The Giving Review last week featured my co-editor Bill Schambra’s excellent summary and analysis of the events surrounding the recent L’affaire Kanders at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In his essay, Schambra focuses in particular on the shift of Ford Foundation president Darren Walker in talking about the resignation—removal, really—of the museum’s longtime benefactor and board member Warren Kanders, owner of the Safariland defense-manufacturing company.

Walker’s initial response in July was according to the “conventional-correctness” script. He pronounced himself—and, by implication, all men and women of good will—resolutely for diversity. Enough of those of wealth and station who hold the cultural heights owing to an economic system which brought these people the status of feudal lords. Exile them. Raze their chateauxs. As one of that class, Kanders stands in the way to “greater cultural egalitarianism and diversity,” as Walker put it.

Within weeks—almost as quickly as the Kerensky Provisional Government in Russia was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917—Walker had second thoughts. Apparently, he awoke to the strong possibility that groups like Decolonize This Place were coming pitchforks in hand for all the museums, guilty as charged of “commodifying culture.”  

The proletarian vanguard of the Decolonize movement has no use for the illegitimate principles, values, and institutions of Western culture. Much like the iconoclasts of the Byzantine era, Robespierre and the Jacobins of the French Revolution sacking the altar of Notre Dame de Paris to initiate the Cult of the Supreme Being, the Bolsheviks burning the churches and melting down those bells in the early years of the Russian Revolution, and Mao and his comrades-in-arms remaking Chinese society, the white scions of capitalism be heaped one and all into the dustbin of history.

Schambra’s piece leaves little doubt that Walker, in his quick reversal, must have experienced a “come-to-history” moment about the long and winding road ahead. Joel Kotkin recently noted in City Journal that Silicon Valley, with its elites being turned against by their employed technologists, may be on a similar road.

Schambra is certainly on solid ground in encouraging donors to think long and hard about the future of cultural philanthropy. As well, his advice to think globally, but act locally is both sound and far-sighted.

Dérapage and dictatorship

He brings to mind an intelligent and prescient 1994 book by noted Time columnist and well-respected international New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein, Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future.

In the book, Bernstein develops a dual thesis. First, a once-liberal impulse to welcome into the public culture more elements of the diverse American experience has merged with the forces of political correctness to create a powerful “dictatorship of virtue.” Second, assimilation into the American mainstream has become a taboo notion; as the new “dictators” strive to suppress the mainstream in the institutions they control, our common culture has itself begun to wither.

Bernstein uses a term favored by scholars of the French Revolution—dérapage, a “skid” or “slide”—to describe what had happened over the past decade or so, as a movement “aimed supposedly at a greater inclusiveness … has somehow slipped from its moorings and turned into a new petrified opinion of the sort it was supposed to transcend.”

No guillotines have yet been erected in public squares, but more and more leaders and would-be leaders of our most-elite cultural, social, and educational institutions have used rhetoric reminiscent of Robespierre. Bernstein underscores the irony here, as values such as pluralism, diversity, openness, and inclusion are repeatedly invoked to justify actions that smack of authoritarianism, closed-mindedness, and uniformity. 

Schambra’s lucid essay on L’affaire Kanders evokes feint, distant sounds of the tumbrel, footsteps to the guillotine, and slash of the blade.