Beneath the Headlines: Another Presidential Committee Ups and Quits

An op-ed by Jack Levison, the WJA Power Chair of Old Testament at SMU.

John R. (Jack) Levison
Jack Levison

By Jack Levison

In the minute-by-minute debacle of modern American politics, it is easy to miss something important. For example, on Wednesday, when the headlines had to do with the CEO flight from Trump’s manufacturing and business councils, Trump officially terminated the Central Minors Program. According to the Washington Post, Obama responded to a spike in the number of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by allowing children under the age of 21 with parents lawfully living in the US to be automatically considered for provisional residency if they did not qualify for refugee protections but were still at risk of harm.

The numbers are small, insignificant in the scope of billions of people. Only 1,465 children travelled to the US through the program since December 2014. Nearly twice that number — 2,714 — have been approved but will not now be allowed to enter.

That program is quietly done. Terminated. It hardly qualifies as headline material in our current political circus.

Today, with the headlines blaring, BANNON FIRED, another quieter revolution, of a very different sort, took place. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities(whose honorary chairwoman is Melania Trump), which began in 1982 under Ronald Reagan, up and quit. All of them. Every last one.

What struck me was not the decision itself. Trump has not been amenable to the arts and humanities in general.

What strikes me is the quality and power of the letter. Committee letters are typically lowest-common-denominator literature. Bland. Boring. Banal.

Not this one. While the whole letter is compelling, the third paragraph in particular is arresting. It contains a litany worth reading. It is a litany that cuts to the heart of those of us who cherish the humanities and the arts — or simply those of us who appreciate learning and inquiry and curiosity and reading and writing and creating and imagining.

The third paragraph of this powerful leader reads like this:

Speaking truth to power is never easy, Mr. President. But it is our role as commissioners on the PCAH to do so. Art is about inclusion. The Humanities include a vibrant free press. You have attacked both. You released a budget which eliminates arts and culture agencies. You have threatened nuclear war while gutting diplomacy funding. The Administration pulled out of the Paris agreement, filed an amicus brief undermining the Civil Rights Act, and attacked our brave trans service members. You have subverted equal protections, and are committed to banning Muslims and refugee women & children from our great country. This does not unify the nation we all love.

The letter ends in this way:

Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values. Your values are not American values. We must be better than this. We are better than this. If this is not clear to you, then we call on you to resign your office, too.

We live in an era that values STEM research. I understand that. But the power of words, the compulsion of art may finally win the day and wrest us from our ignorance.

Scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his influential little book, The Prophetic Imagination, identifies the task of ancient Israel’s prophets as breaking through communal numbness. With imaginative words, like “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” With imaginative actions, such as when the prophet of Ezekiel built a wee model of Jerusalem and smashed it to bits in the hopes of convincing his people that this was not the time for false hope and pious platitudes, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” but that Babylon would crush them — which Babylon did half a decade later.

Today, I read a prophetic letter, not from ancients in long robes and certainly not from politicians in blue suits with small American flags pinned to their lapels. I read a letter from people appointed to engender imagination, erudition, even entertainment.

This letter means something to me personally. I am a university professor, the son of parents who did not themselves have a college education but who worked hard so that I might. They couldn’t teach me how to succeed on my SATs or write a college entry essay, but they did teach me to be curious and reflective.

Now my children are the beneficiaries of a liberal arts education: my daughter completed her degree at SMU in corporate communication and public affairs, and she spent an entire semester analyzing free speech and the first amendment. Next week, my son begins his junior year at SMU as a double major in photography and religious studies.

We’re not an intellectual family in the sense that we always discussed Yeats and Tolstoy at the kitchen table. But we know the value of thought, free thought, critical thinking. And today I applaud the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities for writing a letter that not only treasures the power of thought but demonstrates it.

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