Responses to Revcom’s Polemic:
“Identity Politics Hustlers Sanitize the ‘Life of Washington’ ”



From a Revolution Books, Berkeley, staff member:

In June, the San Francisco School Board infamously decided to destroy an 83-year-old mural series, installed at a high school, that was ahead of its time in blasting the myth that George Washington was a “truth-telling hero” who should be revered. Instead, Victor Arnautoff’s mural depicted Washington as an owner and vicious exploiter of other human beings—slaves—who expanded the U.S. through unleashing genocide against Native Americans.

The SF School Board’s decision received national media attention, and hundreds of people have signed petitions against white washing the murals. dove into this nationwide controversy with an unsparing revolutionary polemic, “Identity Politics Hustlers sanitize the ‘Life of Washington,’” that cut through the School Board’s bullshit, revealed the reactionary, narrow, and dishonest outlook behind their decision, and showed how the people’s interests lie in revealing the actual truth about this country’s ugly history, not censoring it.

This polemic illuminated very important issues, so Revolution Books Berkeley and the Revolution Club, Bay Area, decided to seize the moment and send it out to artists and scholars who had weighed in on the controversy, including people who had signed one of the petitions. Many wrote back, and here are some of those responses.

We’re planning a public panel discussion on all this at Revolution Books Berkeley on August 22.


Dear __,

Thanks for contacting me. I’m wondering how you heard about me. I am working on a statement/blog post about all this, and I did send it to a couple people. I will be sending letters to various politicians too. I read your piece with great interest. It includes valuable details. As an AP art history teacher, I think it’s great that you have made such observations. A few ideas...

First, someone has suggested using the term “martyred Indian” or “martyred Native American” as a better descriptive term. A lot of reporting has misrepresented this part of the work, saying Washington (or settlers) are standing over the “dead Indian” rather than (indifferently and greyed out) walking past (and behind), also, Washington is to the left. I agree with your statement that Arnautoff is too soft, if anything.

I think he was a very nuanced artist who had to work within the constraints of his time, and it’s interesting that he did NOT make certain elements gory or sensationalized (no blood is on the martyred Indian), but worked in metaphor and allusion.

I also think it’s great that you bring up this point (there is the argument that since Arnautoff is a white man, he had no right to depict the experiences of people of color) because one of the “critiques” is that he didn’t “consult” with Native Americans and African Americans when he made this work. That shows a total ignorance about how art is made, and the freedom, independence and agency of an artist. An artist cannot go around asking everyone for their opinion and can never please everyone... no art would be made in this way.

I’ve been to your bookstore many times, though it has been years now.

Take Care,

An artist and teacher


Dear __,

Thank you for sending me a copy of your article critiquing the SF School Board’s bizarre proposal to destroy the Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School.

While my own view of America’s past and present is not as bleak as yours, the force and cogency of your arguments merit the hearing and opportunities for future discussion that publication provides. In the meantime, I’ll pass on your article to other interested colleagues.

Like a good book, the Arnautoff murals have provided generations of high school students an extraordinary opportunity to think about America’s complex past—about “costs and benefits.” It would certainly be tragic to lose such a resource.

Best wishes,

An Emeritus History Professor


Dear __,

I agree with your assessment. I’m on record with my strong disagreement with this censorship. Good luck.

Professor, African American Studies and Communications


Hi __,

I really enjoyed your article. Thank you for writing with such detail. Many of the articles about the mural controversy are woefully spare of all the elements in this story so it is refreshing to read something more in depth. I don’t think of George Washington as a monster myself but point well taken. Thanks for sending the article.

Musician and activist


Dear __:

Thank you for taking the time to write this! I have indeed shared it with my interested colleagues. Warm regards,

Associate Professor of Law


Hello __,

Someone notified us early this morning about your piece. You bring up many salient points. Thank you for advocating on our behalf.

Member of George Washington High School Alumni Association


Dear __,

Thank you very much for sending me your article on the Arnautoff mural. It is kind of you to ask my opinion and invite me to circulate it further.

It is an honest, well-written piece, with good arguments in support of your thesis. I am afraid it is your thesis that I object to, that I find more radical than I can support.

I am sure you and I approach this controversial issue from different histories. I am a retired white, middle class artist/academic, born at the tag end of the “silent generation.” I cannot be sure which of these characteristics, if any, influence my disagreement with your conclusion, but I state them so you can make any inferences you choose.

I am sure it is an over-simplification, but I see two main thrusts to our thesis. The first is that the Arnautoff mural must be preserved because it tells the truth about a major figure in our nation’s history.

With this I agree—totally, absolutely. We are on the same side as far as this goes.

But your second point, that Washington was a “monster,” is so far off the mark I can only conclude your vision has been warped by something akin to the seething anger that appears to be animating the SF Board of Education (although with a very different slant).

You view Arnautoff’s effort to expose Washington as weak and incomplete. I see his work as not only refreshing and revolutionary, but honestly balanced. Washington was a human being, neither a saint nor a monster.

I appreciate that some find it difficult to accept that men who do good may also do evil. We are complex creatures. We often submit to the temptations of our time and class, even when we have mixed feelings about our failings (as I am sure you know Washington did), and we can sometimes also manage to pursue goodness, even greatness, in other parts of our lives. This is the wonderful lesson that Victor Arnautoff understood and passed along to the faculty and students of Washington High School. It is the lesson I took as a student of the school.

The Constitution that you see as supporting slavery (at the time) is the same document I see as supporting the Bill of Rights and eventually the 13th Amendment. Washington (and others, slave owners and non-slave owners) created the master plan which they knew was essential for an ever-improving union.

I am sorry I cannot agree with your message. I welcome your support of the mural, regardless of our disagreement. Maybe I will take some time to set down more of my own thoughts on the matter. If I do, I thank you for the inspiration.

With respect,

Professor emeritus, of a performing arts dept.


I have been following in the Chronicle and NY Times the story of the Mural.
I agree with all the protest to keep it. i am not a communist, i am an artist.

Conceptual artist

A section of the mural "Life of George Washington"


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