Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mitt Romney, Business Thinking, and the Failure of Civilization, or why business types have trouble with arts and the humanities

I wrote this 4.5 years ago now, but the arguments here are now more relevant than ever, since electing a president who ran on the platform that "I am a [successful] businessman."  And that businessman-president has proposed sweeping cuts to the NEA, NEH, and NPR/PBS, et al.

Ergo, it's time to republish it.

If elected president, Mitt Romney [now Donald Trump] has advocated either cutting in half or (more recently) just doing away with subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) -- and PBS, too -- as a step towards balancing the Federal Budget. To be clear and quote Mr. Romney directly, he told USA Today that he would “eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential … The federal government should stop doing things we don't need or can't afford,” the latter half of which is a soundbyte he repeats frequently in stump speeches. He went on to say he would “enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, [and] the Corporation for Public Broadcasting …”
A more recent interview in Forbes has him state, “there are programs I would eliminate … the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own…” He goes on to say our government borrows money from foreign countries to support them. Actually, the government borrows money. It doesn’t earmark what those borrowed funds go to. One could just as easily say the government borrows money to fund the military, so it’s deceptive to say funds are borrowed FOR the NEA/NEH/PBS.[+]
Another important point … the president (whoever he may be) does not determine the final US budget. He submits one that must be passed through Congress. This increasingly convoluted dance (especially during Obama’s presidency) has resulted in frightening stalemates where neither side will compromise. So Mitt Romney can say he wants to cut these things till he’s blue in the face, but it may or may not come to pass, especially if Republicans don’t control both houses of Congress. Ergo, I’m not throwing up hands in a panic asserting that electing Romney would result in the immediate death of these agencies. Rather, we must view his proposals as seeking political brownie points. They don’t represent “a clear and present danger.” But they do represent a deeply troubling attitude.
Why did Romney target these agencies (et al.) for elimination, and announce it in a magazine like Forbes? I believe it points to a growing trend in corporate America to question the intrinsic value of both the arts and the humanities. Let’s look at those phrases, “stop doing things we don’t need,” and, “they have to stand on their own.” All this is even more interesting as corporate America has, historically, patronized the arts and humanities, sometimes substantially. And whatever Romney and other Republicans (and Blue-Dog Democrats) imply, this is not about balancing the budget. Let me explain:
In 2012, the NEA budget was $146 million, and the 2010 (couldn’t find 2012, but years vary little) NEH was $167,5 million. Let’s average them both at about $157 million. That's not even nickle-and-diming the budget, that's fraction-pennying it. If you’re looking at that “million” word and wondering how I can say that? Keep in mind the TOTAL US budget for 2012 is estimated at $3.796 trillion. So yes, a program that’s $157 million is loose change. But it’s a psychological trick like pricing something at $1.99 not $2. We see “million” and think, “Hell, that’s a lot of money!” And it is. For a person. Not a government that must provide for the needs of 311.6 million people.
To compare … the government allocates $20 billion for farm subsidies, and spent $556 billion for Department of Transportation roads, rails, bridges, and other upkeep. Um … that’s billion with a /b/, not million with an /m/. Now, I don’t advocate cutting infrastructure funds -- if anything, they need boosted -- but I am making a numbers comparison here. To give another figure, the US military budget was about $1.030-1.415 trillion … with a /t/. So when you consider it, NEA and NEH money is negligible in balancing the federal budget. Let’s make farm subsidies 19,700 billion a year. That slight reduction of approximately TWO PER-CENT would fund the NEA & NEH both.
So no, this is not about balancing the budget. These aren’t programs we “can’t afford.” These are programs that fall into Romney’s other category: “we don’t need,” because there are ways to move money around to pay for them if we genuinely think they’re important. But in today’s emerging business mentality (to which Romney subscribes), there is a growing disregard for and discomfort with the arts and humanities. See, the arts and humanities have little to no quantifiable profit or material gain as the financial world measures it. Ergo, they have no point in a modern business-driven model.
