Happy Valentines Day!
1 Jeremy gets a vacation! As some of you may know, philosopher Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill’s mentor and the founder of utilitarianism, has been stuffed and kept in a glass case at the College of London since his death in 1832 as a condition of his will. I’m not kidding! (A photo has appeared periodically in the Ethics Alarms header from the blog’s first day.) Here he is…
That’s Jeremy’s real head on the floor: the one on top of the stuffed body around his skeleton is wax. Jeremy still attends all meetings of the school’s board, wearing his own clothes. Now he’s visiting the U.S., something he always wanted to do when he was alive.
2. The message is increasingly clear: everything is racist. Got it, thanks! Working from her mummy, scientists from the University of Bristol reconstructed the face of 3,400-year-old queen Nefertiti, King Tut’s mother, using 3D imaging technology. The process required more than 500 hours. Nefertiti was Egypt’s queen alongside Pharaoh Akhenaten from 1353 to 1336 BC. Heeeeeeere’s NEFI!
Now the project is under attack on social media because the reconstructed Nefertiti face isn’t dark enough, not that anyone has a clue regarding how dark or light anyone who lived over 3000 years ago was.
This is the kind of gratuitous race-baiting that causes well-deserved backlash. It’s also redolent of an old whitewashing theme, dating back to the “Cleopatra was black” and “Jesus was black” claims of activists in the 1970s.
3. Segue Alert! And speaking of stupid whitewashing controversies, the cancellation of that high school production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” because the student cast as the gypsy ingenue Esmeralda was “too white” provoked a backlash….from Nazis.
Naturally, this means that the race-based attack on the innocent student cast because she was the most qualified to play the part was justified, thanks to the trampoline effect when a bad idea is attacked by even worse extremists. (Don’t make me put the cognitive dissonance scale up twice in one day.) The New York Times reports that the students who intimidated school administrators into cancelling the show “are now besieged by an online mob targeting them with threats and racial epithets after the incident was reported in right-wing publications like Breitbart News, then spread to the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. Via Facebook, the students received pictures of themselves with swastikas plastered on their faces. One parent had what was thought to be her home address (it wasn’t) posted online with a comment seeming to encourage harassment: “Do your thing social media.” Another parent received a profane email, assailing her for embracing “anti-white racism,” adding: “I feel sorry for your brainwashed child.” The way this phenomenon works is that now, when someone legitimately objects to the unethical handling of this episode by the school, they can be portrayed as agreeing with white supremacists.
We saw this effect in full bloom in Charlottesville. Tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee is a form of historical airbrushing and censorship, and principled, objective critics (like me) condemned the statue-toppling mania. Then the alt-right and the white nationalists marched against the removal of a Lee statue, and suddenly if you objected to a memorial to a major figure in American history and a bona fide military hero whose life is a wealth of lessons for all of us, it meant you were siding with racists. President Trump was effectively trapped by this Catch-22.
4. Segue Alert 2! And speaking of the Left’s increasing enthusiasm for censorship and thought control, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” have been pulled from school curricula by the Duluth School District in Minnesota. The local NAACP chapter has been pushing for this for many years, apparently. “We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” the district’s director of curriculum, Michael Cary, told news media, adding that for “a number of years” some students have said the racial slurs make them feel “uncomfortable.”
The Duluth-area NAACP finds itself creating an unlikely echo of Jim Crow fans who sought to kill To Kill a Mockingbird because it made white people feel bad about themselves. Denouncing the book as “immoral” and “improper,” the Hanover County School Board in Virginia voted unanimously to remove it from schools in 1966. Lee replied tartly of the board: “What I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read. Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”
…Literature is supposed to help readers accomplish what Atticus Finch famously advised his daughter Scout to do: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It is doing no favors for young people to quarantine them from books that consider other ages, other mores, other viewpoints — some of which were vile. Learning to grapple with such discomfiting truths is a part of growing up, or used to be. Now the push to turn the whole of literature into a safe space is reinforcing the urge to postpone adulthood indefinitely. As Twain once said, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
When I was a lad, it was the Right that was always trying to stop us from reading, watching and hearing things, and liberals were the champions of free speech, expression, and access to literature and the arts. How did progressives become so corrupted and estranged from their own values?
