Mark Twain on Donald Trump

What America’s great satirist might say of the president

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Thanks to the criticisms they’ve leveled in articlesinterviewstweets and letters to the editor, we know that many contemporary authors, from Philip Roth to J.K. Rowling, have a dim view of Donald J. Trump.

But what would leading writers of the past have made of him?

We can only speculate (well, until someone invents a Rowling-like potion capable of bringing long dead writers back to life). But if I could ask one dead writer what he thinks of Trump, it would be Mark Twain, my favorite American author and someone whose travel articles I’ve written about in the past. While Twain is best-known for his novels, he was also an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.

I suspect Twain would have found Trump the showman—the pre-2016 version—a fascinating figure. He would have been appalled, however, by much about Trump the president.

A champion of irreverence

I have no doubt about two things that Twain would find objectionable: the way that Trump has lashed out at TV sketches that mock him and his use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” to describe news organizations that criticize him.

Twain felt that no one was too grand to be satirized.

“Irreverence,” he wrote, “is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”

In America’s press, he admired its tendency to be “irreverent toward pretty much everything.” Even if this led to the newspapers laughing “one good king to death,” it was a small price to pay if they also “laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave.”

But pondering what, beyond this, Twain would make of Trump is an apt, tricky and timely exercise.

It’s apt because one of Twain’s novels, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” features a man who travels through time.

It’s tricky because Twain’s views on many issues, including race, changed during his lifetime. Hence there are different Twains—as well as different Trumps—to consider.

Finally, imagining how Twain would view Trump is timely because when some have tried to look to history for an equivalent political moment, they’ll sometimes point to two decades—the 1880s and the 1900s—that happened to also be important in Twain’s life and career.

One of these Trumps is not like the other

The Twain of the 1880s would have probably found the Trump of a decade ago—a brash, self-promoting businessman known for his candid comments and penchant for media attention—fascinating. He may have even befriended him.

But the staunchly anti-imperialist Twain of two decades later would have been as disdainful of Trump now as he was of the man he once called “far and away the worst president we have ever had”—the muscular nationalist Teddy Roosevelt.

My basis for the first claim comes from Twain’s friendship with a flashy, boastful Trump-like showman: Buffalo Bill Cody. Among the most successful entertainment impresarios of his day, Cody founded and starred in a traveling Wild West Show, which drew large crowds in America and Europe and was famous for its reenactments of legendary battles.

In 1884, Twain sent a letter to Cody praising his Wild West Show as a realistic, “distinctly American” form of entertainment. In Cody’s spectacle—as in “The Apprentice”—the emcee was a famous man who played up a version of himself, capitalizing on the audience’s awareness that he had done things in real life that he did in the show: firing guns, in one case; firing people, in the other.

An advertisement for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a circus-like show that toured the nation. NPGpics/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

 During this period, Twain wrote four of his best-known books. It was also a time of intense nativism in the United States. Many white laborers, especially in western states, became convinced that Chinese laborers, who had crossed the Pacific in large numbers during the Gold Rush, were unfairly depriving them of jobs that rightfully belonged to them.

 

This prejudice triggered several violent outbursts—such as the 1871 Los Angeles riot, which cost 18 Chinese men their lives—and led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the entry of Chinese workers to the United States.

Twain mocked the hypocrisy of the Exclusion Act: Just as the U.S. government was preventing Chinese from coming here, American traders and missionaries in China were denouncing the Chinese government for hindering their pursuit of profits and converts in the Middle Kingdom.

Some critics of Trump’s executive order on immigration say it “eerily recalls” the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, we see fear, stereotypes and prejudice fomenting an environment in which some groups are deemed less worthy of rights and protections—indeed, less human—than others.

In one of his early works, 1872’s “Roughing It,” Twain was already castigating those who bullied and abused Chinese immigrants as the “scum of the population.” His disdain for xenophobia and prejudice only grew later in life.

He would be a fierce critic of Trump’s nativist rhetoric even if—perhaps especially if—he had previously praised Trump the entertainer.

