Why Fund the Arts?

President Trump has proposed de-funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other budget items conservatives have been dying to get rid off for decades. Liberals are understandably upset and the debate has centered around the controversial and offensive artworks that the NEA has sponsored in the past, as well as the weird art they still promote sometimes.

Jazz Shaw at Hot Air says this is precisely the wrong argument to have. He argues that the NEA should be done away not because they supported weird or offensive art, but because the federal government shouldn’t be supporting art at all.

The arts, like everything else in society, can rise and fall on their own merit. The reason that we don’t have tremendous federal funding supporting the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies is that such offerings tend to be popular and the business of making them is profitable. Creating paintings, sculpture, poetry or theatrical performances may not be as profitable, but if it has value to sufficient people, patrons may be found to support the work. If no such patronage is forthcoming then perhaps the “art” is better left to the lonely artist toiling away in their studio.

Unfortunately, Shaw is wrong because this is precisely why we should have public support of the arts, especially those less commercially viable forms. Look, I think NEA funding can be reduced or even eliminated, because I think having a federal bureaucracy as gatekeeper for the arts has been disastrous (cf. Mapplethrope and Serrano as Shaw references them).

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Shouting Them Down

I wrote in my previous blog post about the loss of the principle of the right to be wrong, meaning it’s okay for someone to disagree with us or for us to believe them to be wrong, yet still remain cordial, polite, and even friends. I’ve also written about the need to extend to others the benefit of the doubt, to assume good intentions in others or give the best possible interpretation of their motives until you learn otherwise. These are necessary for a civil society to operate.

Another disturbing trend, however, makes even those two principles impossible. I’m speaking of the epidemic of shouting, cursing, and yelling as a substitute for debate. I’m not even talking about two people sitting down over coffee ending up in a shouting match. I’m referring to the widespread practice of people showing up at a meeting or rally or speech and harassing those present by shouting and chanting and disrupting the proceedings. Usually there’s no attempt to change minds or present an opposing point of view. Rather it’s an attempt to intimidate or just frustrate their opponents, to bait them and anger them with no clear end in mind.

I work for Massachusetts Citizens for Life and, of course, my work involves an issue (or issues) that sees great emotion on either side. In January, we held our annual Assembly for Life, a gathering held in Boston’s Faneuil Hall that has its roots in an interfaith prayer event. While it’s not specifically a prayer service now, it still retains elements in the choice of speakers and topics and by including opening and closing prayers. After our rally had begun and we’d heard from one or two speakers, an obviously coordinated group of young people scattered through the audience rose to their feet, stood on chairs and began chanting pro-abortion slogans. The audience of pro-lifers responded mainly with prayer and rueful head shakes. Eventually they were escorted from the premises by the police.

What did they accomplish? Was there a single pro-lifer in the room whose mind was moved even one iota by the disruptive display? There were no neutral attendees to be swayed by one side or the other. There were no TV cameras to capture their yelling to be broadcast into living rooms. In the end it was all for naught.

We see this time and again. Last year, the screaming happened with some frequency at presidential rallies. The Democratic convention even saw some of it from Bernie Sanders’ delegates who didn’t like their party’s process. There is hours of YouTube footage of people yelling and screaming and chanting at one kind of event or another that they oppose. Heck, there’s a whole genre of video depicting so-called “scream-ins” where some gather to just scream at no one.

This kind of display isn’t intended to convince or educate. It’s just a way to express emotion and perhaps to make it impossible for the other to be heard. Yet another way that the current climate is making a civil society impossible.

The performances must stop. Just because someone else is saying things I do not like does not mean I need to say anything. My silence in the face of speech I think is wrong is not in fact complicity. Silence in the face of others’ bad actions could be, but not when they’re simply saying things I disagree with. For the sake of a civil society other people have the right to be wrong. The good news is so do you.

The Right to Be Wrong

Last week, the controversial academic and author Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve among other works, was invited to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont. However, before he could even begin, the audience began booing and hissing, making it impossible to continue. The college moved him to a TV studio where he made his talk as a streaming video, but after he came out of the building, he and another professor were attacked by a group of thugs.

