The mob waged war on the Whitney Museum and won. The scalp this time belongs to Warren Kanders, who owns Safariland, a manufacturer of law enforcement and military supplies, and who, until his resignation last week, was a vice-chairman at the Museum. Kanders’s great crime was that his company manufactures tear gas, a non-lethal weapon which has been used — in my view most unfortunately — at the southern border. However you feel about the border crisis — and I’ve been quite clear on my outrage here — most reasonable people should admit that in almost all cases, the use of tear gas makes it likely that lethal crowd-control tactics will not be used.
This story is not really about Warren Kanders or his company, and that’s precisely the problem. Not so much for Kanders, who probably wants not to be the story, but for us — for the country — and for artists and for the philanthropists who make their work possible. Kanders, like so many before him and so many who will follow him, has become just another scalp in the mob’s mission to silence, censor, shame, or de-platform every writer, artist, businessman, comedian, and politician with whom it disagrees.
The details matter because they highlight the mob’s increasingly aggressive tactics, and are worth exploring in their absurd entirety. Activists had targeted Kanders and his company for several months. On the night the Biennial opened, May 17, protesters marched from the Whitney to the Kanders home in the West Village. According to Artforum, they chanted ‘Warren Kanders you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide’, and ‘handed out flyers to neighbors, informing them of Kanders’s address’. One went so far as to shout, ‘You will not rest easy on West 12th Street because everybody knows now where you live.’ Neither Kanders nor his wife Alison were home at the time. But his 17-year-old son was.
In early July, eight of the artists featured in the Whitney Biennial threatened to remove their work over the manufactured controversy. Though Kanders and his wife had helped fund the Whitney’s successful Warhol show, the Whitney did not stand by them. Kanders’s departure, the New York Times notes, ‘could embolden other protest movements that have demanded, with some success, that museums part ways with major donors or trustees’ (my emphasis). This is typically naive. Kanders’s departure will embolden other protest movements, because it validates their tactics.
Donors, beware. Museums, beware more. Soon, museums will only accept donations from individuals with extensively proven progressive bona fides. As you just can’t get that rich selling t-shirts that say ‘ I <3 social justice’, it’s not clear how long these institutions will remain funded at all. Look at the remaining trustees at the Whitney. With Kanders gone, the mob will pick on a new target. In May, Zachary Small of Hyperallergic gave us a list of targets: ‘the weapons manufacturer [Kanders] isn’t the only board member with ties to war profiteering and the Trump administration’. Small named Nancy Carrington Crown, whose husband Aries Steven Crown counts a similar defense company as part of his holdings; Thomas E. Tuft, Julie Ostrover, and Pamela Devos; and Kenneth Griffin, the founder and chief executive of Citadel, a hedge fund with just under $38 billion in assets.
Who among these trustees stood up for Kanders, if not out of friendship or loyalty, then from common sense, because, surely they realize they’re next?
Board meetings are technically private, and it’s not entirely clear who said what and when. But sources familiar with the situation confirmed to me that Ken Griffin did take a stand…for a moment. I’m told that Griffin resigned after dialing into a board meeting. He apparently expressed his deep disappointment that Whitney director Adam Weinberg’s leadership was inconsistent with the values of free speech, civil discourse, and free expression. For Griffin, knowing that Weinberg would only curate artists and cultivate donors that share his own progressive agenda was, at least for a moment, a bridge too far. After saying his piece, I’m told, he simply hung up the phone.
Lest you get excited, dear reader, that the free speech crowd has a new champion, only a short while later Griffin was telling the New York Times that he was excited about and committed to his position as a trustee. So what happened in the interim? My source informs me that Griffin agreed to withdraw his resignation after being assured of the board’s intention to clean house. Good luck to you, Adam Weinberg. Might be time to look for a new job.
As for Kanders, perhaps the best advice comes from Andy Warhol: ‘Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.’
Daniella Greenbaum Davis is a Spectator columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.