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The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigns, urging resistance against Trump

A resignation letter from all 17 committee members, including actor Kal Penn and author Jhumpa Lahiri, contained an acrostic that spells out “RESIST.”

Democratic National Convention: Day 1 Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

All 17 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) have resigned in response to the controversial remarks Donald Trump made earlier this week in which he avoided condemning participants in a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The move follows Trump’s disbanding of the American Manufacturing Council and the Strategy and Policy Forum after several business leaders resigned from the two groups in protest over his remarks.

In a letter of resignation tweeted by PCAH committee member Kal Penn on Friday morning, the committee declared that “reproach and censure in the strongest possible terms are necessary following your support of the hate groups and terrorists who killed and injured fellow Americans in Charlottesville.” The letter also contains an emphatic acrostic: The first letters of each of the five paragraphs combine to spell out “RESIST,” a word that has become associated with protest against the Trump administration.

The White House issued a statement on Friday afternoon claiming that the president had intended to disband the council anyway. This echoes Trump’s previous claim that he was disbanding the Strategy and Policy Forum after all its members had made the decision to disband it on their own, and prompted an amused response from Penn:

The PCAH is not connected to the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities; rather, it is responsible for education and cultural ambassadorship for the arts. Unlike the other advisory councils Trump has recently disbanded, however, the PCAH is a federal agency headed by Melania Trump as honorary chair. Its members were appointed by President Obama and include such cultural figureheads as author Jhumpa Lahiri and writer-director George C. Wolfe.

In its resignation letter, the committee condemned “the administration’s refusal to quickly and unequivocally condemn the cancer of hatred” from “those who wish America ill.” But the committee also went further, noting the connection between the important work of the arts in creating empathy and love — “art is about inclusion” — and the work of the humanities in supporting “a vibrant free press.” Trump, the committee declared, had “attacked both,” along with numerous other civil liberties:

You released a budget which eliminates arts and culture agencies. You have threatened nuclear war while gutting diplomacy funding. The administration pulled out of the Paris agreement, filed an amicus brief undermining the Civil Rights Act and attacked our brave trans service members. You have subverted equal protections, and are committed to banning Muslims and refugee women & children from our great country ... Your words and actions push us all away from the freedoms we are guaranteed.

All 17 members of the committee signed the letter, including Wolfe, who added his signature to the document after Penn’s tweet featuring the initial 16 signatories. Though the committee had not met under Trump’s administration, Politico reports that it had continued to do some of its basic work, which includes overseeing educational programs and diplomatic functions. The resignation of the full committee makes the PCAH the first White House agency to officially dissolve under President Trump.

“Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values,” the letter concluded. “We must be better than this.”

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