The same kind of story has been repeated over and over in recent years and has reached a fever pitch after this past election. College campuses are in a constant uproar whenever a controversial speaker attempts to talk resulting in audience disruptions, property destruction, and mob violence, with professors often at their head. The high-minded and longstanding principles of free speech and open academic inquiry seem to have been lost in favor of safe spaces and countering (non-liberal) micro-aggressions.

In a truly civil society, the one we used to live in, if you disagreed with someone else’s views, you could either engage them in a civil debate or ignore them, but you’d acknowledge their right to be wrong. But not any more. In today’s uncivil society, you are not allowed to be wrong. If you hold wrong beliefs—i.e. wrong according to my measure—then you must either change your mind or be destroyed, one way or the other.

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A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and then move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

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The First American Chaplain Killed in WWII

Fr. Aloysius Schmitt died on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor just after celebrating Mass on the USS Oklahoma. He was among the men trapped inside after the battleship capsized and helped a dozen men escape through a porthole, but he died because he couldn’t fit. (I can sympathize.)

He was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and had a ship, the USS Schmitt named for him.

Thanks to DNA testing, his remains have been identified and he is returning home this month to Iowa to be interred in a chapel dedicated in his honor.

Culturally Appropriating Your Noodles

cultural appropriation in your pho

The latest trend in the worsening race relations in the US is cultural appropriation. It’s a grab-all term that basically means that people who weren’t born in a particular culture are not allowed to partake of or speak of aspects of that culture.

The latest dust-up surrounds the cultural appropriation of ethnic food. Today’s example comes from a video by Bon Appetit magazine in which a non-Asian chef discusses how best to eat the Vietnamese noodle soup dish pho.1

The controversy stems from the fact that chef in the video, Tyler Akin, is white and white people are not allowed to “whitesplain” anything from cultures other than their own.

Much of the anger centered around the choice of a white person to authoritatively speak about an Asian food. As the chef shared his personal insights, he never mentioned his fondness for the soup, his personal connections to it. That omission was an editorial mistake. Treating pho as merely a fashionable food negated its rich role in Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and now, American culture.

Must every essay and recipe and quick video include a long preamble as to the importance of the dish to a particular culture? Or is the goal simply to force people to eat only food from their own culture?

Two points: First, this is the fracturing of America. We are not a melting pot or even a patchwork quilt anymore. We are an archipelago of race and culture islands constantly at war with one another, with the main enemy being the big white European island in the middle. We are a nation divided, not because of the divisions of the past, but because of the demagogues of the present who use the division to create power for themselves.

Second, cultural appropriation is baloney. Every culture appropriates. Culture doesn’t spring up from nowhere. It assimilates elements from every culture it encounters to grow and evolve. Even in the pho controversy, the critics admit that pho originated in at least two other cultures: French and Chinese.

Yes, it was the French who made beef scraps available, and yes, many of the initial pho cooks were Chinese, but the noodle soup was created in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people made the best of their circumstances and turned the situation into something of their own.

That is cultural appropriation right there. But there’s nothing wrong with it because the Vietnamese took something, modified it, and made it their own.

This current tempest may be about a bowl of soup, but it has its roots in a dangerous trend.

  1. Bon Appetit has apologized and removed the video but it can be seen here.

Remembering the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon

It’s a great shame that Millennials and later generations, including my kids, will never experience the heyday of the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon because I doubt its like will ever be seen again.

You can get a quick summary of the event from this AV Club article, but like a lot of internet journalism it has a profoundly cynical take on it, dismissing the telethon as mawkish and sentimental and highlighting the criticisms and awkward moments over its 5 decade run.

But the Labor Day event was a cultural touchpoint for the whole country. For 24 hours over this holiday, the entire nation would stop and pay attention and work together to raise enough money to beat last year’s amazing total. Over the length of the event, heads of major corporations and beneficiary organizations would parade out to meet Jerry and hand over giant checks: “On behalf of 15,000 7-11 employees and our customers, I would like to give you this check for 1 million dollars,” one would say and Jerry would gratefully accept, visibly moved on behalf of “his” kids and shake hands or give hugs.

