Arts Desk

Continuing a Dialogue . . . With Penny Starr

Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough has pledged to continue a dialogue about censorship at the Smithsonian. (At least, come April, he will.) Another figure in this great debate, however, has remained notably absent: Penny Starr, the conservative activist-journalist whose story initially spurred Sec. Clough to pull David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery. Starr's story, reported from the Cybercast News Service (formerly the Conservative News Service) out of Alexandria, Va., was echoed by the Drudge Report and the Catholic League.

More recently, the art world has largely fallen off her radar. But Starr has not been idle. The following is a list of Starr's articles, per the Cybercast News Service archives, color coded by Arts Desk for your glossing ease. Each story is coded by the liberal constituency or conservative interest Starr is baiting.

She is definitely baiting her readers. Starr's story on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, for example, runs under the headline: "Michelle Obama on Deciding What Kids Eat: ‘We Can’t Just Leave it Up to The Parents'". The headline is a fair representation of her story and more or less repeats her lede. Yet the First Lady's quote appears in context in paragraph three, where it's made clear to anyone who reads that far that the "it" we can't just leave to parents is "a responsibility" to feed kids nutritious meals. Starr misrepresents her own story in order to stir fears of the growing threat of socialism, while sliding in an emasculating dig at President Barack Obama and some praise for straight-shooter Sarah Palin.

Nevertheless, this sorting exercise presents some difficulties. Her story on Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who described Arizona as a "mecca for prejudice and bigotry" following the Jared Loughner shootings, does not at first glance qualify as a border-baiting piece. Her account of Sheriff Dupnik's prior, seemingly irreconcilable statements about immigration mirrors what Chris Beam reported for Slate—though there is a whiff of opportunism to Starr's identification with liberal complaints about Sheriff Dupnik. Elsewhere, there's no obvious category for her story about Ralph Nader testifying that the Obama administration is caving to nationalist pressure over Julian Assange. It certainly could be the dread specter of red socialism, but whatever specific frequency of dog whistle that is, I can't hear it.

Starr's timely look back at Founding Father George Washington, recalling an episode in which he allegedly kicked a soldier out of his camp at Valley Forge for attempting sodomy with another soldier, perhaps belongs to its own gay-baiting or Founding Father–interest category. But the story is undeniably a cautionary warning about the dangers of our present-day President and his creeping gay-socialist agenda, coming as it did just after the repeal of DADT. In the end, the Valley Forge incident wound up among the gender-baiting stories—as did Starr's other stories about gender, sex, gays, and women's bodies.

"'Tis the Season To Celebrate Skype," on the other hand, is a solidly nonpartisan story about Starr's love for Jesus Christ, and Skype.

It does not take a crowbar to fit her work into a handful of general but specifically activist categories. Collectively, Starr's work follows a mix of trendy Tea Party talking points and old-school religious right standards (see the graph above). Some of the categories could be subdivided further still—say, stories in which liberals support abortion and stories in which liberals promote abortion as well as childhood promiscuity. Grouped broadly, Starr's stories nevertheless reveal her fringe bias—and the voice to whom Sec. Clough and the Smithsonian ultimately consented. Starr protested that 10 seconds of a video artwork were "anti-Christmas," the rightwing echo chamber picked up her line, and Sec. Clough completed the circuit.

Reading over Starr's archive, I have to add a third question for Sec. Clough: Did anyone at the Castle investigate the roots of the complaint about "Hide/Seek" before he pulled Wojnarowicz's video?