Twain targets Teddy

By the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Trump—whom some have compared with Roosevelt—has said that when he speaks of trying to “Make America Great Again,” one period he has in mind is around the turn of the 20th century.

A 1904 New York World cartoon criticizes Teddy Roosevelt’s militaristic and imperialistic impulses. Wikimedia Commons

Around this time, Twain was not just a celebrated author but a leading figure on the lecture circuit. As both a speaker and an essayist, he was known for his satirical jabs. A key target of his became American expansionists, whom he skewered in, among other works, the 1901 essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which lambasts Americans for committing violence across the Pacific under the guise of “civilizing” backward peoples.

In 1900, there were two U.S. military campaigns underway in China and the Philippines. In China, U.S. soldiers joined forces with a host of other countries to fight the anti-Christian Boxer militants and the Qing dynasty. In the Philippines, American troops brutally suppressed Filipinos who sought independence.

Teddy Roosevelt was an enthusiastic supporter of these campaigns. The main goal in the Philippines and in China, Roosevelt insisted, was not enrichment but defeating “barbarous” enemies.

Twain disagreed. In his caustic “Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” Twain dismissed the military campaigns as “pirate raids” that “besmirched” Christianity’s reputation.

Where Roosevelt saw the Boxers as just the latest wave of savages to be suppressed, Twain viewed them as patriots defending their threatened homeland, spelling out his position in essays, personal letters and public lectures.

Sticking to his guns

The anti-imperialist Twain would likely have criticized other recent presidents. He wouldn’t have approved of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor of the way Barack Obama employed drones.

Nonetheless, the writer would find Trump’s disparaging of Muslims and various other groups on the campaign trail—in addition to the immigration ban—particularly distasteful.

He wasn’t afraid to change his mind, and to admit that he had been wrong (as Trump is loath to do). He briefly supported the Spanish-American War, for example, but then spoke openly about how jingoism had blinded his moral concerns. And as American studies professor John Haddad has detailed, Twain’s previous praise for Cody didn’t stop him from walking out of a Wild West Show performance in early 1901. Cody had performed a reenactment of a 1900 Chinese battle, uniformly depicting the foreign invaders as heroes and the Boxers as barbaric villains. Twain thought his old friend was deeply misguided—and he let him know.

In 1901, Twain wasn’t alone in holding and expressing fervently anti-imperialist views. But he was in a minority. Most Americans felt that allied actions in China and U.S. ones in the Philippines were completely justified. So did many famous writers of the time, from Rudyard Kipling to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” lyricist Julia Ward Howe.

That’s one difference from today: Twain would find himself firmly in the literary mainstream—and would be far from alone in saying that a president who wanted to govern a truly “great” America should not look to the country at the turn of the 20th century for inspiration. §

 is Professor of Chinese and World History at the University of California, Irvine. This article is republished by permission of The Conversation, where it first appeared.

CLASS WARFARE: PUSSY POWER

Now’s the time for all good women to come to the aid of their country

by Dell Franklin

It’s time for a woman president who isn’t Hillary Clinton. It’s time for a firebrand of a female to replace Bernie Sanders and lead the Democratic Party against the swine not only running the country, but the same swine taking over the Senate, the House, the governors’ seats and most of the state offices in America. It’s not enough that these women are marching in the streets with furious and ferocious passion and anger at what has transpired in their country. They need to unite and begin an ongoing chant accusing the President of the United states as a molester, liar, tax criminal, scam artist, a dangerously incompetent and emotionally and intellectually stunted sociopath as well as enemy of the goodness of humankind, and a real threat to send the world spinning off its axis.

And there are a slew of capable and ferocious women out there to replace the democratic male milquetoasts who will roll over like bowling pins at the onslaught Trump and his gestapo have prepared for them once they commence running.

