Why Fund the Arts and Humanities?

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W.J. Astore

Federal funding for the arts and humanities often comes under attack, notably from conservative quarters when a particular artistic expression is considered to be objectionable.  Cut the NEH and NEA (national endowments for the humanities and arts), Paul Ryan says, and we can save a whopping $335 million a year (slightly more than the cost of one F-35 jet fighter for the Marine Corps).

What are the humanities and the arts, after all?  Why should the government fund them? Can’t we let the marketplace rule?  Won’t good art find an audience (and patrons) without the government getting involved?

Art and the humanities?  Well, they are what make us human.  Art and music and dance and theater, but also our history, literature, languages, poetry, and so on.  Art and the humanities teach us about the human condition — what it means to be human.  So, in a way, religion is also part of the arts and humanities in the secular sense of the history of various belief systems, what they teach us about morality and ethics, as well as their iconography, music, and so on.

As a personal aside, I’m sure my first true artistic/humanistic experience came in my local Catholic church.  The splendor of light streaming through stained glass windows, the intricacy of the architecture, the majesty of the altar, the beauty of the music: all of this and more represented an artistic and humanistic experience that resonated with me, putting me in touch with something larger than myself.  I’ve felt similar majesty being out in the cathedral of nature, gazing out at the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet as clouds raced overhead after a long hike in the Colorado Rockies.

Nurturing and protecting the arts, humanities, and nature too is fundamental to being human.  We should be stewards of beauty in all its forms.  And certainly government must have a role in funding the arts and humanities as well as protecting the planet.

Unfortunately, the American political scene is oligarchical and driven by venality and greed.  So nowadays what you see in education is an obsessive push for STEM, for competitiveness vis-a-vis various foreign countries, for workforce development, as if education can be reduced simply to job/vocational training. Arts and humanities? Humbug!

I have nothing against science, technology, engineering, and math.  I majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, loved calculus and differential equations, took several courses in physics and chemistry, and eventually got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology. Science is great and wonderful; technology is fascinating and much needed. Vocational training is important too.

But there’s more to life than getting a job.

Oligarchical powers don’t like to fund the arts and humanities.  They’d rather fund business and industry in the name of competitiveness (and profit!). But there’s more to life than building things, crunching numbers, and working for the man. We have souls, if you will (there’s the Catholic in me), and our souls need to be nurtured by ideas and ideals, by beauty, by the angels of our better natures as represented by the arts and humanities.

So please act to save the arts and humanities, especially in our schools. They enrich our lives in ways you simply can’t measure with dollar signs.  And please act to preserve nature and our planet as well, whether you see it as God’s creation or as spaceship Earth — or both.

The Republican Debate of Texas

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Let the insults fly (Rubio and Trump)

W.J. Astore

Last night’s Republican Presidential Debate in Texas would dismay almost anyone interested in debates or politics.  Insults flew.  Boasts filled the air. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio postured about which could be meaner toward “illegals” (undocumented workers).  There was more talk of border walls, of higher defense spending, of cutting taxes, of eliminating Obamacare, of reanimating Antonin Scalia and restoring him to the Supreme Court (think of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” but retitled as “SCOTUS Sematary”) — OK, that last one I made up, but if they could, they would.

I took a high school course on “debate and discussion,” and later as a professor I graded my students on debates.  Remember rules like staying on subject?  On following the rules? On keeping to the time allotted, on being civil to your opponent, on sticking to facts, on relying on evidence?  If you don’t recall those criteria, join the club of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.

Almost any objective observer of the debate would score a win for John Kasich, the governor of Ohio.  He was clear, passionate, and stuck mainly to the subject.  He stressed his executive and governmental experience, spoke in complete sentences, and avoided insults and sound bites.  I don’t agree with much of what Kasich advocates, but he has the temperament and qualifications to make him a sound choice for the presidency.

Trump, of course, plays up his business acumen as preparing him for the presidency, and his argument against bickering politicians like Cruz and Rubio is compelling.  But let’s face it: watch the debates for just a few minutes and you realize Trump is a bully whose main attribute is bombastic self-confidence. By temperament he is unsuited to be president. The grim reality is that Republicans appear to have no answer to him.

This is partly because the debates are about issues only in passing.  They’re mainly about show, and “The Donald” knows how to put on a show.  As Cruz and Rubio split the vote, and Kasich and Carson slowly fade, Trump tightens his grip on the delegate total needed to grab the Republican nomination.

The amazing thing is this: It’s now quite conceivable that come January 2017, we will see Donald Trump inaugurated as president.

The Pentagon as Business and Church

Ike
Ike had it right

W.J. Astore

Military spending is supposed to be about keeping America safe.  It’s supposed to be tied to vital national interests.  And at roughly $750 billion a year (for defense, homeland security, wars overseas, the VA, and nuclear weapons), it’s a colossal chunk of money, representing nearly two-thirds of federal discretionary spending.

