You’ve seen the meme. I know it. You’ve seen it on Facebook. You’ve seen it on Twitter. The one with a quote attributed to Winston Churchill saying “During World War II, Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts. He replied, ‘Then what are we fighting for?’” It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to know that Churchill never uttered these words. If Churchill could use more words to say it, he would. But, according to historian and Churchill expert Richard Langworth, he did actually say this: “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”
I mention these quotes as a way of lending my voice to the chorus of those who are protesting the plan to eliminate the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the umbrella organization which oversees the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). For fiscal year 2018, the federal budget is said to be approximately $1.15 trillion dollars. That budget, as has been widely reported, has slashed away at many of the elements of the social safety net created during the last 70 or so years and makes it a goal to drastically reduce the effectiveness of the Environmental Protection Agency and to eliminate federal arts funding with the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The funding for these three organizations adds up to approximately .01% of that federal budget. You read that right. .01%. I hope they don’t spend the savings all in one place.
If you go down the rabbit hole of right wing media and read everything from the Wall Street Journal to Breitbart.com, you can see the cheerleading done on behalf of these acts. The elimination of the social safety net and the elimination of the federal funding for the arts has been a conservative goal for a long time. Conservative opposition to arts funding resides first in the libertarian view that the government should not be endorsing what television and radio programming people can watch and listen to. Let the market determine what programming is run; let the people raise or lower their thumbs like the days of old in the Roman Coliseum – let the almighty dollar decide what is available for consumption. It is also a widely held belief by some on the right that PBS and NPR are propaganda tools for liberal points of view. Sesame Street alone has endured almost fifty years’ worth of criticism with that argument.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but those arguments are hogwash. A civilized society can’t just think of the arts as a luxury item. To argue that an episode of The Apprentice is equal to an episode of Great Performances is ridiculous. The annual federal contribution to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is just over $450 million dollars, most of which is used to distribute to the 1,400 plus radio and television stations around the country broadcasting PBS and NPR. Of course, that sounds like a lot of money. It is. But not in comparison to say the $750 million dollars that the city of Las Vegas will charge taxpayers to build a stadium for the NFL to use for the Super Bowl, I mean to host the Oakland, no Los Angeles, no Oakland, no I mean Las Vegas Raiders. Not in comparison to the estimated budget of the next 2 Marvel Avengers films, which might be Hollywood’s first film to exceed a billion dollars of expenses to be made.
Look, I’m not advocating that the NFL or Disney and Marvel can’t do what they do and make a lot of money. I’m not a hypocrite. I love the NFL. I love Disney. And Marvel. And other such entertainment outlets. And I realize that the fare on PBS and NPR may not be as entertaining to some people as it is to others. But Churchill had it right. There has to be a place for culture and non-commercial news coverage to exist.
The mission of the CPB is to provide high quality, noncommercial content to its viewers and listeners. In a free society, you are certainly entitled to make the choice not to watch what’s on PBS; you have the right to turn your radio of NPR and listen to yet another station playing Lite Rock hits that are programmed in a studio in Los Angeles somewhere. You have that choice. You may not like to watch opera or musical theatre or Wall Street Week or Frontline or Nova or Downton Abbey or my beloved Sherlock. You may not want your kids to watch Arthur or Sesame Street or The Magic School Bus. You may not listen to All Things Considered or Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or This American Life or A Prairie Home Companion. But how can you as a citizen deny the right to others who do like, love and even depend on these programs? It is not too much to ask in a country of over 300 million people that we spend a $1.50 a year each to let others have that right. Not when we’re spending well over a trillion dollars and increasing the budgets of the defense and homeland security departments by over 12% of that trillion plus. Not when we’re spending millions of dollars a day to allow the president to play golf on courses he owns and for which he receives compensation.
The word civilization literally means the point at which a society reaches an advanced stage of development. The arts are a fundamentally vital mirror to be held up to society, and an advanced civilization must be strong enough to look into that mirror and reflect on what it sees, warts and all. PBS and NPR are a part of that mirror which our American society needs to look into to see itself.