I am an anthropologist, a teacher, a writer, a woman–all of these words describe my physical and social being. But I am also a human being, a private citizen who watched as my government ordered a media blackout of scientific data, simultaneously halted communication about that data by organizations such as the National Parks Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and several others. He has frozen grants for vital scientific research and severely impacted the ability of both students and organizations to pursue scientific projects with integrity. But he’s also gone after the Arts, Humanities, and Public Broadcasting. At some point, even if we cannot align politically, surely you, Unknown Readers, grasped what that means to us as a culture.
If You Want a Biddable Populace
You make them stupid and afraid. Now, each taken alone, these draconian social policy measures and aggressive Executive Orders might seem unconnected. But they are intimately intertwined. Reducing access to arts or sciences hurts the most vulnerable portions of our population first and most. It sets up a social climate in which knowledge is a luxury reserved for those who can afford it or know how to source it already. In no scenario does this include the children of most of the population of the United States. But that’s only a tiny fraction of why I take issue with each and every move the current president has made.
There are multiple prongs to this problem. First, the present administration has taken it upon themselves to attempt to rewrite the social narrative in their own favor. They call these “alternative facts,” which are not facts at all, but self-delusional falsehoods. The president has lied to himself, repeated his delusions so often, he now believes them. Those who call into question the truth of these delusions are automatically branded the enemy of his self-proclaimed majesty. Unfortunately, it’s the job of the press and the ultimate nature of scientific disciplines in general to call bullshit when it’s warranted, as it is in the case of baseless claims, inflated numbers, and flat-out false statements.
It is also the nature of culturally-expressive fields of artistic endeavor to point out inconsistencies, express opinions, and create humor based on the behaviors and statements of public figures. And while we may not always agree that art is beautiful, that’s not its purpose. It is an expressive array of mediums, the creators of which are human and thus culturally influenced. The president has decided that many artists, who often take an opposing stance to his authoritarian dictates or poke fun at him, are his enemies. But perhaps more telling is his decision that art, history, literature, and culturally regenerative endeavors are not important, that the Fed can save a handy sum by simply ceasing to support them in any way.
A Country As Anti-Intellectual As Its Leaders
The main problem I have with this–beyond the fact that it adopts a distinctly false perspective on the consequences of actions in business, fossil fuel extraction and use, the free sharing of fact, and a curtailing of the critical activities of pure science–is that it is a weapon whose sole purpose is to blunt the intelligence of the populace. A secondary purpose for this suite of actions is to remove critique of how the administration shapes the narrative of government. If the population doesn’t know what is true, it cannot call to account its elected representatives.
When taken in concert with the inadvisable actions related to worker and women’s equality, health care upheaval, and other aspects of this political Blitzkrieg, it paints a picture of a country in which the vast majority of the population will be too busy, too sick, and too poor to object to an alternative and frankly self-aggrandizing political narrative. Rescinding the Arts and Humanities support, provided by the Federal grants of the NEA and the NEH, should be seen as the threat it is. Incidentally, each organization received approximately 0.003 % of the Federal Spending Budget for 2016. So, any plan cancelling that aid would do little to remedy the debt.
This move would render organizations who provide access to these vital social fields to many communities and educational establishments dependent upon private funds. And while that may not sound so horrid to you, what it does in real terms is to create a divide within the American cultural landscape. Because funding would be limited, many programs that afford less affluent communities access to art, history, language and literature, and other important facets of cultural life, would be cut.
The proposed elimination of funding for PBS and NPR would complete this coup by creating a pay wall between many communities and science, art, basic and (boring) unbiased news coverage or political commentary, and even entertainment–such as the unending British murder mystery shows, Antiques Road Show, and nature documentaries of all sorts. Perhaps the group that would be impacted most, and are hence cause for concern, are children.
I Grew Up With NOVA and Reading Rainbow.
As a child, I didn’t want for much. My parents operated on a slender, single-income household budget, but I was happy. I am also a self-described daughter of genteel, Southern privilege, because I’m culturally Euro-American. Income level doesn’t have a great deal of impact on that type of privilege, except to shape how it is expressed. Today, I can say that I am a classically trained musician, because my parents felt piano and voice lessons were an important feature of my particular experience. I can say that I have a deep love of reading, because my mother always took time to read to me as a child, and I was avid to keep up with my two older brothers in the skills department.
But my adoration of science and cultural exploration did not come from my parents or even my community. It came from Carl Sagan, which I saw when PBS or GPTV (state PBS) showed a rerun of his popular series, Cosmos. It came from NOVA, which offered me an unflinching yet gentle introduction to sciences of every type. It came from Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow. I cannot imagine what I would be like now without these programs.
Perhaps I would be less capable of stepping outside of my cultural comfort zone. Maybe I would not have gone to college at all. Or, perhaps, more damaging still, I would not have moved 2,000 miles away to attend graduate school in Albuquerque. While it’s certainly still a U.S. city, it might as well be another planet when compared to the gentle, verdant hills of the Piedmont Region in Georgia where I grew up. Without these experiences, I would not be even remotely the same person sitting here, writing this.
Opening Moves of Authoritarian States
I’ve discussed the events I have witnessed and described why they make me uneasy. Did I mention that I am a student of both history and anthropology? What I see when I look at the news coming directly from the White House is not the honest or even remotely factual communique style with which I am accustomed. It’s not even in keeping with that of the Regan years, during which I was a child. Instead, I see echoed all the various authoritarian regimes. We won’t dwell on Nazi Germany. That’s too easy, and there are far too many different flavors of repression and authoritarian posturing from which to choose.
But, though they may speak different languages and come from different time periods or parts of the globe, they have a few things in common. First, they try to discredit the Fourth Estate and establish their own news system that is completely under their control. Then, they silence academics, either directly via commands or through a funding stranglehold. Next, they throttle the arts and humanities, leaving only those they favor for a select, core group of individuals or a class with which they wish to associate. After that, they dismantle systems of education, health care, and economic sustenance.
And all during this series of actions, they place blame on an ethnic group, outsiders, and/or their demonized detractors. They, it seems, are the only savior of “the People.” They, it seems, are the only one who is never to blame for the increasingly illiberal social and political climate. Because they are writing the narrative, and thus can do no wrong.