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Are Muslims Our Misfortune? Exploring a Loaded Question

Posted on Sep 28, 2012
AP/The American Freedom Defense Initiative, Pamela Geller

Here is the text of a poster that recently went up in a New York City subway station:

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Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American activist, began covering the sign with spray paint Tuesday. A woman with a camera on a tripod interposed herself between Eltahawy and the poster, and finally poked Eltahawy with the tripod. Shortly after, Eltahawy was arrested by two policemen.

The woman with the camera identifies herself as Pamela, and seems to know Eltahawy’s name (though she mispronounces it). Pamela demands to know why Eltahawy is defacing “an approved message,” and why she has “a right to violate free speech.” Eltahawy replies that she is exercising her own free speech. That’s the short story. Have you already made up your mind about who is right and who is wrong?

All right, so let’s try this thought experiment. The year is 1934 and a German Jew is arrested for ripping down a poster saying: “Die Juden sind unser Ungluck!” Meaning: The Jews are our misfortune. (See this slogan in a 1934 issue of Der Sturmer.)


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Yes, there are excellent reasons to make a strong defense of civil liberties, even and especially in the tough cases. The founders of this republic understood the meaning of placing the First Amendment first in the Bill of Rights.

Anyone who wishes to make a purely civil libertarian argument that Eltahawy had no right to alter or deface this poster will come up against a dozen impure realities. Anyone who says she should face a penalty for defacing a message that went through “proper channels” had better recognize that many messages do not make it through those channels. So why do some messages get clearance and not others? Does censorship begin only when one person takes up a spray can to alter “an approved message”?

Let’s take a detour through the previous century, and I promise readers to come back to the present by a scenic route.

Long ago in my youth, I once unplugged a camera cable during the production of the film “Cruising” in the streets of Greenwich Village. Not because I objected to gay leather bars, but because I thought gay people had some right to get our message across as well. Years later, when I won the International Mr. Leather contest in 1986, my sexual experience and my views on civil liberties had grown more complex.

I never thought “Cruising” (which opened in 1980) was the moral or political or even aesthetic equivalent of “The Triumph of the Will,” Leni Riefenstahl’s classic documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. If we compare the anti-Semitism of artists such as Richard Wagner and Riefenstahl, we have to make distinctions. Outside of the librettos of his operas, the anti-Semitism of Wagner is well documented in his own prose. In his book “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (Jewishness in Music), Wagner attributed all manner of musical and cultural sins to Giacomo Meyerbeer, Felix Mendelssohn and other Jewish composers. However (for better or worse) one can be swept along at first hearing by the music of Wagner’s operas without tracing out all the anti-Semitic strands in the webs of his librettos. In the case of Riefenstahl, the sensibility is also spectacularly Wagnerian. Riefenstahl later claimed that she was too busy framing pretty pictures to give anti-Semitism much thought. She was, so she claimed all her life, only an artist fulfilling a commission.

When I joined the gay protesters against “Cruising,” I also argued in The Body Politic (a pioneering Canadian journal of gay liberation) that the narrow and objectifying window of “Cruising” existed in the real everyday culture of gay bashing and anti-gay censorship. In other words, I was still working my way toward a grounded and resistant form of civil liberties. I thought the idea of “shutting down” the film was naive, and that it should proceed to movie houses along with our protests. I still think “Cruising” is a lousy film—not even an artful act of voyeurism, since the “ethnography” is stagey—but I also soon grew convinced that I had been wrong to unplug that movie cable. What changed my mind? Among many other events, I read John Stuart Mill’s great book “On Liberty”—not in fleeting quotes, as he is mostly known, but in full text—and took his words to heart.

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