• U.S.


27 minute read
Robert Hughes

Democratic nations,” wrote the ever prescient Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, long ago in 1840, “will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.” What would Tocqueville have thought of today’s assaults on the fabric of America’s public culture?

The Republican leadership in Congress means to sever all links between American government and American culture. It wants the Federal Government to give no support at all to music, theater, ballet, opera, film, intelligent television, literature, history, archaeology, museum work, architectural conservation and the visual arts. It intends to abolish federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And it wants to do it tomorrow.

This plan isn’t economic. Even its proponents have largely given up on the absurd fiction that canceling America’s meager $620 million worth of cultural programs will do anything to reduce the present budget deficit of $180 billion. Not when a Senate committee last month approved a pork load for the military of $7 billion more than the Pentagon asked for.

Fiscal discipline? In fact, the project is cultural defoliation–an attempt to destroy “liberal” habitat. If there was any doubt about its momentum, the young velociraptors in Congress–freshman ideologues, mostly, squeaking with Newtish zeal–buried it three weeks ago. These boys and girls aren’t even cultural Neanderthals. They’re Jurassic. On culture, the limbic forebrain can hold one sound bite at a time, courtesy of Rush Limbaugh or George Will. PBS? “Elitist welfare for the rich.” The NEA? “State-subsidized porn.” The NEH? “P.c. revisionist history.” By a vote of 230 to 194, driven by a rump of dozens of junior members, the House voted to “zero out” all funding for the NEA by October 1997 and phase out the agency in two years. The NEH and CPB are also in peril.

This blitzkrieg reached the Senate last week. The Appropriations Committee sided with the House, voting to cut next year’s NEA budget 40%. But there are still plenty of Republican voters (and not a few legislators) who would like to see their local symphony orchestra, town theater or children’s art-education program survive, and know that the prospects of their survival are bound up with continuing, if modest, support from the NEA. Though the NEH and CPB will prove much harder to kill, the prospects of the NEA’s survival in the long run are dim.

Will this axman’s folly put America alone among the nations of the world? Well, not exactly. Little of Haiti’s national budget goes to culture. Zaire does not support a national theater, and cultural grants in Rwanda, even for victim art, may be assumed to be fairly small. No documentaries infected by liberal bias get aired on Tehran state television. Saddam Hussein’s boys are not straining to underwrite feminist histories of, say, the Marsh Arabs of the Euphrates.

Clearly the American public culture imagined by Newt Gingrich and his fellow ideologues in and out of Congress, including their insatiable Fundamentalist Christian right wing, will not seem strange everywhere in the world.

But in the more civilized parts it will. And to many Americans–who are by no means the “cultural elite” that conservative rhetoric invokes with such shrill banality–it already does. Of course, the defunding of the endowments isn’t going to kill off the arts in America. Painters, dancers, actors are tough as weeds and can grow in cracks in the concrete. There was great art, drama, writing and scholarship in America before 1965, when the endowments were founded. Dedicated people create ingenious strategies of survival for themselves. But why should they have to? By what meanness, through what smug Philistinism–and, above all, on what actual evidence–do our Jacks-in-office decree that the arts and humanities are beneath the interest of the American people and unworthy of their collective support?

To conservative rhetors in Congress, whatever is not blandly or angrily populist is elitist. In their resort to this weasel word, the patriotically correct on the right are as bad as the politically correct on the residual left–worse, in fact, because they have more power. How all these folk would hate Thomas Jefferson if he walked back in with his idea that democracy was meant to foster a “natural aristocracy” of talent and intelligence. Naked elitism!

Hypocrisy reigns. The right complains (with reason) about the dumbing-down of American education and then wants to kill one of the essential means of its spread and improvement, the National Endowment for the Humanities. It laments the depravity of network and cable TV, especially in the stew of commercial gunk it serves up to children, then wants to cut all federal funding for PBS, the only source of decent educational programming for children and of intelligent documentaries for grownups.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing public about [PBS],” Gingrich crowed to a roomful of like-minded enthusiasts in Washington’s Capitol Hill Club last February. “It’s an elitist enterprise. Rush Limbaugh is public broadcasting.” Yeah, and so is Howard Stern–and Jenny Jones is Ken Burns, and Tom Clancy is Toni Morrison. The fact is that no system with as broad and loyal an audience base as PBS repeatedly garners can be called elitist. A national poll conducted for PBS by Opinion Research Corp. indicates that fully 84% of Americans want to see PBS funding maintained or increased and that 82% of them–79% Republican–feel PBS programming content is “neither too conservative nor too liberal.”

