One of the great mistakes we make in the whole political debate over “wokeness” or “cancel culture” is to view this as primarily a political phenomenon or issue. But this movement on the left, by whatever name we call it, is more like a moral reform crusade or even an evangelical religious revival—a “Great Awokening” following the same general lines as the Great Awakening. (“The Awakenings all resulted from powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of personal guilt.”)
The consequences will be primarily intellectual or spiritual and will also follow the same patterns of religious hysterias. Wokeness is obscurantist, diminishing the minds of its adherents or victims by blocking out ideas and experiences that are considered a distraction from perfect piety.
This is a more useful perspective from which to view the latest crusade against a sculpture.
On October 18, the New York City Public Design Commission was poised to approve the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the city council chamber at City Hall and put it on indefinite loan to a private institution, the New-York Historical Society. Supporters of the action denounced Jefferson as—in the words of a former council member who first proposed the removal twenty years ago—a “slave-owning pedophile” whose symbolic presence was a glaring injustice and a nauseating offense, especially to the city’s black, Hispanic, and other non-white citizens.
After a white supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio had authorized a review of numerous supposed “hate” symbols in public view around the city. The drive to remove Jefferson gained new life in the wake of controversies elsewhere over removing Confederate statues, and was made all the more fraught by the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Members of the city council advanced to the stage where they needed only a say-so from the Public Design Commission, a majority of whose members are appointed by the mayor. The deal, evidently, was already done. Even before an official decision had been made, a packing crate was at the ready to cart Jefferson’s likeness uptown to the Historical Society.
That is the intro to historian Sean Wilentz’s excellent case against removing the sculpture and his defense of Jefferson’s real legacy, which was to proclaim the natural equality of man.
Indeed, it was Jefferson, more than any other American, who set the standard by which we find him so lacking, the universal standard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked when he quoted Jefferson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln, meanwhile, warned that those who would forsake Jefferson were “the vanguard—the miners and sappers—of returning despotism.”
But we should view this, not just as a question about our views of Jefferson or of history, but about our views of art and the role of art, a question Wilentz only begins to hint at.
What would it mean to, in effect, decommission a piece of public art for indefinite relocation to a private institution that charged a fee for admission? I didn’t have to wonder too hard what Eli would have thought: He’d have been appalled, and he would have been right. And while the New-York Historical Society would certainly do an excellent job presenting the statue to its guests, the point of originally placing the statue in City Hall was to give it a symbolic stature, one that it could never possess if placed almost anywhere else.
What is troubling is that almost no one talks about the actual artistic merit and message of this sculpture as a work of art. The statue is a plaster copy of a bronze version that still stands in the US Capitol. It was made in 1834 by French sculptor David d’Angers, a fervent republican (with a small “r”) who was briefly exiled later in life for opposing Napoleon III’s coup d’etat. It was commissioned by Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy.
Levy’s motivation, to celebrate the religious liberty that allowed him a career of military service, is paramount to the sculpture’s intended (and lost) meaning. Levy wrote in a letter, “For his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to personally commission a statue of Jefferson.”
The sculpture shows Jefferson with the text of the Declaration of Independence, but also with books at his feet to commemorate his role as a champion of learning and education.
But we don’t see any of that, we don’t know any of that, if we reduce this to a crude morality tale in which figures from the past are symbolically purged to score points in the political battles of the present.
There are many interesting discussions to be had about Jefferson’s role, his ideas, and his legacy, but the point of removing this sculpture—or destroying it, as the original sponsor of a resolution to move the sculpture would prefer—is to eliminate or avoid those discussions, including the contribution to the debate made by Jefferson’s original admirers like Levy and d’Angers.
There are exceptions, and in a few places, instead of tearing down sculptures, they are putting up new ones—see this sculpture of Harriet Tubman which seems to have some artistic merit—though this is not what gets the attention and publicity, on either side.
On Twitter, someone suggested to me that the lesson of the New York case is that maybe people just aren’t that interested in statues any more, so the disappearance of one is viewed as just another bit of political wrangling and not as a spiritual loss. That struck me as the most ominous interpretation, but also perhaps the most accurate.
Consider an even more sweeping example that has earned somewhat less national attention: the Art Institute of Chicago’s decision to dismiss 122 unpaid docents in favor of a system that will be more “inclusive” and focused on “class and income equity.” In other words: the volunteer docents were too white and too well-off. Consider what the Institute is throwing away.
Despite the lack of remuneration—they do this to be helpful and because they love art—their training to be docents is extremely rigorous. First, they have to have two training sessions per week for eighteen months, and then “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas” (quote from the docents’ letter to the Director of the AIC). On top of that, there’s monthly and biweekly training on new exhibits. Then there are the tours themselves, with a docent giving up to two one-hour tours per day for 18 weeks of the year and a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families. Their average length of service: 15 years....
Many of the volunteers—though not all—are older white women, who have the time and resources to devote so much free labor to the Museum. But the demographics of that group weren’t appealing to the AIC, and so, in late September, the AIC fired all of them.
The result: “There will have to be many fewer tours, and with a much less well-trained group of guides.” Another local article is more blunt.
Know what this tells me? That the Art Institute has lost its commitment to its patrons. The Institute is being run for the benefit of the woke bureaucracy that’s now in charge. Nuts to all the tourists who include Chicago on their itinerary because they want to visit the Art Institute. Nuts to the regular Chicagoans and suburbanites who take out memberships because they like to visit frequently, sometimes on the spur of the moment. Nuts to the black and brown Chicago school children who benefited mightily from the docent tours.
