- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

Almost lost in the past week's coverage of the Space Shuttle Columbia's fiery final voyage was a nasty little reminder that America's culture wars are alive and well. The staff of first lady Laura Bush was forced to cancel a Feb. 12 symposium meant to celebrate the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. Advisers foolishly had invited known agitators from the hate-America left to attend this event, and the White House has paid the price in a frenzy of negative publicity.
Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove released a statement huffing, "The abrupt cancellation of the symposium … confirms my suspicion that the Bush administration is not interested in poetry when it refuses to remain in the ivory tower, and that this White House does not wish to open its doors to an 'American Voice' that does not echo the administration's misguided policies."
American or not, Miss Dove's voice certainly is disingenuous.
Poet and editor Sam Hamill, head of tiny Copper Canyon Press and a committed socialist who ran for public office in California under that banner as an anti-war candidate in 1968, was one of several anti-administration invitees. He seemed flabbergasted by his unexpected opportunity to wreak a bit of needless havoc in the already tense nation's capital.
"I think it tells you a lot about White House intelligence, doesn't it?" Mr. Hamill told The Washington Times. "How they got me is beyond me."
Capitalizing on this good fortune, Mr. Hamill, a self-styled Zen Buddhist, quickly e-mailed a few hundred of his closest radical poet friends, soliciting anti-war-verse stink bombs to shower on Mrs. Bush and her husband's administration. These and other "poems" hastily scribbled, unrevised, anti-U.S. free-verse screeds clearly cobbled together in 10 minutes or less from a knapsack full of Marxist cliches are popping up on the Internet.
You might wonder what all this has to do with honoring Whitman, Dickinson and Hughes. Mr. Hamill and his cadre don't care.
"It's impossible for poetry not to be political," Poet Li-Young Lee breezily told the St. Petersburg Times. "The way I understand poetry, all poems are anti-war poems." Like the Iliad and the Aeneid, no doubt.
Todd Swift, editor of an instant electronic book titled "100 Poets Against the War," chimed in, telling the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, "The idea that you could have a nonpolitical event celebrating the work of Walt Whitman … is absurd."
Crusty Beat relic Lawrence Ferlinghetti helpfully informed Reuters News Agency that inviting poets to the White House was naive. "The poet by definition … has to be an enemy of the state," he said, "… and one of its primary activities, which is war." This would have been news to Rudyard Kipling.
Current U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who gets $35,000 a year from American taxpayers, told Associated Press, "If political protest is urgent, I don't think it needs to wait for an appropriate scene and setting and should be as disruptive as it wants to be."
Copper Canyon poet W.S. Merwin thundered on the Web, "To arrange a war in order to be re-elected outdoes even the means employed in the last presidential election. Mr. Bush and his plans are a greater danger to the United States than Saddam Hussein." Where was Mr. Merwin when a politically hobbled Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack onto a Sudanese aspirin factory a few years back?
Buttressing the intellectual credentials of these artists, whose expertise in international politics rivals that of Sean Penn and Shakespeare scholar Barbra Streisand, is the moral authority of New Jersey's taxpayer-salaried poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, aka LeRoi Jones, who declared, "The main task right now is stopping the war."
Mr. Baraka, of course, will be eagerly awaiting his Nobel Prize nomination for his 2002 poem accusing the Israelis of knowing in advance about the September 11 attacks.
And poets wonder why they have become marginal figures in this country?
As is so often the case during Republican administrations, these voices of American letters fully expected a banner newsday as they staged their little fit of pique in the White House. The Bushies, however, "postponed" the event (likely forever), thus denying them their hoped-for forum. That didn't stop the poets from claiming victory. "We closed the Bush poetry symposium on Whitman by 'politicizing literature,'" Mr. Hamill was quick to boast.
Doesn't Mr. Hamill know that literature was already politicized by definition? Doesn't anybody care what old Lawrence Ferlinghetti thinks anymore?
With its invitation list to the Whitman symposium, the Bush administration confirmed Irving Kristol's diagnosis, as if it needed confirmation, of the Republican Party as the "stupid party." By mid week however, with its fiscal 2004 budget presentation, it showed that maybe it's at least the "teachable party."
Its budget proposal included significant new support for improving the average American's generally poor knowledge of this country's history, traditions and culture. To accomplish this, the administration proposed $25 million for a National Endowment for the Humanities initiative called We the People.
"The president is concerned about our … historical amnesia," according to NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. "Unlike a monarchy, a democracy is not self-sustaining, and the history and values have to be passed on from generation to generation. When that is not happening, there is a crisis."
Those involved with the NEH initiative are fully aware of what they are up against. Since the 1960s, America's schools have been hobbled increasingly by an academic and teaching culture that has substituted indoctrination in class struggle for a real education in American history, literature, and civics. The resulting intellectual vacuum has made it all too easy for shallow frauds such as Poets Against the War to mount devastatingly effective street theater without apparent challenge. It is past time to turn the tide, and the new NEH initiative is a good start.
It is strange how these heroic radicals of the 1960s have morphed into 21st-century fascists bent on repressing the free speech of others. This recent ambush is just the latest act in a long-running drama that has intimidated most writers, particularly those in academia, into siding with the left lest they be denied tenure-track professorships and those all-important book contracts.
Explaining to The Washington Times that the White House vetters who allowed his name to slip through should have been aware of his reputation as a radical, Mr. Hamill predicted, "Somebody's going to get fired over this."
For once, we can agree. Those trusted by Mrs. Bush to put together an intellectually serious symposium should tender their resignations immediately. They had ample opportunity to go over their proposed guest list carefully. But apparently a naive "big tent" mentality got the better of them, and instead of getting serious commentary on three poets at the center of the American canon, they got a bunch of slogans masquerading as poetry on the Internet and came off looking like censorious literary commissars.
Sorry: Pandering to the literary left in a pathetic bid to seem smart is no way for the Bush administration to shed the Republican party's label as the stupid party.

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