But Newt and his -oids resent PBS’s small measure of independence from “market forces”–from corporate and hence, ultimately, political control. More important still, the Republicans want a carcass they can toss to their extreme right. The Christian Coalition and other Fundamentalists, such as the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s religious hit squad, the American Family Association, believe PBS is a factory of pinko, homosexual, you-name-it agitprop and want to see it abolished for love of censorship.

Some lefties they have there on PBS: William F. Buckley Jr., Ben Wattenberg and that far-famed enemy of capitalism Louis Rukeyser. Like Pat Robertson’s views on “creation science,” this belief hinges on ignoring the fossil evidence. Sure, PBS has run programs exposing business fraud, supporting homosexual and other minority claims to rights, satirizing religion (however mildly) and questioning some government practices. Sometimes it has been guilty of “imbalance,” but at least it hasn’t completely succumbed to the emasculating belief that every assertion in a given program should be at once neutralized by its opposite. Compared with public television anywhere else, from England’s BBC to state broadcasting outfits in France, Germany, Italy or Australia, PBS has been cautiously middle of the road in its political alignments, and its major source of funding, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has been dominated by conservatives ever since it was created in 1967 by the Johnson Administration.

The conservatives’ thrust against PBS, therefore, seems to be faltering. On this Gingrich is too extreme for his own troops. The Speaker of the House, when he speaks on cultural affairs, is truly a wonder. Here he is, prating and preening like a parrot on a stump about the need to renew American civilization. This is the guy who hates the ’60s but reincarnates them in his 40-acres-and-a-laptop Utopianism; who thinks kitsch “futurologists” like Alvin and Heidi Toffler are gurus and that a fund-raising cultist like Arianna Huffington is an intellectual. He filled his cable-TV sermons about “Renewing American Civilization” with brazen plugs for corporations that contributed to his funding operation, GOPAC. He wants to destroy the national endowments while promoting tax breaks for developers on Mars. There are times when “American civilization” should be defended against its renewers, and this is one of them.

To put matters in perspective, one must first remember the comparative triviality of the sums involved–the shallowness of modern America’s official commitments to culture.

The U.S. government currently spends less than five-hundredths of 1% of its national budget on all forms of cultural subsidy–the equivalent of maybe five cups of diner coffee per citizen per year. In fiscal 1995 the NEH got $172 million, the NEA got $162.4 million, and the CPB got $285.6 million. Still, these modest sums exert large leverage on private and corporate patronage through “matching grants” (to qualify, the recipient must raise as much as $3 from the private sources for every federal dollar) and by the vitally important role played by the NEA and the NEH as Good Housekeeping seals of approval on projects.

Besides, culture is business. Serious business. The splendid offerings of New York City, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the New York City Ballet, generate more than $2 billion a year in tourist revenue. Not-for-profit arts, local and national, support 1.3 million jobs, yield $37 billion a year in economic activity and return $3.4 billion a year to the federal treasury through tax–some 20 times the budget of the nea. It is ludicrous to pretend that the NEA is a drain on the American purse.

Over the past quarter-century, NEA seed money has been a boon and a blessing to America’s myriad cultural outlets. It is easy to think of scores, and possible to find hundreds, of museum exhibitions, dance and drama projects, concerts and arts- education programs of real cultural value that would not have had private underwriting without the spur of public money. Corporations need reassurance and are reluctant to disgorge without it.

Some Republicans argue that since corporate and foundation support for the arts outweighs federal support–$16 to $1–the NEA and NEH would not be missed. This is an illusion. Some American businesses, like Philip Morris, have been very generous in their support of the arts. But this generosity depends on their public relations needs. (If there were no lung cancer or emphysema, the arts would get much less.) Increasingly, these needs are defined as social rather than artistic. Hence the shift, in private philanthropy, to race- and gender-based programs, meant to make art what theatrical director Robert Brustein calls “a conduit for social justice” rather than art as art. As the newsletter Corporate Philanthropy Report recently noted, “We no longer ‘support’ the arts. We use the arts in innovative ways to support the social causes chosen by our company.”

