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Among the Cultural Authoritarians

Post #1769 • February 8, 2016, 1:45 PM

I came, yellow pad in hand, to yesterday's Kimono Wednesday panel at the MFA Boston with the intention of writing about it. I decided this morning that this story is barely of local import, much less national. Greg Cook has already covered the proceedings and this post relies upon it for most of the quotes below. Exceptions I heard with my own ears. Important or no, the following is worth saying.

Timothy Nagaoka, one of the counter-protesters, asked panelist and protester Xtina Wang under what conditions trying on a kimono at the museum would be acceptable. She deflected the question with dishonest talk that she wasn't trying to tell the museum what to do. This is impossible to square with the list of demands of Decolonize Our Museums, of which Wang is a founder and organizer. As I wrote last September:

Wang said that anyone can wear a kimono with full participation in the culture from it comes from, not in the sort of consumable, disposable way that the MFA supposedly presented it in. But note what was insufficient in her mind to establish full participation: Japanese sponsorship of the event, manufacture of the kimono by Japanese artisans, a history of happy Japanese participants in museums across Japan in the equivalent of Kimono Wednesdays, a slew of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Boston who wanted to see this event go forward unmolested, and an institutional history going back more than a century of world-class scholarship on the related subjects. If that's not enough, then nothing ever will be. That's by design. The supposed moral problem is a secular ghetto of the neighborhood of Original Sin.

Elena Tajima Creef put it this way: There’s nothing inherently racist about putting on a kimono and playing, but it’s part of a long racist history.

Later, new MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum talked about an exhibition he had organized at the AGO of the work of Kara Walker. It was informed by his reaching out to Rinaldo Walcott of York University, who had been critical of the AGO. His point, rather obviously, was that it was possible to come to a productive consensus around some of these difficult issues. Xtina Wang, her voice dripping with disdain, accused Teitelbaum of trotting out the example as a kind of personal justification and told him, among other things, don’t come back and tell me all the good things you’ve done for me.

The goal of DOM and related efforts is not to end prejudice. It is to remain in a permanent state of antagonism around issues of identity. Wang essentially admitted this when she said that it was an American thing to want to come up with a final solution to these problems. She thought about that phrasing for a moment, and added that it had kind of an eerie tenor to it, but went on to say that she was more concerned about the ongoing struggle against ingrained racism. I'm paraphrasing here, because I was busy trying to pick my jaw up off the floor after that invocation. That there was no collective gasp at this choice of words reminds us that progressivism has grown rife with anti-Semitism, which I pondered as Wang and her many fans in the audience directed more and more hostility at Teitelbaum.

That the real goal of what we might as well call identity extremism is a perma-crisis around race and gender was proven further when Teitelbaum pushed back, gently, against the white supremacist label being applied to the museum. That earned him a lecture from noted novelist and MIT professor Junot Díaz, who was in the audience with a group of students. He elaborated on an assertion that Wang made in brief that while white supremacist has a folkloric connotation of white guys with white hoods, it in fact has become commonly accepted that it refers to systemic and cultural problems beyond any individual. You could get rid of every white person in the world and still have white supremacy, he said. For all the self-congratulation expressed around the panel's and audience's willingness to be uncomfortable with these issues, things didn't really get touchy until Teitelbaum had the temerity to express doubts about the basis of the discussion.

That's too bad, because DOM is a product of anti-rationalist progressivism, the kind of thing that rationalist liberals have taken to calling illiberalism and the regressive left. As they note, anti-rationalist progressivism is a parasite upon rationalist efforts to bring greater justice into the world. We ought to put an end to the violence and harm that falls upon people because of their identities. But that the emotional comfort of historically oppressed peoples in the museum is a good does not mean that it is the only good. There is, for one, freedom of conscience. There is the sanctity of private experience. There are qualities of shared humanity that do not reduce to identity. There is the appreciation of artistic worth. How we can have all these things is the conversation that was too uncomfortable for this panel to have, and we did not have it.

There's an idea floating around progressivism that if we can force all consideration of human activity through the channel of identity politics, we can thereby end prejudice. (N.B. DOM's demand of the MFA that the history of art, particularly, the story of its first acquisition, be properly—properly, mind you!—acknowledged and framed as a way to begin reframing the history of the art in the context of, for instance, justification of violence against othered bodies on the streets.) I think of this notion as Better Living Through Extreme Race Consciousness. It seems self-evident that this cannot work, and that Teitelbaum has the right idea by reaching out to people on the other side of the issues to produce concrete projects informed by a synthesis of perspectives.

Instead DOM and their ilk are prone to proclamations that recall the purges of unwanted political sentiment from culture that went on under 20th-century fascism in Europe. I realize that the folkloric connotation of fascism is swastikas and armbands and death camps. But it is becoming commonly accepted that the term describes a totalitarian tendency to police thought and force culture to take up the glorification of particular political ideals. So when I call Xtina Wang a fascist, I'm not interested in whether or to what degree she hates Jews or Americans or whoever else. There's nothing inherently fascist about demanding proper ideology at the museum, but she's taking part in a history of ingrained and systemic autocracy.

See what I did there?

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