Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

09/21/2009 (7:54 pm)

And Since We're Talking About Public Funding For Partisan Activism…

090921-yosi2…Andrew Breitbart’s next bombshell is going to fit right in. Patterico, Q and O, and Power LIne — just to name a few — are all picking up Breitbart’s hints that a major scandal will break tomorrow, involving the Obama administration using the National Endowment for the Arts to encourage artists to produce art arguing for Obama administration policies that are currently being debated. Meanwhile, Breitbart’s Big Hollywood site offers its own “Pregame Report,” supplying the background against which their story is expected to appear (if you’re going to read only one story, this is the one to read.)

The basic story is already about a month old: early in August, the National Endowment for the Arts invited a number of public artists, producers, promoters, movers, shakers, and apparently at least one public relations firm with astroturfing experience, to participate in a conference call to discuss how they could all cooperate with the President’s initiatives. One of the participants on the call, a Los Angeles filmmaker and consultant named Patrick Courrielche, felt the conference call was unusual and improper — the NEA’s charter is to facilitate the development of new and under-funded artists, not to engage in propaganda for the sitting government — so he wrote about it on Breitbart’s Hollywood expose’ blog, Big Hollywood. This led to a completely unbelievable denial from Yosi Sargent, the Director of the Office of Communications for the NEA, that he had sent out the invitations to the conference call — invitations under his credential and with his signature. Yosi has since vanished from the post, without explanation. Just a few days ago, George F. Will launched an essay denouncing the practice, and decrying the Obama administration’s turning artists into lobbyists; and today, we’re seeing a flurry of reports setting the stage for a new expose`.

Courrielche explained the call:

On Thursday August 6th, I was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to attend a conference call scheduled for Monday August 10th hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve. The call would include “a group of artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, taste-makers, leaders or just plain cool people to join together and work together to promote a more civically engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for a positive change.”

Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama’s call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were “health care” and “energy and environment.” The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans.

We were encouraged to bring the same sense of enthusiasm to these “focus areas” as we had brought to Obama’s presidential campaign, and we were encouraged to create art and art initiatives that brought awareness to these issues. Throughout the conversation, we were reminded of our ability as artists and art professionals to “shape the lives” of those around us. The now famous Obama “Hope” poster, created by artist Shepard Fairey and promoted by many of those on the phone call, and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” song and music video were presented as shining examples of our group’s clear role in the election.

Civic engagement — to partisan politics, at the behest of the President. A Presidential call to “positive change” — meaning a strictly partisan agenda. National service — to the man in the White House, and to his policies. Not service to the nation; not service to Liberty, nor to Democracy, nor to Mom, Apple Pie, and The Girl He Left Behind. “I pledge to serve Obama.” Something in us tells us that this is just wrong.

I’m just having a heck of a time grasping exactly what that is. What is the difference, I ask myself, between Obama calling for “an attitude of service” in this fashion, and, say, Ronald Reagan taking his cause to the airwaves to win the support of the people? Why do I find the latter profoundly American and satisfying, and the former, foreign and chilling?

When I said, two days ago, that ACORN’s core mission is a fraud, what I meant was that ACORN pretends to be non-partisan and non-profit so that it can use tax dollars to pursue a partisan agenda. This is against the law for a good reason. American politics has always attempted to create a firm barrier between governing and campaigning, with the understanding that allowing government to use public funds to engage in partisan campaigns is a form of tyranny — it forces taxpayers to spend their money for campaigns to which they have not agreed. Governors may put into practice whatever policies they can persuade the legislature to support and the courts to approve, and do it with public funds, but campaigning is to be done on the candidate’s own dime.

It has always concerned us, furthermore, that a government with the power to engage in propaganda could manipulate the public in such a way as to retain power and take away liberty. Free artists, advertisers, and writers are always welcome to participate in the public arena, of course, but we draw the line at government involvement. Presidents, Senators, Representatives, Department Secretaries, National Security Advisors — these are all expected to use their public platforms and their newsworthiness to advocate their particular policies in public, but they are most emphatically not encouraged to buy advertising to make that case, using public funds. There are laws against these things.

Both Yosi Sargent and Patrick Courrielche raised the image of government using art, TV, movies, images, media to shape the public mind. Courrielche correctly invoked Noam Chomsky’s term, “manufacturing consent.” We have a government based on the consent of the governed, and we value the free, public processes by which citizens are encouraged to find facts and make up their own minds. We deplore the trends that encourage citizens to make those crucial decisions on the basis of 10-second sound bites. What are we to say of a government-run, taxpayer-funded effort to manufacture consent for its policies? How can a people remain free when the government has the power to manufacture the basis for its own legitimacy?

