PBS Alum Robert MacNeil Slams 'Fundamentalism' in Kennedy Center Speech

In a March 13 essay, Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott applauds former PBS newsman Robert MacNeil for leveling “sustained criticism” at religious fundamentalism in a speech to Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. 

Kennicott salutes MacNeil for “lament[ing] the influence of fundamentalism on science education, individual freedoms and the larger public dialogue about the hot-button moral and political issues of the day.” 

However, MacNeil did not go far enough, in Kennicott's opinion: “But there was something missing in this line of thinking: An acknowledgment of the extent to which the war on terror has corrupted American culture, so that we live mostly untroubled by the knowledge that we are a nation that tortures, imprisons people with little recourse to law or justice, and prosecutes optional and preemptive wars.”

MacNeil's comments focused principally on what he sees as the threat posed by religious fundamentalists to artistic expression.  According to MacNeil, “It is inevitable that artists should become the targets of such fundamentalist anxieties, because it is in the nature of artists to push the frontier of taste and morality, to show society both its pieties and its hypocrisies.”  MacNeil decried “the swing to Puritanism” fostered by political groups “pandering to those who could be persuaded that art is decadent, or immoral, or homosexual, and destructive of finer values.”

MacNeil also linked Islamic fundamentalism with Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, saying, “I am not for a moment suggesting that our fundamentalists harbor any violent intentions, but the initial psychology is similar to that which inspires Islamic reformers.”

MacNeil, retired from PBS and now chairman of the board at the McDowell Colony, an artist's retreat in New Hampshire, reportedly asserted that art can be an “important weapon in the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism.”  But Kennicott takes issue, contending that “much of the art that matters” is art that “challenges taste and morality” – and such art will not “win hearts and minds in most Muslim countries.”

Kennicott further asserts that MacNeil was “courageous” to speak so bluntly about the threats he sees in fundamentalist Islam (and by association fundamentalist Christianity), and records that the speech received a standing ovation. 

One wonders whether the point of Kennicott's piece was to praise the speech or find a platform for bashing the Bush administration and the American troops fighting the Iraq war. He manages to do both. 

But to suggest that the war is corrupting American culture – as opposed to “art” depicting human beings defecating – is a leap of unimaginable proportions.  That is, unless you're a blame-America-for-everything member of the liberal media.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer for the Culture and Media Institute (www.cultureandmediainstitute.org), a division of the MediaResearchCenter.