Outrage at obscene photos would be a little easier to take from liberal senators if they didn’t have a history of financing them. Had Robert Mapplethorpe snapped the photos at Abu Ghraib, the Senate might have given him a government grant. Jesse Helms would certainly be surprised at the moral horror on display these days in the Senate. In 1989, he asked his fellow senators to stop funding degrading photography coming out of the National Endowment for the Arts. They refused.
“I’m going to ask that all the pages, all the ladies and maybe all the staff leave the chamber so that Senators can see exactly what they’re voting on,” Helms said in 1989 as he showed them disturbing images they were financing with Americans’ tax dollars. The Senate wasn’t so easy to offend back then. Sixty-two Senators looked at the Mapplethorpe photos and rejected Helms’s attempt to cut off funding for them.
Robert Byrd and Pat Leahy worked to block Helms’s amendment. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said to his colleagues: “Do we really want it to be recorded that the Senate of the United States is so insensible to the traditions of liberty in our land, so fearful of what is different and new and intentionally disturbing, so anxious to record our timidity that we would sanction institutions for acting precisely as they are meant to act?”
Notice Moynihan’s words: “intentionally disturbing.” The Senate back then could handle disturbing images and even felt dutybound to use taxpayer dollars to pick up the tab for them. Who knows, perhaps the photos from Abu Ghraib will reappear as modern art at one of the museums the senators have patronized over the years.
Senators who can straightfacedly call depraved photography “art” in debate with Jesse Helms shouldn’t be surprised that the “intentionally disturbing” pop culture they have helped spread might seep into the military. The Abu Ghraib scandal did not happen in a cultural vacuum. It is a reflection of the libertine pop culture the American left has long tried to impose on a military culture it considers too “rigid.”
In their ongoing experiment against common sense, the left wanted a military less elite and more egalitarian, and got it. But they won’t take any responsibility for the effects of their experimentation on the military. Now the game is to pin the problems on military brass and de-emphasize the depravity of the individual wrongdoers. (Like clockwork, the Washington Post and other major papers ran stories about the female guards designed to humanize them; the Post’s Style section also ran a puff piece about Janis Karpinski, allowing her ample space to play the victim and play the PC card — about the charge that she was an ineffectual, emotionally wrought leader. “She says she wonders if a man would have been described this way,” reports the Post.)
D.C. pols are busy scrutinizing “orders given,” except the ones they have given. It is because of their insane orders that Janis Karpinski was running prisons in Iraq. The military higher-ups they are blaming for the mess didn’t want to play gender-integration games with the armed services. But they too are following orders.
If the fish rots from the head down, the head here is a political class willing to use the military as a laboratory for a domestic ideological agenda even as that means lowering standards and exposing the military to destructive cultural currents. They imposed on the military a popular culture debased at the bottom and top — from Jerry Springer for the peasants to Robert Mapplethorpe for the rich. If the Abu Ghraib incident looks like a demented reality show or one of those Mapplethorpe images they used to subsidize, they should begin the finger-pointing with each other.