So why do the humanities and arts matter?
Humanities are the premiere teachers of CRITICAL THINKING. They also encourage curiosity, which leads to INNOVATIVE THINKING. The humanities won’t make us more money. But they will teach us how to think more systematically, analyze more cogently, imagine more creatively, and express ourselves more clearly (both verbally and in writing) … all skills fundamental to being better United States citizens, and to driving our society forward as a whole.
As for the arts … aside from the benefit of simple beauty or joy, it’s in art that a culture transfers the very essence of its ego, or selfhood. Our myths/legends, music, and art -- including folk art -- are the means by which a culture tells itself about itself. Art defines/explains WHO WE ARE as a people. It also challenges us to become who we would like to be. IT INSPIRES US. Without art, we lose our culture … and our identity. We are Oudeis. No One.
A society that will fund neither the humanities nor arts in the name of “balancing a budget” is no longer civilized. As noted, there are ways to move around money to find that extra $320 million a year in a budget of trillions. One only cuts programs that cost “mere” millions when one decides they’re unimportant, because in terms of budget balancing? That’s like finding an extra five cents in your checkbook register when it’s a thousand dollars in the red.
So if it’s not really the money, what IS it about? Why do the NEA and NEH matter so little that they can be eliminated with a rather limp apology from Romney about how he “very much appreciates what they do”? Because the truth is, no, he does not appreciate what they do in the original meaning of the term. “Appreciate” means “to grant significance to or recognize the worth of.” Only recently has it come to mean the watered-down, “Oh, how charming…”
This is something that, as a professor of the humanities, I’ve had to address again and again with my colleagues in other departments. I don’t intend to tar and feather the College of Business. Not a few of their faculty are great supporters of humanities and the arts, and we must remember they, too, are academics. A Business College professor is still a professor, and (usually) respects a well-rounded education.
That said, some business school professors, as well as those in information technology, public affairs, and the hard sciences don’t really see the point in demanding several credit hours in the humanities or arts, at least for their majors. Liberal and fine arts are those electives that support useful [e.g., profitable] degrees. If a student wants to major in them, fine, but why demand that students in other majors take more than one or two such classes? What good are liberal and fine arts classes for computer programing, dental hygiene, architecture, horticulture, public administration, or accounting? In short, should there be such a thing as a general “higher” education, or has it become all about vocation-specific training these days? That’s a question for a different blog entry, but my point here is that it is a question, and the business mentality tends to be functional-pragmatic. Learning for learning’s sake …? Well, no gain/return … no point. Raw curiosity is not encouraged. It’s distracting. Furthermore, when it comes to grants and other external funding, business, athletics, science, and technology bring home the lion’s share. Ergo college administrators tend to regard these departments as “the geese that lay the golden eggs.” Again, value is determined by quantifiable-financial, not educational, criteria … yes, even in a university.
I’m sure some reading will think, “Well, you’re just defending the NEH because you want to use it.” Possibly, but I’ve never applied for an NEH grant, nor one from the NEA, and doubt I ever will. Not everything in life is driven by mercenary motivations. I’m writing in defense of the NEA, NEH, NPR, and PBS not because I need their funding. I’m writing in defense of them (and the arts and humanities in general) because I believe in their fundamental importance for our national health and discourse. I went INTO a career in the humanities because I support them.
I’d like to suggest there are reasons, though, beyond mere lack of respectable profit margins that make arts and the humanities suspect in the prevailing Business Model. Both express individualism, free speech, and critical thought: things that, at least historically, our nation has valued, but which can prove problematic in corporate culture. Those who pursue the humanities are wont to evaluate what they’re told rather than merely accept it, which can lead to uncomfortable questions, and artist enclaves tend to be full of colorful individuals who run on their own time-tables. Office buildings … well, not so much. The business world may be aggressive and competitive, but it’s not necessarily individual or critical. They aren’t the same thing.
