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The ideology of cultural conformity.

How many times in the last six months have I stifled this outburst? "Have you all forgotten that the government already has a contract with the American people? It's called the Bill of Rights!" The escalating bipartisan efforts of lawmakers to systematically dismantle some of our most fundamental American liberties are too numerous to address here.

But what we are witnessing is more than an attack on America's legacy of individual freedom. It is also an assault on the cultural heart of America. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the current attempts to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Department of Education. Efforts are also proceeding to defund ("privatize" - that is, sell to the highest bidder) or regulate the content of literally everything supported by the CPB, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, National Public Radio, and the Institute for Museum Services. These public-education venues are perhaps the only government service that almost every citizen can access.

The greatest achievements of our democratic society include continuing public education, music, drama, literature, and art. These are the abundant products of a people free to read and to think and to study; free to explore and to discover more about the universe through science; free to create and to express the many facets of being human.

A government that attacks or fails to promote and encourage these endeavors by its citizens is a government declaring its contempt for intellectual inquiry and for the very concept of free thought. Opponents of public support for art and culture know that art, literature, and ideas have become more powerful influences on society and politics than ever before. That's why they seek so desperately to control them. The bottom line isn't really about money; it's about ideology.

For example, this past January, former NEH chair and Reagan administration education secretary William Bennett testified before a Senate committee that both the NEH and the NEA were "intellectually and morally corrupt" because they supported scholars and artists who "undermine mainstream American values." Obviously, those who subscribe to this view would annihilate the historic role of literature and the arts in questioning popular culture and government policy. As for nurturing nonconformist thought and educated skepticism - well, nothing could be more dangerous, in the eyes of the American establishment.

A brief review of some basic facts is in order. The total budget of the NEA is $167 million a year, which is one-thirteenth the cost of a single B-2 bomber. It is less than 0.02 percent of the federal budget. The yearly wheat subsidy in the state of Kansas (home of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole) is double the amount of the entire NEA budget. The federal budget for military bands exceeds the NEA budget by $20 million! And, despite all the mud-slinging by detractors, less than I percent of all the grants the NEA has ever awarded have become at all "controversial."

Every dollar awarded by the NEA must be matched at least one to one - and sometimes three to one - with private or local dollars. But that's only the official matching requirement. In fact, every dollar of NEA money attracts more than $11 from state and local agencies, foundations, corporations, businesses, and individuals.

One constitutionally assigned function of the federal government is "to promote the general welfare." It is, and always has been, in the American tradition to spread culture and learning to as many of this nation's citizens as possible, using many venues: libraries, museums, public education, art, theater, and continuing education.

We should be asking ourselves why America's lawmakers want to suppress today's greatest mechanisms for accommodating this noble goal. Why does this "raiding party of cultural thugs" want to dumb down America? Why would people who call themselves "pro-family" want to destroy the best children's programming on the air? The answer, I fear, is self-evident. If one's purpose is to enforce conformity and dictate morals, a free and educated electorate is a fearsome thing, to be discouraged at virtually any cost.

Accordingly, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has stated that, in his role as speaker, he can and will single-handedly block any new appropriation for public broadcasting from coming to the House floor. (He could also refuse to schedule any vote on the underlying authorization bills.)

Gingrich says that private citizens and organizations should fund these endeavors. Why, he asks, should the public pay for programs watched only by "a rich elite in New York and Boston and San Francisco"? How condescending can you get? The truth is that 80 percent of all Americans watch public television at least once a month. They watch to expand their minds, enrich their lives, and educate their children.

"Rich?" The demographics of over 100 million weekly viewers reflect those of the country at large. Fifty-six percent of the households who watch PBS have incomes of less than $30,000.

"Elitist?" Most arts grants go to programs and institutions - community theaters, dance troupes, arts-education initiatives - that bring the arts to areas where they wouldn't otherwise exist and to audiences that couldn't otherwise afford them. The result is the exact opposite of "elitism."

Clearly, these public agencies fill a pressing public need - one especially compelling in an increasingly knowledge-based society. Anyone who thinks that commercial television in this country will undertake production of educational and unorthodox programming hasn't watched much network TV lately. One example: "Barney and Friends," an educational program for children under age five, is currently PBS's most popular program. Yet even this high-quality programming was turned down by commercial television.

Public television and radio set the standard for quality broadcasting in America. They are the single best counterweight to domination of our limited broadcasting bands by huge corporate entities. Says one PBS official, "Cutting the federal contribution will make public TV and radio consumer-driven, not education-driven, and it will become just another competing network."

In their eagerness to insist that much of what now constitutes public broadcasting wouldn't survive in the capitalist marketplace, opponents reveal the depth of their ignorance. The very purpose of public broadcasting and government support for literature and the arts is to free these endeavors from the limitations imposed by the marketplace. It was established to ensure the quality and freedom that commercial broadcasting shies away from. In short, public broadcasting's commitment is to its diverse audience, not to the financial bottom line.

The Carnegie Commission Report of 1967, the founding document of the public broadcasting system as it exists today, defined its intended role:

Public broadcasting can help us see America whole, in all its diversity. To a degree unequaled by any other medium, public television should be a mirror of the American style. It should remind us of our heritage and enliven our traditions. Its programming should draw on the full range of emotion and mood, from the comic to the tragic, that we know in American life. It should help us to look at our achievements as well as our difficulties, at our conflicts and our agreements, at our problems, and at the far reach of our possibilities. Public broadcasting should help us know what it is to be many in one, to maintain a growing maturity in our sense of ourselves as a people.

A government that condemns and seeks to destroy this ongoing social and cultural process is an authoritarian government very much afraid of its own citizens.

Barbara Dority is the president of Humanists of Washington, the executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Humanist Association
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Civil Liberties Watch
Author:Dority, Barbar
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1995
Words:1263
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