewalk, in order to prevent confrontations between anti-abortion activists and patients or staff from getting out of hand.

Now, one such pro-life voice—77-year-old Eleanor McCullen of Boston—has filed suit, arguing that her right to peaceably stand outside a Planned Parenthood clinic and try to talk women out of procuring abortions, as she does regularly, is being unfairly abridged.

That’s the question before the Supreme Court, and also before all of us:  Does McCullen’s right to say what she wants about abortion take precedence over an unsuspecting young woman’s right to walk, unmolested, into a facility that offers abortions?

Fourteen years ago, the Supreme Court said no.  In the 2000 case Hill v. Colorado, the court ruled that a similar “buffer zone” law in Colorado did not violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, on the grounds that the policy did not restrict free speech, as such, but merely “one arena for speech.”

Further, the court argued, the law was “content neutral,” meaning it did not differentiate between anti-abortion and pro-abortion views.  The “buffer zones” were off-limits to everyone.

Finally, the majority opinion held that, with those two conditions met, the state had a “compelling interest […] to protect citizens entering or exiting a medical facility from unwanted communication.”

“Even though speakers have a right to persuade,” the ruling explained, “this cannot extend to unwilling listeners because people also have a right ‘to be let alone.’”

Massachusetts today, in the person of Attorney General Martha Coakley, is defending its own protest-free perimeters on many of the same grounds, with a strong emphasis on that final point.  In point of fact, several of the state’s abortion providers had been subject to aggravated and sometimes violent incidents prior to the 2007 law’s passage.  In the intervening years, such scuffles have become far more scarce, which Coakley and others attribute to the “buffer zones” now under scrutiny.

“This law is access balanced with speech balanced with public safety,” said Coakley.  “It has worked extremely well.”

Taking this to be true, the critical question is:  Does it matter?  Is the mere possibility of public safety being compromised sufficient to justify shuffling (non-violent) protesters to one side, forcing them to express their views from a distance?

On my own better days, I prefer to fashion myself a First Amendment absolutist.  That is, one who thinks the freedom of expression must be extended to everyone in nearly every circumstance, particularly when the views in question are repulsive or challenging, and that the state had better have a damned good reason to act or legislate to the contrary.

The freedom of speech is a right, not a privilege.  As with all rights that become subject to regulation, the burden of proof necessarily falls on the regulator to show why such an act is warranted.

Does not making pregnant women feel bad qualify?  Count me skeptical.

We can probably agree that no one should be made to feel physically intimidated in public.  That’s what our various assault and harassment laws are for.  Why should free speech enter into it?  Being offered a leaflet and being physically obstructed from entering a building are not equivalent, and we must be very careful not to suggest they are.

Are women entering Planned Parenthood really so fragile that they must be cordoned off from opinions that might cause them distress?

I must say I find the “right to be let alone” argument bizarre in this context.  The fact is that the moment you leave your house every morning, you subject yourself to the possibility of encountering people you would rather avoid and views you would rather not hear.  That’s what it means to live in a free and open society.

Is one person’s constitutional right to procure an abortion more important than another person’s constitutional right to advise against it?  In this case, is it even necessary to choose one over the other?