The corporate world has a love-hate relationship with individualism. The best CEOs often are mavericks. And some business elite are also very strong supporters of the arts. But in the business rank-and-file, individualism is frowned upon. So is free speech … and not just negative expressions about one’s employer or their investors, but any expression that might be controversial and result in “blow-back” on the corporate image. Corporations also have a “uniform” of sorts in their dress codes, and the entire point of uniforms is to erase individual identity in favor of “the group,” whether that’s the military, police force, or ___ Corp. Don’t question orders, just follow them (whether those orders come from your commanding officer or your boss).
So critical thinking (and individualism) is frowned upon in some circles precisely because it leads one to question things. Karl Rove has been widely quoted for, “As people do better, they start voting like Republicans -- unless they have too much education and vote Democrat, which proves there can be too much of a good thing” [The New Yorker, February 19, 2001, p. 78]. The larger paragraph this comes from refers to voters preferring tax cuts over government services,[++] but I’m more interested here in his attitude regarding education, because it’s not “education” generically that Rove means. “Too much education” = an education that teaches critical thinking … the ability to take in information, review it logically, and decide if that information is sound. That’s all critical thinking IS. Good ol’ horse sense, combined with recognition of double-speak, platitudes, and an appeal to knee-jerk reactionism.
Those educated in critical thinking rarely fall manikin-like into line with either party’s political rhetoric, even if they may lean more towards one or the other, precisely because both major parties can be guilty of double-speak and platitudes. So a good education in the humanities may not make one a Democrat, but it will probably make one disinclined simply to swallow whatever swill one is fed by party leaders. Ideologues and demagogues (Rove is both) dislike critical thinkers on principle.
In any case, let me turn from the humanities to art and why it, too, may seem of dubious value within business models beyond mere lack of consistent bottom-line. Art resists pigeonholing, while business often depends on it for purposes of sales. Those who distribute art -- publishers, music companies, producers, etc. -- like labels, genres, and categories. Artists mostly put up with it, but sometimes kick-back. They enjoy traversing genre and category lines, but such straddlers are considered “hard to sell” because they’re hard to label for sale. Where does one shelve them in a book/art/music/movie shop? Online distribution might ease that puzzle by allowing multiple search tags and alternative means of marketing, but Amazon no less the corner store still employs labels.
More to the point, however, art is disturbing, disturbing of our perceptions, biases, expectations, ideologies … Sometimes that disturbance is political, as when Euripides wrote the Trojan Women and presented it in Athens in the very same year as the infamous massacre (by Athens!) at Melos … which the play critiqued.[*] Or it might be esoteric … art that “messes with” popular prevailing assumptions of what art should be … Picasso, anybody? The “disturbance” might be even more subtle. The first time I saw a Dali painting I found it as once fascinating and bothersome, this mix of hyper-real against the impossible/improbable. One wanted to stare for a while to wrap the mind around it. Art challenges us to see the world anew.
And of course, one of the great counter-culture moments of the 1960s was Woodstock, a 3 (really 4)-day music concert full of protest songs challenging everything from political policies to traditional social morēs and expectations. “3 Days of Peace and Music” was the slogan. The original Woodstock was, of course, a logistical nightmare, but it was also among the more culturally significant events of the 1960s: that moment when the rest of the US (and world) came to understand just how big the counter-culture movement WAS.
In contrast, the “business takeover” of Woodstock (e.g., Woodstock ’94) turned it into a money-making venture more about nostalgia capitalized-on than art as expression. At the original Woodstock, cases of aggression, rape, and thievery occurred, but they were not epidemic, and misbehavior was met with non-violent obstruction: Wavy Gravy’s “Please Force.” Violence was constrained by peer pressure. Instead, people pulled together when the festival turned out much, much, much bigger than anyone foresaw. What could have been not just a logistical disaster but a grand human tragedy of riot … wasn’t.
