In my one lucky private audience with genius and futurist Herman Kahn, he mused about how societies periodically forget important lessons of conduct that had been that absorbed by the culture over decades or even centuries. The result, he said, can be disastrous, even fatal to a civilization.
At the time he was talking about the Sixties-sparked cultural amnesia about the reasons sexual promiscuity and having children out of marriage were societal poison–forgetting THAT has worked out well, don’t you think? Yet I have thought about Kahn’s observation a lot lately, as for the second time in my life the nation I live in appears to be suffering from a cultural nervous breakdown.
As toxic as it is, the embrace of historical airbrushing is far from the most dangerous of the examples of this phenomenon that threaten the U.S. today, but it is one of the flagrant. Not for the first time, San Francisco is giving us a vivid demonstration of what happens when, as Herman put it, “whole cultures go stupid.” If the right lesson are learned before it is too late, maybe the ultimate effects will be positive.
I am not optimistic. After all, San Francisco’s peculiar version of social justice has led to a city culture that regards human feces on sidewalks and public places as acceptable.
The San Francisco school board unanimously voted this week to spend at least $600,000 of taxpayer money to eliminate the “Life of Washington,” a 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural that has been on view in the city’s George Washington High School since 1936. It was considered politically incorrect at the time, but in a way that explicated American history rather than whitewashing it. Among the mural’s many scenes is one depicting slaves picking cotton at Mount Vernon and Virginia colonists walking past a dead Native American. The Horror. Although these scenes are historically accurate as well as provocative, “The truth will make you free” has been substantially abandoned by the Left in the U.S. Taking their cues from the dead and rotten Soviet Union and “1984”, the new slogan is George Orwell’s “Who controls the past controls the future.”
This is ironic, since the overtly political work being sent down the memory hole was painted by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian immigrant and outspoken Communist who worked with the famous Depression “worker’s artist” Diego Rivera in Mexico. “The artist is a critic of society,” he once said. Arnautoff painted his striking mural (funded by FDR’s WPA) to challenge another kind of historical airbrushing, the hagiography defining America’s Founders, like Washington. Robert W. Cherny wrote in “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art,”
“At the time, high school history classes typically ignored the incongruity that Washington and others among the nation’s founders subscribed to the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet owned other human beings as chattel.”
So obviously—I guess it’s no longer obvious, is it?–the mural and its background could sustain a series of valuable courses all by itself, on Washington, slavery, Virginia, the moral and ethical dilemmas involved in the colonization of North America, the aspirations and reality of the Declaration, the origins of race relations in the U.S., public art, the use of legends in place of history, public art during the New Deal….oh, I think I could list at least twenty or more. What a marvelous resource for a high school to have on its premises—marvelous, that is, if the intention is to expand and stimulate young minds rather that to indoctrinate them.
Some people still comprehend this, even in a city that keeps electing Nancy Pelosi to Congress. “This is a radical and critical work of art,” the school’s alumni association says. “There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical and educational value. Whitewashing them will simply result in another ‘whitewash’ of the full truth about American history.”
Well, of course. Oops! There I go again.
The school board decided paint over the offending artwork. School board member Faauuga Moliga, a lunatic, explained that that what mattered was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.” You know, my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan show, “Ruddigore,” involves a portrait gallery that comes alive and periodically kills the owner of the castle where the paintings reside. Now THAT’S artwork that justifies feeling unsafe. For artwork in the real, non-Gilbertian world, however, the use of “safe ” employed by Moliga is Humpty-Dumptyism, making words mean whatever the speaker wants them to.
There is nothing unsafe about facts, art, words or ideas. Nonetheless, Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, made it clear that Moliga was not alone in rank idiocy, by explaining to a New York Times columnist that removing or hiding the murals would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Can’t have that! He described the $600,000 being spent to destroy an important work of art as “reparations.”
He really did.
How far gone does a citizen of San Francisco have to be to vote for someone who could make such a fatuous argument? How could a whole city reach the point that a majority of its voters wouldn’t react to such nonsense with a resounding, “WHAT???” How can a nation effectively counteract a major cultural center like San Francisco when it starts thinking like that—you know, stupidly—before its ruinous rejection of the principles of democracy, not to mention education and common sense, spreads like a contagion?
The contagion within the City by the Bay appears to be the “Reflection and Action Working Group,” a committee of activists, students, artists and assembled by the ever-woke school district, seeking more wokeness. The group ruled earlier this year that the painting “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” and does not reflect “social justice.”
The rapidity with which this particular amnesia attack struck Progressive Land is particularly frightening. Progressive New York Times columnist Bari Weiss gets it: she began her recent op-ed condemning the school board’s lunacy by recalling how in 2002, John Ashcroft’s Justice Department was mercilessly mocked by Democrats and liberals (among others) for spending $8,000 on blue curtains to cover up the voluptuous Spirit of Justice statue and the bare-chested male “the Majesty of Law,” in the department’s Great Hall. She notes,
A young Pete Buttigieg wrote, “It seems odd that an infant is supposed to feed on them, and a grown man is expected at some point to behold them, but for a period in between we feel the need to see to it that no child ever sees a breast.” I wonder, then, what Mr. Buttigieg, now on the presidential campaign trail, would make of the San Francisco school board’s unanimous decision on Tuesday night to spend at least $600,000 of taxpayer money not just to shroud a historic work of art but to destroy it.
That would be a great question to ask him in a debate, except that the decision to only allow Democratic Party-supporting news organizations host debates pretty much ensures that Pete will never have to try to tap-dance his way through an answer.
All are fair game for censorship in a worldview that insists that words and images are to be judged based on how “safe” they make people feel. “If K-12 schools start to provide top-down total protection from the emotional pain of confronting uncomfortable ideas — like what actually happened in real American history — we should not be at all surprised when these people go on to college campuses and then, into the work force, and demand the same sort of comforts: safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression prevention, and so on,” said Robby Soave, the author of “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.” He added: “That’s not on them. That’s on us.”
…Arnautoff was intimately familiar with it, having been interrogated in 1956 by the House Un-American Activities Committee for drawing a caricature of Vice President Richard Nixon. But I suspect he would have been surprised to learn that more than 60 years later, progressives in charge of educating San Francisco’s children are merrily following this un-American playbook.
If only it was just San Francisco….