As a follow-up to yesterday’s story about the alleged “politicization” of the National Endowment for the Arts — crisis averted. Jake Tapper of ABC reports that the administration cracked down on the staffers responsible, and plans on instituting programs to ensure future incidents are averted. I’m hesitant to frame that as a defeat, or even a setback. As I argued yesterday, a de-politicization of government programs, like arts patronage, is probably desirable, but unfeasible, and unlikely to be duplicated by future White House inhabitants. Obama’s White House deserves credit, though, for living up to best practices, and avoiding avoidable controversy.
That said, I maintain that the call (transcript) at most suggests the appearance rather than the actuality of impropriety. Shock quotes suggest a belief in NEA encouragement, rather than acts under its authority, and, more importantly, a commitment to the independent pursuit of works of art with a particular message. This isn’t a group of government employees creating pro-government artwork with government money; it’s a group of artists, who happen to be government employees, discovering and pursuing shared interests on their own time, with their own money. If the initial call occurred on government time, well, that’s a problem. But it’s a problem with the mode rather than the substance of the communication, similar to a politician campaigning from his office. It’s improper, yes, but not “explosive,” and not a marker of “propaganda.”
Bottom line, we might have to all chill out, just a little bit. For at least the past few months, the right has struggled to see tyranny around every corner. We’ve learned to fear free, optional end-of-life legal/medical counseling (“death panels!”), emergency provisions for government computer networks (“the Fairness Doctrine is back!”), and back-to-school inspirational speeches (“socialist indoctrination!”). In all this time, the closest the right has come to finding true government coercion is a call from a government office asking artists to help build a pro-service art agenda on their own time, and with their own money. The horror.
With apologies to XKCD.