Barbaro's Bashing of NYC's GOP Mayoral Candidate Highlights NYT's Double Standards on Religious Mockery

Joseph Lhota is a moderate Republican running for mayor of New York City, but Michael Barbaro's front page Thursday story focuses on an incident back in 1999 when he inflamed Manhattan's artsy liberal elite: "For Mayoral Hopeful Who Lost Fight to Remove Art, No Regrets." Barbaro also reminds us that the New York Times is guilty of double standards in its treatment of art that offends religious sensibilities.

Lhota was deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani when controversy erupted over the Brooklyn Museum's display of Chris Ofili's painting of the "Holy Virgin Mary," clumped with elephant dung.

Barbaro, no fan of Republican candidates in New York State, painted Lhota as making an uninformed and intolerant lunge at free speech.

The deputy mayor, Joseph J. Lhota, never went to see the painting. Just hearing about it was enough.

The eight-foot-tall portrait of the Virgin Mary, a semi-abstract collage hanging at the Brooklyn Museum, contained clumps of elephant dung and cutouts of female genitalia from pornographic magazines. Mr. Lhota, a Roman Catholic, was horrified. “As a concept,” he said in a recent interview, “it was offensive.”

In fall 1999, that personal revulsion turned into public policy. Overnight, he became the tip of an unbending Giuliani spear aimed at the museum, seeking to cajole, browbeat and threaten the 190-year-old organization into removing the work of art.

Now, as Mr. Lhota promotes himself as a moderate Republican candidate for mayor of New York with urban sensibilities that the national party lacks, his handling of the episode stands out as a deeply discordant moment, raising questions about how he would operate in a diverse city whose current mayor champions unpleasant speech from every quarter.

That current mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, was recently blessed by Barbaro for his expensive nationwide advertising blitzkrieg against guns. Now Barbaro insists that Bloomberg, who wants to ban soda and hide cigarettes -- another nanny initiative praised in the Times -- in the name of public health, is a free-speech champion. So why would he suggest media mogul Rupert Murdoch stop using Twitter?

Barbaro continued:

His actions, and those of his colleagues at City Hall, touched off an extraordinary showdown over free speech, respect for religion, and public financing of the arts that eventually entangled Congress, the Catholic Church -- even Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the first lady.

The city lost the battle, but 14 years later, Mr. Lhota is unapologetic. “I don’t regret the tactics -- at all,” he said.

He defended his conduct and the motivation behind it, even as he acknowledged that his legal reasoning was faulty. “I have a much clearer understanding of the First Amendment now,” he said.

Barbaro faulted Lhota for not going to see the exhibition himself, though he knew what the picture looked like, and most important, what it contained:

City Hall’s rawest fury, however, was reserved for the “Holy Virgin Mary,” by the artist Chris Ofili. Mr. Lhota, who had briefly considered becoming a priest, concedes that he did not see the artwork -- or the rest of the “Sensation” exhibition -- in person, despite living in Brooklyn Heights, about 10 minutes from the museum. He looked at pictures instead.

But the Times is guilty of an enormous double standard in its treatment of art that offends religious sensibilities.

While the Times has run photos of the dung-clotted "Holy Virgin Mary," it found the Mohammad cartoons that appeared in a Dutch newspaper in 2006, used as a pre-text for deadly Islamic riots, as “gratuitous assaults on religious symbols” and refused to reprint the cartoons. It explained in a February 7, 2006 editorial: “The New York Times and much of the rest of the nation's news media have reported on the cartoons but refrained from showing them. That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words.”

Yet the paper ran a photo of “Holy Virgin Mary” the very next day, in an Arts section story by Michael Kimmelman.