But introduce an attempt to capitalize (corporate sponsorship), and things turned out differently … e.g., the horrible 1999 Woodstock with its rape, violence, and burglary necessitating a premature close. The original Woodstock had people (The Hog Farm) step up to give away food and water to those who couldn’t afford it. Woodstock ‘99 charged $12 for a slice of pizza and $4 for a bottle of water … and no one was allowed to bring in their own. It had to be purchased there. Perimeter fences weren’t pulled down as in ‘69; instead entry pat-downs became notorious. The difference is stark. Greed begets violence, anger, and a disregard for basic human decency. 1999 wasn’t about ART, it was about money.[**] I must also add, good organization need not equate with business control. Witness The Burning Man Festivals.
Yes, art can be Just About the Pretty, pleasing the eye, ear and mind. It doesn’t have to be “disturbing” (in any of the varied definitions of that). But it can be, and many artists produce both The Pretty and The Disturbing in their careers. Sometimes they’re even the same thing. Art (and the Humanities) make us think differently … outside the box. That is their “bottom line.” It’s hardly one that will square well with the modern Business Model, even beyond the issue of “how much money did it make?” The highest grossing things are rarely the ones that truly challenge us. That’s not to say great artists can’t be popular, but the best things are usually a few tiers down in terms of sales … if they sell at all. Marketability has different criteria than “artistic merit.”
Given all of this, it’s clear why a businessman like Mitt Romney (or the many readers of Forbes) would barely blink at cuts to the NEA and NEH. Balancing the federal budget is an excuse, not the real reason. Many of them don’t understand why art or the humanities have value regardless of profit. To their minds, art -- like business -- should sustain itself via advertising or sales (e.g., Romney’s, “they [arts and humanities] have to stand on their own” statement). If they’re not profitable enough to gain advertising, then they’re a luxury that can be cut, not a socially critical endeavor. By contrast, the arts and humanities measure value by criteria that grant profitability a small role (if any at all).
Now -- and quite beyond the business model -- one might also note that Romney’s discomfort with art and the humanities could owe to his membership in a conservative religious system, Mormonism. Art and the humanities are often seen as challenging popular morality, if not just stomping all over it.
This is true -- and one reason the novel died in the west as an art form between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication of Don Quixote or Pamela.[!] Exceptions were made for fiction when it came to morality plays or Biblical stories re-told. Even the modern novel Pamela, published in 1740, was roundly critiqued for promoting immorality, despite the fact the book’s subtitle/alternate title was “Virtue Rewarded.” Many Christian moral leaders had issues with fiction on principle, whatever the potential teaching value.
I use fiction to illustrate my point because it’s a clearer example of the ethical objections the church had to art, historically. There was a distinct bias against fiction/fancy because it was perceived as “deliberate falsehood,” which meant “lie,” which meant “sin.” Only TRUE stories were permitted to be told.[!!] Even (pagan) Plato claimed that art was mere imitation of the Real, thus “fake” or “false.” Neo-Platonic Christians pounced on this argument as a reason to restrict artistic expression.
This subtle discomfort remains in Western perceptions of storytelling versus that of other cultures. For instance, storytelling is regarded as sacred in most American Indian traditions, and not just Traditional stories, but storytelling generally. Nor are they alone. The notion that a story is a LIE (e.g., evil or sin) because it’s not literally true would strike many world cultures as bizarre. Today, most Westerners would agree. But Western storytellers (poets, playwrights, and fiction authors) regularly have to justify what they do as valid. Author Flannery O’Connor’s once said, “Fiction is after Truth.” I can’t imagine any native storyteller saying such a thing because there would be no need to.
As much as we may try to escape it here in the West, we remain the inheritors of Christian suspicion of fiction and art … and it’s evident in these periodic “kickbacks” against art and humanities programs at the local, state, and national level.
