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Michael Keegan Headshot

The Battle Over the Smithsonian and the Right's New Culture Wars

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This week, protesters marched on the National Mall to demand that the Smithsonian's Board of Regents dismiss Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough for his role in removing a work of art from one of the institution's museums and his continual bungling of the institution's response in the two months since its removal. Although one Smithsonian regent openly implied that removing the art was a mistake, the board ultimately declined to rebuke Clough, effectively closing the door on the possibility of undoing the damage done by the censorship. But the bigger fight that the Smithsonian debate represented -- over the efforts of a small and vocal group on the right to define American values for us all -- is just beginning.

As the newly empowered House GOP gears up to start culture wars on issues from reproductive rights for women to religious freedom for American Muslims, there's an important lesson to be learned from what happened this winter at the Smithsonian. Institutions and individuals will continue to come under attack from the right's powerful extremist-to-media-to-politician echo chamber. But, as the Smithsonian's experience showed once again, there is little to be gained by caving in to this loud and usually dishonest bullying. Clough's attempt at compromise -- instantly removing a work of art from an important exhibit -- only drew louder threats to censor the exhibit as a whole, while causing some of the Smithsonian's strongest supporters to lose trust in the institution. Despite what most might hope, the right is not going to stop its culture war campaigns anytime soon. The only thing the rest of us can do is aggressively tell the truth, unapologetically stand on principle, and refuse to back down.

In a report last year, People For the American Way profiled what we call "the new McCarthyism" -- a type of demagoguery that hinges on the idea that America and all it stands for is being destroyed by enemies within. This new McCarthyism -- in full display in the paranoid tirades of Glenn Beck, in the widespread fear that President Obama is an un-American imposter -- has a new foothold in Congress, where Rep. Peter King plans to hold hearings investigating American Muslims and prominent lawmakers spread myths about immigrant "anchor babies" in order to replace real efforts at immigration reform with unfounded fears about immigrants. The House GOP's fit over "anti-Christian" and -- gasp! -- gay art in the Smithsonian was a small but powerful example of this dynamic in action. GOP leaders, encouraged by far-right activists, created a narrow definition of what it means to be truly American -- straight and a certain type of Christian -- and in doing so framed the rest of us as impostors.

The right's so-called "culture wars" are more than just a sideline distraction -- even manufactured controversies can do real harm. The Smithsonian controversy was a flashy and media-ready story, but it set the tone for the many manufactured battles to come. In coming months, we must be ready to step up and make just as strong a defense of women's health organizations; of American Muslims; of gays and lesbians; of judicial nominees; of science and history; and yes, of our national museums. Not all of these issues are as exciting and easily categorized as that of censorship in our nation's capital. But it will be just as important that we all stand up to attempts to narrow the definition of what it means to be American.

It's disappointing that the Smithsonian's secretary and board were so quick to give in to the right's demagoguery and bluster. Clough's succumbing to censorship left a stain on his record at the head of the Smithsonian and unfortunately seems to have damaged the credibility of the institution. Cloughs's two months of virtual silence followed by the board's effective endorsement of his action have only made it worse. But the Smithsonian's decision is not the final word on the power of the right's newfound zeal for culture wars. Instead, it's a reminder of how important it is to stand up to those who, in attempting to root out an imaginary enemy within, threaten the vibrant diversity and individual liberties of our democracy.