A Free Speech Test for the President
September 22, 2012 - 5:40 am
Just in time to piggyback some PR on the notoriety of the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in New York is featuring a retrospective of artist Andres Serrano’s work, including the controversial photograph dubbed “Piss Christ.”
On Palm Sunday last year, 1,000 protesters marched outside a French gallery showing “Piss Christ,” and the piece was attacked by hammer-toting vandals while gallery workers received death threats. The piece — there are 10 prints — has also been vandalized at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia and in Sweden.
But Serrano told us he’s not expecting trouble in his hometown of New York. “It’s not going to receive the same attention,” he said, adding that the French attack “destroyed” the piece, but, “It transformed ‘Piss Christ’ into something else. It’s mounted on plexiglass, and it looked like they’d attacked Christ. The marks were all around the face.”
A rep for the Midtown gallery confirmed it was beefing up security in anticipation of protests, but wouldn’t elaborate further.
Serrano is working on a book of 400 photographs recently shot in Cuba. His mother, who was born in Florida, is of Cuban heritage. “It’s about time we talked about Cuba,” he said, calling the US embargo “horrendous.”
He adds, the situation around NEA funding that “Piss Christ” ignited “never got better . . . the budget of the NEA was slashed in half. There seems to be a sort of dislike for the arts, and for the government supporting the arts. It’s not right.”
Will President Obama speak out against this outrageous depiction of the Christian savior, the son of God? I hope not. The pressure is already intense for him to do so. And Barack Obama did not made it any easier on himself when he publicly condemned the film Innocence of Muslims. Legitimate questions will be raised by Christians who are mightily offended by Serrano’s hateful depiction of Jesus: If you can condemn a blasphemous film depicting Mohammed, why not a blasphemous photo depicting Christ?
He should neither condemn nor support either. His job is to protect free speech, no matter how offensive it might be to Americans or foreigners. If the best way to defend that right is to keep his mouth shut, he should do so.
But President Obama has already failed the free speech test by agreeing with the perpetually outraged Islamists that they had cause to riot. Just yesterday, he reaffirmed that Muslim outrage at the film was justified.
President Barack Obama said he thinks Muslim protests against Western criticism of Islam are “natural.”
“The natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests,” Obama said during an hour-long town-hall interview on the Spanish-language Univision channel.
Obama did not use the interview to champion the right of Americans to speak freely amid criticism and threats from Islamic advocates.
He did briefly mention free-speech, saying that democracy also includes “looking out for minority rights… respecting freedom of speech… [and] treating women fairly.”
There is nothing “natural” about a 7th century outlook on freedom of speech. Human societies all over the world have evolved over the last several hundred years to recognize the value of freedom of speech — except the Muslim world. And the president refuses to acknowledge that the act of taking offense itself is extreme, regardless of whether such outrage reflects religious belief or not.
The “extremists” he speaks of are not only the ordinary Egyptians who rioted in front of our embassy, they also include the president of Egypt, who has called on President Obama “to put an end” to the film. They also include the dozens of Islamic clerics across the Middle East who have called for the death of anyone associated with the making of Innocence of Muslims. If the president thinks it’s “natural” for Islamic clerics to call for the death of American citizens because they exercised their right of free speech, one wonders if he is capable of drawing a line in the sand and defending that right to any meaningful degree.
There will no doubt be protestors at the gallery displaying Serrano’s execrable work. They will be outraged, and it is hoped they will express their feelings in a peaceful manner. But Barack Obama, if he acknowledges the protest, should use his remarks to remind us of the value of freedom of expression and not get caught up in a controversy over what is or isn’t offensive. Value judgements on the efficacy of artwork are not in his job description.
Because in the end, this is not an American problem — it is a Muslim problem. There is a studied refusal in the Muslim world to accept the concept that American society allows speech that is considered offensive by some such as the “Piss Christ” photo and anti-Islam film. Their deliberate indifference to our values and traditions allows them to demand that we accede to and accept their values and traditions, substituting their notions of freedom with ours.
President Obama, if he is going to comment at all on the Serrano work on display in New York City, should say what he should have been saying all along about Innocence of Muslims: Freedom of speech is an inviolable right, a natural right that exists in nature, and no film, no photo, no words will cause an American retreat on defending that right.
It’s a test the president has failed once already. Can he get it right a second time?