A San Francisco school board has voted to censor murals painted on George Washington High School—ironically, created by a radical leftist emigré—lest some fragile snowflake be triggered by seeing images of George Washington mistreating blacks and Indians.
By Dr. Kevin Barrett
I am staying in San Francisco’s historic Seal Rock Inn, next door to the room formerly occupied by notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other classics. Thompson had drug issues, wrote acerbic socio-political commentary, and was once sued for groping a woman in a hot tub. He may have been “suicided” due to his interest in alternative theories about the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Like most people, especially famous ones, Thompson had both strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. But regardless of how bad some of his vices may have been—there are rumors that his discussion of adrenochrome harvested from the adrenal glands of sacrificed children may not have been entirely fictional—I am not going to demand that the Seal Rock Inn stop telling people that Thompson did some of his writing here. History is history, whether good, bad, or ugly. We erase it at our peril.
Half a mile down the street from the Seal Rock Inn, certain unsavory aspects of American history are being literally covered up. George Washington High School, home of a series of famous murals depicting the father of our country as a slaveholder and Indian killer, has been at the center of a censorship controversy. The murals, painted by a radical leftist emigré named Victor Arnautoff, savagely criticize our founding fathers’ treatment of black people and Native Americans. If anyone were going to censor them, it should be conservatives, right?
Tellingly, it is not pro-George Washington conservatives who are pushing to censor artworks that ferociously criticize our nation’s first president and Revolutionary War hero. Instead, it is liberals and leftists who presumably agree with Arnautoff’s anti-Washington views.
Why would leftists, who agree with Arnautoff about the sins of the founding fathers, censor his art works? One reason is that some pro-censorship voices apparently don’t understand the murals. According to the Richmond Review, a neighborhood newspaper, “Those on the advisory committee calling for the destruction of the murals … say the depictions in the mural ‘glorify slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, and oppression.’ ”
This is just not true. While the intentions of authors and artists can sometimes be debated—what is Mona Lisa smiling about?—in other cases it is very clear what an artist meant in a particular work of art. There is an abundance of historical evidence showing that Arnautoff was a left-wing critic of George Washington, and that the murals in question are clearly a condemnation of Washington’s treatment of Native Americans and black slaves. Any other interpretation is either willfully perverse or just plain stupid.
Some of the murals’ critics don’t care about the artist’s intentions, or what the real message of the murals might be. They argue that students will suffer negative emotional effects when they see images of Washington mistreating blacks and Indians.
That argument might be valid in a kindergarten class. But high school students are old enough to grapple with the facts of history. The whole purpose of education is to help people overcome their emotional biases so they can think critically about contentious issues. Anyone who thinks high school students are a bunch of sensitive little snowflakes who can’t handle unpleasant historical facts is a fatuous, patronizing fool who has no business telling a civilized society how to educate its young citizens.
The controversy surrounding Arnautoff’s George Washington High School murals reveals a bizarre twist in contemporary politics: It is now the liberals who are pro-censorship, while conservatives are increasingly in favor of free speech.
It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. Every censorship controversy I remember from my misspent youth (I attended high school in the 1970s) featured left-wingers promoting free speech, even when it was vulgar or pornographic, while conservatives often favored banning such “filth” in the name of taste, decency, and conventional values.
The citadel of free speech at that time was the American Civil Liberties Union, which was widely known as a liberal-leftist organization. Today, many liberals and leftists are such fanatical censors that they want to ban everything that “triggers” them, even if it’s a message they would celebrate if they took the time to think about it. The widespread censorship of the Internet via deplatforming and shadowbanning has overwhelmingly targeted conservatives and libertarians. Few liberals and left-wingers have stood up for the free speech of people they disagree with.
Today, history itself—in the form of the leftwing Washington murals, the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, the Confederate cemetery in Madison, Wisc., and countless other monuments—is under attack. If we erase our memories of the past, both good and bad, we will be ill-prepared for the future.
Kevin Barrett, Ph.D., is an Arabist-Islamologist scholar and one of America’s best-known critics of the War on Terror. From 1991 through 2006, Dr. Barrett taught at colleges and universities in San Francisco, Paris, and Wisconsin. In 2006, however, he was attacked by Republican state legislators who called for him to be fired from his job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison due to his political opinions.