It will take a good woman to take this venal dictator down, and now that the country’s most valuable and sane assets are stirred up like millions of enraged hornets, out to sting any male hide in their way, let us begin with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and, in time, Mrs. Michelle Obama, and every democratic woman in the Senate and House and all the state senates and assemblies in the country to carry out a vicious vendetta against the white male conservative onslaught that has captured this country and threatens to undo everything Franklin Roosevelt accomplished.

Fellow female media harridans on the wrong side, like bony-assed, supercilious Anne Coulter, penis-envy Laura Ingraham, and Trump’s grinning barracuda confidante Kellyanne Conway need to be excoriated by the most lethal female cat-fighters on the liberal side, and especially those gals on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid. Nobody can attack like women, and the liberal side needs to sharpen their claws and dig deep, gouging out blood and matter and leaving their victims bleeding and suffering in the streets of American air time.

Trump must be hounded. Women know how to do this. They are relentless because they’ve had to be for centuries while dealing with the brutish nature of men—just to survive. When Trump slithers out of his Twitter cave and faces the media, the women reporters must call him on his lies. If he ignores them, they should bully the male reporters aside and confront him and call him the coward and liar he is. They should develop media personalities and spend their every waking moment creating and sustaining new methods to expose and demean this rat in office. Those women he fondled should join forces and continue their lawsuits, whether they win or lose, just to expose Trump for the pig he is.

When Trump attempts to put forth any speech in the Senate chambers, like a State of the Union, not one, but all  female democratic office holders should yell out LIAR! every time he lies, and continue the chant, and perhaps add to it, “Jail the liar, jail the liar….”

An association of women has to be forged, and their mantra should be to extinguish in office all alpha male business tycoons and those stooges these tycoons bankroll to run for office. They might explain that this country has been run by men of hubris and extreme ego for too long, that we are returning to barbarism under the leadership of paranoid greed-bags who, like Nazi operatives, will stop at nothing to terrify the population and scapegoat minorities while feathering their own nests and through propaganda continue to amass a power base, and that they cannot be trusted because as males, as the masculine race, they are too flawed, too overcome with their own importance and ego and rage to control and dominate in any way they can.

And it hasn’t and doesn’t work. They have made a shambles of the world.

Do the women need a hero? A leader? Present Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois senator who lost her legs in Iraq as a helicopter pilot. She is a spitfire. She, along with every  female leader, must spell out how urgent it is to protect themselves and the country from the previous follies of men, and especially of Trump, who will gouge out every civil liberty and human right of women and put us back in the dark ages, and they must also spell out how complicit the entire conservative movement is in creating demagogic lies and enforcing the cruelest, most heartless policies for the poor, minorities, and anybody who is not white and rich.

These ladies must go overboard to wake women up, to stir emotions, rattle the cupboards of every kitchen in America. They must unleash a movement that literally saves us from ourselves in these dire days of basically good versus evil.

Everything that has ever been achieved to create a world of hope and compassion AND survival is at stake.

It’s not time for the ladies to “Take our country back,” but to “Take our country over.”

Go get ‘em, gals! §

Dell Franklin gets his inspiration from women who know how to take down cads like the man posing as President of the United States. For more of Dell’s views on sports, politics and culture, visit his website: dellfranklin.com.

When policy trumps science

The world becomes an even more dangerous place

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One of the most unexpected political developments in recent months has been the political awakening of scientists in the United States.

A normally reticent group (at least when it comes to politics), scientists are speaking out, organizing a major march and planning to run for public office. There is a growing sense that the danger posed by the Trump administration to evidence-based policy, and perhaps science itself, is unprecedented. I share this concern. The Trump administration’s actions and rhetoric appear to signal an acceleration of Republican skepticism toward scientific research carried out in the public interest.

This said, what is keeping political scientists, particularly those like me who study political psychology, up at night is not the Trump administration’s ideologically driven science bias. Rather, it is the fact that Trump himself exhibits an authoritarian style of motivated reasoning that appears to be intended (consciously or not) to consolidate his power.

