There’s a new virus in town, and it is spreading fast Unfortunately, this virus can’t be thwarted by border screenings, quarantines, and travel restrictions. It can only be fought by application of large quantities of moral courage, which in the halls of US government is as scarce as hand sanitizer in a Hong Kong convenience store. I refer, of course, to the Kowtow Virus.
Low Friends in High Places
Recently, the US National Archives walked into a buzzsaw of controversy when it was revealed that they had blurred out several signs in a massive image of the 2017 Women’s March on the National Mall. What made this especially egregious was that the image was for an exhibit on the history of women’s suffrage. For an exhibit about the struggle of women to have their voice heard, the National Archives chose to silence some of those voices because they were inconveniently critical of the Infant in Chief. The hapless spokesperson for the archives ran through a series of specious defenses including, absurdly, that because the image was not part of the collection and not an original image but a digital one, it was ok to alter it. I’m tempted to say this is what happens when you let the Instagram “no image left unfiltered” generation loose on important public business, but these decisions seem to have been motivated by purely political concerns, and undertaken by senior archival staff, all of whom should know better and all of whom, mysteriously, still appear to have their jobs.
Archives quickly realized that their actions were indefensible and they back pedaled, issuing a full-scale apology. Regardless of whether or not the image was part of your holdings or one licensed from elsewhere, no institution charged with safeguarding the public record should be in the business of altering documentary evidence. For any purpose, but especially to avoid controversy. Reality is messy and it is often controversial. Once you succumb to the temptation to scrub out some of the inconvenient bits then you have lost the public trust. If you are prepared to do that to someone else’s images, what kind of sanitizing is going on in the records held by the Archives itself? We aren’t quite at Orwellian levels of rewriting the public record to conform to present reality (“MiniPlenty malquote chocolate ration. Rectify.”). However, the willingness to engage in such tampering and, more importantly, the stunning lack of awareness of the implications of doing so in relation to an exhibition on women’s suffrage, is what indicates that there are some people at Archives that are not qualified to hold their current jobs. They would be much better served–as would the nation–by moving on to a place where their willingness to futz with the facts can be truly appreciated, like the fratbroanoic West Wing.
The story doesn’t end there. Or even begin there.
Now it turns out the the National Archives was not patient zero in this outbreak of craven hand wringing. It turns out that back in May the Library of Congress decided to use a similar image of the women’s march in its own exhibition celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage. . .and then abruptly bailed. So abruptly, in fact, that the exhibition materials still had the original photographer’s name on them. That’s right, another flagship institution, one whose explicit charge is preserving the nation’s creative and documentary materials, was apparently so frightened of the impression created by an images of tens of thousands of massed women that they replaced it with an image of 8 women marching in Houston.
Why is this widely distributed and iconic image now apparently so toxic to our public institutions? Let’s take a look at the rationales offered by the LOC.
Oh the Profanity! The first defense offered by LOC spokesperson Amy Slayton is that the new image did not include the “vulgar language” of the original. This same rationale was in fact offered by the National Archives, but in their case was demolished by the fact that one of the signs they had blurred out included the word “vagina.” Not pussy. Not Va-jay-jay. The actual anatomically correct name for the body part. Is there a lot of salty language visible on the placards of the women’s march? Of course. But it is the job of neither the Archives nor the LOC to safeguard the nation’s morals. Their job is to tell it like it is by showing how it was. If someone had lived under a rock for most of the election cycle and somehow missed the fact that a certain reality show star’s comments about pussy were all over the news, then that person probably shouldn’t be allowed outside without an escort. And if catching sight of the word “fuck” makes you clutch your pearls in an attack of the vapors, then you clearly haven’t read or seen anything ever.
Need I point out that a concern about vulgarity on signs seems to have missed the larger point: that the march was in part a protest against a man who had taken public discourse to vulgar depths that at the time seemed unplumbable. . .but which subsequently proved to be his Royal Babyness simply warming up by paddling in the shallows?
Americans are famously squeamish about profanity. It is why we end up with ridiculously dubbed movies for broadcast networks and why we have the weasel word “freakin.” It is also why Americans in general have such an impoverished cuss vocabulary when compared with, say, the Scots. Or the Welsh. Or probably Canada as well (all that rage pent up behind the niceness has to go somewhere). Profanity is a part of language. It can be a creative, expressive, entertaining part of the richness of language. I’ve heard the sententious expressions about how resorting to profanity is the refuge of people who have a limited vocabulary. And I don’t give a fuckmuppet fuck about such fucked up shitfuckery.
