In late 1999, there was a kerfuffle when the Brooklyn Museum of Art (a government institution) ran an exhibit "Sensation" which included a painting of The Holy Virgin Mary (by Chris Ofili) bedaubed with elephant feces and surrounded by pictures of female genitalia from pornographic magazines.
The editorial board provided this opinion, The Battle of Brooklyn.
To be sure, many citizens of conscience find parts of the Brooklyn exhibition repugnant, and it is understandable that many Roman Catholics would find Chris Ofili's image of the Virgin Mary offensive. . . 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.For the editorial board of the Times, this was a matter of artistic freedom and it was not only appropriate for public funding to directly trivialize and insult Christians, particularly Catholics, but it was encumbent and necessary in order to avoid becoming "a chamber of attractive ghosts."
The Government is entitled to, and should be expected to, insult the religious beliefs of the citizens of the country. Right or wrong, it was an argued opinion on their part.
How to reconcile that opinion fifteen years ago with their position yesterday in Free Speech vs. Hate Speech from The Editorial Board.
There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies. There is also no question that however offensive the images, they do not justify murder, and that it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.The palpably fallacious No True Scotsman argument is insulting for an editorial but let's set that aside for the moment.
But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.
In 1999 it is, according to the NYT, appropriate and inevitable for the government to denigrate a major world religion through art work and in 2015 it is a hate crime of the worst order for private individuals to mock a major world religion without any government funding.
On the face of it, in order to compass the two opinions, it appears the the New York Times' Editorial must be any or all of the following things.
They must be Christophobes and/or IslamophilesYou could continue but I think it is always best to treat an argument as if the advocate really believes their statements to be true rather than simply attack it on logical and evidentiary bases. The Editorial Board makes that stance difficult.
They must be cowards, feeling free to insult one set of religious believers whom they believe to present no physical threat while placating another whom they fear.
They must be cultural bigots, believing Western religious believers to be better behaved than adherents of Islam.
They must believe that Government is entitled to broader freedom of speech than private citizens.
They must not believe in the First Amendment and the traditionally expansive definition of freedom of speech.
They really hate citizens who do not share their worldview and are willing to ally themselves with intended murderers in order to excoriate the non-compliant citizen.
How can you construe both statements of the Board to be true? What is the most positive interpretation? Let's set aside the real possibility that they have in fact changed their minds, that they now believe they were wrong in 1999 and neither the government or private citizens should mock religious figures.
Perhaps I am not being imaginative enough but the only construction that squares these two positions is something along the lines of "It is inappropriate and not an exercise of free speech to criticize any group who is a minority in the local jurisdiction." We are a country whose culture and governmental structure celebrates the underdog and protects the minority from the majority. So perhaps, in the NYT mind, it is appropriate to condone and, indeed, endorse the insulting of one religion as long as it is a large religion (in the US). This still remains somewhat ignorant given the long history of discrimination against Catholics, but at least it reconciles, however inartfully, the two Editorial positions.
Is there a better and more complimentary reconciliation? I am not coming up with much. It seems a whole lot easier to come up with a much longer list of unseamly and nefarious reasons why the NYT would choose to endorse the insulting of one religion while rejecting the insulting of another.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of epistemological closure. Scott Alexander in I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup hypothesizes that broadly the US divides into the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe (for out-group purposes). As always Alexander is broadly erudite and deeply curious. He wanders around his topics, kicking, prodding, poking, trying to make sense of it and all the while generating innumerable insights and new perspectives. Not all are right, but all are worth exploring further. The whole meditation is worth reading. Some of his postulations that I suspect shed light on the Times' Editorial Board positions:
The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.I suspect that that line of thought is probably more explanatory of the Editorial Board's conflicting positions than any generous but tortured effort to reconcile the two editorials. Free Speech, Texas, Satire, Christians in general, observant Catholics in particular, and Pam Geller are all Outgroup for the New York Times. Terrorists, oddly enough, not so much.
The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.
I didn’t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man.
This commenter was right. Of the “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.
And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people – that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.
Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall – made of these same “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people – the most common response was to quote some portion of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like “I wish I was there so I could join in”. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a “c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”
You can talk all you want about Islamophobia, but my friend’s “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful people” – her name for the Blue Tribe – can’t get together enough energy to really hate Osama, let alone Muslims in general. We understand that what he did was bad, but it didn’t anger us personally. When he died, we were able to very rationally apply our better nature and our Far Mode beliefs about how it’s never right to be happy about anyone else’s death.
On the other hand, that same group absolutely loathed Thatcher. Most of us (though not all) can agree, if the question is posed explicitly, that Osama was a worse person than Thatcher. But in terms of actual gut feeling? Osama provokes a snap judgment of “flawed human being”, Thatcher a snap judgment of “scum”.
And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.
My hunch – both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, for whatever reason, identify “America” with the Red Tribe. Ask people for typically “American” things, and you end up with a very Red list of characteristics – guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism.
That means the Red Tribe feels intensely patriotic about “their” country, and the Blue Tribe feels like they’re living in fortified enclaves deep in hostile territory.