Coming Soon: The Museum of Me

In another bow to ethnic division, on June 13, 2022, President Biden signed into law a bill (H.R.3525) authorizing a commission to build a possible National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) museum in Washington, D.C.

Introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York) in May 2021, the bipartisan bill cleared the House on April 26 and the Senate on May 18, both by unanimous consent.

The signing was couched as a way to counter Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remaining on the margins of American education, with little mention in classes beyond the topics of Pearl Harbor, immigration and the U.S.’s territorial interests in the Pacific. A museum would be key to combating the stereotypes and misconceptions that drive anti-AAPI discrimination, supporters say.

If built, an AAPI Museum would follow on the National Museum of African American History & Culture, which opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2016.

It would also supplement the National Museum of the American Latino. Legislation calling for the Smithsonian to establish that museum passed in Dec. 2020.  “The new museum will be the cornerstone for visitors to learn how Latinos have contributed and continue to contribute to U.S. art, history, culture, and science.,” according to the Smithsonian. “Additionally, it will serve as a gateway to exhibitions, collections, and programming at other Smithsonian museums, research centers, and traveling exhibition services.”

At the rate things are going, today’s pandering politicians, who, as Blake Smith, says, eagerly “offer cultural victories instead of substantive ones,” will eventually advocate the creation of museums for every single ethnic group in America. Where they will be put in an already crowded mall is unknown. 

Some might argue that recognition of America’s diversity through such museums is a good thing. I’d offer a “Yes, but”… There’s no question that education about our multifaceted country can combat stereotypes and misconceptions, but excessive focus on identity is not such a good thing when it exacerbates divisiveness and encourage a splintering of the populace.

Oregon’s new K-12 Ethnic Studies standards, for example, were well-intentioned, but are a prime example of identity politics run amok. 

Kindergarten Standards, for example, include the following: *Describe how individual and group characteristics are used to divide, unite and categorize racial, ethnic, and social groups” and *Develop an understanding of one’s own identity groups including, but not limited to, race, gender, family, ethnicity, culture, religion, and ability.” Good grief!

Colt Gill, the Director of the Oregon Department of Education, clearly sees the K-12 education universe as nothing more than an assemblage of distinct and maligned minorities. This is the kind of identity politics that foments perilous division of our state and our country. Rather than emphasizing common values and interest, Gill’s identity politics stresses differences and creates a feeling of ‘zero-sum’ competition between groups. 

One problem with this kind of identify politics is that it leads to even more minority designations. “Once identity politics gains momentum, it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition,” says Amy Chua in Political Tribes.

And that leads to an AAPI Museum.

As for highlighting Asian Americans with a new museum, one problem is they are far from a monolith. Instead, they have a complex history and cultures.  Even the term “Asian American” encompasses dozens of ethnic groups of Asian descent. Just Southeast Asians, for example, includes Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Hmong, Laotian, Burmese, Indonesian and Malaysian. 

 An analysis from Common App, a nonprofit that allows prospective students to apply to more than 1,000 member colleges using one application, noted that the term Asian American can refer to around 50 ethnic groups. “While Asian American was a term established by activists in the 1960s as a means to build political power, it’s also been criticized for obscuring the immense diversity among those it purports to cover…,” notes a Vox article, part of an Asian American identity series.

The analysis also points out a “prominent shortcoming” of the “Hispanic” category for completely concealing the racial identities of its members. The analysis found that, in 2021, half of the applicants identified as white.

What are craven politicians going to endorse next? A German Museum and an Irish Museum? The high immigration numbers in the 1800s were largely fueled by Irish and German immigrants.  A Hungarian Museum? The Hungarian revolution in 1956 led to a burst of Hungarian refugees coming to the United States, including some families who settled in my hometown in Connecticut. Maybe an Eastern European Museum?

The 1959 Cuban revolution drove hundreds of thousands of Cubans to the United States. Given their concentration in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other politicians seeking the Cuban vote could probably be counted on to endorse a Cuban Museum on the National Mall.

The way things are going, we’ll end up with a Museum of Me. Or a Museum of You.

Outrageous! Our New Political Showboats

A menagerie of malicious and misleading malcontents is undermining our democracy.

Italy’s fashion house, Valentino, has a “Director of Branding and Entertainment”.  Of course it does. 

The company, with its $3750 hunting jacket in waxed cotton, $5200 silk cady jumpsuit and $16,500 leather trench coat, understands that entertaining your current and prospective audience is a critical element in fortifying your brand and maintaining your trendiness.

