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


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.)

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.When “Cruising” was reissued on DVD in 2007 (with commentary by the director, William Friedkin), one of the most historically informed reviews was written by Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris, who called the film a “horrorstruck heterosexual gawkers’ tour through the dank grottos of New York’s gay S&M scene.” Harris also wrote:

“I’ll grudgingly celebrate the movie’s return to visibility, since it represents the flashpoint at which gay people learned to fight homophobic stereotypes in pop culture with everything in their arsenal — to be out, loud, proud, pissed-off, and media-savvy. If the film, now frozen in its historical moment, scarcely seems worth the anger it generated, that’s only because we’ve come a long way, not because anybody judging the movie got it wrong the first time. The Cruising protesters were not anti-First Amendment fascists, nor were they (as some younger gay moviegoers might imagine) sex-phobic prudes who wanted to hush up anything that might make us look bad to straight folks. They were fighters — and some were also non-fighters who suddenly discovered the fighter within.”

My daily life as a writer is fairly monastic nowadays, and I am happily married to another man. I don’t regret my almost accidental passage through the biker bars and leather scene of the late 20th century. I thought the annual International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago would be a great party, and I was not disappointed. While I carried the title for a year, I spent much of my time organizing and hosting fundraisers for AIDS groups and hospices. One of the most demonized subcultures within the gay community stepped up to the challenges of the AIDS pandemic. But in 1986 the protease inhibitor drugs were still a decade away, and the waves of death often left survivors stunned and stranded. From one month to the next, a circle of young friends could be reduced by half.

That sense of stark horror soon galvanized into a new movement of medical activism with the advent of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP. We demanded health care for all, and we confronted any politician or religious leader who thought we should shut up and die. We were rude, we were fierce, we were resolute. We took to the streets chanting, “Health care is a right! Not just for the rich and white!” And when the politicians sent the police after us, we shouted, “Arrest us! Just try it! Remember Stonewall was a riot!” We went to jail again and again and again. We worked with sex workers and injection drug users, of course, since some of us were already sex workers and injection drug users. We were people in trouble, and that kind of trouble is as good a ground of being as any other. I was diagnosed HIV positive in 1986, and here I am. If there is any God who “chooses” to kill so many millions while saving me to write these words, then I must wonder why.

So that brings me back to an Egyptian-American woman who is fed up with daily doses of toxic racist shit in political campaigns and the daily news. She notices that there is lots of free speech for raving bigots and for imperialist career politicians, and she notices the unholy war “one nation under God” is waging against Muslims within and beyond these borders. Enough is enough. And then she notices a subway station poster with an “approved message.” That message gives permission, once again, for “the civilized man” to wage war against “savages.” She begins spray-painting. Immediately, a person with a camera demands to know why she is violating free speech, and then she is handcuffed by police officers. As she is led away, you can hear Mona Eltahawy shouting that this is what happens to nonviolent protesters in America.

Sure, let’s make the strong argument for civil liberties. Let’s complicate that argument. Let’s acknowledge that President Obama, a scholar of constitutional law, judged Bradley Manning guilty of breaking the law when it was already doubtful he’d get a fair trial — but when it was also certain that Manning had already done very hard time in jail. Let’s start facing the fact that the Democratic Party favors drone wars more than labor unions, and that the recent health care reform is founded on the ideas of right-wing think tanks — and therefore on political quicksand. Let’s stop biting our tongues when middle-class moral imbeciles insist that this coming election is “really” a referendum on racism, and not one more brute exercise of corporate dictatorship. Let’s talk about why “progressives” let any Democrat in the White House get away with bloody murder, while they scream bloody murder only when Republicans seize the musical chairs.

Hello there, Mona Eltahawy. I truly hope you get a fair day in court. I live in Los Angeles but I sure would love to join you and many others in giving free speech a chance in the subway stations, schools, streets and political campaigns of this country. Mona, I don’t really know all you might believe. I do know that subway sign makes me feel both dirty and furious. I want a hot bath. I want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I want another American revolution.

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