Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Last Shall Be First, and The First, Last.

A co-worker has been in the news recently, asking questions of the candidates in the NH primary. Nice enough lady, but when she was describing the experience to us, she spoke disparagingly about another questioner “who was asking why her son’s art project couldn’t be put up because it had the word ‘Christmas,’ or something like that, and I thought ‘Talk about something important, lady.’”

Perhaps John McCain isn’t the person to be asking about your local elementary school’s policies, so I see the point. But I am not sure that the woman was asking that a potential candidate fix it, as much as comment on it. There is a pertinent cultural question underneath that. A generic Christianity has been this country’s culture for most of its existence, and some people want to change that to a religion-neutral or religion-absent culture. How deep, specific, and valuable the default Christian culture was has attracted both popular and scholarly attention. Nor was this cultural Christianity the same at all times and places in America from 1776-1976, only to have changed in the last decades. It has been messy from the start. If I were to oversimplify, my own view would be that the previous state of affairs was a net gain for the country and a net loss for the Church. I can see arguments in both directions. The binding together of national and religious holidays sometimes looks as if it strengthens both, sometimes looks as if it weakens both.

Moving to a religion-neutral culture requires changes in the existing culture, and this of necessity creates a Christianity-hostile set of changes. The theory behind the changes might be evenhanded and eminently fair, but the act of forbidding something that the majority of people prefer and are used to is not merely perceived as hostile to the popular culture, it is in fact hostile to it. The strongest arguments for making the changes proceed from the appeal to minority rights. Citizen A belongs here as much as you do and does not share the popular religion or view, and has the right not to be forced to participate, however passively, in a religious celebration. This unavoidably creates conflict in collision with the right of Citizen B to express his views. In the real world, there are often not neat solutions which satisfy both requirements. We fantacize that there is some Solomonic decree which would settle such conflicts once and for all, but real institutions don’t work that way.

The woman with the “unimportant” question was asking Senator McCain where he comes down on these cultural issues, which is an entirely legitimate question to ask of a presidential candidate. How does he propose to navigate the current change from a more publicly shared religious culture to a more separate one?

I contrast this to that evening’s offering on NHPR’s “The Front Porch.” One segment was introduced by noting how various groups were pressing for favored central issues to be addressed by candidates, such as health care, or education. New Hampshire voters are continually enjoined, via political signage and electronic media, to “ask the candidates where they stand on (blank).” But, the announcer’s voice purred, there was a issue that hadn’t been getting much attention that they were going to focus on that evening: the arts.

Gag me. When NPR ties the idea of candidates in with the idea of the arts, it doesn’t mean a discussion of cultural expression and how various candidates see the future of culture as expressed in art – it means a discussion of government funding of the arts. The underlying questions of cultural change will be unaddressed, and likely not even noticed. It will simply be a review of requests for more dollars, with gratuitous swipes thrown in at anyone who thinks the taxpayers should have any input as to what the money is used for. There will be the requisite interviews with artists and folks who have glowing things to say about the importance of art in general.

I don’t see where there is an automatic benefit that accrues to a society because it pays for art as a lumped, generic category, irrespective of what that art expresses.

Perhaps government-paid artists should recuse themselves from voting on their own source of funds, as judges recuse themselves from cases in which they have a personal stake or interest. Perhaps we should encourage government employees in general –me, for example - to refrain from voting, as it is a clear conflict-of-interest.

Okay, that’s never going to happen, but I find it interesting that the frowned-upon woman who asked the inappropriate question was bringing up deeper and more subtle issues than NPR.

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