Only in Degree

A few days ago rightie bloggers were having apoplectic fits over an exhibit at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery. The exhibit include a brief video clip showing ants crawling on a crucifix, and this was taken up as a Cause by Faux News and by Bill Donohue of the Let’s Make Catholicism Look Ugly League. Glenn Beck complained that taxpayer money had funded the exhibit, although it hadn’t.

After GOP congressional leaders, including John Boehner Eric Cantor, called for defunding the Smithsonian, the offending clip was removed.

Frank Rich writes about this episode today. The video was made in 1987 by an East Village artist named David Wojnarowicz after he was diagnosed with AIDS. Frank Rich explains,

Christ figures in Wojnarowicz’s response to the plague — albeit in a cryptic, 11-second cameo. A crucifix is besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.

Wojnarowicz died in 1992, at the age of 37.

Today the righties are outraged, and not without cause, about a Stockholm suicide bombing. The bomber was, news accounts say, protesting the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons and the war in Afghanistan. (Since the perpetrator is not around to explain himself we have to guess, but some question the official explanation)

Any attempt to suppress free expression by threats or bullying ought to be condemned. However, righties, that means any attempt to suppress free expression by threats or bullying ought to be condemned. That means your attempts, too.

Righties will complain that they don’t kill people over cartoons, or artwork. No, they only kill people for providing medical services. And when rightie terrorists bomb abortion clinics, they do so from a safe distance so that only other people are injured. I suppose that makes them less savage, somehow.

Bottom line, though, is that Islamic extremists and our home-grown U.S. Right are only different in degree. Both sides are bullies; neither side respects the freedom of speech of others.

25 thoughts on “Only in Degree

  1. I knew David Wojnarowicz just a little bit, if you could even call it that.
    I tended bar in the early ’80’s in an ethnic dive bar on the Lower East Side of NY City.
    It was an interesting place to work. All of us working there were in our 20’s, with one bartender who was about 30. All of us were actors, writers, directors, poets, musicians and painters.
    Allen Ginsberg used to show up on Monday nights with the St. Marks (8th Street) Poets Group after they’d done their readings. One time, he came in with about 15 other wannabe poets and they ordered drinks. He obviously didn’t ever pay for drinks for himself or the very young man with him (different from week to week), but for some reason, he came up to pay this one time. After I filled the order, which back then came to about $10 to $15, if not less, I saw 22 cents lying on the bar.
    “What’s that?” I asked Ginsberg, whom I’d read a lot of and loved – but you couldn’t show that since it wasn’t ‘cool.’
    “That’s your tip.” he said.
    “Thanks.” I said. “But why don’t you guys keep it. You must need the money more than I do.”
    He left the money on the bar and walked away after looking at me for a split second like I was a cretin – which I was. It was a wise-ass comment.
    We used to get Blondie, Jim Carroll (of “basketball Diary” and band fame), and some big name actors when they went slumming. Joe Jackson was a Friday Happy Hour regular. He was big at the time and loved me because whenever anyone came over and asked if he was JJ, he’d reply in an English accent that he wasn’t, and I’d back him up, and keep other away from him. He always left me a $20 – big money back then.
    But I digress. One of the back-up bartenders was a painter, and he and some of his painter buddies invited me to go to an exhibit not too far away on the LE Side. Now, Wajnarowicz might have been in the bar once or twice that I remember, and I think it was one of my musician friends who brought him in, but he was one of the people being exhibited. And the other guys raved about his art. So, of course, you had to go to something with your buddies to a show support to one of your customers (no matter how rare).
    It was an interesting and disturbing exhibit. This was in the early ’80’s when AIDS was becoming very, very scary – having shown the capability of going beyond the Gay and Haitian communites (which is why a lot of us straight people weren’t too freaked out about it for awhile, except for the toll it was taking on gay friends. ‘Hey, I ain’t gonna get it!’). It was a small gallery, but the art was amazingly eclectic – paintings, photo’s, collages, you name it. And a lot of it had to do with AIDS. I think it was at that exhibit that I realized how badly that disease was ravaging the city and the art community. I silently walked away, as you somtimes do after seeing great art. I don’t remember the conversation the 3 or 4 of us might have had on the way back to the bar for drinks, or even if there was any.
    I didn’t even realize he had died until I read an article about this a day or two ago, and the name looked familiar. And then only because they said he was a NY artist and I looked him up. Like I said, I didn’t know him well at all, don’t even remember really even ever speaking to him, though I probably did. But that exhibit sure left an impression.