That’s exactly what Republican critics accuse the NEA and the NEH of doing. Moreover, if the flat-tax enthusiasts in the G.O.P. have their way, private and corporate arts subsidies–especially gifts to museums–will vanish as tax-deduction inducements evaporate. This will destroy the mechanism that made American museum collections great. There is no sign that anyone in Congress has thought this through. And why? Because frankly, my dear, we don’t give a damn.

America’s federal stinginess with the arts and humanities does it immense discredit. By contrast, every candidate in the last French election, from the socialist Lionel Jospin to the conservative victor Jacques Chirac, agreed that fully 1% of France’s state budget should be set aside for culture. This will cost each taxpayer about $50 a year and is wholly uncontroversial. Nobody complains in Germany either, though federal cultural subsidies cost each taxpayer $38 and city ones even more: Berlin, for instance, will spend 1.1 billion marks ($800 million) in fiscal 1995, 2.6% of its total municipal budget, on art and culture–$225 for each of its 3.5 million residents. Berliners like this. They are proud of it.

Many people do feel they have a right to expect their government to spend some of their tax money in preserving and amplifying their culture and their history, even if this effort works with less than 75% efficiency–which would still be better than the rate of the Pentagon’s extravaganza. Some would argue that this is one of the criteria of political enlightenment. Why not in America?

Why not, indeed? Because in America, the arts have always had to prove how moral they are. Ever since the Puritans got to Massachusetts in the 17th century, American culture has had an iconophobic streak: prelates and politicians felt that though God (like them) spoke through the Word, the visual and performing arts were in some sense the devil’s work, best left alone by a virtuous polity. This has combined with America’s extreme loathing of tax–for American independence began with a tax revolt, when the tea chests were tossed into Boston Harbor in 1773. Put them together, and you get to hear House majority leader Dick Armey proclaiming, without a shred of evidence, that federal arts subsidy “offends the Constitution of the U.S.”–without, of course, suggesting which clause or amendment it offends.

There is no such clause, because America’s Founding Fathers had no doubt about the necessity of the arts in a democracy. They were radicals and revolutionists who believed that the arts should be available to the many, not the privileged few (as in 18th century Europe, where they were left to the alite “private sector,” to whose corporate equivalents the G.O.P. wants to return them today). “I must study politics and war,” wrote John Adams to his wife Abigail, “that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study … navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture …” Their son John Quincy Adams amplified that in his First Message to Congress. For government to refrain, he wrote, from “promoting the improvement of agriculture, commerce, manufacture, the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanical and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature … would be treachery to the most sacred of trusts.”

Intelligent appreciation of the arts and the humanities was part of the democratic promise. Learning, no less surely than the Kentucky rifle, supported freedom. The case for federal interest in fostering it was plainly put by James Madison 200 years ago. Americans, he said, owed it to themselves “and to the cause of free government, to prove by their establishments … that their political institutions are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of Man as they are conformable to his individual and social rights.”

Other Americans, whether ordinary, shortsighted materialists or mere yahoos, have often opposed this noble idea. Hence tax-financed culture has always seemed a “soft spot” in government budgets.

In 1814, after the British burned the Congressional Library and Jefferson offered to sell Congress his own books as a replacement, angry voices in Congress denounced the idea: it was immoral to spend federal money on “philosophical nonsense” collected by a notorious freethinker, on volumes that were “worthless, in languages which many cannot read, and most ought not.” Wisely, Congress voted over its seated bigots and populist lowbrows, as it should today. It bought the books, for $23,950. This, as historian David McCullough pointed out to the House Appropriations Subcommittee last February, “may be seen as the beginning of federal involvement in the arts and humanities, to the everlasting benefit of the country.”

When the American history painter John Trumbull was paid $32,000 for the four scenes of the American Revolution, including the Declaration of Independence (1818), that adorn the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, a loud outcry arose against their cost. But does anyone alive today think it was wrong to spend public money on jump-starting the Library of Congress with Jefferson’s 6,500 books or creating America’s first monumental paintings of its own history? Was Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, which gave jobs to numerous good American artists in the Depression years, a bad idea? American government has supported the American arts–spottily, inconsistently, but always with some general sense of obligation to a larger sense of polity–almost from its beginning. The claim that the NEA and the NEH, founded in 1965, had no historical precedents in America is simply a lie.