The Other “P” Word: The second dilemma for the LOC was not so much pussy as politics. Slayton noted that in addition to the vulgarity, the “political content was not appropriate for the Library’s exhibit.” When I read this, I just felt bad for that woman, for having to listen to those words come out of her own mouth. Remember, this is all in reference to images for an exhibition on women’s suffrage: a struggle by women for access to full participation in politics. Every single goddam image in such an exhibition represents “political content.” According to the emails obtained by the Post, the current political dimension of all this was even acknowledged by (hopefully soon to be ex-) Senior Exhibition Director Betsy Nahum-Miller: “While the vast majority of the exhibition will focus on the years leading up to attaining the vote, the exhibit will also give visitors a sense of the ongoing struggle for women in the political, economic and social realms.”
Slayton’s statement represents a common perspective, particularly among the populist right, but also on the part of some well-intentioned people, that there is a realm that is somehow magically outside politics. When it is uttered by the current president’s toadies in the Senate it takes the form of breast-beating laments that decry how their poor Dear Leader is the victim of “politics.” Because, you know, he is just a private citizen minding his own business with no influence on anyone or anything. (Sorry, I think I might have cracked a socket with how fiercely my eyes were rolling just then). Of course criticisms by one group of another group for “playing politics” or trying to “politicize” a supposedly apolitical process (like implementing the Constitution of the United States) are just naked self-interest, an attempt to lay claim to status as the only group that gets to define what is legitimate to talk about.
I think when most non-Congress people are lamenting their issue of choice becoming “politicized” what they are really complaining about is that it has become partisan. And that is a legitimate complaint, because that is pretty much the only form that national (and even local) formal political structures now take.
But politics is much, much broader. To say that “everything is political” is a canard that needs to be plucked and served in a nice Cointreau reduction. But what it does get at is the idea that politics is what happens when the desires of citizens run up against the established interests of institutions larger than themselves. Those groups of citizens may be large or small, the group may in fact be a lone individual. The established interests might be as soulless and above the law as Pennywise’s Twitter account, or as large as Google, or as small and familiar as the local school board. Wherever civic demand meets refusal, you have politics.
The hypocrisy of the LOC’s stance was made evident in the fact that the image they did use featured a woman holding a placard that said “Fight Like a Girl.” To look at that image and not see the layers of politics there, and to further look at an entire exhibition about women’s suffrage and not see that as political (in both past and present tenses) indicates that in the LOC, just as in the National Archives, there are clearly more than a few people who should be looking for work elsewhere.
Can’t Unsee! The LOC’s final argument (one that was again also deployed by the Archives staff) was that the content of the image might have been unnecessarily upsetting for some viewers. “The Library of Congress strives to present historical exhibitions that are balanced and engaging for all visitors with diverse points of view and generally seeks to avoid content that would unnecessarily alienate visitors based on political views.” Now I would have loved to ask Slayton what her criteria for “necessarily alienating” people might be, but the intent is very clear: some people might have been thoroughly turned off by this image, maybe sufficiently turned off to be turned away, and we can’t have that.
This is a ridiculous criteria for anyone who fancies themselves a curator or exhibition designer, because almost anyone can potentially be alienated by something. Moreover, if this is in fact “policy” at LOC, it flies in the face of previous exhibitions. Among the many items exhibited by the Library of Congress is the Gettysburg Address. Surely that wouldn’t alienate anyone? Except, that for partisans of the Lost Cause mythology of the Civil War (“slavery? It was all about State’s Rights, dude!”) this is a speech by a man that some still regard as the Great Satan, and it is a speech advocating that the nation take “increased devotion” to the cause for which the men buried in the cemetery (Union Soldiers only) died: crushing the Rebellion. The LOC has also exhibited drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation. Not at all alienating. . .unless you are a white Supremacist of which we now seem to have a super-abundance.
All this has happened before
People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories re-written.