But what the article misses is that it was also a very local event too. Local TV stations would participate in not just showing the telethon, but hosting local versions of it, cutting in to the national show from time to time with their own hosts and phone banks and businesses and organizations raising money. Communities would band together to raise money to bring down to the local station and drop it in a big bucket or hand over a check.

Our neighborhood kids one year organized a carnival in our backyard, where people could pay some pittance for one of the teens to tell your fortune (she was dressed up like a gypsy and sitting in a large camping tent) or play some contrived carnival game. I don’t know how much we raised—probably not a lot—but it was a memorable event for all of us.

One of my bucket list desires as a kid was to stay up for the entire show one year, all 21 and a half hours and see every act. Of course, my mom would not let me sit in front of the TV for an entire revolution of the planet and so when I could sneak back in after required breaks for food, bathroom, and fresh air, I’d gnash my teeth over missing Frank Sinatra or worse, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.1

The last time we had such a national focus in which Hollywood and corporations and communities came together was for the 9/11 Telethon 15 years ago now. Of course, that was not fun or sentimental. We were all still in shock and grieving and reeling from the tragedy.

I can’t imagine anyone ever being able to pull off something like Jerry Lewis’ Telethon today. The culture has changed, the legal environment has changed. Our society is much more cynical. And we don’t do “gather around the TV” events like we did. Which is a shame, because for all its heartstring-pulling sentimentality and awkward celebrity moments, the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon was something for all Americans to rally around and a unifying touchstone and we don’t have many of those anymore.

  1. I don’t know if the Star Wars actors were ever on, but my recollection is that people important to me in that way were always on when I wasn’t watching.

Why Can’t We Let Go?

The Verge asks why we have such a hard time letting go of our pop culture, demanding that each beloved book, movie or TV series continue in a new form, never letting the characters go:

The problem isn’t simply that we’re getting more of something we love. The problem is that there’s no conclusion, no definitive ending, because these new objects aren’t designed to be complete. So Albus Potter, Scorpius Malfoy, and Rose Granger-Weasley will always have space for more adventures down the line. The Avengers and the Justice League must fight the even bigger threat lurking in a shadowy post-credit sequence. And we get movies like The Force Awakens, which ended in a literal hand-off to the upcoming Episode VIII.

I’m not as pessimistic about the Star Wars sequels, but I understand the point and agree for the most part. We’re stuck in a rut of pop culture, where the machine continues to churn out content, as opposed to artists creating aesthetic works. I’m not being snobbish as even as summer blockbuster can be a form of art. But there’s almost a fear of originality. Or is it a fear of abandonment, of losing beloved characters and places? Is there some national mood that wants to believe the escapist worlds are truly places we could escape to?

There are a few bright spots, like Netflix’s new Stranger Things, set in the 1980s and feeling like a cross between The Goonies and The X-Files. But even here we see the phenomenon. The eight episodes gave a complete story that left a few interesting questions at the end, as any good thriller of its type should. But fans are clamoring and Netflix is planning and a second season is probably in the offing.

Knight Club

Were I a younger man and relatively fit and healthy, this is something I would be interested in doing. There is a Knights Hall in Nashua, NH, a gym decked out for medieval martial arts, including armored combat, and they call their workouts KnightFit.

Their sport, armored medieval combat, is no Renaissance fair, live-action role play. It also puts to lie the battles one sees on “Game of Thrones” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies, in which lithesome swordsmen twirl their weapons like batons, dancing and slashing with choreographed precision as they cut apart less-skilled opponents and dodge the strikes of more accomplished foes.

The weapons the combatants of The Knights Hall wield are real, carefully crafted to replicate the arming swords, axes, dussacks, falchions and faussarts wielded by knights of the late Middle Ages. Though dulled to prevent bloodshed, the swords and axes can lop off unprotected limbs if swung with enough force, and produce sparks when they strike cold steel.

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