MAXWELL:  Faulty logic in art that offends

4/29/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As an opinion writer and a writing teacher, I worry about the state of logic in public debate. I am particularly worried when powerful opinion leaders argue fallaciously. Some of the worst cases of illogical thinking occur when politics, race, religion and art collide.

Religious people have killed or have threatened to kill to protect the sanctity of their sacred icons. Author Salman Rushdie, for example, has been a dead man walking since 1988. In his novel Satanic Verses, he enraged Muslims worldwide for creating a new myth of the origin of Islam.

During the last few years, Catholics have been butting heads with artists who, in one way or another, have depicted Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in non-traditional ways. Instead of arguing against such depictions, such as Renee Cox’s controversial photograph of The Last Supper, on their artistic merit, some Catholics, along with others who are offended, become so angry they sink into ad hominem attack, false analogy and other faulty reasoning.

In the case of Cox, who is black and who depicted Christ as a nude African-American woman, Catholics and others argued that blacks would be equally offended if a white artist portrayed civil rights hero Rosa Parks as a fat, nude white man.

The comparison is illogical and patently silly. I will explain shortly.

Most recently, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in New York went after South Williamsburg artist Deborah Masters. Originally, her mural in the new International Arrivals Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport featured sculpted images of a botanica with candles, Virgin Mary statues beside an African vegetable market and an anatomically correct naked Jesus on the cross.

Catholic League president William Donohue persuaded Masters to cover Jesus’ midsection. She painted a loincloth over the area in question, saying that she had intended to clothe Jesus from the outset but had forgotten. This was a clear victory for Donohue but a defeat for artists everywhere.

Now enters illogicality.

In arguing for covering Jesus’ anatomy, Donohue compared the affront to “going to Howard University and seeing Martin Luther King without his pants on.”

This is a strange comparison for several reasons. First, Masters is a white woman, and her Jesus is a white man. How does Donohue make the leap from Jesus to traditionally black Howard University and King? If Masters were black and her Christ were black, I could at least see, as in the case of Cox’s black Christ, the shady contours of Donohue’s reasoning.

I telephoned Donohue at his New York office, and this is a verbatim account of our aborted interview:

Maxwell: “Why the comparison between Dr. King and Jesus? The same thing happens with the Virgin Mary and Rosa Parks. Such comparisons defy all logic.”

Donohue: “Because there’s so much anti-Catholicism in this country that if you appeal to people on the basis of this isn’t a decent thing to do to Catholics, you won’t get anywhere. So what you do is you pick a figure like Martin Luther King, who is held in higher esteem than Jesus Christ by a lot of elite in this country, the well-educated people who consider themselves to be tolerant, and that’s how you get to them.”

Maxwell: “But that’s illogical.”

Donohue: “No it isn’t. Look, I’m not interested in this b—sh-t.”

He slammed down the receiver, and the interview was over.

Donohue’s argument and others like it do not make sense because they compare apples to oranges, as it were. Christ and the Virgin Mary are pure religious figures. They are not of this world. King and Parks are human, civil rights figures. Nothing is sacred about them. No one worships them. No one prays to them. I get letters all the time from white people who fall into this same trap.

Logical comparisons would be between, say, King and a white hero such as George Washington, and between, say, Parks and Barbara Bush. Why is this so hard to understand?

Furthermore, and some Catholics truly miss this point, Jesus and his mother belong to all Christian faiths. Jesus and his mother are not the exclusive property of Catholics. And, guess what, Jesus and his mother also belong to black Christians. Although blacks respect King and Parks, they do not bow before these two civil rights icons.

What is at work in these faulty comparisons is often the illogicality of racism. The implication _ and my mail reflects this point _ is that Christ and the Virgin Mary are white and do not belong to black people. We have our King and Parks.

I can assure Donohue and others that black Christians, such as my devout grandfather, whose suffering would make atheists of lesser people, are as close to Christ and Mary as any Catholic.

Donohue is wrong if he thinks that invoking the names of King and Parks is “how you get to” thinking people, “the elite.” The invocation is laughable, and it alienates those who otherwise are inclined to listen to reason.

As to rampant anti-Catholicism abroad, I must say that this column is not anti-Catholic. Its purpose is to point out that the clergy and their representatives should display the reasoning authority of an Aristotelean syllogism whenever they insinuate themselves into public debate.

If Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or Al Sharpton were making the same false comparisons, I would be writing the same thing about them.