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A Defender of the Humanities

books and culture

A Defender of the Humanities

The death of Bruce Cole reminds us that the NEH has lost its way. January 12, 2018
Arts and Culture
Politics and law

The unexpected death of Bruce Cole last week has been a shock to all those who care about humanistic learning. Cole led the National Endowment for the Humanities during George W. Bush’s presidency, reorienting the agency toward the support of non-politicized research and education in mankind’s greatest accomplishments. A decorated art historian with a sly sense of humor, Cole produced widely read books on Giotto, Titian, and Renaissance art more broadly during his academic career at Indiana University and prestigious European research institutes, before entering the public realm.

The Trump administration’s management of the National Endowment for the Humanities struck Cole with dismay, since it continues the politically correct orientation of the previous administration. This Saturday, the Kansas state affiliate of the NEH is screening the Black Lives Matter-inspired documentary, Whose Streets? The national NEH homepage describes Whose Streets? as “an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising after unarmed teenager Michael Brown is shot by police and left lying on the street.” (Ferguson business owners and workers whose livelihoods were destroyed by vandalism, arson, and looting would no doubt demur from using the phrase “uprising” to describe the Ferguson riots. And if Brown lay in the street, that was because gunfire at the scene made it too dangerous for police detectives to investigate.) The directors of Whose Streets? call the media coverage of the Brown shooting a “modern day lynching.” Brown was a “young boy with a bright future,” the directors claim, not a thug or a criminal, as the media allegedly portrayed him. (Never mind that Brown had strong-armed a box of cigarillos from an immigrant convenience store worker in order to make blunts just before his encounter with Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, and that Brown had pummeled Wilson through the window of his car and tried to grab Wilson’s gun.) The documentary’s claim that the media coverage of the Ferguson “uprising” was antithetical to the Black Lives Matter narrative is sheer fantasy. In fact, the media relentlessly recycled the lie that America’s police are lethally biased and that the Brown shooting exemplified that bias. Taxpayer dollars should not be underwriting a piece of propaganda like Whose Streets?; that they are doing so as a humanities initiative is preposterous. The screening is part of “Race Project KC,” undoubtedly equally uplifting.

Trump is likely to name the acting director of the NEH, under whom the Whose Streets? screening was okayed, to the permanent chair position. Jon Peede’s credentials and scholarly record (he did graduate work in Southern Studies) are thin. But his brother worked for Mike Pence and is now in the administration. Peede’s first public statement as acting chair spoke to the need to make “inclusion” “manifest in a real way.” Inclusion is a matter of communicating “down the line to your entire team that ‘this is the way it is,’” he said. Peede called on the NEH to “break down barriers of race, of gender, of class”—and to discuss “class” more often. He extolled community partnerships, but said little to nothing about beauty, greatness, or grandeur.

Trump has no apparent interest in culture. But surely someone in the administration does. The president has the opportunity to put serious humanists at the top of the NEH and as division heads. The latter could steer the agency for decades. At a time when university scholarship is mired in the narcissistic pursuit of identity politics, it is all the more important to have a counterweight speaking out for non-politicized knowledge and the experience of the sublime. It would honor Bruce Cole’s memory and put the country on a better track if the NEH were in the hands of someone who understands what is at stake in the academic assault on humanistic learning and who is determined to fight back.

Photo by Sean Pavone/iStock

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