Art, Photography, and Homophobia

Sometimes the theater of the absurd, current events that is, just gets to be too much and I have to comment. This time the issue is whether photography is an art form, a case arising from a professional photographer’s refusal to cover a lesbian wedding. If photography is art, goes the argument, it’s a form of speech protected by the Constitution and that protection overrides any laws prohibiting discrimination on account of sexual orientation.

This nonsense arises from the notion that some forms of voluntary transactions should enjoy legal protection and others shouldn’t. Transactions that are deemed to be exercises of religion or freedom of speech are protected while it’s OK to suppress others even when they are mutually voluntary. The courts view artistic works forms of speech, and are protected. This protection covers not just engaging in protected activities but also refraining from engaging in them. Thus if photography is art, then refraining from photographing a lesbian wedding is an exercise of free speech, protected by the first amendment.

That’s all well and good as far as it goes, but it leaves courts with the job of drawing lines delimiting religious activity or free speech activity. Example: during Prohibition, Catholics were allowed to use wine as part of their Communion sacrament. But Native Americans who want to use peyote as part of their religious ceremonies have consistently run afoul of the law. What’s the difference? Obviously, Catholics are more numerous and politically powerful than Native Americans. Since there is no objective way of delimiting either religion or art (as presently understood), court decisions about these matters are necessarily political.

Delimiting artistic expression may be even more problematic than with religion. Given that any and all kinds of garbage can be found in “Modern Art” museums, it would seem that almost any activity, spraying graffiti for example, could be construed as artistic expression.

The solution is to recognize the right of free association and its concomitant freedom of dissociation, whether in personal or business affairs. (Though not a part of the First Amendment, these rights might be found in the Ninth Amendment.) There are two qualifications. First, any transaction that infringes on the rights of third parties is illegitimate. As Ayn Rand put it, “any alleged ‘right’ of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.” Second, politicians and bureaucrats must not be allowed to discriminate since they are supposed to represent the entire population. Those qualifications aside, any business person must be free to turn away gays, blacks, Jews, or anybody else, with or without explanation. But woe unto anyone who tries such exclusions in today’s world. They would pay a stiff price in lost business and boycotts. Unless they found a niche market among KKK bigots, such business people would very likely lose most of their customers, including, I hasten to add, this writer.

Some time ago I posted a piece on these pages defending the right of Lester Maddox, a truly obnoxious character, to exclude blacks from his chicken restaurant, which he did in the 1960s in defiance of the Civil Rights Act. Those were different times, and he garnered enough support to get elected Governor of Georgia. That would not happen these days.

Though I got a lot of pushback, I stand by the argument that obnoxious characters like Lester Maddox constitute a vanguard that helps defend the rights of us “normal” folks. If their outrageous but non-aggressive actions are protected, our moderate actions are safe. Nobody has made this case better than Walter Block in his book “Defending the Undefendable.” He trots out and defends one seedy character after another—pimps, prostitutes, you name it—whose actions, while distasteful to almost everyone, violate no one’s rights.

Returning to the photographer in question, it should make no difference whether her refusal is informed by religion or by hatred of gays.  She should be free to turn away customers for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason.

Incidentally, my friend Michelle Kamhi recently convinced me that photography is not art. I highly recommend her book Who Says That’s Art?, devoted primarily to demolishing modern and post-modern “art” which she calls “anti-art.” I think she’s spot on, but whether you agree or not, you will have to admire the courage and tight reasoning in her book.

Declining to Wed Gay Couples: Right or Wrong?

News item: the Georgia governor has just vetoed a bill that would, among other things, have allowed ministers to decline to wed gay couples.

What a tangle. Let’s see if we can sort things out.

First of all, many decent people, your humble servant included, find the concept of “gay marriage” troubling. I believe any two adults (or three or more) should be free to make any contract they like regarding sharing assets, pledging fidelity, and so forth. I just wish they wouldn’t call it “marriage.” That term is taken.

Second, hate is not a crime. Some people express repugnance or hatred for homosexuality. Ayn Rand called the practice immoral, an attitude that is hard to fathom in this day and age but perhaps understandable given the tenor of her times. Some go farther and express hatred for homosexuals per se. But as long as these people refrain from initiating force or fraud, they should not be molested. Boycotts, shunning, and criticism are legitimate responses to such people, but forcible restraint is not.