This combination – institutional challenges to the scientific integrity of government employees and Trump’s willingness to disregard evidence on a variety of matters – has broad and ominous implications beyond how science informs national policies.

Science as political target

Politically motivated skepticism of science is certainly not new. As I have argued elsewhere, science is consistently a political target precisely because of its political power.

Science has “epistemic authority,” meaning it is the best method humans have available to understand what is true about the world. For this reason, policy decisions are expected to be based in large part on scientific conclusions. And as the size and scope of the federal government has increased, so has the use of scientific research in government decision-making, making it an even bigger target.

Scott Pruitt, a skeptic of well-established climate science and ally of the fossil fuel industry, will head the EPA, an agency charged with protecting the environment and health. gageskidmore/flickr, CC BY-SA

A number of actions taken so far by the Trump administration seem to portend hostility to government-sponsored science and science-backed policy. Many were alarmed by orders during the administration’s first week in office that government agencies cease all communications with the public.

But likely more indicative of the administration’s attitude toward government-sponsored research are Trump’s nominees to head Cabinet-level agencies. These individuals have less relevant expertise than previous administrations, and Trump’s Cabinet is the first in recent memory to include no one with a Ph.D. The nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has questioned well-accepted climate science and worked closely with energy companies to undermine the agency he is to head.

In addition, Trump’s choice for OMB director, Mick Mulvaney, has taken a similar tack with respect to government-sponsored science aimed at protecting the public’s health. The two scientists said to be under consideration for science advisor both happen to be far outside the mainstream on climate science (neither is a climate scientist).

‘Bending’ science for political reasons

It is important to recognize that scientific evidence is not the only legitimate consideration underlying a policy decision. There may be larger ideological commitments at stake or constituents to please or (less justifiably) more strategic political considerations.

The problem for science and evidence-based policy comes when politicians and other political actors decide to discredit the science on which a conclusion is based or bend the science to support their policy position. Call it “policy-based evidence” as opposed to “evidence-based policy.”

John Marburger was science advisor to George W. Bush, whose administration was criticized for manipulating how science was used in policy decisions. Brookhaven National Laboratory

Such bending of science comes in a variety of forms: cherry-picking studies and experts that support your perspective; harassing government-sponsored scientists – via cuts in funding or investigations – whose conclusions weigh against policies you prefer; forcing government scientists to change the language of reports for political reasons.

Science bias in and of itself is not conservative or liberal, and one can find it on both sides of the political spectrum. However, if we are to avoid false equivalence, we must admit that most of the anti-science bias coming from politicians in recent decades has been from the Republican Party. This bias has been documented extensively. (One can also check out the two parties’ 2016 party platforms.)

There is a straightforward reason for this partisan difference: Much contemporary government-sponsored research is in service of a growing regulatory state. Republicans tend to oppose federal government regulation because of their longstanding representation of business interests and commitment to states’ rights. In recent decades, the Republican Party also has become the political home to religious conservatives, many of whom distrust science because it challenges biblical authority, particularly with respect to evolution.

The George W. Bush administration was arguably the heyday for ideologically driven interference in government-produced science, something well-documented in two reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In response to this, the Obama administration put in place various institutional safeguards to protect the integrity of science, and Congress strengthened its protection of federal whistleblowers.

But Trump’s rhetoric and actions – both before and after assuming the presidency – seem to foreshadow a return to Bush-era tactics. Trump’s Cabinet choices exhibit an unusual fixation on deregulation, particularly in the arena of energy and the environment. And both Trump and his powerful vice president have a history of making statements that are ignorant and mistrustful of science.

Danger in the rhetoric

Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that Trump’s disdain for scientific research is not only driven by political ideology and the interests he represents. Trump clearly chafes against anyone or anything that challenges his power, including empirical reality.

Trump’s constant efforts to aggrandize himself are plain to see. In the past, Donald Trump lied about everything from the size of his home to his donations to charity. In service of whipping up a crowd, Trump has been willing to scapegoat entire minority groups and falsely question a president’s citizenship.