    It’s beyond sad when people try to censor art. Especially fundamentalist religious cretins of any and all stripes. To them, free speach means freedom for them and their speach and expression . Your freedom may be dangerous to their closed minded speach and expression, and so must therefore be suppressed.
    ‘It’s fine for me. But not for thee.”
    Sadly, nothing new here…

    Just some Sunday, rainy day, NY City memories…

  2. …And when rightie terrorists bomb abortion clinics, they do so from a safe distance so that only other people are injured. I suppose that makes them less savage, somehow.

    No, they’re just cowards. It’s all about exterminating any threats they perceive to their own very fragile comfort zone, by whatever means necessary.

    The entire notion of a “principle” (such as: any attempt to suppress free expression by threats or bullying ought to be condemned) that, if someone embraces it, it should apply to all people, including themselves, is utterly foreign to a wingnut’s small, self-centered way of thinking.

    Principles are only tools or bits of leverage to be used when their application would give the wingnut some advantage, and to be immediately discarded when it would place them at some disadvantage. In other words, princples are meaningless as we understand the term.

    The principle of “States Rights” is an example of this: It’s repeatedly invoked when it gives the wingnut some advantage, but is immediately discarded when someone else tries to use the very same princple for their cause. One time I found myself defending California’s choice to legalize medical marijuana using the “state’s rights” principle to a wingnut, after he invoked “state’s rights” for his particular cause. His dismissal of my assertion was “well, we gotta have some rules”, in other words some bounds to which “States Rights” can be asserted.

    Those who have studied ethics and morality probably have a name for this kind of thinking, and it’s obviously something most children go through, but rightwingers don’t.

    Kos’ American Taliban is a long overdue treatise on all the ways our wingnuts are similar to theirs.

    Great story, Gulag.

  3. gulag I think an artist can hardly aspire to greater praise than than the circumstance you desribe. Namely you harcly remember the artist but you were deeply moved by his work.

  4. Those who have studied ethics and morality probably have a name for this kind of thinking

    It’s called Infantile Blockhead Syndrome…IBS for short.

  5. Oh, no!
    My DR. told me I have IBS….
    Had something to do with going #2………….
    My wife says its IAHS, because I tend to become grumpy when things don’t happen in the morning.It affects my spelling also.

  6. Frank Rich blames the Smithsonian for pulling the exhibit..Doesn’t he realize that the Smithsonian is just another victim of John Boner’s hostage holding spree. Boner threatened to destroy the Smithsonian by the power of the purse if they attempted to give the American public an unbiased view of our history or culture.

  7. I imagine that when Congress reconvenes in January, one of the top priorities will be to turn the Smithsonian into a national creationism museum, like the one in Kentucky only better:

    It’s only fair, you know. For years, liberal museums have been pushing this anti-Christian evolution nonsense. It’s about time that kids heard both sides of the story.

    Also planned is an exhibit introducing how the stork brings babies.

  8. So you don’t think there’s any difference between violent threats against private speech and complaints about use of public funds for speech?

    • So you don’t think there’s any difference between violent threats against private speech and complaints about use of public funds for speech?

      See title of post. There’s a difference, yes, but it’s a difference in degree, not in kind. It’s using threats and bullying to stifle speech that some people disagree with. And the exhibit was being funded entirely through private donations. Just because no violence is involved (although there may have been if the Smithsonian hadn’t caved so quickly) doesn’t mean it isn’t bullying. Intimidation is intimidation.

      And it’s not always a matter of public funding. Right-wingers got the infamous “chocolate Jesus” tossed out of a private gallery showing because they didn’t like it, for example. Righties like to talk about how they love their “freedoms,” but they sure as hell don’t respect anyone else’s freedoms. In their world, we are only free to say things they approve.