It’s long been the case that building a brand requires that you entertain people, that your public persona be out there. And entertaining has long meant being outrageous in behavior, dress and comments, particularly in the arts. 

The  flamboyant pianist Liberace knew that.

So did Paul Stanley of Kiss:

Other entertainers who have traded on their outrageous behavior to bolster their knownness include Kim Kardashian, who thrives on pushing boundaries (Remember, her illustrious “career” began with a sex tape), rapper Lil Kim and Dennis Rodman.

Bad Boy Dennis Rodman

Others try similar tactics to build their brands, such as the grammy-winning singer, Lizzo

Lizzo boarding a private plane

and Miley Cyrus:

OK, I get it.

It’s one thing for celebrities and celebrity wannabes to be outrageous. Now, however, too many of our politicians are mimicking them, playing to the cheap seats and figuring they can translate outrageous behavior into political power by hoovering up media attention. Politicians are, after all, frequently referred to as “political actors” in a vast drama.

And they are getting the attention they want through their outrageous behavior because, as David A. Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College, has observed, “American voters generally aren’t attentive; you really do have to grab their attention, which is hard to do.”

Outrageous politicians also tend to get a lot of coverage because, unlike in the print days, there are no space constraints on the Internet and controversy breeds attention.

As a 2013 New York magazine article noted, “Originally, BuzzFeed employed no writers or editors, just an algorithm to cull stories from around the web that were showing stirrings of virality.”  Jonah Peretti, a founder of BuzzFeed, which went public through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in Dec. 2021 (NASDAQ: BZFD), didn’t really care whether a post was produced by a journalist or sponsored by a brand, so long as it travelled. “He’s a semiotic Darwinist: He believes in messages that reproduce,” the article noted.

Outrageous politicians also tend to get a lot of coverage because, unlike in the print days, there are no space constraints on the Internet and controversy breeds attention.  As a 2013 New York magazine article noted early on, “Originally, BuzzFeed employed no writers or editors, just an algorithm to cull stories from around the web that were showing stirrings of virality.”

Also, there’s a lot of pressure on opinion writers to churn stuff out and the comments and actions of showboats are fertile territory for comment, which generates even more attention.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently reported on how Merrill Brown, the founder of a business-of-journalism startup called the News Project, described the pressure that opinion purveyors feel: “Everybody wants to get today’s take right,” he said. “But ‘thoughtful commentary’ on the day’s news is almost an oxymoron.” The result, he added, “is more about being clever than necessarily doing your homework.

As Lonesome Rhodes (played so powerfully by Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd)  said of himself, before his contemptible behavior led to his downfall, “I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force… a force!”

A menagerie of malicious and misleading malcontents is undermining our democracy.

The toxic, hyperventilating blowhards include Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Rep. Madison Cawthorne  (R-NC), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ). 

Reps. Greene and Boebert heckle President Biden during State of the Union address, March 1, 2022

In a recent article about the re-emergence of Sarah Palin, who now wants to represent Alaska in the House, Politico’s Joanna Weiss observed that the script has flipped in terms of the visibility of freshman members of Congress. 

“…there are plenty of politicians who have used Palin’s playbook to build fame out of political office, rather than the other way around.,” Weiss wrote. “Republican House members like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, and Lauren Boebert have learned that freshmen members of Congress can command outsized attention — and that outrageous statements are a ticket, if not to policy success, then at least to the kind of attention and fundraising prowess that keeps a career alive.”

Lest you think all the blowhards committed to grandstanding rather than governing are Republicans, the behavior of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), has led to some outrageous viral moments, too. And as far as I’m concerned,  Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) went off the deep end in his allegations regarding the discredited Steele Dossier, which contained allegations of misconduct, conspiracy, and cooperation between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the government of Russia prior to and during the 2016 election campaign.

Being “political” today means seeing politics as a mode of self-expression, producing attention-getting images airing one’s views and publicly taking sides, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her “Tax the Rich” Met Gala dress, Blake Smith observed in a City Journal article, The Narcissism of Hyper-Politicization. “Achieving real political goals through coordination and cooperation would, in contrast, “require individuals to discipline themselves, to moderate their insistence on their own uniqueness, and to subordinate their own desires to a greater good,” he wrote. 

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop told of  a French student journalist who was thrilled he secured a  30-second interview with Emmanuel Macron ahead of the 2017 presidential election, only to later discover he’d forgotten to turn on his microphone.

Today’s journalists in the United States might want to do the same when they cover the narcissistic politicians who have adopted a “outrageous behavior-is-the ticket” attitude.