It’s a sad commentary on what the woke mindset has gifted to us—another reduction in the quality of our lives.
I used to live in Chicago, so I know the Art Institute very well. It is probably best known for its extensive collection of Impressionist works, the appreciation of which benefits in no way at all from a knowledge of contemporary racial politics. But appreciation of politics now takes precedence over appreciation of art.
I have written before about the parallels between our darkening age and the Christian fanaticism of the late Roman Empire. I am reminded now of what an art historian once told me about late Roman art: it was as if an entire society was going blind. The art became cruder and less detailed, losing the finely wrought realism of the previous era, as if artists were simply losing their ability to observe the world around them.
Now we know how it happened. It was a choice not to look and not to see, to regard art’s engagement with the world as less important that a moralistic imperative imposed from above. That is what puts the “obscure” in “obscurantist.”
Art is merely the leading edge of a larger trend. Consider the case of Dorian Abbot, a University of Chicago geophysicist asked to give a talk on his research at MIT. But the invitation was withdrawn because elsewhere, Abbot had expressed disagreement with affirmative action policies.
Some faculty members and graduate students argued that Dr. Abbot, a professor at the University of Chicago, had created harm by speaking out against aspects of affirmative action and diversity programs. In videos and opinion pieces, Dr. Abbot, who is white, has asserted that such programs treat “people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century.” He said that he favored a diverse pool of applicants selected on merit.
He said that his planned lecture at MIT would have made no mention of his views on affirmative action. But his opponents in the sciences argued he represented an “infuriating,” “inappropriate,” and oppressive choice.
In effect, this creates a political litmus test for the physical sciences. And this is only the beginning, compared to what is being proposed
A few fields have purged scientific terms and names seen by some as offensive, and there is a rising call for “citational justice,” arguing that professors and graduate students should seek to cite more Black, Latino, Asian and Native American scholars and in some cases refuse to acknowledge in footnotes the research of those who hold distasteful views.
As Abbot puts it, “We’re not going to do the best science we can if we are constrained ideologically.” But for the woke obscurantists, doing the best science is not the goal. As one academic replies, “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” Think for a moment about the insidious racism of that statement, its implication that non-white scientists are incapable of intellectual rigor.
Similarly, a proposed new California state math curriculum “suggested that math should not be colorblind and that teachers could use lessons to explore social justice.” It also “rejected the idea of naturally gifted children” by advocating the elimination of special advanced math courses in middle school and high school.
Our elite culture is intent on making itself go blind in both the arts and the sciences.
The primary cost of this is not political but intellectual and spiritual: the diminished range and depth of human souls.
Something clearly needs to be done, so a group of anti-woke academics and intellectuals has announced that they are starting a new university in Austin, Texas.
Our students will be exposed to the deepest wisdom of civilization and learn to encounter works not as dead traditions but as fierce contests of timeless significance that help human beings distinguish between what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful, and ugly. Students will come to see such open inquiry as a lifetime activity that demands of them a brave, sometimes discomfiting, search for enduring truths.
This core purpose—the intrepid pursuit of truth—has been at the heart of education since Plato founded his Academy in 387 BC. Reviving it would produce a resilient (or “antifragile”) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively. Such graduates will be the future leaders best prepared to address humanity’s challenges.
The board of advisors for this venture contains some people whose work I admire, including friends of Symposium like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Rauch. And then there is that great friend of liberalism and free inquiry...Sohrab Ahmari? Cue the record scratch sound.
Ahmari, as you may recall, is a prominent opponent of liberalism, in any sense of the word, and specifically of free inquiry. A chapter in his recent book takes on the question, “Should you think for yourself?” and answers in the negative. The University of Austin’s founders know this and chose him anyway. Ahmari explains: “I told the founders that, standing in the ancient tradition of Catholic education, I don’t, in fact, believe that the university can or should enshrine mere free speech or free inquiry as its highest ideal. I was pleasantly surprised when they replied, ‘That’s why we want you.’”
It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, as if they had loudly announced a university devoted to free inquiry and then said they were picking Ibram X. Kendi as one of their advisors. Ahmari is in much the same position with regard to the illiberal right as Kendi is to the illiberal left, as one of its chief popularizers and media spokesmen. So this sends a very mixed message, implying that the school’s founders see enemies of liberalism to the left—but, strangely, none to the right.
Here’s why that matters. There are two wings of the “anti-woke” right. One wing is anti-woke because we’re advocates of liberalism (“classical” liberalism). The other is anti-woke because they want to impose their own authoritarian agenda. They view this not as a fight against authority but as a fight over which authority should rule. Ahmari is clearly in the second wing, fantasizing about a future in which religious conservatives would “re-order the public square” and “enforce our order and our orthodoxy.” More than that, he has spent the past few years telling people from the first wing, the classical liberals, that we are totally useless and just appeasers of the left. So putting him on the new school’s board of advisors is a rather conspicuous finger in the eye to many of us who would like to be cheering on this new venture.
That is assuming that any of this even becomes an issue, because it is not at all clear that this new entity has the funding, the faculty, the buildings, or all the other things it will need to establish itself, and the announcements so far are very light on those details.
We need new experiments and institutions for liberalism. They face high enough obstacles without also embarking on weird efforts to showcase their intellectual diversity by elevating opponents of intellectual diversity.