Just ask the One Who Must Be Obeyed (OWMBO), Donald Trump.
Consider The Wall. Whether this turns out to be an actual structure remains to be seen. But that may not matter. It is a potent symbol that resonates with many Americans (although not enough of them to win him the popular vote — another symbol, for legitimacy, that apparently rankles the OWMBO no end).
Engaging in symbolic acts, like barring people from a select group of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, is called “sending a message.” Never mind if the odds of being killed by someone from one of these countries is mathematically meaningless. This so-called Muslim ban is a symbol: action has been taken.
Given the propensity of the OWMBO and his Republican allies for symbolism, it was merely a matter of time before their sights zeroed in on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (NEA and NEH). Funding for these agencies appears to be missing from a proposed Federal budget.
Founded in 1965, during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the Endowments had a game-changing effect on American life. Before the NEA and NEH, creative people throughout the country moved to New York City or tucked themselves away on college campuses. This was a classic American story.
The Endowments, which made Federal money for cultural activity available to all 50 states, changed that scenario. Regional theaters, orchestras, dance companies and visual arts organizations gained traction in medium-size cities across the nation, enlivening communities and providing work for talented people who preferred staying put.
I worked for the Indiana Humanities Council and saw firsthand how a state-based satellite of the NEH helped public libraries, local historical societies and other community-based institutions unearth and share the kinds of stories that perpetuate and sustain community identity and sense of place. Later, Indiana Humanities commissioned me to travel the state in order to document our burgeoning food scene.
Republicans have been out to get the Endowments since the early ‘90s. They seem not to understand that, when it comes to the arts and ideas, a lot of valuable work gets done that doesn’t make people famous or rich. Therefore, they argue, such work must be a waste of money.
Between them, though, the annual budgets for the NEA and NEH total slightly less than $300 million. This is less than the $1 million per day it reportedly costs New York City to provide 24-hour security for a year at Trump Tower. Cutting $300 million is a teardrop in country’s fiscal bucket.
Which brings us back to symbolism. Cuts aimed at creativity and scholarship dovetail with recent attacks by the OWMBO on the intelligence community and news media. These attacks are designed to belittle rigorous thinking and personal expression — and to discount the worth of jobs associated with nonprofit fields.
Indiana needs these jobs. In many cases they are the only means of livelihood keeping talented professionals in our state. They also enhance our communities in ways that are no less important for their being hard to measure.
The irony here is that, instead of trying to do them in, Republicans should be celebrating the Endowments. Rarely do Federal agencies accomplish so much with so little. The NEA and NEH should be held up as symbols of fiscal restraint.
But what would be the symbolic value of that?