So far, President Trump has focused mainly on crowd sizespoll numbers and the merits of comedians’ performances. Many Americans are tempted to not take these distortions of seemingly trivial topics seriously. But this is authoritarian rhetoric.

As with all presidents, Trump will eventually face data that reflect poorly on some aspects of his job performance: for example, pollution levels, disease rates, disappointing jobs figures, etc. He has been so consistent in his dissembling to protect his reputation that it would be surprising if this behavior did not continue in the face of more serious threats. Scholars are already speculating that Trump may employ Nixonian efforts to doctor official government statistics or discourage critical scholarly study of society under his administration by eliminating NSF social and economic science funding.

Between his executive power and the power of the bully pulpit, President Trump has considerable ability to harm the scientific enterprise and quite possibly democratic institutions as well. This is a time, in my view, for scientists, and experts more generally, to mobilize. As Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School argues, experts play a critical role at moments like this as a “synopticon” – a large collective closely monitoring the actions of our political leaders. §

 is Assistant Professor of Government, American University. This article is reposted by permission of The Conversation.

Class warfare in Trump’s America

Boycott all political cable TV news programs

by Dell Franklin

I’m guilty of a two-decade addiction to cable TV political programs, never missing Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC at 4 in the afternoon. I adjusted my day to watch Chris and felt he was an indispensable fixture of my daily agenda, especially when he came around to my views on the mindless butchery and stupidity of George W. Bush’s and despicable Dick Cheney’s bogus wars in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq, and the lies and propaganda that led up to Iraq. I even managed to tolerate Chris’s propensity to drown out his guests with long-winded personal orations and rude interruptions.

But now I have turned on Chris, turned on him with a vengeance. Why? At this point I’m probably too enraged by the Trump election to really explain why, but we can start with Chris’s fawning treatment of a mean-spirited, lying, bile-infested hater named Rudy Giuliani, an opportunist and braggart to whose image Matthews repeatedly contributed as a sort of self-proclaimed savior of New York City after 9/ll, a bilious chest-beater he allowed to treat Hillary Clinton as a common criminal, a wind-bag so supercilious, high-minded and loathsome he wouldn’t last five minutes in a common man’s tavern without being beaten senseless.

Chris also began to draw my wrath by telling us all that former GOP pundit and final Donald Trump head campaign manager and current confidante Kellyanne Conway is a  close friend of his, and allowed her to precede or follow one Trump rally after another with nauseating spins and lies which he seemed to find amusing, so enamored was he of this cutesy-cutesy perpetually grinning Christ-crazed poisonous blonde asp.

Watching Chris led me to hanging with the rest of the geniuses on MSNBC, all partisans I agreed with, though after switching occasionally to CNN and Fox News and cackling at fascist punk Sean Hannity and bully/browbeater,blowhard Bill O’Reilly, I began to feel MSNBC was, at least 50 percent of the time, broken records blowing smoke and repeating the same old tired refrains and, finally, not worth listening to.

CNN is more of the same, though somewhat tempered, but still guilty of shilling for Trump rallies and allowing them to hog precious time because it was entertaining, brought in viewers, brought in sponsors, brought in millions in profits, and resulted in the election of a veritable monster and white collar criminal as president of the country.

The Sunday morning shows are full of the identical, if modulated lies and spins, the same old tired and jaded faces and voices, the politicians stabbing you in the back or cutting out your intestines while smiling with pencil-tip eyes, these tie-wearing so-called respectable and civilized crusaders who must fabricate or embellish to be heard, to make their points, to penetrate the doldrums of a benumbed incurious illiterate zombieland American electorate needing only to be entertained, its attention span so limited from technology and just plain apathy.

Even the fair-minded, sane, brilliant Fareed Zakaria on CNN, who makes more sense than the entire pack left and right, is dispatched, the bad going with the good, like clearing out a whorehouse and jailing the johns along with the hookers, like in the old days.

