Thursday, April 19, 2007

Graffiti and the Supreme Court, An Unlikely Pair

At first glance, it wouldn't seem that a 36-year-old New York graffiti artist and a set of five mostly white Republican men over the age of 50 would have much in common. I'm quite sure that each would be instantly wary of the other, and no cocktail parties featuring all of them will be held anytime soon. And yet, as I read the New York Times this morning, I drew a direct line in my head between Alain MaridueƱa (better known as "Alan Ket") and the five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that just found a ban on an abortion procedure to be constitutional.

The Times article on Ket described how he faced 14 criminal counts that could bring him decades in jail time. Authorities found photos of graffiti that featured his well-known "tag" on subway cars, and further ascertained that the photos were uploaded to his computer shortly after the trains were vandalized. Ket claims that the cars were painted by a copycat, and that he has "retired" from graffiti, concentrating instead on legitimate commercial art. He said that the circumstantial evidence found by the authorities (tons of graffiti photos, spray paint caps, etc.) were for a book he is doing on graffiti or for his legitimate art work.

Ket is innocent until proven guilty, and it is quite possible that he will be acquitted of the charges. But the fact remains that somebody painted graffiti on those trains (and tons of other public and private sites around New York City), and, even more importantly, in certain circles the defacement of the property is viewed as legitimate art.

Meanwhile, down in Washington, D.C., another kind of destruction was taking place, this time of the rights of women to choose. Or, better put, a door was blown open through which anti-choice legislation will inevitably follow. In a 5-4 decision (with, of course, President Bush's two appointees, neither of which would address the abortion question during their confirmation hearings, voting with the majority), for the first time since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the Supreme Court approved a flat-out ban on a specific abortion procedure, in this case dilation and extraction. You might know it better by the term used by anti-choice activists, "partial-birth abortion," but I will go with the terminology used by doctors over the propaganda of religious zealots. The ruling was in the combined cases of Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood. You can read an AP/Yahoo! article on the decision here.

So, what do the five justices in the majority (Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas) and Ket have in common? Simple. A lack of respect for the rights of their fellow citizens, and a need to impose their beliefs on the society as a whole, despite their opinions being in the minority.

I have no patience for so-called graffiti "artists," and less patience for those in the art world and other sections of society that legitimize their actions. I don't argue that the people who paint graffiti may have artistic talent. But, the expression of their talent is not art, it's vandalism. Look, if I make a movie, it might be a work of art. But, if I wheel a television and DVD player onto the Long Island Expressway at rush hour and try and show it in the center lane, I'm a hazard to society. Similarly, if Micahel Chabon writes a novel, it might be art. But, if he decides to write the words on a tarp and drape it over the Brooklyn Bridge, he becomes a menace to society.

So, why do some people make exceptions for graffiti perpetrators? The governmental or private owner of the property that is painted has not consented to the defacement of that property. What makes a guy with a spray-paint can think he has the right to overrule the wishes of the legal owner? Not everyone wants to look at graffiti. I would venture to say that if it was put on a ballot, a vast majority of New Yorkers would vote that they would rather not look at graffiti. The arrogance of graffiti perpetrators (and their supporters) to believe that they know better is staggering.

If Mr. MaridueƱa is actually innocent of the crimes he is accused of, I hope he is acquitted. But, if he is guilty, I hope he is convicted and sentenced to the maximum prison term allowed by law, and fined the maximum amount, including enough to pay for the restoration of the subway cars he defaced. And, in any event, I applaud the New York authorities who have decided to crack down on graffiti. It is about time somebody stood up to individuals who believe the morals (or lack thereof) of a small minority should be imposed on the majority.

Which brings us to the Supreme Court justices who voted in the majority in Gonzales v. Carhart/Planned Parenthood. I fully understand that the debate over the right to choose comes down to two sides that are passionate about their opinions. Pro-choice people are adamant that the government has no business telling a woman what to do with her body, and those who oppose choice honestly believe abortion to be murder.

However, there is one point about the abortion debate that I will never understand. As long as I can remember, a majority of Americans have favored the right to choose (not that they are in favor of the procedure, per se, but they believe women should have the right to decide for themselves whether to give birth or not). And yet, people who oppose choice seek to impose their belief, which, let's face it, is in most cases a religious belief, down the throats of a majority of Americans.

I want to be clear on this issue: I fully understand the passion of the anti-choice movement, and the adherents' belief that not to act is to stand by while a crime is committed. But, lost in the pro-con debate on the issue is a key point that is not negotiable: When an abortion is performed, a crime is NOT being committed. As a society, we have agreed that murder, rape, robbery, arson and other such acts will not be tolerated, and in those cases we will tell people how to live their lives, mainly because it directly affects the people around them (especially those who have been killed, violated, stolen from or burnt).

With abortion, again putting aside the pro-con debate, a group of people are seeking to impose their moral/religious beliefs on the actions of their fellow citizens, even though no direct effect is registered on the people doing the imposing. Put another way, anti-choice believers are telling women not to have abortions, but pro-choice advocates are not telling anyone to do anything. Instead, they are telling people that the decision is up to them.

And therein lies my equal disgust of Alan Ket and the Supreme Court justices who voted to ban the abortion procedure. They both stand for the idea that they have the right to impose their beliefs over the desires of the citizens around them.

As an aside, I understand that in this particular abortion case, a law passed by Congress, the representatives of the people, was responsible for the ban on the procedure. So, in this case, an argument could be made that the will of the people was on the side of the anti-choice crowd. However, on the larger abortion question, the majority is pro-choice. And, more importantly, this case is not just about one abortion procedure. It is a move in the larger chess game of whether or not American women will have the right to choose. In that context, I stand by everything I've written regarding a minority trying to impose its will on the majority.

I can't help but wonder how Ket would feel as he watched members of the Supreme Court paint pro-Iraq war messages on the outside of his home, or how the justices would feel as Ket spray-painted sex terms on their luxury vehicles. I know I'd like to watch it all happen. All six of them would (rightfully) leap to protest the intrusion on their rights. And, for a second, they might feel what they make millions of others experience by their actions.