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INTELLECTUALS: Mute Voice of America

June 25, 1989|Douglas Davis | Douglas Davis, artist and critic, is a visiting professor this summer at the Art Center College of Design , Pasadena

In a secret speech to his generals last week, leaked by sources in Hong Kong, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly blamed the recent revolution on a handful of scholars, scientists, students and poets--most of all on Fang Lizhi, the lonely astrophysicist now taking asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Deng's claim, however exaggerated, underlines the active presence of intellectuals in pro-democracy movements throughout the communist world. This is a fact largely ignored in the United States, where uprisings are normally explained on the ground of economics or power politics, not ideas. In the Soviet Union, physicists like Andrei D. Sakharov, historians like Roy Medvedev, poets like Andrei Voznesensky, editors like Vitaly Korotich, playwrights like Mikhail Shatrov and actors like Mikhail Ulyanov have all consistently spoken out for reform and an end to official censorship.

Some have campaigned--often successfully--for office. In Moldavia, six members from the writer's union won all the seats allotted in the Chamber of Deputies to this region. In each of the three Baltic republics--Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania--artists, architects and writers were among the leaders and creators of the "popular front" parties.

Darting back and forth between raging overseas debates and deadly calm in the United States is to witness an extraordinary contradiction. While egalitarian idealism flares abroad, the intellectual and artistic community in the citadel of democracy languishes, mute and supine. Few major American artists or writers have roused themselves to impassioned support for colleagues in China or the Soviet Union. It took almost one week for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to organize a protest--in the name of an indifferent American literati--death threats directed at novelist Salman Rushdie by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

To this point not a single American equivalent of Voznesensky has spoken out against the recent rise of censorship pressure here. It includes the fundamentalist letter-writing campaigns aimed at sponsors who support "licentious" television programs like "Three's Company," plus a handful of attacks launched from the floor of the Senate on allegedly "anti-Christian" works of visual art partly funded by public money through the National Endowment for the Arts. Bereft of eloquent defenders, the irresolute sponsors and the equally irresolute endowment are begging the pardon of their attackers, led by Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.). This month, the august Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington canceled an exhibition of provocative, partly nude photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, on the debatable ground that the "political occasion . . . the present discussion" demands it.

In one sense, there is nothing new about these incidents. From the birth of our anti-aristocratic democracy, anti-intellectual rhetoric has flourished. American intellectuals have traditionally run for cover, handing over the conduct of political affairs primarily to lawyers and businessmen. Thomas Jefferson was ridiculed in early campaigns for being a "philosopher." John Quincy Adams was derided by the fans of Andrew Jackson--"John Quincy Adams who can write and Andrew Jackson who can fight"--presaging similar attacks on Adlai E. Stevenson one century later when a candidate who spoke in compound sentences dared run against Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Certainly there is no tradition of poets, professors and painters running for President, serving in legislatures or speaking out on high matters of public policy, as they regularly do in most of Europe and Latin America (French President Francois Mitterand is both poet and historian; Giovanni Spadolini, president of the Italian Senate, is a distinguished professor of history; Alan Garcia, president of Peru, is a poet, while Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has been a major opponent of the Garcia government).

The U.S. torpor becomes objectionable because such great issues are at stake. American intellectuals are hardly threatened by ugly reprisals currently applied in China, recently in the Soviet Union and at least threatened here in the 1950s when the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. equated dissent with treason.

There has been a steady anti-intellectual drum beat on the right since the late 1970s. Neo-conservatives such as Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, author William F. Buckley Jr. and political scientist Jeane J. Kirkpatrick have been blaming the ills of the post-industrial West on the Marxism they see lurking in contemporary culture. Aided by the media, they have also been proclaiming the ascendancy of old-time religion and groundhog capitalism, supposedly exemplified by Ronald Reagan's landslide victories.

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