I have not watched a second of this garbage since November 8. My friend John Winthrop constantly emails me with reports observed on Fox News and MSNBC and CNN about Trump’s latest appointment or tweet, these snippets inflamed with his own brand of spleen and hatred at the events taking place in America, and I repeatedly urge him to quit watching this misery before his anger kills him (he’s already had a heart attack). And of late this concern with the disaster of our politics has so sapped his immune system he is down with a brutal flu that has him aching from bone to joint.

Another reason not to watch even the nightly news, much less these programs, is the odious and now ubiquitous presence of Trump himself. The sight and sound of him is so repulsive and infuriating and downright abhorrent it drains you of your vital juices, deprives you from pleasant thoughts and harmony with fellow man, grinds your guts and mind into a writhing ball of incoherent, corrosive rage. Hell, I want to get through the day, the week, the months without losing myself in a stew of disenchantment with humanity for allowing this mercenary crackpot to be the shameful representative of our nation.

Hell, I stayed mostly drunk throughout the Reagan Administration and was salvaged health-wise because I was younger and could deal with the punishment of one hangover after another, and I had a great time celebrating my nonstop escape from reality and missing Reagan’s good old boy Howdy Doody technicolor grin while he shafted the little guy.

But now I am in my early 70s and cannot allow myself to be pissed off or drunk the whole time by watching Chris Matthews or any other of these programs or personalities, simply because I need to have some semblance of peace of mind. I get enough information out of the LA Times to know what’s going on, and I read the New Yorker weekly, and Winthrop keeps me abreast of the latest catastrophe, but mainly, if I do not have to see these people, and hear these people, and especially Trump, it is out of sight and out of mind, at least temporarily, and I can salvage some peace of mind from the country I dwell in…while waiting for the massive sledge hammer to drop and blast us back into the tragic truths of our times. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he can look out over the vast Pacific Ocean lapping at his doorstep and hope for better times. For more in his Class Warfare series, visit dellfranklin.com, where this article first appeared.

Supporting the arts

Why do conservatives want to eliminate government funding?

Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe

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Recent reports indicate that Trump administration officials have circulated plans to defund the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), putting this agency on the chopping block – again.

Conservatives have sought to eliminate the NEA since the Reagan administration. In the past, arguments were limited to the content of specific state-sponsored works that were deemed offensive or immoral – an offshoot of the culture wars.

Now the cuts are largely driven by an ideology to shrink the federal government and decentralize power. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues that government should not use its “coercive power of taxation” to fund arts and humanities programs that are neither “necessary nor prudent.” The federal government, in other words, has no business supporting culture. Period.

But there are two major flaws in conservatives’ latest attack on the NEA: The aim to decentralize the government could end up dealing local communities a major blow, and it ignores the economic contribution of this tiny line item expense.

The relationship between government and the arts

Historically, the relationship between the state and culture is as fundamental as the idea of the state itself. The West, in particular, has witnessed an evolution from royal and religious patronage of the arts to a diverse range of arts funding that includes sales, private donors, foundations, corporations, endowments and the government.

Prior to the formation of the NEA in 1965, the federal government strategically funded cultural projects of national interest. For example, the Commerce Department subsidized the film industry in the 1920s and helped Walt Disney skirt bankruptcy during World War II. The same could be said for the broad range of New Deal economic relief programs, like the Public Works of Art Project and the Works Progress Administration, which employed artists and cultural workers. The CIA even joined in, funding Abstract Expressionist artists as a cultural counterweight to Soviet Realism during the Cold War.

The NEA came about during the Cold War. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy asserted the political and ideological importance of artists as critical thinkers, provocateurs and powerful contributors to the strength of a democratic society. His attitude was part of a broader bipartisan movement to form a national entity to promote American arts and culture at home and abroad. By 1965, President Johnson took up Kennedy’s legacy, signing the National Arts and Cultural Development Act of 1964 – which established the National Council on the Arts – and the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which established the NEA.

