Strange as it may seem, the biggest stumbling block on much of the left may be a crude philosophical error, dogmatic subjectivism. This is a position that holds that subjective experience is the highest form of knowledge, whose claims can’t be challenged by “lesser” criteria like logical analysis or empirical observation. To the extreme subjectivist, if I feel something to be true there is no legitimate counterargument: I think (or feel), therefore I know.
This is at the heart of the current blowup over the mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco. It was painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a member of the Communist Party and acolyte of Diego Rivera, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. To make his point about the centrality of racism and oppression in American history, he portrayed Washington as the slaveowner he was, with a group of slaves toiling away to make him rich. He also showed pioneers headed westward past the body of a dead Indian. Not surprisingly, Arnautoff got into trouble during the McCarthy era and was effectively hounded out of the world of public art.
But several groups and individuals who claim to speak for today’s oppressed think the mural glorifies racist violence and makes the high school an “unsafe” environment. The San Francisco School Board’s advisory group, The Reflection and Action Working Group, deemed Arnautoff “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” One of the Board members said that efforts to save the mural from being painted over were reflective of “white supremacy”, since the artwork some want to save is “white property”, while its effects are harmful to “Black and Brown ppl [people]”. The head of the high school’s Indian Education Program asserts this and other Arnautoff murals “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people who are still alive….” Others bring up the triggering effect of images that remind us of the brutality that permeates American history.