Who begrudges the $1 million a year in federal funds for the upkeep of the Lincoln Memorial, with its huge, Zeus-like figure of the dead President by Daniel Chester French? Yet from there to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial–a focus of intense collective feeling and reverence today, but bitterly denounced by many a flag-wagging conservative as “a black gash of shame”– there has scarcely been a significant American public sculpture commemorating things Americans care about that hasn’t excited fierce opposition, usually in the name of patriotism and values.

Trying to find common public images in the midst of the pandemic discord of American democracy has never been an easy task. Sometimes, as now, it has seemed all but hopeless. One recalls the morose words of John Trumbull in 1793, lamenting how “the whole American people” had become “violent partisans … the whole country seemed to be changed into one vast arena … on which the two parties, forgetting their national character, were wasting their time, their thoughts, their energy … In such a state of things, what hope remained for the arts? None.”

This atmosphere passed, but 200 years later a similar dementia prevails. Its obsessive objects this time are not the Terror in France and the war between France and England, as they were in 1793. They are moral–or, to be more exact, they are about the rhetoric of morality.

Our present “culture wars” do not exist in liberal democracies on the other sides of the Atlantic or the Pacific. The intolerance of these clashes is aggravated by the deep anguish that descended on America after it won the cold war and found itself no better off. The Manichaean universe, divided between right (us) and wrong (Soviets), dissolved. The apocalyptic scenario, so frightening and yet so consoling, fizzled. But the mind-set it fostered remains, particularly since America is the only country in the Western world with a strong, and vengeful, current of Fundamentalist apocalyptic religion. With the death of communism, new Antichrists and minor devils have to be found inside America. The two p.c.s–patriotic correctness and political correctness–have mutually fostered this search, creating an atmosphere of inflamed accusation; scholarship and the arts then become scapegoats, grotesquely politicized culture-war stereotypes.

Thus Congress–and the nation–is now full of indignant wannabe reformers who know next to nothing about American culture but want to get tough on it. They have no idea that there is a vast, complex and valuable tract of images between Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving turkey and Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix in urine. Years of adroit propaganda by the religious right have convinced many of them that a vote for preserving the nea in any form is a vote for sodomy, blasphemy and child abuse. This has become a matter of indurated faith, resistant to any insert of mere fact.

For these zealots, modern American art is summed up in the image of Robert Mapplethorpe, that slick and vastly overrated photographer, conservative in every sense except the sexual, who is now seen as a hybrid of welfare queen and Caligula, living off the NEA on your tax dollar and mine while sticking bullwhips up his bum. In fact, Mapplethorpe neither got nor asked for one cent from the NEA to make the photos that caused the offense; a museum did that, for a show of his work. And he died a multimillionaire because of the ranting queer hatred of Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan and the religious right–not to mention the tribal loyalty of art-world homosexuals, many of whom would have you think that any criticism of his work amounts to homophobia.

Of the tens of thousands of grants that the NEA has made in its 30-year history, perhaps a dozen have excited serious controversy and only two–to the Mapplethorpe show and Serrano–have brought it to the verge of abolition. Significantly, neither case involved a direct grant by the nea to the artist. Serrano got his $15,000 of public money as an award from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, which the NEA had given a grant to distribute as it thought fit. All the same, it is obvious from this debacle that the NEA should not have set itself up as the Lady Bountiful of the so-called cutting edge, as it did in the ’80s. Government is almost by definition a poor patron of the avant-garde. Artists who call themselves sociopolitical subversives, and then ask for state handouts, are either fools or hypocrites. But at the same time, it is, and plausibly should be, a legitimate function of government patronage to encourage promising forms of artistic expression that are not familiar enough to find their way in the marketplace. This is a thin rope to walk; the NEA fell off it and broke a leg. But you don’t kill the endowment over that, any more than you abolish the U.S. Navy because of Tailhook.

