Back when the Soviet Union was in its terminal stages, Roald Sagdeev, one of its most distinguished scientists who had come to live in this country, told me a story about a return visit he had made to his homeland. Sagdeev found himself in the company of longtime dissident intellectual friends who were now proudly engaged in the battle to rewrite the country's history books, hoping to liberate them from 70 years of official propaganda and lies. As they recounted their progress toward getting their own more realistic version of history accepted as a replacement for the old authorized text, Sagdeev said he congratulated them, but added a thought, which had not crossed any of their minds. "You know," he said he told them, "when you have real glasnost, there won't be a single authorized text; you won't be fighting about what goes into just one book, one accepted rendering of the truth."
These wise words were born of Sagdeev's keen understanding and appreciation of intellectual freedom as generally practiced, not just preached, in the West. While I don't begin to liken our own current circumstances to those at any stage of the Soviet Union's rise or fall, I do think we should ponder this admonition. For the cultural-commissar impulse seems to me to be gaining strength in this country and doing more than a little to despoil the cultural landscape. There have been the museum fights -- over the National Museum of American Art's revisionist exhibition, "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920"; the Smithsonian's proposed Enola Gay exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and now a new dispute over a Library of Congress plan for a major exhibition on the increasingly reviled and hotly defended Sigmund Freud. There have been the commemorations, such as the ill-starred 500th anniversary party for Christopher Columbus, estimable explorer or malignant continent-wrecker, depending how you look at it. There have been the protracted disputes over federal funding for arts and humanities projects through the two National Endowments. And there has been the continuing, bitter argument over what does and does not qualify for mention in our history books-and how many mentions as compared with how many mentions of something else.
I write as one who believes in the necessity, not just the virtue, of continuing reinspection of our inherited historical certitudes, of intellectual ferment and fist fighting as a way of life and of unlimited license to challenge, criticize (and even defend!) the nation's most treasured pieties. When all this is properly in play our understanding will be expanded, refined; elements of ambiguity or complexity or doubt will be admitted to the picture. But that is not what I see going on in the cultural conflicts that abound today. I see something more like an intellectual form of the old kid's game, capture the flag. It is intended to end in a kind of winner-take-all victory, one side beating the other side and rejecting the plausible as well as the implausible aspects of its argument. This is the commissar impulse. It is political, territorial, imperial, doctrinaire -- anti-intellectual, I would say.
Most such disputes that have come to national attention in recent years have certain features in common. Roughly, they are disputes between the so-called politically correct, professional trashers of every comforting American belief about ourselves, on the one side, and, on the other, those who would not let any air into the room or dissent into the picture or alteration into the curriculum at all. The disputes tend also, notably, to be about federally funded national enterprises. It was an unintended and unacknowledged, if wholly predictable, consequence of the great increase in government-subsidized art, education and culture that these conflicts burgeoned. Even indirect and only partial federal financing was bound to produce fury in a case like that of the famous Andres Serrano "Piss Christ" -- a photograph which, as The Washington Post sublimely understated, "many people find offensive, Christians in particular," as it is "of Christ on a crucifix submerged in a container of the artist's urine." Pondering how one might feel about any federal sponsorship of a picture, say, of a torah or a bust of President Kennedy or Martin Luther King submerged in urine, suggests, at least to me, that such depiction of objects that have sacramental or even talismanic meaning to groups of Americans is inappropriate on the government dime. I know lines are hard to draw; but I don't think they're impossible. And in a way the federal funding of such projects is, though explosive, the easiest part of the problem to solve.
What is harder, in my view, is getting zealots to back off their campaigns to establish their own side's authorized, closed rendition of history or menu of suitable reading matter or acceptable art. In a way, much of the effort from both sides to impose their standards is destructive of the very cultural material they presume to champion. They use art and literature and history for a political purpose, crop and narrow and otherwise abuse the material, put it in the service of doctrine and end up with something no more alive or edifying than that old socialist-realism junk that embellished Soviet buildings as art.
In much of the literary conflict, for instance, I find myself by temperament and taste on the old-fud, traditionalist side. Yet I can only be offended by some of the shrill insistence that this kind of literature alone can and must be read by students. Except for William Bennett, someone who actually reads and enjoys the works he prescribes, most of them, while issuing their nonnegotiable demands for the reading of Shakespeare, say, strike me as people who have not picked up a Shakespeare play and spent a afternoon reading it for pleasure in living memory, if ever. They have a way of talking about the classics that suggests they see them as medicine to be taken and haven't a clue that such works can be sources of great joy. They are not "into" culture at all, only culture wars.
I wish there were some realistic prospect of putting an end to the conflict or at least bringing it a little measure and sense. But I don't see any in the near future. For the moment it's like the Iran-Iraq war of the early '80s. You watch it and hope both sides lose.