“Inequality” is on the lips of philanthropists and policy actors. But the term is rarely defined. Let’s try: “Inequality is a condition marked by arbitrary, disproportionate constraints that limit access to valuable societal assets.” Inequality is sustained by cultural tropes — often-hidden narratives that assign meaning to human attributes like race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and nationality. These cultural narratives are deeply held and difficult to modify or marginalize. Addressing the underlying forces sustaining inequality is slow, difficult work.
American society embraces gun ownership and there are something like 300 million guns in the US. Definition: a gun is a mechanical device purpose-built for efficiently translating impulse into mayhem. This transformation may be benign: punching holes in a paper target, or practical: taking down a deer to put meat on a table. But it is always, always quick, and too often the impulse is anger, hatred, depression or dismay, and then of course the very efficiency of the mayhem-machine becomes tragic. Yes, you can kill someone with a knife or rope (or candlestick, playing the old board-game, “Clue”), and we understand suicide can be accomplished with pharmaceuticals or a leap from a high place. But these tactics take time and time forces a measure of reflection and maybe hesitation. Gun deaths are scary because the trigger process allows no space between impulse and catastrophe. Confiscation is impractical; what can we do? Car deaths were a problem; we couldn’t confiscate; society accepted seat belts. Is there a “seat belt” for guns? If the NRA won’t yield an inch on gun ownership, will it talk about gun deaths? Will American culture accept a narrative of meaningful intervention?
The essential but false conceit of Marxism is housed in the assumption that economic systems shape culture. In fact it is the other way around; the power of culture enables societies to outlast economic experimentation, even when conducted on an ambitious scale. To observe the stickiness of cultural continuity we need look no further than modern Russia and China, where Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are best engaged not as enforcers of discredited communist ideologies, but instead as czar and emperor caught up in ancient concerns of global status, regional competition, and the preservation of hegemonic mechanisms of power and control.
Once again we are in a US presidential election cycle, and once again the nonprofit arts community is stirring with desire for candidate commitments in support of the NEA and of legislation that serves the interests of artists and arts organizations. But perhaps it’s time for something new; a bigger, bolder, and more-fundamental policy agenda? In the years since Barack Obama was first elected, two cultural issues have inched toward the center of the US public policy stage. First is the tragic loss of cultural heritage in the wake of natural disaster or war. Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Japan have all witnessed the destruction of historic sites and monuments, and experienced the tragic disruption of less-tangible cultural assets critical to community and quality of life. Cultural Heritage Policy requires that cultural experts, aid agencies, and the US military work together to preserve and protect, a process that will inevitably elevate the standing of culture as a component of quality of life. Second, although the “hard power” of military intervention has recently been ascendant in US international engagements, it is increasingly clear that the transactional character of military and economic confrontation must be abetted by international contact that advances an understanding of values, motivations, objectives. Culture and cultural exchange are at the heart of this kind of “soft power,” and like heritage protection and preservation, represent an an arena of action in which the nonprofit sector can advance cultural work as a part of the US policy agenda. It’s fine to encourage political candidates to support the NEA, NEH, and IMLS, but let’s take the opportunity of this presidential cycle to think bigger, ask for more.
It is convenient to live in a culture because culture absorbs ideas, attitudes, prejudices, and behaviors and tucks them away in an always-there backdrop, a backdrop that makes most risks ordinary, precluding the need to confront head-on each morning the multiple uncertainties of reality. Thus culture defangs risk, and we head off in cars without worrying that nearly 1,000 die each day in crashes, without fretting that we will become one of the equal number of daily US gun deaths. But American culture has not yet taken in terrorism, so despite the tiny real risk of dying in a terrorist attack, we worry. Until culture catches up and positions terrorism alongside airline travel, light-ignoring street crossing, and sex with strangers, cynical leaders will be empowered to provoke maximum response to minimal danger.
Overarching cultural trends shape the context of politics. At the beginning of our current presidential election cycle, it was assumed that the effect of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision — the entry of big money through unregulated SuperPacs — would reconfigure the primary process. But money hasn’t mattered so much. Donald Trump’s expertise as a television personality and new-media manipulator directed through the cable news industry’s gluttonous appetite for entertaining narratives have created a pathway to electoral success that sidesteps the advertising, robocalling, and polling that political money can buy. But dreadful consequences are hinted; sensation replaces substance; outrage overpowers insight, as free access defeats paid-for messaging. Once successfully mined, the cultural power of old and new media obviates big money. Sanders goes small and gets big; no doubt the Kochs, eyeing Trump, look on in shock an dismay!
“STEM” advocates assume that their naive and intellectually-unsustainable concept (what, after all, is sixth-grade “Engineering”) somehow discredits and replaces centuries of learning that positioned art, humanities, and technical skills on an equal footing. STEM claims to be a measured response to global competition, but what’s the need: despite a few notable, short-lived financial downturns, the US economy has done remarkably well for the past two centuries under leaders in business and government who could read and write, and who exhibited both knowledge of and respect for history, visual and performing arts, and literature. STEM aims to make all learning technical, which if it comes to pass will conscript American youth into a dumbed-down army of worker bees incapable of critical thought. Broad access to art and to knowledge offers meaningful social attainment to all, and STEM’s preoccupation with money and what is practical must be resisted at every opportunity.
Addiction is the ultimate stage of consumption — consumerism on steroids. Capitalism will never be averse to addiction because it can be commoditized three ways, first through the sale of addictive substances, then in insurance-paid rehabilitation programs, and finally through incarceration in privatized prisons.
A half-century ago minority citizens fought for, and secured, access to the pathways to power — education, employment, full political participation. Today, with the US on the cusp of becoming a minority/majority nation, a second movement demands not access to, but ownership of the levers of power and control. Can the old culture of majority rule give way gracefully this new reality, and its demands?