In mid-July, 1964 a 40-year-old Jim Oakes (who would later be appointed to the Second Circuit Court of Federal Appeals) was a New England organizer for the Rockefeller presidential campaign. As a delegate to the 1964 Republican Convention he was one of many “socially liberal” Republicans who believed in the Republican Party’s historic stands on equality, social justice, and minimal government interference in the lives of its private citizens even while advocating for fiscal responsibility.
The 1964 Republican Convention was no picnic—despite its being held in San Francisco’s rustic-sounding Cow Palace. It is generally accepted that it served as the coming-out party for a new kind of political conservatism, one that would eventually appear to abandon most, if not all, of the lofty ideals that first imbued the party of Abe Lincoln.
Judge Oakes described to me what happened to him at the conclusion of Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech that warm July 16th in San Francisco.
“I had to leave the room—that huge room with its thousands of young Goldwater Republicans roaring their approval for the turn to the right the party had just taken. I just couldn’t believe it. I walked out into the vestibule at the Cow Palace and stood leaning on the rail overlooking the lobby. After a moment, I became aware of a well-dressed black man, about my age, who was clearly as upset as I was. I asked him what he thought of Goldwater’s speech. He replied ‘my party has abandoned me. It has abandoned my people.’
“I introduced myself to him. He was Jackie Robinson.”
Goldwater lost that election and it would be 16 years before the Conservative Revolution inside the GOP would succeed in finally elevating one of its own, Ronald Reagan, to the White House. And it would be another 16 years after Reagan’s election that neo-conservative political values would touch my profession—the cultural sector—with devastating results.
In the mid-1990s the first campaign of the so-called Culture Wars ended, and the Arts and Humanities were its first major casualties. A significant budget reduction at the Federal level in 1996 placed on the states the extraordinary burden of carrying forward the valuable work of the tiny Federal agencies charged with supporting the cultural legacy of America’s vast creative output. What was at the time considered a near “death blow” reduction of 40% to the National Endowment for the Arts was a significant step in the neo-conservative effort to reshape American culture.
Today (nearly 16 years later again) we find ourselves in the middle of another attack on our cultural support system. Not only is it the clear intent of the conservative Right to deal crippling, if not fatal, blows to the NEA and its sister agencies (the Humanities Endowment and Institute for Museum and Library Services), but also to National Public Radio, National Public Television, and to the “Nation’s Attic”—the venerable Smithsonian Institution.
This time round, however, these attacks from the Right are no longer confined to our Federal institutions. At least a half a dozen states have been trying to cope with similar efforts to disband their public cultural institutions under the guise of “balancing the budget.” For many of us, this effort has resulted in a whole new definition of “March Madness.”
While basketball fans everywhere are savoring (or cursing) the sweet runs of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth University, folks in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Kansas, Nevada, Washington and elsewhere are realizing that a cultural March Madness has gripped their State Houses or Governor’s Mansions.
Despite reams of data showing the positive effects of participating in/studying the arts at school;
Despite hundreds of independent studies showing the significant state and local revenues generated by the arts sector;
Despite literally thousands of independent sources clearly providing credible anecdotal evidence that the arts create and sustain community life; and
Despite the easy-to-verify fact that in most states the total budget for all things “cultural” (Arts, Humanities, Historical Societies, Libraries, etc.) are a tiny fraction of 1% of a state’s General Fund,
NEVERTHELESS, arts and culture are the unequivocal “first thing to go” in our schools and in our state house corridors. It is only a small comfort to know that Vermont is, for now, one of only a handful of exceptions to this trend.
Last week, while New Hampshire headlines were blaring the late-night, closed-door House vote to disallow collective bargaining by state employees, an equally insidious bill succeeded in passing in the House Finance Committee (20-6) to eliminate the New Hampshire Council on the Arts.
Yesterday the paper reported that of the more than 5 million people who filled out their NCAA brackets, only TWO predicted that the final four would include Butler and VCU and not include a single #1 seed. Two people are happy today, while all the rest tear out their hair and tear up their brackets.
Is the same thing going to happen in the arts? Is the conservative Right going to wake up tomorrow happy while millions of Americans from all walks of life will wake up to the despair that results from no longer being able to access the arts and humanities?
Sure, the comparison here is a little bit false. With respect to the NCAA tournament, two people are happy now, but in a few more days, a new basketball champion will be crowned and everyone else on college campuses and communities across America will get back to business as usual.
I only wish I could assure the arts sector (and everyone else, for that matter) of a similar outcome.