Kal Penn, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rest of President’s Arts Committee Resign in Protest of Trump’s Response to Charlottesville

August 20, 2017
Kal Penn (left) and Jhumpa Lahiri (right) joined the rest of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in a mass resignation in protest of the president’s remarks following the violence in Charlottesville. (Photo credit: IMDB / Wikipedia)

Yesterday, all seventeen private members of President Trump’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities jointly resigned in protest of the president’s shocking equivocation on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.

In a joint letter, the private members of the Committee on the Arts and the Humanities criticized the president for the president’s remarks in the wake of last weekend’s white supremacist violence, which left one woman and three police officers dead and several other civilians injured. In a blistering letter addressed to the president (that really must be read in full to be appreciated), the Committee’s members wrote:

The Administration’s refusal to quickly and unequivocally condemn the cancer of hatred only further emboldens those who wish America ill. We cannot sit idly by, the way that your West Wing advisors have, without speaking out against your words and actions.

…Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values. Your values are not American values. We must be better than this. We are better than this. If this is not clear to you, then we call on you to resign your office, too.

The full letter (after the jump) was shared by Committee member Kal Penn on his Twitter, where it has already been retweeted nearly 9,000 times.

Notably, netizens were quick to point out that the first letter of each paragraph of the letter also spells out the word “Resist”.

Penn was one of two Asian Americans to currently serve on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; the other was author Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri  was appointed to the Committee in 2010 during President Obama’s first term and later received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2014. She is the author of several award-winning novels, including my personal favourite: The Namesake.

Penn was appointed to the Committee in November 2013 by President Obama after serving for nearly four years as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, where Penn acted as liaison between the President and the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Penn later supported Senator Bernie Sander’s presidential bid, but continued to serve on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities after Trump’s election and inauguration. However, judging by Penn’s Twitter timeline — which is openly critical of Trump — Penn was not particularly happy in the Trump administration.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities was established in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan as an effort to leverage the powers of the White House to strengthen American arts, humanities, and culture. Over the last three decades, the Committee has helped to create several federal programs to foster greater investment in the arts particularly among America’s youth. The Committee has been traditionally chaired by the First Lady, and the Committee’s current Honorary Chairwoman is Melania Trump; she has not yet issued a public statement on this week’s mass resignation.

The White House retaliated in the wake of the mass resignation by suggesting that President Trump had planned to disband the Committee earlier in the month, accusing it of “merely redirect[ing] funding from… federal cultural agencies (NEA/NEH/IMLS) that answer directly to the President, Congress, and taxpayers.”

Of course, this is classic Trumpism: the White House simply claims everyone was already fired first. Furthermore, this latest White House missive flies in the face of Trump’s March proposal that he defund and completely eliminate the same federal cultural agencies he now praises as doing better work than the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Trump’s loss of his entire Committee on the Arts and the Humanities comes in the wake of the mass disbanding of his two business advisory councils which also occurred in response to the president’s remarks following the violence in Charlottesville. Steve Bannon, the former executive chair of Breitbart News and overt white supremacist, also left the White House in events also related to the administration’s response to Charlottesville. His resignation came a day after the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) joined the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) in renewing their calls to President Trump that Bannon be removed. That letter read in part:

As Members of Congress, but more importantly, as Americans, we are deeply concerned that [Bannon, Miller, and Gorka’s] continued influence on U.S. policy emboldens and tacitly approves the ideological extremism that leads white supremacists to spread violence and hatred.

The world watched in horror this weekend as white supremacists, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia to rally in defense of a symbol of racism and intolerance. The rally, organized by radicals like Richard Spencer, quickly devolved into violence, leaving three dead and dozens injured. Sadly, in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, you failed to condemn the white supremacists at the center of the deadly protests despite issuing numerous public statements and tweets. This dereliction of leadership sent a signal to hate groups that bigotry and discrimination have a place in our nation. Americans deserve to know that white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis are not in a position to influence U.S. policy.

That is why we continue to find Steve Bannon’s presence in your administration incredibly alarming and dangerous to our nation and the world, and once again, we urge you to immediately remove Steve Bannon fro the White House altogether. As you know, Mr. Bannon is the co-founder of the white nationalist, “alt-right” website, Breitbart News. Under his direction and approval, this site published blatantly bigoted rhetoric about women, Muslims, and other minorities. It is no wonder that white nationalist groups, such as the KKK, have praised Mr. Bannon’s extreme political statements.

The White House is getting emptier and emptier by the day, as more and more and more people — including many leaders within the AAPI community — come together in a unified call of resistance against President Trump’s racism, sexism, and overt hate-mongering.

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