Friday, March 31, 2017

NPR, CPB, a Coal Miner and a Single Mother

In speaking to the media about the Trump administration 's proposed budget that includes zeroing out funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the director of the Office of Budget and Management Michael Mulvaney asked: "Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mother in Detroit to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?"

His statement  reveals a familiar posture of Republican conservatives, namely the assumption that NPR/PBS' programs are too elite for the "common man" (the same applies, of course, to the arts and humanities endowments). Mr. Mulvaney must have missed the searing documentary "The Mine Wars" aired on PBS in January of this year depicting the efforts beginning in 1901 of West Virginia miners to unionize. He also has bypassed any episode of Sesame Street, made available on PBS to all mothers, single or not, and their children since 1969. But we are not talking about reason here.

Like children, eager to avail themselves of the contents of a candy store where they previously could only get to the samples on the counter, conservative Republicans now have plundering access to all the goodies, with control of the Congress and the White House. For years they have been trying to undo CPB, NEA and NEH. I remember all too well the "culture wars"of the '80s and '90s from my vantage point in DC serving as executive director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies ('80-'84) and Director of Government Affairs for the American Association of Museums ('87-'92).  I was deep in the trenches then and not alone by many means.

The first real threat to funding came in 1981 when president Ronald Reagan and his budget chief David Stockman tried to cut NEA funding by 50%. Provocative images by artist Andres Serrano ("Piss Christ') and the homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that appeared in NEA-supported museum exhibitions in the late '80s provided plenty of grist for the mills of far right senators, such as Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Year after year since , the attackers have been storming the ramparts; the defenders have been managing to beat them back, but not without sustaining heavy losses. The budget of the NEA today only equals 70% of what it was in 1979.

Advocates for federal cultural  funding have years of battle-hardened experience and an army of supporters ready for the fight to come. My guess is that these agencies will survive, given the picayune size of the agencies' budgets, the comparisons to which have already produced good ammunition (nine presidential visits to Mar-a-Lago will cost $30 million, equal to the annual salaries and expenses of the NEH) and the fact that, for instance, NEA funding can be found in every Congressional district. But survival at what cost?

The issue is really not so much about the money. Symbolism is at the core. Opponents call federal cultural funding a "frill" (George Will used that term the other day in the Washington Post, not for first time I bet) and charge the work of the agencies is geared to elitists. Supporters, such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, value the cultural agencies both for the content and the symbolism of federal tax dollars, though mere, being expended in support of the arts and humanities.

In a March 30 column Kristof  wrote: "The arts humanize us and promote empathy.We need that now more than ever." Amen to that.

p.s. You can reach any congressional office by calling 202-225-3121.

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