Barbarians in the Gate

When I was living in Massachusetts the state was blessed with a healthy endowment for its artistic community. This is not just a bunch of hippies finger painting or weird avant-garde artists creating bizarre mobiles or paper-mache. Far from it. The funding went to theaters that performed classical drama, symphonies that played Bach and Motzart, opera companies, artists and designers whose work was acclaimed for its contribution to the beautification of buildings, towns, and cities. The endowment paid for itself, and, not only that, was a cash machine.

What do I mean? Very simple. Say a theater company gets a government stipend. It may have a wealthy benefactor or two from the city it’s in as well, and then, of course, there are the ticket sales. That is to say, there are a number of sources of revenue for that company and the state helps in that regard. What, we might ask, does the state get in return?

Restaurants, shops, cafes, these are the sorts of things that tend to crop up around theaters. In some cases whole communities can emerge with substantial tourist revenue. Growing up I used to go to Ashland, Oregon to see Shakespeare plays. Ashland was nowheresville in the 1930s – a small western town with nothing but a small college. Over the decades a small makeshift summer theater grew into a three or four theater complex; today there are not just a few performances but numerous performances daily from February to November. Hotels, restaurants, shops and businesses have exploded and made the place into a dynamic, vibrant community, and one of the best small towns in the US. For a relatively miniscule investment the return the government gets in terms of revenue for the funding of things like this results in revenue returns far and above what the government puts in. It pays for the cost of the investment, and beyond that, results in a gigantic return to the government in its investment. It’s good business on the part of the government.

And yes, I am biased towards Ashland because it helped propel me as a young man towards a career in the humanities. But that bias is a good thing: my life trajectory offered me two paths: one towards being a teacher of the humanities, the other towards soul-deadening clerical work. My career in the humanities has made me far more prosperous than any other choice I had, and more than that, it has made my life rich (and by the way – a small government investment in yours truly as a humanist means that the government has gotten a major sweet-heart deal from me over the years, getting many-fold revenue back in my taxes, thank you very much, compared to the slight investment it put in!).

But this is the trouble with the Orange Menace: he is a poor man, and many of his followers and close associates, not to mention the political party and its adherents that he seized in a hostile takeover, are equally impoverished. What do I mean by that? He does not read. He does not like art. He actively dislikes music. Each of these areas contains, within them, many universes, many ways of knowing, that serve to enrich, to make our lives more interesting, to help us to grow, that lead, in turn, to other interests.

The humanities alone is a vast universe, and includes the studies of Greek, Latin, Italian, Arabic, Religion, English, History, German, French, Chinese, and other disciplines and subject areas ad infinitem, and each of these, in turn, contain their own vast expanse of galaxies. Want to study Greek? Good – what galaxy do you want to visit? Homer? Plato? Thucydides? Herodotus? Plutarch? Lucian? The New Testament? Demosthenes? Lyric poets? Pindar? Hesiod? Aristophanes? Euripides? Aeschylus? Sophokles? Strabo? Theophrastus? Menander? Greek religion? Politics? Warfare? Alexander’s conquests? Sexuality and gender? Aristotles’ Ethics? Mycenaean or Minoan archaeology? Greek athletics? Art – sculpture, vases, mosaic, painting? Architecture? The sky is the limit, and you won’t have enough time in your life to study most of it.

This is what it means to be rich – not to have material wealth, which Socrates viewed as shameful to pursue instead of the things of the mind and of the gods. How poor a man who has no appreciation of the history, art, and literature of our wonderful species – but that requires a level of openness and generosity of spirit that POTUS and his party have always proudly lacked, turning their nose up at the educated as they confuse disdain and contempt for strength, and maintain a willful blindness to their poverty.

A man with no appreciation of books, plays, music, or art is not fully human. Indeed, the word human is connected with the Latin word humus, earth, and what makes that earth, humus, into the human is his cultivation – his “culture”, a word also Latin in its base that comes from colo, “I cultivate”. Humus must be cultivated, and is the essence of humanitas. But he has expressed his admiration for the ignorant, and himself is willfully ignorant. In a man in his position, particularly in the area of history, that is particularly perilous.

And now it appears he has the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities), and CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) in the crosshairs. He is intent on making this country a cultural desert, where gilded chairs and glass towers put a patina of material acquisition over the scars of cultural impoverishment.

Maybe if he had even a passing interest in history he would have understood today’s moment, but he did not, and we will all be the poorer for it.

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