Former PBS Anchor Attacks Christian 'Fundamentalists' As Resembling Islamic Radicals

March 13th, 2007 7:54 AM

Washington Post arts critic Philip Kennicott is enraptured in Tuesday's paper that an annual lecture sponsored by the federal-arts-subsidy lobby had evolved from "conservative curmudgeon" William Safire to a more traditional "bold and perhaps even controversial speech that included sustained criticism of religious fundamentalism." From who? Former PBS anchor Robert MacNeil, who used to be one-half of the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. Like your average liberal media anchor, MacNeil wouldn't know a fundamentalist from an evangelical from an orthodox Catholic as he lectured (sigh) that Christian fundamentalists are awfully similar to Islamic fundamentalists:

"It is inevitable that artists should become the targets of such fundamentalist anxieties," he said. "Because it is in the nature of artists to push the frontiers of taste and morality, to show society both its pieties and its hypocrisies."

....[H]e quickly turned his attention to what he called "the swing to Puritanism" that "gained energy when political consultants and lobbying organizations discovered the catnip (and the fundraising power) of pandering to those who could be persuaded that art is decadent, or immoral, or homosexual, and destructive of finer values."

And he argued that the importance of real creative freedom in the arts has never been more important, given this country's ideological battle with violent, fundamentalist Islam. He even went so far as to compare Islamic fundamentalism with Jewish and Christian fundamentalism.

"I am not for a moment suggesting that our fundamentalists harbor any violent intentions," he said, "but the initial psychology is similar to that which inspires Islamic reformers."

Here's a sign that the Washington Post and its cultural commissars aren't very interested in the concept of accuracy as much as they are in advocacy. Do Kennicott or MacNeil truly believe that "art" works like "Piss Christ" are not anti-Christian? Or Robert Mapplethorpe's photos with a bullwhip inserted in the anus are not accurately described as homosexual and decadent? That's not even approaching the idea that it's somehow accurate that Christians are crippled by a "psychology" not very far from terrorism. 

Kennicott and MacNeil also fail to acknowledge that many people who opposed the National Endowment for the Arts when they subsidized the "avant-garde" and "transgressive" works of chocolate-smearing naked Karen Finley and her ilk were not religious at all, but considered these works to be government waste, pork-barrel spending for naked dime-store philosophers.

Kennicott began the article with the pom-pom routine:

Last year when Americans for the Arts gathered here for their annual lobbying confab and the rah-rah speech to the faithful known as the Nancy Hanks Lecture, the guest of honor was William Safire, a self-described conservative curmudgeon. What a difference a year makes.

With congressional power shifted to the Democrats and star-studded hearings on the role of the arts in America scheduled for today, the chairs of the various subcommittees and caucuses that can send a little love in the arts' direction received lusty ovations. And the guest of honor was Robert MacNeil, the journalist, who gave a bold and perhaps even controversial speech that included sustained criticism of religious fundamentalism.

This beginning seems a little odd when you actually read the Safire speech from last year, which panders to the arts lobby, but I suppose fails to attack the "fundamentalist" hordes.

Late in the article, Kennicott slips into his usual routine, lamenting how horrible America is and how slow we are to realize we are horrible. MacNeil's speech ended brilliantly, we're told:

And it all built to a peroration borrowed from John F. Kennedy, "We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient" -- with "omniscient" pronounced with voluptuous attention to all four syllables.

As catnip goes, this is pretty nippy for the arts crowd, who gave it a standing ovation.

There are a few problems, however. Despite MacNeil's connection of art, and artistic freedom, to the war of ideas behind the so-called war on terror, it's not exactly clear what art is supposed to do.

"I think art can be an important weapon in the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism," MacNeil said. But how? And what kind of art?

While Kennicott quickly acknowledged you can't win over radical Muslims with dirty Mapplethorpe pictures, he then suggested the late Mapplethorpe was in his time somehow a force for America's moral reformation:

You can't win the war of ideas in the Clash of Civilizations with Robert Mapplethorpe photos, an obvious observation that the conservative scholar Dinesh D'Souza elaborated upon at book length in his scabrous attack on American liberals, "The Enemy at Home," which is subtitled "The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11." Unless, of course, you view art not as propaganda for your values, carefully packaged for foreign audiences, but rather as a form of moral reformation within your own society. Artistic freedom isn't important as an example to other people, it's essential as a goad to American conscience.

Kennicott ended by suggesting the "so-called" war on terror has ruined America's arts:

It was, perhaps, courageous of MacNeil to speak so bluntly, to an essentially liberal audience, about the threat he sees in fundamentalist Islam.

But there was something missing in this line of thinking: An acknowledgment of the extent to which the war on terror has corrupted American culture, so that we live mostly untroubled by the knowledge that we are a nation that tortures, imprisons people with little recourse to law or justice, and prosecutes optional and preemptive wars. MacNeil's defense of artistic freedom was stirring. But like the proverbial physician, we need to heal ourselves.