Third, rights are not granted by governments. Rights derive from our basic nature as humans, as thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard have so eloquently demonstrated. Contractual “rights” should have a different name, perhaps “privileges.” These are actions that have been legitimized by a voluntary agreement. Thus for example, no one has free speech “rights” on a campus. Students may have free speech “privileges” on a campus if the owners of the campus have granted that privilege in a written or implied contract.

Fourth, freedom of association is a basic human right, and includes freedom of dissociation, whether in personal or business relations. Some years ago I posted a defense of the late Lester Maddox who famously attempted to exclude blacks from his chicken restaurant. My post generated considerable blowback, but I stand by it and note that in this day and age, anyone who tried to exclude blacks would not be elected governor of Georgia as Maddox was, but instead lose most of his customers and close his doors.

In summary, no minister needs permission from the state to deny wedding services to a gay couple. And religion has nothing to do with it. Anyone should free to decline business or personal relationships with anyone, for any reason whatever, or for no reason at all.

The Clash of Civilizations: Where’s Obama?

I don’t know what’s in the Koran and I don’t care to know. I do know something about the Christian Bible, which is a mishmash of wisdom, poetry, geneology, misogyny, chauvinism, homophobia, fratricide, etc. The Bible can be used to defend just about any position and the same is likely true of the Koran.

To my mind, neither the historical Jesus (if he existed) nor the mythological Jesus is above reproach and the same is true of the historical or mythological “Prophet” Mohammed. If some followers of these figures believe their faith is so fragile that it cannot stand criticism and that they must advocate violent suppression of dissent, then their faith, whether Christian or Islamic, stands condemned. But intolerance among Christians is confined to a tiny few these days whereas intolerance seems to be widespread among Muslims. Thus we see laws that outlaw criticism of Islam or the “Prophet” in many countries.

As to the video which supposedly prompted the storming of the Libyan consulate and the murder of the U.S. ambassador, I have no taste for such things and don’t plan to watch it. But I do know that my own freedom is safest when such extreme expressions of opinion are protected. That’s why in these pages I defended the late Lester Maddox’s exercise of his freedom of association in running his chicken restaurant in Georgia.

I’m still waiting for the President or the Secretary of State to say even one word about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or freedom of thought, which are the core issues here. All I heard from the President was a condemnation of the video. I don’t want him to threaten to impose free-speech rules on Libya or Egypt but simply to explain to the world that we uphold free speech in this country – period.

Back to Islam. Without knowing anything of Islamic theology, we can draw some conclusions about Islam from the status of the Muslim countries. Human rights are trampled, especially if you’re female, gay, a member of the wrong Islamic sect, or worse yet, a Christian or Jew. Virtually no scientific or technological advances have come out of Islamic countries in recent centuries. I am unaware of any significant recent Islamic artistic or literary accomplishments. A medieval view of interest is still in effect. Corrupt monarchies and corrupt theocracies rule many of the countries, notwithstanding the Arab Spring. Assad is butchering his own people in Syria.

In summary, Islam sucks. But even worse, the moral midget in the White House, the supposed leader of the free world, is silent on the essence of the conflict of Islamic versus enlightened Western values.

Lester Maddox, Hero or Bum?

Ask anybody outside Georgia who Lester Maddox was and you’re likely to get a blank stare.  I’m not from Georgia but I remember the attention he got in the late 1960’s.  Aside from Alabama Governor George Wallace, Maddox was the best known rear-guard defender of racial segregation in the South at that time.

Mr. Maddox and his family operated a modest restaurant called the Pickrick adjacent to the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta.  The fried chicken must have been good, because he prospered.  He gradually became interested in politics and began to express them bluntly.

Maddox was incensed when the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964.  Among other things, the Act outlawed racial discrimination in “public accommodations.”  He did not welcome black people as customers, and when three black men tried to enter his property in July of 1964, he reportedly waved a pistol at them and shouted: “You no good dirty devils! You dirty Communists!”  He believed that as owner of the restaurant, it was his prerogative to decide whom he wanted to serve. The pick handles that were initially decorations in his restaurant became symbols of his defiance, and he sold them as autographed “Pickrick drumsticks” in his souvenir shop.

Maddox consistently defended his stand as an issue of property rights. Continue reading