Is this nation governed by its laws or by the whims of narrowly defined religious groups? As we fight for greater freedom in Afghanistan, can we still assure our own freedom of expression here at home? Those questions are up for grabs in New York City, and if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority removed advertising from all its buses which pass through heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Well, not all the ads, just the ones for Georgi vodka, which feature bikini-clad women. They did so out of consideration for the religious sensibilities of the communities through which the buses pass.
What's next? No pork adds in heavily Muslim neighborhoods? Perhaps we should accept the removal of all images of black people if enough white residents request that.
However well-intentioned the MTA may have been, their decision is nothing less than complicity in the Talibanization of Brooklyn. It's profoundly stupid, ultimately dangerous, and I cannot believe it is legal. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Brooklyn Hasidim and the Taliban are the same. But this case suggests that given sufficient power, the propensity for at least cultural totalitarianism, if not political, is more similar than anyone should find acceptable.
I want to be equally clear that I find the ad itself disrespectful of women and in generally poor taste. It bothers me as parent and as a Jew, failing pretty much any test of decency I can imagine.
I don't think that we need to connect sex and drinking any more than they already are. I am certain that we don't need to be confronted by any more images of artificially inflated boobs on top of underfed bodies as paragons of feminine beauty.
To that degree, like the members of the Hasidic community which objected to the ads and called for their removal, I agree about their being objectionable. But when any one group gets to decide what any of us has a right to see, we are all in trouble, especially when that conclusion is reached through political pressure as opposed to the democratic process.
If the Hasidic community were to take the lead in organizing people across the political, cultural and religious spectrum to lobby for stricter guidelines about what belongs on any bus, I might join them. Or I might not, preferring to deal with the challenges of a pop culture saturated with ersatz sexuality in other ways than limiting expression.
What nobody should stand for however, is the carving up of a wonderfully diverse city into culture ghettos any more than is already the case. While I certainly appreciate that some people prefer greater diversity and others less, when public institutions limit public expression and commerce simply because some people don't approve, we really do start to resemble the nations we claim to be liberating.
The argument, always advanced in these cases, that removing these ads is no different than not forcing people to work on the Sabbath or eat pork is also absurd. One should never be compelled to act against their conscience, but the presence of these ads does not demand that.
The presence of these ads simply demands that people figure out how to live with the expressions of other peoples consciences. And if a community cannot do that, then its inability to do so threatens all of us by holding us hostage to that group's views.
I don't like these ads. But I love both the freedom which currently allows them, and the political process through which they might be removed, a whole lot more. This really is one of those moments when we are called upon to think beyond our own immediate cultural and religious needs and protect the very system which assures them.