The Founding Fathers often serve as a rhetorical backstop for progressives who wish to dismiss conservatives’ concerns about erasing history. Whatever happens, “nobody’s going to get rid of the Founders,” the retort usually goes. During a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2017, Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed, when asked whether Jefferson was next on the chopping block, confidently claimed, “You’re not going to have American history without Jefferson. . . . It’s not the Soviet Union.”
Not for lack of trying, answered the San Francisco Board of Education! A mere two years after the controversy over Confederate monuments, a mural featuring George Washington is slated to be taken down. After some students complained that the images of a dead Native American and enslaved African Americans in The Life of Washington made them feel uncomfortable, the Board was pressured into voting for its removal.
One might assume this was a fresco that glorified the treatment of Native Americans and whitewashed the history of slavery. The exact opposite, in fact. The mural was created by a Russian émigré named Victor Arnatauff, an actual Communist who painted in the social-realist style. Connecting Washington with slavery and the killing of indigenous peoples was unusual for the time; Arnatauff included these scenes as a critique of the Founding.
It’s hard to overstate how rock-stupid this controversy is. The idea that the mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression,” as the Board claims, is ludicrous to anyone who actually looks at it. In the scene with the dead Native American, Washington points toward a band of armed explorers in buckskin marching over the native’s corpse. He isn’t looking at the body, however: He’s facing in the other direction, conversing with other Founders over a map of North America.
It’s a powerful statement about how the Founding Fathers, in their idealism and ambition, did not focus on the bloody realities of early America. But progressives seem to think that high-schoolers aren’t intellectually capable of discussing difficult moral questions such as “Is slavery bad?” They also don’t seem to believe that young adults have the emotional bandwidth to calmly walk past depictions of violent periods in our past.
First, that thinking rules out ever honestly describing slavery in a textbook or class. Second, what happened to the sneering rejoinder of “If you don’t like it, don’t look.” I thought conservatives were the ones who panicked over controversial art.
The mural (which lies about 20 blocks from my house) wasn’t even particularly opposed by the student body. According to teachers who attended the public hearings over the mural, the majority of students were against its removal or just apathetic. But a small group of outside busybodies joined with a few students to ensure that it would be removed from the public’s sight. Once the words “racist” or “white supremacist” are attached to something, no matter how inaccurate, liberals will not risk their reputation by defending it.
And don’t take any comfort from the fact that the mural’s opponents say they are not condemning Washington per se, just the depictions of slavery and violence. Matt Haney, the former Board president and now a city supervisor, has floated the idea of renaming any school named after a slaveholder such as Washington.
In the progressive narrative of American culture, the Left is supposed to be on the side of enlightenment through education and free thought. Favorite progressive rituals include celebrating “Banned Books Day” and mocking states that omit evolution and that paper over slavery in their textbooks.
But literally putting George Washington behind curtains? That’s just practicing your “values.”
Oh, and the kicker? The board now has three options it will vote on: covering the mural with curtains, painting it over, or placing acoustic panels over it, with respective costs of $375,000, $600,000, or $875,000.
In a school district facing a severe shortage of teachers, those funds could pay the salaries of around 14 first-year teachers. I suppose, however, that the Board has other priorities.