  9. My dear departed daddy often said, opinions are like assholes — everyone has one and and everyone is entitled to one even if it’s wrong. However, I think he would draw the line at violence. I grew up through the civil rights and VietNam war eras and have seen the violence free speech can precipitate. Some people are just crazy.

  10. erinyes: I like that Swami spelled it boner. It’s much more close to how it should be pronounced. “boe” is not an “a” sound (“bay”). It’s more of a “bow” sound. Hence boner is correct.

  11. I think calling him Boner is an oxymoron. Usually long term alcohol use creates a diminished ability. Rumor has it, and appearances confirm it, that Boner is fond of the sauce. I’m just waiting for him to have his Larry Craig moment or a Wilbur Mills moment… sooner or later the Lord will provide.

  12. Bombing Sweden The damn fool didn’t realize it was Denmark that published the cartoon? Other side of the Baltic.

  13. Donahue certainly worked to get choco jesus cancelled. On a quick scan of righty bloggers’ coverage, they were more interested in the media critique aspect (see, eg, Malkin’s post). Another blogger said it was rude, but stopped short of calling for it to be removed. Where people did take offense, they channeled their offense through legitimate channels. Captains Quarters:

    “What the Catholics and other Christians did was perfectly legitimate — boycotting the host and sponsors of exhibits they find offensive. They didn’t toss bombs at embassies or threated to destroy New York for blasphemy. Given the sympathetic press that Muslims around the world received for doing exactly that — including the murder of a Catholic nun — after the publication of editorial cartoons that depicted Muhammed, the sympathy granted to Cavallaro for his “oppression” in this seems far out of balance to the event.”

    Given all that, I don’t think it would be terribly difficult to reconstruct a self-consistent position here.

  14. Alternately, even if the difference is one of degree between threatening boycott and violence, it’s a difference that matters.

    • Alternately, even if the difference is one of degree between threatening boycott and violence, it’s a difference that matters.

      One tends to escalate to the other, so it’s not nearly as large a difference as you presume. When people assume they stand on the side of God’s Righteousness, it’s a very tiny step to assume that any act to carry out God’s Will is justified.

      FYI: The “chocolate Jesus” gallery received death threats, which had a lot to do with why the piece was removed.

      The hotel and the gallery were overrun Thursday with angry phone calls and e-mails about the exhibit. Semler said the calls included death threats over the work of artist Cosimo Cavallaro, who was described as disappointed by the decision to cancel the display.

      “In this situation, the hotel couldn’t continue to be supportive because of a fear for their own safety,” Semler said.

      This is how it starts. Hotheads get worked up into thinking they are Absolutely Right, and they believe they have moral permission to do whatever it takes to force their will on everyone else. So if one kind of bullying doesn’t work, it escalates to the next kind. I haven’t heard that the Smithsonian received any kind of threats about the “ants” video, but it would surprise me a great deal if they haven’t.

      And whenever a bullying mob succeeds in suppressing the free expression of others, it diminishes all of us.

      See also “Death Threats Cancel Jesus Play.” The American Taliban at work.

  15. I’m not sure, but I’d probably pull “Chocolate Jesus” too if there were a lot of
    hot heads around…
    It’s probably some kind of a sacrilege in Catholic’s minds if he doesn’t ascend up to Heaven, but melts onto the floor.

  16. I wonder if their actually was a Jesus, what would he find more offensive, his likeness dying on a cross covered with creepy crawlies representing the suffocation of a deadly disease like AIDS, or his likeness as a newborn baby, lying in a bitterly cold plastic manger with a sixty watt light bulb shoved up his ass for illumination, on display in random suburban front yards representing the commercial excess and consumerism we have come to call Christmas?

  17. I would guess the bulb. But, maybe if it was one of the new energy-saving ones, he wouldn’t mind it so much. Which is why I’m looking for conservatard religious nuts, who don’t believe in global warming, to be shoving search lights up the Baby Jesus’ ass this year. Expect airline crashes due to pilot confusion.

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