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article: Reminiscing 9/11
of Speech in New York
New Yorkers have always defended their right
to speak out. In October 2000, they fought vehemently over the hoods of the Ku
Klux Klan, and a picture smeared with elephant dung; they brain stormed over the
attempt to define the meaning of art, reacted to then-Mayor Giuliani's emperor-like
gusto in dealing with the "60s elite" (his words, not mine), and pondered
the question whether to allow the Klan to demonstrate in downtown Manhattan. (At
right: a counter demonstrator, showing-off his own hatred). All that was before
September 11, 2001, when we were still preoccupied with the small stuff.
New Yorkers like to protect freedom of speech. This colossus of a city with
its myriad of nationalities, can only survive if everyone has the right to speak
out. And New Yorkers protect that right vigorously.
issues continue to provoke. What is happening? How can a country be at the same
time so puritanical and conservative, and on the other hand be so proud of its
First Amendmentthe right to free speecheven defending this right in
favor of groups that other countries desperately try to silence? In the United
States, freedom of speech is regarded as the ultimate tool to counter forces that
are threatening societybecause the best weapon against hate speech is more
speech. "It's easy to embrace freedom of speech for ideas we accept. The
essence of freedom of speech is that we must protect the ideas we hate,"
said the lawyer Harriet Pilpel in 1986. But, alas, not everybody feels comfortable
with this idea.
How did it all start? On one hand there was Mayor Giuliani's
lashing out against art that he did not like, after the Brooklyn Museum staged
an exhibition that was out to shock the publicand ultimately only affected
the Mayor's sense of aesthetics. Most New Yorkers are aware that art needs not
be pretty. They came in droves to see the exhibit, until is closed as scheduled
in January 2001.
there was the pathetic attempt by the notorious Ku Klux Klan to stage a rally
in Manhattan. The usually hooded Klan members were stripped by court order of
their disguise, but the courts ruled rightfully that they were allowed to appear
in public anyway, even though Mayor Giulianiagain playing crusader for the
defenseless New Yorkerstried to prevent it. At the end, only 18 Klan members
showed up and were so overwhelmed by the thousands of counter demonstrators, that
they fled under boos and cheers into nearby Police Plaza, seeking protection.
The Klan was allowed to demonstrate because of their right to freedom of
speech. No harm done: The New Yorkers took care of them. But the other battle
against freedom of speech is still pending, and it revolves around what is art,
and should bad art be penalized? "Good or bad art is about values and pertinence
or the lack thereof," stated the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Philippe de Montebello. "Art is a language, a means of communicating deeply
held ideas and beliefs," added the director of the Museum of Modern Art,
Glenn D. Lowry. "To dismiss that which we do not like because we do not understand
it makes no more sense than ignoring German or Chinese literature because we cannot
read German or Chinese."
The Brooklyn Museum of Art went ahead
with its exhibition Sensations, which includes British art works that Giuliani
labeled as "sick stuff." By doing so, he skillfully followed in the
footsteps of Senator Jesse Helms who proclaimed in 1989: "Penises will not
be exposed at the tax payers expense," and proposed a five-year ban on the
distribution of federal funds to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
Buchanan was quick to add his two cents to the affair: "When we get control
of that National Endowment for the Arts," he spouted, "you'll see how
it ought to be done. You shut it down, fumigate the building, and put the I.R.S.
in there." And Giuliani, back then still eagerly courting his potential conservative
voters for a seat in the Senate, cut off the Brooklyn Museum's $7.2 million financing
and went to court to evict the established institution from its building. But
the court rejected his charge and ruled that the city has to pay its share to
the museum immediately.
the former major went even further in a last ditch effort by proclaiming, "anything
that I can do is not art." We were all thankful the mayor could not do that
muchotherwise there would have been no art left in city-funded museums in
Giuliani's views, however, showed the sad state we are still
in: Freedom of speech is widely enforced, sometimes to the grotesque, but at the
same time needs to be protected from the clutches of politicians and their incredible
arrogant view that we all need their wise guidance. But New Yorkers have proven
over time with their no-nonsense approach that they are able to protect themselves,
that they are equally able of differentiating between good and bad, and that they
don't appreciate having ideas censored for fear of a frank, sometimes painful,
dialogue. That is why this city is open to all ideasif we like them or not.