Broadly speaking, Starr's stories divide this way:

Pink = gender-baiting
Brown = race-baiting
Green = class-baiting
Red = socialism-baiting
Violet = Al Gore is fat.
Orange = border-baiting
Black = other/Skype

Starr's articles, in order of appearance, since Nov. 29:

  • State Dept to Keep ‘Mother,’ ‘Father’ Categories on Birth Abroad Records and Add ‘Gender Neutral’ ‘Parent’ Option (Jan. 19)
  • Abortion Lobby Gives America a ‘D’ Grade for ‘Reproductive Rights’ (Jan. 14)
  • Abortion Lobby Dedicates Its Annual Report to DHS Secretary Napolitano (Jan. 14)
  • EPA Handing Out Millions in Taxpayer Money to Study Combination of Pollution and ‘Social Stressors’ in Poor Neighborhoods (Jan. 13)
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce Calls for Repeal of Obamacare (Jan. 12)
  • Chamber of Commerce Says It Supports Path 'To Legitimacy' for 12 Million Illegal Aliens (Jan. 12)
  • Arizona Sheriff Dever Says Killer Alone Is Responsible for Shooting; ‘Frightening’ to ‘Lay Blame on Anyone Else’s Doorstep’ (Jan. 11)
  • Mike Pence Introduces Bill to Stop Tax Dollars from Going to Nation's Top Abortion Provider–Planned Parenthood (Jan. 7)
  • Black Conservatives Balk at Howard Dean’s Depiction of ‘55 and White’ Tea Party That ‘Has Trouble with Diversity’ (Jan. 7)
  • Feminists, Democrats Say Justice Scalia’s Remarks Make It Essential to Pass Constitutional Amendment for Women’s Rights (Jan. 7)
  • Republicans Voted Unanimously to Make Boehner Speaker; 19 Dems Did Not Vote for Pelosi (Jan. 5)
  • GOP Congressman Forbes Doesn’t Say Whether He Backs Plan to Prohibit Obamacare Funding in Every Appropriations Bill (Jan. 5)
  • U.S. Contains Enough Oil and Gas Reserves to Fuel Country for Decades, Petroleum Institute Says (Jan. 5)
  • U.S. Commander: It’s ‘Naïve’ to Think U.S. Can Secure Afghan-Pakistan Border Like We Would U.S.-Mexico Border (Jan. 4)
  • Obama Is Sending Border Officers from DHS–Which Has Failed to Secure U.S.-Mexico Border–to Help Secure Afghan-Pakistan Border (Jan. 4)
  • George Washington Drummed Soldier Out of Military at Valley Forge for 'Infamous Crime' of Attempted ‘Sodomy’ (Jan. 3)
  • Planned Parenthood Launches ‘Social Change Initiative’ to Teach Parents How to Educate Children About Sex, Including Masturbation, Homosexuality (Dec. 29)
  • Planned Parenthood's Govt Funding Rose to $363.2 Million in FY 2008-2009, Aborted 324,008 Unborn Children in 2008 (Dec. 23)
  • Obama Announces Support for UN Resolution Stating 'Indigenous Peoples Have the Right to the Lands ... They Have Traditionally Owned, Occupied or Otherwise Used or Acquired' (Dec. 21)
  • Bush and Obama Have Put Americans at Greater Risk Than Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Says Ralph Nader (Dec. 16)
  • Smithsonian Won’t Cave to Sponsor Pressure to Replace Gay Exhibit’s Ant-Covered Crucifix Video (Dec. 15)
  • Michelle Obama on Deciding What Kids Eat: ‘We Can’t Just Leave it Up to The Parents' (Dec. 13)
  • Planned Parenthood Offers New Line of Designer Condoms (Dec. 13)
  • Conyers, ACLU Claim Obama Is Furthering Bush Power Grab, Military Expansion (Dec. 10)
  • Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Arizona Immigration Law–The One Signed by Gov. Janet Napolitano (Dec. 9)
  • 'Tis the Season to Celebrate Skype (Dec. 7)
  • Congressman: Close Tax-Funded Smithsonian Exhibit Featuring Naked Brothers Kissing, Men in Chains–Despite Removal of Ant-Covered Jesus (Dec. 2)
  • Smithsonian Pulls Video of Ant-Covered Jesus But Leaves Images of Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, Men in Chains, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts (Nov. 30)
  • Boehner and Cantor to Smithsonian: Pull Exhibit Featuring Ant-Covered Jesus or Else (Nov. 30)
  • UK Ad Campaign’s Ultrasound Image of Christ in Womb Gains Global Interest, Even As Ad Makers Deny Pro-life Message (Nov. 30)
  • Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts (Nov. 29)
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