- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

A few days ago, first lady Laura Bush postponed a long-planned symposium on American poetry. The cause of this postponement was a campaign by some invited guests, poets and poetry editors, to use the occasion to stage a protest against American foreign policy in Iraq specifically, the likely military action against Saddam Hussein and his government (should he continue to reject the call by the United Nations to disarm his weapons of mass destruction).
A few facts are in order. The symposium on poetry has nothing to do with American foreign policy, either in Iraq or any other part of the world, nor with any issue of controversial domestic policy. In fact, the symposium is about three of the greatest American poets of the past, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson and Langston Hughes. Laura Bush and the White House invited poets, literary critics and poetry publishers on the basis of perceived merit, and without consideration of their political affiliations or views.
A number of poets and editors declined the invitation, which is their right, because they disagree with President Bush on both his domestic and foreign policies. Many who accepted the invitation publicly declared that, in some manner, they would use the occasion to express their displeasure with Mr. Bush's policies. Many who had declined the invitation were outspokenly planning to undermine the symposium through the publication of poems and essays against the event and Mr. Bush.
While all of the above is within the right of all those invited to attend, whether they accepted the invitation or not, the symposium is a cultural event organized by the first lady. Mrs. Bush is a professional librarian, and has made the cause of literacy, reading and the encouragement of literature one of her priorities. Mrs. Bush is not a controversial figure, and has in a very short period of time established herself as a thoughtful and outstanding public figure who cares about children, education and literature. (It is interesting to note that Whitman, Dickenson and Hughes were all non-conformists, and probably would have voted in 2000 for a Democrat for president. Mrs. Bush can hardly by accused of being partisan in her choices.)
The statement announcing the postponement said that, while the protesters had a right to their opinions, so did Mrs. Bush, and that she was not going to allow political protesters to hijack a White House event that had a non-ideological, educational and cultural purpose.
Unlike music, dance, painting, cinema, sculpture, fiction and theater, poetry today barely flourishes in America outside the classroom, particularly poetry written by those who often employ gimmicks, such as political protests, to gain public attention.
It is no secret that many American poets are to the left of center. This is not a new phenomenon, nor one limited to poetry and poets. Art, especially new art, is by its nature experimental and challenging to the status quo.
Poets and other artists are also citizens and voters, and they have just as much right to express their political views, whatever they are, as anyone else. If many poets and artists choose to oppose U.S. policy in the Middle East, that is also their right. As citizens, it is even their duty to become informed about public issues and to express their views.
But the presumption that some poets have the right to speak on behalf of all poets and poetry itself is wrong. To disrupt an event such as the planned poetry symposium for partisan political purposes is an assault on national civility and on the cause of poetry itself. This is simply the wrong forum for political protest, and tells us more about the would-be protesters than their idealistic rhetoric.
A noisy crowd of polemical academics and artists have for years attempted to impose certain views on politics, education, art and culture in America. Their opinions, as stated before, are their right. But is it any surprise then that the state of art and culture in America is at a low ebb, and that the public at large takes such a dim view of those who try to impose their political views, either from the left or right, on the country? (Some will contend that I am mistaken to say that art and culture are at a low ebb. They will point to the existence of the increasing attendance at cultural events throughout the country. The increasing participation of the American public in this culture is true, but it is not an increase due to the polemics of those cultural totalitarians who act as the imperious mandarins of politically correct art. Propaganda works are not what is attracting audiences. Revivals and reworkings of popular classics in the performing arts are primarily attracting these audiences.)
It is ironic that Mrs. Bush, a much-needed advocate for education, literature and culture reaching all Americans middle class and poor, white collar and blue collar, black, yellow, brown and white is being victimized by those who are doing everything they can to politicize American art and culture so that the opposite will result.
The first lady's action is a resounding "No" to this hypocrisy.

Barry Casselman is a national correspondent for the Preludium News Service and a published poet.

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