For this reason, the fact that Armstrong Williams was paid by the Bush administration to talk up No Child Left Behind was troubling. Far too few conservatives raised objections to this — I plead guilty myself, here, I did not write about it but I recall making excuses — but if it was not frankly illegal, it was certainly a breach of an important barrier in the American psyche. We knew it was unacceptable. Fortunately, Williams also knew it was, and vowed never to do it again.

rockvote82The complicity of the American news business with the Obama administration is a little bit different, but even more problematic. While advocacy for or against a particular policy or set of policies is expected, the people in question are expected to maintain a certain distance; they are not to become part of the political machine of the government. If they want to advocate in favor of a government policy with which they happen to agree, fine; that’s protected. But to take instructions from the government regarding what to report, or how, or when?

This is why President Bill Clinton’s use of media shills to front his policies was so disturbing. Cokie Roberts and Brian Williams are supposed to be independent of the government, that’s what makes them valuable. If they abandon both profit motive and professional commitments to Truth and Objectivity, and become instead servants of the government, or worse, servants of the man leading the government, the press can serve no useful purpose in a free society; it becomes merely a tool of tyranny. And of course, that is why the wholesale commitment of entire news organizations to the service of the Obama administration has been so frightening. The networks doing this deserve far worse than the mere obscurity they will obtain.

I do not believe I have ever heard, before the Obama administration, effort devoted to a partisan cause referred to as “public service,” except in the general sense that citizenship calls for active participation. For the administration to call “service” that which serves their partisan campaign, but to call “mob rule,” or “naziism,” or “hysteria,” or “hate,” that which opposes it, is to move a step closer to outlawing their opposition. It’s bad enough, but still acceptable within our system, when partisans of either side brand their opponents “evil,” and their own causes “good;” but Obama’s nomenclature makes it official. And it is this official branding of the opposition as “evil” that makes Obama’s exercise a rebuttal of democratic society. By doing so, Obama says “I do not choose to participate in the American system; I choose to end that system.”

Immediately I can hear partisans of the left demanding that I denounce the Bush administration for calling its critics irresponsible, in order to be fair. I will not. It is possible to debate and disagree with a policy without doing so in a manner that empowers the enemies of our armed forces engaged in battle. Some Democrats did this, and deserved no criticism, but many others crossed a bright, red line (not to mention violating the law) by publishing classified material and then broadcasting it around the world in such a way as to empower the men who were killing American soldiers. Worse than that, some Democrats deliberately engaged in activity to undercut the policy of duly elected officials, and to ruin the reputations of those elected officials in a clear attempt to foil their policies; this is one tiny step short of a coup d’etat. These are activities that go beyond what is permissible even in a free society. This is not legitimate advocacy.

Nor is the Obama NEA initiative legitimate advocacy. It is the death of a free society if it is permitted.

Patrick Corrielche ended his article with this excerpt from the conference call, along with his reaction:

And if you think that my fear regarding the arts becoming a tool of the state is still unfounded, I leave you with a few statements made by the NEA to the art community participants on the conference call. “This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally?…bare (sic) with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely… “

Is the hair on your arms standing up yet?

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September 22, 2009 @ 10:20 am #

Breitbart did an interview with Patrick (I believe) last night. The point Breitbart wanted to get across was that of the participants in the phone call, 15 out of 21 had received NEA grants within the previous 5 months, and the other 6 were being considered for grants at the time of the phone call. The total of the grants was significant – I think I remember 2.5 million? not sure on the number.

So it isn’t just a desire for inspiration in support of the government’s program, it’s also a “pay to play” issue.

September 22, 2009 @ 10:33 am #

That’s a good point, suek, and one I simply discarded while researching the piece because I was not sure of the figures. But it’s of a piece with the thuggish nature of this administration.

September 22, 2009 @ 11:14 am #

Great post.

You mention everyone basing their opinion on 10-second sound bites. I remember last year when everyone was talking about how Reaganesque then Candidate Obama was and it just did not jive with my personal recollections (given that this is from age 5-13) so I went back and searched online and in various book stores for actual transcripts or recorded material.

I saw a debate from ’84 I believe on youtube, and I was amazed at the level of detail that went into the answers. Not just a broad definition of lowering taxes, but rather specific levels of where they are and what they should go to. What specific effect had come from what specifically had been done already. It was amazing to see how low or broad the discourse has become.

It was interesting, especially in light of the often lack of specificity from the current President.

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