The key is reform, without which the NEA probably won’t survive at all. Its critics charge it with spending too much on grants to individual artists, but this is untrue–in fact, such grants account for only 4% of its budget. It’s more important for the NEA to get rid of all its bogus democratic criteria, the therapeutic fustian of “self-esteem” and “empowerment” through art for this locality or that minority. Leave that to state arts councils (if they still want it, which they shouldn’t either); in art there should be no such entitlements. The NEA should be more elitist–rigorously so, in fact–and should hand out more money to fewer projects. It should wholeheartedly embrace the dreaded Q word: quality.

To do that effectively, however, it needs to have its budget increased, not cut. Give it one-quarter the cost of a B-2 each year–$550 million. Let it then compile a target list of the 500 or so performing-arts institutions, along with the instruments of historic preservation (museums, heritage and restoration groups, and so on) that matter most in American culture, across the whole social and geographical spectrum, and see what they (minimally) need.

America leads the world in dance, for instance, and yet an innovative genius like choreographer Twyla Tharp lacks the money to maintain a permanent company. This is a national embarrassment. Such people shouldn’t have to go begging in corporate boardrooms. But in America, artists are always on probation.

Yet the chance of getting enough money for the NEA to become truly effective is now very slim; and the punitive funding cuts it has suffered have weakened it so far that in the end, it may not be worth keeping alive. Meanwhile, the NEH seems to have become confused with the NEA in the public mind–as though the National Endowment for the Humanities had suffered the same tsuris as the National Endowment for the Arts. In fact, its record has been excellent. Losing the NEA would be a disgrace; but the loss of the NEH as well would be a cultural tragedy for all Americans.

Since it was founded in 1965, the NEH has awarded $2.9 billion in some 51,000 fellowships and grants, and its Challenge Grants program, in place since 1977, has generated more than $1.3 billion in nonfederal aid for American libraries, museums, universities and colleges. Its net of activities reaches very wide. It funds the study and publication of essential archives, like the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain and Dwight Eisenhower. (Twenty-eight volumes of Washington’s papers alone have appeared so far.) It has given more than $1 million to a projected 21-volume documentary history of the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It sponsored Ken Burns’ TV series on the Civil War, as well as the definitive edition of the Thomas Alva Edison papers and the first complete printed version of the journals kept by Lewis and Clark on their epic trek across the West. It funds local history centers, educational programs at all levels and the unending task of preserving millions of old documents and brittle newspapers, both physically and on microfilm. And much more, including the great Library of America series of American literary classics, co-sponsored by the NEH and the Ford Foundation.

In 1991 a study by the American Council of Learned Societies found that the NEH provided 64% of the research funding available to American scholars in the humanities (the runner-up was the Guggenheim Foundation, at 18%). Right-wing critics sneer that this is a pork barrel for obscurantist, lefty p.c. historians, but they are wrong. Books published with NEH support include such recent achievements in history and biography as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Pulitzer Prize, 1988); Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (Pulitzer Prize, 1990); John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (nominated for a National Book Award, 1994); Eric Foner’s classic study, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877; Richard Slotkin’s brilliant explorations of the myth of the American frontier, and scores of others.

Until the G.O.P. frenzy turned on it recently, the NEH was rightly seen as an exemplary agency. Thus the conservative columnist George Will, writing about the NEH-sponsored Jefferson Lecture given by Gertrude Himmelfarb in 1991, endorsed the NEH as “the best part of the government.” But then the party line changed. By last January, Will was baying for the agency’s total abolition– “If Republicans merely trim rather than terminate [NEA, NEH and CPB], they … will prove that the Republican ‘revolution’ is not even serious reform.”

Also in January, two former chairmen of the NEH appeared before a House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, testifying that their old agency had become an incubator of decadence and should be abolished. William Bennett, chairman from 1981 to 1985, opined that since American culture had not improved since 1965, and since it had been “Marxized, feminized, deconstructed and politicized” partly on NEH dollars, one could “make a plausible case that the endowments have had a deleterious effect on our culture.”

Plausible? Only if you believed that post hoc was propter hoc. At the hearing and afterward in the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Lynne Cheney, Bennett’s successor as NEH chairman, went into a perfect rapture of denunciation, like some goodwife of Salem divining a devil’s teat in every rival’s wart. The NEH, it seemed, once had its uses, but they stopped when she left. Now it was a pit of deconstruction and misery, rad-feminism and woe, a p.c. hell where tenured profs did nothing but denounce Shakespeare, Dante, Yeats and Matthew Arnold as “icons of the decadent civilization of the West.” KILL MY OLD AGENCY, PLEASE, one of her headlines begged.