5. Finally, a few comments about “Spermgate.” The earlier post regarding the possibility that President Obama’s hand-picked portrait artist may have inflicted a gross image on the painting gleaned what I regard as head-exploding reactions from some commenters from whom I have reason to expect better. Those reactions I would characterize as Rationalization #33. The Management Shrug, or “Don’t sweat the small stuff!”:
…Not only does the accumulation of little wrongs, ineptitudes and transgressions erode values, cultural norms and efficiency, it also eventually undermines the mission and goals as well. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is the mark of a bad manager as well as leaders who encourage and foster bad management. The philosophy is one of built in excuses for failures, on the logically absurd theory that a thousand little failures won’t add up to one big one.
I don’t even agree that the imprint of a sperm cell—the artist’s trademark, we have learned—on the face of a former President in an artwork created for the National Gallery to be viewed by proud American citizens–is a trivial matter. Ace Commenter Mrs. Q, as she usually does, nails why:
Kehinde Wiley has a large piece I’ve seen in the local major museum here. Personally his work isn’t my taste but having read about his art, especially the infamous decapitated white ladies, I don’t find his work objectionable. What is objectionable is a former President picking an artist whose work is fairly pedestrian save for the chronic sperm depictions. Seriously, how would the Obamas NOT be aware of Wiley’s wiley work?
Picking this artist to paint a Whitehouse portrait calls into question the Obamas’common sense and legacy. It will be permanently tarnished (not that it wasn’t already) by a juvenile choice to pick a juvenile artist.
This is about more than sperm, art, and patriotism. This is about making a moral choice for our country in a time of severe deception and division. This is about a former world leader being a leader and not being enmeshed with political statement artists when it counts. And as history and museums show us, portraits do count.
Another Ace Commenter asked, “Why should anyone care other than Barack Obama?”
Well, here’s why I care, dammit. He’s one of our Presidents. The portrait is going to hang in the National Portrait Gallery with other POTUS images, and that means that Barack Obama’s permanent image in our nation’s Capitol should not be flip, or edgy, or disrespectful to the man, the office, the venue, the nation, or the Republic. Obama didn’t pay for the work, taxpayers did. Quite simply, a vulgar image–and a sperm represents a bodily excretion that gentlemen do not display in public unless they are Louis C.K.—does not belong on a Presidential portrait. I don’t care that it’s his signature, of sorts: that signature doesn’t belong on a portrait of a President of the United States that will be on public display under the auspices of the United States Government, and anyone who argues otherwise is spinning so hard they might corkscrew themselves into the ground.
This isn’t Obama’s portrait to indulge himself with. If the painting is going to hang in his Presidential Taj Mahal, that is, library, or his home, fine. He can let the juvenile artist put the outline of a penis on his face: that will let us know something about his taste and sense of propriety. But this portrait is for the rest of America, and posterity. The real “who cares?” is the artist’s identity and his trademarks. Outside of Gilbert Stuart, how many painters of Presidents can you name? What matters is the subject, and what the portraits represent.
There are other problems with Obama’s sperm-vein, besides that fact that “factcheckers” and the Left’s mouthpieces are denying that it is there, thus proving what untrustworthy, dishonest hacks they are. We have been bashing the current President for his boorishness and lack of couth and decorum for over a year, and now the most vociferous Trump-haters are saying that it is trivial that the previous President may have allowed his official portrait to include a sperm on his face?
Then there is this: there has been a rumor of long-standing that Obama is a closeted gay man (not that there’s anything wrong with that) What kind of man ends up with sperm on his face? If a homophobic anti-Obama critic created such a drawing, it would be attacked. Or is Obama tacitly trolling his critics? Or is he acknowledging something? Here’s a rule: “No secret messages, symbols or images in portraits commissioned for national display” How about that? No dirty words, like the “sex” that a sophomoric animator stuck into the sky in “The Lion King”; no suggestive images, like you get when you fold the Land ‘O Lakes girl juuust right…
—no cleverly disguised or hidden sex organs, turds, swastikas, no racially-charged objects like basketballs, chicken wings or watermelons, so coded initials, and no sperms.
Again, I must say: I’m amazed that I even have to write this.