Mayor Giuliani's Nervous Breakdown

By Jonathan Wallace

Our autocratic mayor has been involved in two highly visible free speech disputes this month. In the first and more notorious one, he is attempting to evict the venerable Brooklyn Museum from its city-owned building in retaliation for the "Sensation" show, which includes some art the mayor believes to be unfit for children and in highly questionable taste.

The Brooklyn Museum is (aside from hosting one controversial show) a pleasant and boring neighborhood institution; thirty-five years ago my parents used to drop me off regularly for Saturday classes in drawing and watercolors. It owns a lot of mainstream art; its exhibits and the touring ones that visit tend to concentrate more on Monet and Manet than on dead sharks in formaldehyde.

The mayor's increasing loss of measure and proportion is evident in his choice of an eviction law suit to express his displeasure with the "Sensation" show. While the mayor probably assumes that he will terrify the trustees into backing down, victory in the lawsuit would mean the destruction of a much-loved family museum in a borough that is largely deprived of local art and cultural institutions, and the dispersion of its collection, possibly outside of New York. One wonders if Guiliani, as a prosecutor, would have sought the death penalty not because he believed the defendant to be guilty and worthy of it, but in order to make a political point?

The Mayor's harsh and bullying behavior as regards the museum is consistent with his scorched earth policy in other cases: he always retaliates against opponents in highly destructive ways, completely out of whack with the actual gravity of the offense. Much of this behavior seems impulsive rather than calculated. Is the attempted destruction of the Brooklyn Museum a carefully planned tip of the hat to the religious right, or is it simply evidence of an increasing imbalance in the mayor's personality? I believe the latter.

The second free speech dispute finds the mayor undoubtedly on more popular ground: he used a New York State anti-mask law to ban a Ku Klux Klan rally in downtown Manhattan. From a free speech perspective, this raises some interesting questions: can I carry a protest sign while trick-or-treating this Halloween? Can Muslim women wear their chadors to a demonstration outside of City Hall? If we are going to ban facial coverings (as a means of making the speakers take responsibility for their speech), shouldn't we also ban sunglasses and floppy brimmed hats at demonstrations? Why not require all demonstrators to wear name tags and register with the police? Come to think of it, for thirty years New York's finest have been notorious for covering their own name tags with tape when planning to beat up demonstrators.

If I had a little more time and courage, I'd don a Giuliani mask, pick up a protest sign and stand outside of City hall to see what happens. Its a pretty sad statement: in Guiliani World, I'm a whole lot more scared of being beaten senseless by the cops than I am of the Klan.