All this infection must have happened very quickly, within two years in fact–almost Ebola-speed. For Cheney’s animus against the NEH contradicted everything she said and wrote about it, both when she was running the agency and immediately after she quit as chairman at the end of 1992. In a parting memo to the NEH staff on that occasion, Cheney overflowed with praise for the endowment for “funding the best of traditional scholarship on time-honored subjects as well as the best of newer approaches on newer topics.” She lauded the staff: “No federal agency to my mind has so many capable professionals, so thoroughly dedicated to the idea of excellence.” She praised its grant procedures without reserve. And so on, for 4-1/2 single-spaced pages.

In the 2-1/2 years since Cheney wrote this summing-up, there have been–according to the NEH’s present chairman, Sheldon Hackney–no significant changes in the NEH’s policies, criteria or grant system, and most of its senior staff remains in place. What has changed, though, are Cheney’s ambitions for fame and influence. She is building her credibility for a post in a future Republican Administration. And if revisionism, hypocrisy and opportunism help, so be it.

Thus the foofaraw and froth blowing over the NEH-sponsored American History Standards, of whose content, Cheney claims, she was quite unaware when she was running the agency. These history standards are a special focus of conservative ire and are greatly misrepresented by Cheney and her allies. Co-sponsored by the NEH in 1992, they were written by a team of teachers and professors whom Cheney impaneled under the directorship of UCLA historian Gary Nash. Their aim was to provide a curriculum guide to American and world history for teachers of U.S. elementary and secondary students in grades K through 12. They are not a textbook. They lay out themes, areas of historical inquiry, ways for students to engage a subject. Their use is voluntary: they are a blueprint, not a rigid template, and they are not mandated by the Federal Government.

Properly used, they will lift school history teaching far above the names-and-dates mediocrity that has always plagued it. Their approach is bracing and invites continuous argument and engagement. One of their virtues is that they include the study of cultures and states outside Europe and North America, including Africa, China, South America and Japan; and that they ask students to think seriously about civil rights, union history and other issues of race, gender and class in America–issues without which America’s past and present cannot possibly be understood.

The standards certainly have their flaws of emphasis: no mention of Aztec human sacrifice to balance the brutalities of Cortas, for instance; a downplaying of Japanese barbarities in World War II; a perceptible bias in the treatment of the cold war; and maybe 20 other lapses out of some 2,600 topics. Too much pluribus, not enough unum, in historian Kenneth Jackson’s words. Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with further discussion and editorial goodwill, as a number of historians and educators, including principled conservatives like Diane Ravitch, have pointed out.

But Cheney and her supporters took the blemishes as a pretext to denounce the standards as hopelessly p.c., anti-Western, anti-American, anti-white, pessimistic and skewed, and called not only for their cancelation but for the abolition of the NEH as well.

“The standards deserve full and critical discussion as a partial prescription for our educational ills,” wrote Douglas Greenberg, president of the Chicago Historical Society, last January. “They do not deserve to be caricatured for narrowly partisan reasons.” But they were, unrecognizably, and the caricaturists seemed not to care that the eventual losers would be American schoolchildren.

“The question is,” said NEH chairman Hackney in a speech in San Francisco last April, “who are the real elitists? Isn’t it insultingly elitist to assume that ordinary Americans are not interested in the humanities? Isn’t it the ultimate arrogance to believe that ‘culture’ should be the private property of those who can pay for it? The NEH is, in fact, our best guarantee that our cultural heritage will be available to all Americans, regardless of how much money they make or where they live.”

The conservatives’ agenda, if it goes through, is going to depress the quality of cultural and educational life for everyone in America, young and old, white, black, brown, male or female. This is one of the most ill-conceived, profoundly anti-democratic ideas ever to get loose in Congress. Private philanthropy will never be able to restore what seems about to be taken away. Some will not notice it; others won’t care; given the shortness of American social memory, perhaps the next generation won’t know what happened. Partial lobotomies work that way. They favor Beavis and Butt-head. Is that the business of American government?

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