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
As noted in the Post’s analysis, Nahum-Miller was in fact perfectly open about her reasons for rejecting the original image in her correspondence with the photographer, Kevin Carroll: the photo “has some other features that we know will be a problem politically and therefore need to be replaced. There were a couple of anti-Trump messages that appear very clearly in the image.” She requested another image without the anti-Trump messages, while acknowledging that the fact that they were ubiquitous at the march would probably make that difficult.
Wouldn’t want to offend the red-hatters, now would we? So in order to avoid that, LOC was prepared to tidy away very inconvenient truths. What made the first women’s march so extremely significant and an appropriate book end for an exhibition about women’s suffrage, was that it wasn’t just a protest that an ill-tempered, self-absorbed, racist, moron had been elected to the office by a minority of US voters, but the fact that gender issues were so prominent in the election, from then Candidate Pennywise’s history of sexual harassment and visceral demeaning of any woman who crossed him, to the rabid agenda by his ardent worshipers seeking to limit women’s access to reproductive care. It was a reminder that much of the “progress” made by women in the last 100 years remains desperately fragile, and the larger feminist project radically incomplete (wage equality anyone? Affordable child care?). The fact that “vagina” is in fact regarded by the Archives as a “vulgar” term is evidence of how deep run the currents of misogyny in the US.
But hey, we will ignore all that, just so that the Trumplings who visit the LOC get to maintain their grasp on the kind of alternate reality their Dear Leader prefers: a world where he is a stable genius, with the largest inauguration crowd in the history of humanity, where he won in a landslide, where one of the largest marches ever witnessed in DC never happened.
Unfortunately, this type of behavior is all too typical of flagship institutions in the US. Over the years the various Smithsonians have amassed a sorry history of caving in to real or merely anticipated conservative pressure: attempting to “depoliticize” the exhibition of the Enola Gay (i.e. refuse to even mention the only reason the plane is worthy of being exhibited), removing from public view an exhibition about the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the removal of Serrano’s “Piss Christ” from an exhibit of works by LGBTQ artists. . . to cite only the most prominent ones.
This is not the way flagship institutions should behave. If an institution enters the public exhibition arena, the goal should not be to provide feel good anodynes which enables the entire family to have a nice bonding experience before hitting up the candy floss vendor on the Mall. If people want that kind of thing they can go to Disneyland. Or watch Fox for a more rage-fueled feel-good experience. Our most prestigious cultural institutions should be drivers of the type of difficult national conversations we need to have, the ones that we need to have because so many people are able to run away from having them (by indulging in the fantasy that there are “non-political” political issues like women’s suffrage, for example). But at an absolute minimum, exhibition designers and curators should not attempt to rewrite or ignore inconvenient political realities merely because someone might be offended (ironically, this is the very archetype of the “political correctness” behavior that conservatives claim to decry, unless of course, in the kind of innate hypocrisy that has come to define modern conservatism, it benefits them).
None of this is accidental, of course. As Orwell understood so well, one of the key projects of authoritarianism is control of the public record and a concerted attempt to rewrite its more inconvenient truths. A key weapon in the fight for the future is access to documentary evidence of what happened in the past. But Orwell also understood something else. You don’t even have to go as far as the elaborate rewritings of the public record in which Winston is forced to engage in 1984. You simply have to persuade citizens to mistrust the evidence of their own senses, as O’Brien does to Winston at the end of the novel. You don’t need to alter the documentary record, just make people mistrust it.
Time for a Vacation
It is very clear that there are a bunch of people at the LOC who should be encouraged to “spend more time with their families.” Nahum-Miller for starters, but the evidence seems to suggest that the entire leadership of the Center for Exhibits and Interpretation was in on the decision. What makes this situation even worse, however, is that it flows all the way to the top. The Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, apparently also signed off on the egregious act of spinelessness.
And that creates a problem. She should resign. But as a political appointee (appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate) the only likely outcome of this is that we would get someone even worse. Just imagine who Trump might consider qualified for this post. Anne Coulter? Jared Kushner, fresh from his Middle East Peace triumph? Mike “Pompous” Pompeo? Paul Manafort? (Yes, I know he is technically “in prison,” but once Trump is re-elected he is a shoe-in for a pardon).
There is no shortage of people out there willing to deny reality and re-write history. Sadly, as the Kowtow virus spreads, the evidence is that there are more and more people who are happy to acquiesce in the construction of alternate political realities.