Another problem historic Christianity had with art involved its emotionalism (sentiment), especially when not directed to religious ends. Here, differences arise not only between Catholic/Orthodox traditions and Protestant, but even within Protestantism, which was far from a monolith.
John Calvin was famous for his “anti-sentiment” stance. This anti-sentimentalist approach did not, however, praise logic in contrast to sentiment. Calvin was also anti-humanist. Humanism -- which included Christian humanism, à la the theology of Roman Catholic Erasmus of Rotterdam -- advocated critical thinking. If both John Calvin and Martin Luther regarded themselves as Pauline in their promotion of the “foolishness” of the Gospel, Calvin was even more anti-intellectual than Luther. Calvinism suppressed both emotion and intellectual rigorism, while espousing ideas of predestination or Election -- a “fated” view of salvation. All of this was part of what is referred to as Five-Point Calvinism (TULIP). Many later groups rejected predestination/Election (resulting in Four-Point Calvinism), while retaining Calvin’s anti-reason, anti-sentiment perspectives: early Congregationalists, many Evangelicals, radical Anabaptists, Reformed Baptists, and conservative Lutherans among them. If some modern branches of these groups have walked back on extreme stances, particularly with regard to reason, the anti-sentiment threads remain, often deeply buried.
This is critical to understanding Christian suspicion of art and the humanities. The humanities, after all, arise from humanism, which is automatically dubious in certain religious traditions -- and not just Christian. Yet this Reformer-Calvinist anti-reason, anti-sentiment trend was not found in all branches of Protestantism, much less early Christianity.[^] For instance, John Wesley (an Anglican who became the founder of the Methodist movement) praised both reason and religious sentiment. His famous line about his experience during a Moravian service when he “felt his heart strangely warmed” was oft-repeated by Christian groups who gave higher prominence to orthopathy … or “right [religious] feeling.” Then again, Wesley’s clashes with Calvinist theologians such as George Whitefield were famous, and he belonged to the Episcopal tradition, which is theologically closer to the Catholics. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral elevated Scripture, Tradition, reason, and experience as fundamental to theological argument. Humanism was not a dirty word in Methodism. Modern orthopathic Protestant groups -- think Pentecostals or the charismatic movement -- are now more often associated with anti-intellectualism, but this is somewhat recent.
So Protestantism is diverse. Sentiment and reason are elevated in some branches, yet denigrated in others.
Where does Mitt Romney’s Mormonism fall in that spectrum? In the history of Christian Thought, Mormonism derives from an Anabaptist-millennial background (et al.), which is a sub-branch of Puritan theology, sometimes called “radical Anabaptist,” and at least partly Calvinist. This isn’t to say Mormons are Calvinists, but in theological approach, they’re closer to Calvinist/Reformer traditions than to Methodist/Arminianism.
So in short, Mitt Romney’s rejection of artistic sentiment and humanistic logic is no theological surprise … and goes a long way towards explaining his attitudes about the humanities and arts, irrespective of his business background. Now, one may say that Romney doesn’t talk a lot about his religion, and if there are articles that raise the spectre of Mormon leaders as the “Eminence Grise” behind a Romney Presidency, let me point out very similar scare tactics were raised about John F. Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic president. Yet Kennedy was a politician first, a Catholic second. Likewise, given his previous political record, I believe Romney a politician first, a Mormon second.
Yet if Mormonism may not have an obvious or overt effect on Romney’s political policy, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t influence it in subconscious ways, just as his business training does. We are, after all, products of our “historicity.” In the case of Mitt Romney, both his business training and his religious theology would lead him to question “art for art’s sake.” Or at least lead him to believe that art should “justify itself” in quantifiable ways. In his recent Iowa speech, he said Sesame Street might continue, but with commercials. The implication here is that if it can’t GET that corporate sponsorship, it doesn’t “deserve” to continue.