Since its inception, the NEA has weathered criticism from the left and right. The right generally argues state funding for culture shouldn’t be the government’s business, while some on the left have expressed concern about how the funding might come with constraints on creative freedoms. Despite complaints from both sides, the United States has never had a fully articulated, coherent national policy on culture, unless – as historian Michael Kammen suggests – deciding not to have one is, in fact, policy.

Flare-ups in the culture wars

Targeting of the NEA has had more to do with the kind of art the government funded than any discernible impact to the budget. The amount in question – roughly US$148 million – is a drop in the morass of a $3.9 trillion federal budget.

Instead, the arts were a focus of the culture wars that erupted in the 1980s, which often invoked legislative grandstanding for elimination of the NEA. Hot-button NEA-funded pieces included Andre Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ)” (1987), Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo exhibit “The Perfect Moment” (1989) and the case of the “NEA Four,” which involved the rejection of NEA grant applicants by performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes.

In each case, conservative legislators isolated an artist’s work – connected to NEA funding – that was objectionable due to its sexual or controversial content, such as Serrano’s use of Christian iconography. These artists’ works, then, were used to stoke a public debate about normative values. Artists were the targets, but often museum staff and curators bore the brunt of these assaults. The NEA four were significant because the artists had grants unlawfully rejected based upon standards of decency that were eventually deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.

Demonstrators protest congressional opposition to an NEA-funded exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in 1990. David Kohl/AP Photo

 As recently as 2011, former Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor targeted the inclusion of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress” (1986-87) in a Smithsonian exhibition to renew calls to eliminate the NEA.

In all these cases, the NEA had funded artists who either brought attention to the AIDS crisis (Wojnarowicz), invoked religious freedoms (Serrano) or explored feminist and LGBTQ issues (Mapplethorpe and the four performance artists). Controversial artists push the boundaries of what art does, not just what art is; in these cases, the artists were able to powerfully communicate social and political issues that elicited the particular ire of conservatives.

A local impact

But today, it’s not about the art itself. It’s about limiting the scope and size of the federal government. And that ideological push presents real threats to our economy and our communities.

Organizations like the Heritage Foundation fail to take into account that eliminating the NEA actually causes the collapse of a vast network of regionally controlled, state-level arts agencies and local councils. In other words, they won’t simply be defunding a centralized bureaucracy that dictates elite culture from the sequestered halls of Washington, D.C. The NEA is required by law to distribute 40 percent of its budget to arts agencies in all 50 states and six U.S. jurisdictions.

Many communities – such as Princeton, New Jersey, which could lose funding to local cultural institutions like the McCarter Theatre – are anxious about how threats to the NEA will affect their community.

Therein lies the misguided logic of the argument for defunding: It targets the NEA but in effect threatens funding for programs like the Creede Repertory Theatre – which serves rural and underserved communities in states like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona – and Appalshop, a community radio station and media center that creates public art installations and multimedia tours in Jenkins, Kentucky to celebrate Appalachian cultural identity.

While the present administration and the conservative movement claim they’re simply trying to save taxpayer dollars, they also ignore the significant economic impacts of the arts. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the arts and culture industry generated $704.8 billion of economic activity in 2013 and employed nearly five million people. For every dollar of NEA funding, there are seven dollars of funding from other private and public funds. Elimination of the agency endangers this economic vitality.

Ultimately, the Trump administration needs to decide whether artistic and cultural work is important to a thriving economy and democracy. §

 is Assistant Professor of Art Education, Pennsylvania State University. Knochel receives funding from the National Science Foundation. This article is reprinted by permission of The Conversation.

Can’t get past the DNC’s cynicism

Please tell me what have we learned as progressives?

by Sean Shealy

It has been six months since Democrats made the greatest political blunder in modern history. It was glaringly obvious: If you nominate this person, it was going to completely demoralize the activist base, give a MASSIVE shot of political adrenaline to the Republicans, and middle America would think, “Ick! Another career politician.”