There’s also a colossal amount of waste in defense spending, and nearly all of the major candidates currently running for commander-in-chief want more.  Only Bernie Sanders has suggested, tepidly, that defense spending might be cut.

Why is this?  It’s because much of Pentagon spending is not about “keeping us safe.” Listen to the social critic and essayist Lewis Lapham.  For him, the U.S. military establishment is both “successful business enterprise and reformed church.”  In his words, “How well or how poorly the combined services perform their combat missions matters less than their capacity to generate cash and to sustain the images of omnipotence.  Wars, whether won or lost, and the rumors of war, whether true or false, increase the [defense] budget allocations, stimulate the economy, and add to the stockpile of fear that guarantees a steady demand for security and promotes a decent respect for authority.”

Is Lapham too cynical?

It’s true that the more ISIS or China or Russia are hyped as threats, the more money and authority the Pentagon gains.  Not much incentive – if any – exists within the Pentagon to play down the threats it perceives itself as facing.  Minimizing danger is not what the military is about.  Nor does it seek to minimize its funding or its authoritative position within the government or across American society.  Like a business, the Pentagon wants to enlarge its market share and power.  Like a church, it’s jealous of its authority and stocked with true believers.

There was a time when Americans, as well as their commander-in-chief, recognized the onerous burden of defense spending as a regressive tax on society and humanity.  That time was 1953, and that commander was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former five-star general who’d led the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

This is what Ike had to say about “defense” spending:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Economists use the term “opportunity cost,” and certainly massive spending on weapons and warfare is an opportunity lost for greater spending in needed areas such as education, infrastructure, environmental preservation, and alternative energies.

Keeping Ike’s words in mind, Americans may yet come to recognize that major cuts in the Pentagon “tax” are in the best interests of all.  Even, I daresay, the Pentagon.

 

What’s the U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan?

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A poppy field in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

Six years ago, I wrote an article about Afghanistan that opened like so:

In the U.S. debate on Afghanistan, virtually all experts agree that it’s not within the power of the American military alone to win the war. For that, Afghanistan needs its own military and police force, one that is truly representative of the people, and one that is not hopelessly corrupted by drug money and the selfish concerns of the Karzai government in Kabul.

What has changed since 2009?  Karzai is gone, but corruption remains endemic.  The U.S. military is still there, at least until 2017 and likely for far longer.  And drug money!  In a searching summary of the opium trade in recent Afghan history, Alfred McCoy at TomDispatch.com shows convincingly that the drug trade has flourished despite, or rather because of, American efforts to block it or control it.  In his words:

In the almost 15 years of continuous combat since the U.S. invasion of 2001, pacification efforts have failed to curtail the Taliban insurgency largely because the U.S. could not control the swelling surplus from the county’s heroin trade. As opium production surged from a minimal 180 tons to a monumental 8,200 in the first five years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan’s soil seemed to have been sown with the dragon’s teeth of ancient Greek myth. Every poppy harvest yielded a new crop of teenaged fighters for the Taliban’s growing guerrilla army.

At each stage in Afghanistan’s tragic, tumultuous history over the past 40 years — the covert war of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s, and the U.S. occupation since 2001 — opium played a surprisingly significant role in shaping the country’s destiny. In one of history’s bitter twists of fate, the way Afghanistan’s unique ecology converged with American military technology transformed this remote, landlocked nation into the world’s first true narco-state — a country where illicit drugs dominate the economy, define political choices, and determine the fate of foreign interventions.

McCoy’s article, which you should read here in its entirety, raises many questions, but for me the obvious one is this: What is the U.S. military doing in Afghanistan?  What is its strategy?

If it’s trying to win Afghan hearts and minds, you can’t do that by destroying the main cash crop of so many people.  If it’s trying to create a measure of stability, you can’t do that by mounting destructive military operations that spread chaos.  If it’s trying to interdict the drug trade, you can’t do that successfully while maintaining the support of powerful interests in Afghanistan that profit so heavily from that trade.

After nearly 15 years, a sensible person would conclude that American interference in Afghanistan is only making matters worse.  Afghan drug wars are a no-win scenario for U.S. troops.  Lacking a coherent and sensible strategy that is attractive to Afghan power brokers, American forces should smarten up, load up, and pull out.

A sensible strategy in three words: Yankee come home.

Hillary Clinton: A Deeply Compromised Candidate

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Hillary and Henry

W.J. Astore

Hillary Clinton is a deeply compromised candidate.  She and her husband have made over $125 million in paid speeches since 2001, including $30 million in 16 months.  There’s nothing wrong with making lots of money: this is America, after all.  But there’s something wrong about accepting big checks from powerful banks and investment houses and then positioning yourself as the champion of “everyday people” in your run for the presidency.

