The New York Times editorial board tore into the nearly-murdered organizers of the Garland, Texas “Draw Mohammad” event Wedneday, calling it “hate speech” and “an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.”
“Some of those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may earnestly believe that they are striking a blow for freedom of expression, though it is hard to see how that goal is advanced by inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism,” the Times editorial reads. “As for the Garland event, to pretend that it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash.”
It’s not shocking to see the Times taking a stand against “inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims.” Earlier this year, the Times pondered whether there were “legitimate questions” to be asked about whether there was a “double standard” in France allowing Charie Hebdo to “antagonize” Muslims.
Obviously there can be no “but” in condemning the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the ideology that encourages murder in the name of religion… Yet there are legitimate questions raised about freedom of expression in this tragedy.
In the wake of the terror attack, French authorities began aggressive enforcements of a law against supporting or justifying terrorism, including arrests of people who spoke admiringly about the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. Not surprisingly, their actions have raised questions of a double standard — one for cartoonists who deliberately insult religion, when their cartoons are certain to antagonize Muslims at a time when anti-Muslim feelings are already at high levels in France and across much of Europe, and another for those who react by applauding terrorists.
But when “Piss Christ,” a photograph depicting a Christian crucifix submerged in urine that was created on a federal grant and exhibited at New York Stux Gallery, the Times really liked it.
One of the few, unintended benefits of the Congressional outrage against Andres Serrano is that it has brought widespread attention to a good artist. His photographs are indeed provocative. They are also serious art… This religious emblem enveloped in a dreamy golden haze (without the title, there would be little or no way of knowing what the liquid is) suggests the arty images and the mass production of religious souvenirs that have been partly responsible for the trivialization and exploitation of both religion and art…
It is possible to see Mr. Serrano’s use of bodily fluids as pure provocation. But you can also believe that Mr. Serrano views them as a form of purification. The fluids make us look at the images harder and consider basic religious doctrine about matter and spirit…
People may agree or disagree with him, or they may question his belief in photography, but how can anyone find in his work just obscenity and disrespect? It is hard to believe that anyone whose faith is searching and secure would not be grateful for what Mr. Serrano has done.
Likewise, when Piss Christ returned to New York City in 1999, the NYT editorial board strongly defended its display in a public museum despite a public outcry: “A museum is obliged to challenge the public as well as to placate it, or else the museum becomes a chamber of attractive ghosts, an institution completely disconnected from art in our time.”
And of course, when the “The Book of Mormon” first arrived on the Broadway scene, the Times reviewed a musical that was explicitly intended to mock the faith of millions of Americans. One particular song is titled (in a made-up Ugandan language) “F*ck You, God,” containing the lyrics (in English) “F*ck you, God, in the ass, mouth and c**t.” the Times loved it.
Now you should probably know that this collaboration between the creators of television’s “South Park” (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and the composer of “Avenue Q” (Robert Lopez) is also blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak. But trust me when I tell you that its heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show…
Which brings us, inevitably, to the issue of sacrilege. This show makes specific use of the teachings of the Mormon Church and especially of the ecclesiastical history from which the play takes its title. Church founders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young appear in illustrative sequences, as does Jesus and an angel named Moroni. When delivered in musical-comedy style, these vignettes float into the high altitudes of absurdity.
But a major point of “The Book of Mormon” is that when looked at from a certain angle, all the forms of mythology and ritual that allow us to walk through the shadows of daily life and death are, on some level, absurd; that’s what makes them so valiant and glorious.
But one must also remember the furor last year over “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an opera depicting the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish man at the hands of PLO terrorists that critics such as the Anti-Defamation League decried as anti-Semitic and sympathetic of terrorist attacks towards Jews. After the Metropolitan Opera cancelled broadcasts of the opera, the Times took a stance against the opera’s Jewish critics.
Protesting groups are demanding that the production be scrapped, contending the opera is anti-Semitic in depicting the 1985 murder of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists who seized a Mediterranean cruise ship and threw Mr. Klinghoffer and his wheelchair overboard after shooting him…
The Met should not have yielded to its critics, including Mr. Klinghoffer’s daughters, earlier this year when Mr. Gelb canceled live broadcasts of the opera in movie theaters around the world because of what he saw as “rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”
But now, as protesters plan to press further, the Met and Mr. Gelb are properly firm in defending both the opera and the principle of artistic freedom in a world rife with political pressures. Viewers may have different reactions and responses to such an ambitious and painfully contemporary work, but the arts can only be harmed by retreating from controversy.
So what gives? The New York Times’ opinion on the appropriateness of blasphemous, offensive, and inflammatory anti-religion speech seems to vastly change depending on who’s being offended. It’s almost as though the Times’ celebration of blasphemy ends where taking a truly courageous stance could cost them their lives.
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