This was the political equivalent of your teenage son riding his bike off the roof of your house. You ask, “What in God’s name were you thinking?”

I understand women wanting a female president. I share that goal. And it is certainly true that misogyny played a role in this election across the political spectrum, right, center, and left as well.

But I submit you this: If BILL Clinton had been eligible to run, and had been the nominee—Donald Trump would still be sitting in the White House today.

And millions of Democrats would have stood on Clinton’s ropeline, feverishly cheering him on, working diligently to defeat the progressive candidate.

Have we learned nothing from history?

Donald Trump doesn’t keep me awake at night.

THIS keeps me awake at night: At every turn, the Democratic establishment, and half of Democratic voters, have screwed and abandoned progressive activists.

They’re happy to have us, so long as we’re working to put the Democratic establishment back into power—but the second they get there, it is this:

  • Mass surveillance police state? But we HAVE to have that, to protect us from terrorists!
  • Well, we certainly need to keep bombing people all over the world, to keep the empire going.
  • Single-payer? That’s a pipe dream.
  • Free college? What is that, some kind of communism?
  • $15 an hour? Why, that’s not realistic! You’ll just have to raise a family on $12!

And on and on and on. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

THAT is what keeps me sitting on my hands right now, as an activist, at a time when we are needed most.

My view is that America is going to have to be so devastated, Americans so utterly destroyed and destitute and desperate, that they will finally be forced to look at baseline, bread-and-butter issues, because they have no other choice.

Where there is hope, they can equivocate; where there is hope, they can spend their time hating Mexicans, or gays. Where there is hope, they can vote for politicians who speak in platitudes, or from paranoia, making vague reassurances about jobs and upward mobility, or promising to bomb their nightmare fantasies away overseas.

Without hope? Different story. Without hope, they will ask:

  • Where is the bread coming from? I WANT SPECIFICS.
  • My child will never go to college. WE DEMAND EDUCATION!
  • My mother died, and my child, and my wife, from lack of healthcare. WE DEMAND UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE, NOW!

These may seem like bleak, dystopian doomsday visions to many middle-class Democratic voters.

But they are reality already for millions across this country, millions who have been left behind, abandoned, so hopeless that many of them turned to Donald Trump in hopes that he would just change something—ANYTHING.

Or, barring that, burn it all to the ground.

They’re dying for progressive change. STARVING for it.

Trump won, largely, on a progressive platform plank: getting out of these insane free-trade agreements. The same agreements pushed by Bill, and Hillary, and Barack Obama. The agreements that have made Wall Street so wealthy, while devastating American workers.

The myriad ways that the Democratic Party establishment has screwed us cannot be listed here. It would be a book.

But the math is pretty simple:

1) Wall Street owned the Republican Party.

2) Reagan destroyed the unions, the lifeblood of the Democratic Party.

3) The Democratic Party then turned to the banks, which were distinct from Wall Street, for contributions.

4) In exchange for the support of the banks, the Democratic Party, under Bill Clinton, agreed to break down the wall of separation between Wall Street and the banks.

5) The banks then became Wall Street.

6) Wall Street then controlled both parties.

The Bible says, “Man cannot serve both God and money.”

Likewise, a party cannot serve both Wall Street and the interests of social and economic justice—of THE PEOPLE.

The two interests conflict. Sharply. They OPPOSE.

Somebody, please: Tell me that a gigantic, blinding light, as hot as the sun, just exploded into your brain. Tell me that you get this. Tell me that I won’t work and sweat and bleed for another four years—for nothing.

Donald Trump’s way is the way of wealth, of oligarchy, of empire.

The Democratic establishment’s way is the way of wealth, of oligarchy, of empire.

Without a clear, complete progressive turn of the Democratic Party, wealth will have its way.

Please, someone, tell me that you have understood?

Otherwise, my activism is a waste of time.

I’d rather go to the beach. §

Sean Shealy is an activist and the author of Corruption & Cover-Ups of the Bush White House Unmasked and the novel Killing Limbaugh.