Along with her close alliance with Wall Street, Hillary is essentially a neo-conservative on foreign policy who admires the Real Politik of men like Henry Kissinger.  She promises more interventionism overseas and doubtless more wars.  She is especially close to Israel and advertises herself as a loyal ally to Benjamin Netanyahu.

The person she most closely resembles in recent U.S. politics is Richard Nixon.  Like Nixon, she’s aggressive in foreign policy (recall her infamous quip about the fall of Qaddafi in Libya: “We came, we saw, he died”).  Like Nixon, she is secretive and economical with the truth, despite her truth-telling vows.  Like Nixon, she is a complex person, not without talent, but a person who often doesn’t appear fully comfortable, especially when pressed about her record.  Like Nixon, she leaves very little to chance; there’s calculation to nearly everything she does.

A Hillary Clinton administration promises to be even less transparent than Obama’s.  It would be more in service to the powers that be (big money donors such as the health care industry will come calling for their payback, and they’ll get it).  Despite protestations of being “progressive,” a Clinton administration promises to be regressive in terms of peace, social progress, and fairness for the working classes.

Despite this, her path to the presidency seems remarkably clear.  Bernie Sanders, an honest man of conviction, lacks establishment support.  Hillary’s Republican opponent of the moment, Donald Trump, is an opportunistic business tycoon who apparently says whatever pops into his head.  Trump may be the one candidate with more negative baggage than Hillary.

A Hillary/Trump matchup this fall promises lots of drama, but it’s a lose/lose scenario for anyone looking for real progressive change.

Donald Trump and American Fascism?

The Donald has done it again, winning decisively in South Carolina. Back in July, I wrote this article on Trump and how he was tapping a “fascist spring” in American politics. Since then, he’s vilified Muslims as well as Mexicans, called for torture, made fun of women, mocked a reporter with a physical disability, and on and on. At the same time, he keeps promising to make America big and bad again — a promise he doubtless intends to keep.

I’ve heard people say that Trump will change if he becomes president. Even Trump claims he’d be a different man in the Oval Office. Don’t believe it. Trump is what he is: a demagogue and a chauvinist who enjoys scapegoating the vulnerable. Presidential he is not; dangerous he is.

Bracing Views

The Donald: Easy to make fun of ... too easy The Donald: Easy to make fun of … too easy (AP/Seth Wenig)

W.J. Astore

A reader wrote to me this morning about Donald Trump and American fascism.  Is Trump, with his anti-immigrant posturing and his generally bombastic demeanor, tapping into a “fascist spring” in America?

The question seems unduly alarming as well as absurd.  But let’s pause for a moment.  I recently saw on TV the results of a poll in which Americans were asked, “Which presidential candidate would best revive the American economy?”  The clear winner: Donald Trump. Yes, maybe it’s just name recognition or an association of Trump’s name with money-making, but the result was nevertheless disturbing.

Here’s the thing: It’s easy to view Trump as a joke.  His bad hair.  His vulgar manner.  His obvious bombast.

But guess who else was dismissed as a joke?  Adolf Hitler.

Before he got his grip on power, many in…

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Bernie is More Generous to Workers than Hillary

Bernie

Last night’s town hall in Nevada revealed a crucial difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  Bernie came out strongly for a $15 per hour minimum wage.  A living wage, as he called it.  Hillary demurred, suggesting that $12 per hour was sufficient, though she mentioned municipalities with higher minimums (places like San Francisco, which have a very high cost of living).

An extra $3.00 and hour, for 40 hours a week, for 50 weeks a year, is an extra $6000 in the pockets of workers (before taxes, of course).  For many working families, that’s the difference between struggling in poverty and making enough to live with a modicum of security.

Hillary went unchallenged on her $12 per hour figure.  But let’s remind ourselves that Hillary made $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs.  A person working for Hillary’s “generous” $12 wage would need 28 years to match what she made in three speeches that took her all of a few hours to make.

Indeed, Hillary’s “minimum wage” for her speeches to big banks and Wall Street is in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $200,000 per hour.  “Hey, that’s what they offered,” Hillary said.  And so Hillary is offering you, sales associate at Walmart, $12 per hour.  Are you not entertained?

When asked if she’d release transcripts of her speeches to the Wall Street banks and investment houses, Hillary essentially said no.  Of course, she didn’t say “no” because that would be honest.  Instead, she said she’d release her transcripts if all the other candidates did the same.  She knows that’s not happening, so her answer is no.

Perhaps Hillary could contact Goldman Sachs and ask them to start inviting workers to give speeches at her going rate.  A lot of American working families would deeply appreciate making $225,000 for a couple of hours of sharing their hard-won experiences with Wall Street bankers and investors.