In defense of culture

Gustave Moreau’s “Hesiod and the Muse” (1891), oil on panel. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Gustave Moreau’s “Hesiod and the Muse” (1891), oil on panel. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

In justifying cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which includes PBS, NPR and an alphabet soup of other educational institutions — Mick Mulvaney, President Donald J. Trump’s new Mack the Knife, alias budget director, framed it as a Trumpian zero sum game:

“I put myself in the shoes of that steelworker in Ohio,” Mulvaney said. “The coal miner — the coal-mining family in West Virginia. The mother of two in Detroit. And I’m saying, ‘O.K., I have to go ask these folks for money and I have to tell them where I’m going to spend it.’ Can I really go to those folks, look them in the eye, and say, ‘Look, I want to take money from you and I want to give it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’? ”

Not since another budget director, David Stockman under Ronald Reagan, deemed ketchup a worthy vegetable for school lunches has an argument been so specious.

According to the same New York Times article in which Mulvaney is quoted, the CPB sent Ohio stations $11.8 million; West Virginia stations, $1.6 million; and Michigan stations, $9.1 million in 2014, the last year for which state-by-state figures are available.

What Mulvaney is really saying is “You’re too poor to deserve culture. You’re too poor for anything but the basics. No treats for you.”

How horrible. How horrible that life is reduced to nothing but the essentials — or rather someone’s idea of the essentials. Because I would argue that culture — which encompasses the arts, humanities, sciences, sports and religion — is essential.

Culture offers solace, escape, enlightenment, entertainment, inspiration, respite and relief — not to mention a way to make money. Most important, though, it offers transcendence — a sense of going in to reach out, to belong to something greater than yourself. When I think of the great works and the great artists, scientists, spiritual leaders and sportsmen I’ve been privileged to cover and witness, I am humbled by the power of the mind.

And I am appalled by it. Here a picture is truly worth a thousand words — one that went viral of a Syrian man listening to music on a record player in his bombed-out apartment. I could weep, but then, I think I’d rather fight.

“This is not the moment we asked for,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) said. “But it is the moment we have been called to. This is our test.”

The crucible of which she speaks is nothing less than the battle for Western civilization. I always thought the attack would come from outside fundamentalisms in all their forms. I never thought that the struggle would be from within. But I should’ve known: All great struggles are essentially internal — within a society and within the self.

The battle for culture — like the battle for health care — is an essential one. (As playwright George Bernard Shaw said, we need our hospitals, but we need our symphonies, too.)

Culture is essential, because it reminds us that the feminine — in the Jungian sense of those aspects of life that are soft, seemingly only decorative, sensitive, subtle and complex — still matter.

And it is essential, because it is part of what creates a thinking, feeling human being, an honorable human being — one who owns his flaws and mistakes and does not seek to deflect them onto friends and foes alike, one who does not let one misfortune define him.

This is indeed not the fight we wanted.

But I believe it is the fight we were born for.