Go away, Thomas Benton. We don’t want your kind around here. Welcome, Alfred Kinsey. You are one of us. So it goes in the swamp of 21st century culture. Or perhaps we are just witnessing the moral vacuum in one prestigious university.
Thomas Hart Benton was a renowned painter, along with Grant Wood a member of the Regionalist school of American art, which advocated forays into areas considered cultural wastelands such as the South and Midwest.
He was also very much a political progressive and throughout his life strongly denounced racism, says Henry Adams, who has written four books about Benton. One of the first articles Benton published was a 1924 essay containing a vigorous condemnation of the KKK.
The Klan at that time was an equal opportunity hate dispenser, advocating the denial of rights to African Americans, Catholics, Jews and immigrants with uniform fervor. It was also huge in Indiana. It had more than 250,000 members here – about a third of all Hoosier white men – including the governor and more than half of the state legislature.
Public opinion finally turned against the KKK after an aggressive investigative series by the Indianapolis Times, reporting that resulted in the group’s leader, D.C. Stephenson, being convicted of the rape and murder of a young schoolteacher.
Stephenson’s testimony ended up bringing down both the governor of the state and the mayor of Indianapolis, both of whom had forged close ties with the Klan, and the Times won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
When state leaders a few years later decided to memorialize that dark chapter of Indiana history, they turned to Benton. He responded with an epic series of murals that were installed in 1941 in the auditorium at Indiana University Bloomington.
One of the panels shows a white nurse treating both black and white children. In the foreground are a reporter, photographer and printer, representing the power of the press in bringing racial injustice to light. Lurking in the background, behind the beds, are sinister figures of some Klan members.
You’d think it would be art celebrated by today’s social justice warriors. It shows that racism can be defeated by decent behavior, but that evil still stands ready to spring, and that full awareness can make all the difference.
You would be wrong. In 2017, a group of IU students circulated petitions and organized protests seeking removal of the mural. “It is past time that Indiana University take a stand and denounce hate and intolerance in Indiana,” one of the petitions said.
These students were either too ignorant to realize that the mural was taking just that stand, or so fragile that the mention of any unpleasantness, even as a byproduct of denouncing it, was too much for their delicate sensibilities. Whichever it was, it provided an opportunity for the university to introduce these young minds to a little critical thinking.
But the university chose a different path. At least it did not remove the murals or, even worse, destroy them (so some at IU bragged), but it did stop using the building for classes and closed it to public traffic, thus sparing students the trauma of having to see the awful artwork every day.
So much for academic and intellectual courage.
Alfred Charles Kinsey was an Indiana University professor and founder of what became the famed Kinsey Institute that studies human sexuality. To say his books “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948) and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” (1953) were influential vastly understates the case. Today’s liberated sexual ethos, in which almost everything is tolerated and hardly anything condemned, can be traced back to Kinsey’s work in general and those two books in particular.
He was also a libertine with omnivorous and gargantuan sexual appetites. He had sex with numerous men and women; he and his wife had swapping parties; he filmed sexual escapades in his attic. His opinion was that we start seeing sexual activity as common or less common rather than right or wrong and that ignorance, superstition and repressive morality keep people sexually unfulfilled.
He had this attitude not just about adults, being meticulous in documenting the “pre- adolescent experiences” in orgasm for children between the ages of 2 months and 15 years. He claimed the research came from interviewing several adult males who recorded their experiences with younger boys, but it turns out it all came from one man, a serial child molester whom Kinsey never reported, let alone judged.
He had other well-documented flaws in methodology, which led him, for example, to grossly overestimate that 10 percent of the population is homosexual and to assert that children’s sexual experiences could be positive if only society did not so condemn it.
It might be considered too judgmental these days to call Kinsey a freak or a degenerate. But surely we can admit that he was not a dispassionate researcher, merely compiling facts and following them to whatever conclusion was warranted. He had an agenda. He sought confirmation of his own sexual adventurousness and, lo and behold, found what he was looking for. At the very least, we should not hold him up as a paragon of the objective, scientific method.
But Indiana University does not see it that way. It has just unveiled a new statue of the man. The current director of the Kinsey Institute praises Kinsey’s “extraordinary legacy” of “endless scientific curiosity,” and IU’s president boasts that the institute is “a trusted source around the world” for “information on critical issues in human sexuality.”
So much for academic and intellectual enlightenment.
Members of the statue demolition squad have gone from Confederate generals to figures as diverse as George Washington and Columbus, Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, demonstrating the wretchedly excessive danger of judging history through the lens of today’s debates.
But they got one thing right. Whom we choose to ignore and whom we choose to commemorate says a lot about us.
Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for best editorial writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected] Send comments to [email protected]