Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Swift Affirmation

In a letter dated July 7 and published online at Harper's Magazine the following day, more than 150 "luminaries" from various fields argued

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.

You might think that "the free exchange of information and ideas" is a bedrock principle memorialized in the US Constitution and a cherished democratic value.  However, the letter has spurred a counter-letter featuring 160 academics and journalists and one columnist who slammed "the romanticized concept of 'open debate' (as) inherently democratic or even 'open' at all."  (Yes,that's a journalist opposed to open debate- and the counter-letter is even sillier.)

Less than a week later, however, the Harper letter warning of the "need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences" already has been demonstrated. A writer at Reason magazine explains

Until last week, Gary Garrels was senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). He resigned his position after museum employees circulated a petition that accused him of racism and demanded his immediate ouster.

"Gary's removal from SFMOMA is non-negotiable," read the petition. "Considering his lengthy tenure at this institution, we ask just how long have his toxic white supremacist beliefs regarding race and equity directed his position curating the content of the museum?"

This accusation—that Garrels' choices as an art curator are guided by white supremacist beliefs—is a very serious one. Unsurprisingly, it does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny.

The petitioners cite few examples of anything even approaching bad behavior from Garrels. Their sole complaint is that he allegedly concluded a presentation on how to diversify the museum's holdings by saying, "don't worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists."

Garrels has apparently articulated this sentiment on more than one occasion. According to, he said that it would be impossible to completely shun white artists, because this would constitute "reverse discrimination." That's the sum total of his alleged crimes. He made a perfectly benign, wholly inoffensive, obviously true statement that at least some of the museum's featured artists would continue to be white. The petition lists no other specific grievances.

You might think that one of the most prominent art curators in the country—with 20 years of experience at SFMOMA—would be able to weather such a pathetically weak accusation of racism. But in the current cultural moment, it appears not. Garrels promptly resigned.

He resigned not for anything he did nor for saying anything racist. He resigned because he wanted to reassure art patrons that the artists whose works would be displayed wouldn't be exclusively minorities. That's an approach only the truly privileged, individuals who expect everything to fit their own perspective, could be offended by. 

Gary Garrels' fear that he could no longer work at the museum confirms the observation of the Harper letter that "the forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world"  and "steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal."

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