The problem, of course -- as artists throughout history have known -- is that “sponsorship” comes with strings. In the ancient world, artists either had patrons or were independently wealthy, and those with patrons had to be careful. When they didn’t, they might wind up at the back of nowhere on the edge of the Black Sea (as famously happened to Ovid in 8 CE when he offended Augustus’s moral sensibilities).
What the NEA does is remove at least some of that pressure. Artists are judged on criteria other than 1) making money, or 2) keeping wealthy patrons happy. Yes, proposals are judged on “artistic merit,” but this isn’t the same as “moral soundness” or “marketability.” A society that prides itself on free speech needs this alternative for artists. It hardly stops artists from pursuing corporate sponsorship or making money, but it doesn’t restrict their ability to produce art by saying it’s not “valid” if it doesn’t make money or win advertisers/sponsors/patrons. Do we really want to return to a world wherein the only way to escape the long shadow of patronage is to be born (or become) wealthy? I say, “No.” But being born wealthy himself, I’m not sure Mitt Romney understands why it matters.
By their very nature, art and the humanities cannot be measured by material (quantifiable) criteria. A civilized society decides that art and the humanities have value in themselves and will subsidize them, regardless of profit margins (or lack thereof). Repeatedly throughout history, the societies that succeeded best or lasted longest were those with room for the (unrestricted) expression of the arts and humanities.
(+) I believe in quoting what people say, not what we paraphrase them to say. A sound argument doesn’t need to spin doctor, and I have a sound argument against Romney’s position. I’m not deluded enough to think everyone will share it, but I don’t need to set up Romney as a straw man to argue against him.
(++) The quote is frequently given with either no citation or an incorrect citation, so I tracked it down because one should never believe just anything one reads on the internet without checking. People make shit up constantly. I would give a fuller quote, but it’s not relevant. As noted, the full paragraph is about tax cuts, but the part I want to address is the thrown off bit about education, and what “too much education” is code-speak for.
(*)This dating and link have been called into question. For a discussion, see Barbara Goff’s recent (2009) translation of the play.
(**) Contrary to some overblown idealizations of the original Woodstock, it was also intended as a money-making venture, only becoming a free concert when too many people arrived to effectively collect money at the gate. Some well-known artists turned down an invitation (the Beatles, Dylan, The Doors, Led Zeppelin) in part because the money and/or publicity wasn’t assumed to be good enough. Yet what I find interesting is that in the face of a potential disaster in both ’69 (soaking rain; more than double the expected crowd) and ’99 (excessive heat, poor security), the organizers of the former (as well as the 500,000 attendees) mostly made humanitarian -- not corporate -- choices that circumvented rage. In ’99, greed won, and it was regarded as a failure, not an event future generations would want to commemorate over and over again.
(!) Whether Don Quixote or Pamela is the first modern novel depends somewhat on how one defines “novel.” Personally, I’d go with Don Quixote.
(!!) To be completely fair, this odd attitude persists in academics. More than a few historians HATE historical fiction for “distorting” the truth. Likewise, some scientists hate science fiction for oversimplifying science. If some just object to bad examples, others have philosophical objections. As a professional historian, I’ve spoken to colleagues who question the legitimacy of historical fiction of ANY stripe, no matter how well-researched or who writes it (even other professional historians). A colleague (who shall remain nameless) once told me that historical fiction is “an absolute disgrace to the field, making truth just stories.” I’ll admit, I had to swallow a laugh as I don’t believe in absolute truth anyway. MUCH of professional history is reconstruction from a careful analysis of the evidence. Good historical fiction authors do the same, if to different ends. In any case, the argument “fiction = false = illegitimate” has transferred from the early modern church to the modern university.
(^) Among the more famous “rational” early Christian thinkers, we can name Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Bardaisan, Augustus, Pelasgius, Arian, Athenaeus, Nestorius, etc., etc. Thomas Aquinas, of course, may stand with Origen as one of the greatest minds of the Church. And yes, some of those in that list above opposed one another theologically, but they did so on REASONED grounds.