PRINT December 1995


the State of the Union

IN THE U.S. THIS YEAR, news of the end of the cold war finally sank in. How do we know? Because the only thing not currently being dismantled by Congress is the arsenal of democracy. In fact the defense budget is going gangbusters; military Keynesianism, the most stable consumer market known to mankind, is still very much in the saddle. Everywhere you look, America’s free-world triumphalism has brought down nothing but tough love and its cruel winds of austerity. Washington’s new soldiers of the cross have put us all on notice that poverty is once again the wages of sin and sloth, and that scarcity is henceforth a blessing in disguise.

There is a deceptively simple explanation for all this bloodletting: the heads that have been roll ing are those the cold war state once needed to diversify and pretty-up its profile. Now that the moral competition with the old socialist bloc has ended, there’s no need for any PR campaign advertising the superior humanity of liberal capitalism. The civil rights struggle, the War on Poverty, labor’s right to organize, the protection of endangered species, and state investment in the arts and sciences were all sustained by the need to present a respectable face to the world of nations. Now the arts and the rest of those expendables are on the chopping block.

Earlier in the cold war the U.S. had showcased middle-class achievement, for example in the famous Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev in 1959. By the ’80s, however, the country’s sharp upward redistribution of wealth meant that the campaign had to dwell more on our comparative advantage in human rights. All of that preening is gone now. It is as if the state, like any megacorporation with mobile funds, had decided to shift its priorities, divest itself of its stake in the welfare industry, and move into other markets, like telecommunications. The old ad campaigns come down, the new ones go up. Bouncy jingles, familiar to generations, about deliverance from want in the land of opportunity are replaced by tough-guy rhymes about self-help and opportunism. Different stock portfolio, different company image.

Where does culture come into this equation? Or, more precisely, what is the new relationship between culture and a state that no longer has an interest in supporting culture’s practitioners? As always, we have two different versions of this program running at the same time: culture in the broad sense of values, traditions, and practices, and culture in the sense of the discrete arts and humanities. Both are as serviceable as ever to the work of elites. As a result of the culture wars, in fact, it’s no longer possible to ignore the importance of cultural politics on the national agenda. Look at this year’s menu, which includes some (by now) old favorites: the national history standards, the NEA and the NEH, free speech on the Internet, gangsta rap, body performance art, multiculturalism, the English-only movement, family values, Hollywood films, race and educational testing, the culture of immigration, sexual harassment, gays in the institutions, and the liberal cultural elite, among others. After all of this sound and fury, one feels like responding to naysayers, If cultural issues aren’t political, then I’m Carmen Miranda.

Of course these issues have been used primarily as cheap wedges with which conservatives can divide the electorate. But they also prove beyond doubt that culture is a crucial medium for contemporary politics, where consent for gonzo policymaking in economic affairs can be won or lost through appeals to some version of the Moral Nation. If the culture wars only seem to be intensifying, it is because the authority of the nation-state is rapidly eroding under the pressure of global integration. Anxiety about the fragmentation of the national culture is displaced onto the usual suspects—the flag bearers of identity politics, including their fellow travelers in the arts.

It’s not that the current crusade would be impossible without the end of the cold war—in fact it isn’t appreciably deeper or broader than it was in the ’50s, which is a decade that is hard to top for paranoia. It’s not clear, moreover, that the United States’ national-image campaigns were ever primarily aimed at the socialist bloc, or at third world client states; the American electorate too had to be convinced it enjoyed a superior culture. Hence the need to market the U.S. as a state with a humanitarian bent and an interest in showcasing its highest achievers, whether in sports or the arts.

Furthermore, if the campaigns were to be more than crudely propagandistic, they required cooperation on the part of intellectuals and artists. (We forget that liberal capitalism, while prescribing competition, depends on cooperation to survive.) This compliance took a number of forms, from consensus historians who preached American exceptional ism to formalist artists who revered abstraction. But a nation at its most powerful is also, paradoxically, a nation at its most vulnerable, so the task of protecting those famously fragile liberties from foreign influence and internal dissent required a sustained wave of domestic repression, whether overt in ’50s McCarthyism or covert in its successors—COINTELPRO and who knows what else. That repression has now been extended through the culture wars. In the ’50s, it was doled out in the name of preserving the garrison state; today the regulation of “subversive” ideas is pursued with a view to dismantling the state’s proactive components.

To see why, we have to make some connections. What is the relation between two of 1995’s active volcanoes—the assault on affirmative action and the evisceration of the NEA and the NEH—and the sober announcement that Federal Reserve statistics show 1 percent of Americans now owning 40 percent of the nation’s wealth? The figure is redolent of a full century ago, when the economy was run by robber barons. Other statistics this year show poverty levels steadily rising and the income of three-fifths of the population in free fall , all at a time when the national economy’s relative net worth has never been higher. Given this backdrop of economic violence and artificial scarcity, it becomes easy, even inevitable, to scoff at NEA-sponsored artists as relatively privileged and protected souls who won’t be badly hurt by the loss of their party favors. (Seldom do we hear the same said of the beneficiaries of “corporate welfare.”)

Some have argued that affirmative action was always a limited legislation, a mostly symbolic reform cooked up to placate much broader demands for social and economic justice, and that we would be better off without the charade. A similar sentiment has been voiced about artists: if the corporate state has no genuine interest in encouraging free, critical expression, but has been obliged to advertise its tolerance, through limited expenditures, in order to avert reproach and compete on the international front, then best to dispense with the window dressing and expose the reality. There are molecules of truth in both of these allegations, but neither constitutes an adequate response to the exploitative use of the issues of arts funding and racial preferences right now to build a constituency for the New Right.

The prize here, after all, is the loyalty of the white working poor, stripped of 20 percent of their wages in the last two decades and in a mood to be swung to the hard right by racist claims that their jobs are being usurped by immigrants and “preferred ” domestic minorities. Conservatives are trying to salvage this class from the domain of social rejection for their own use, before it has a chance to join a multiracial, insurgent bloc of underclass discontent. As always, they’re using race as a tool to divide those with common economic interests. The salvage job has been accompanied by a top-down glamorization of “white trash” culture, currently enjoying newfound prestige on the fashion runway, in advertising, on television, and in the glare of Hollywood attention.

Equally serviceable in this dirty campaign is Newt Gingrich’s demonology of a “cultural elite” indoctrinating the nation with liberalism by day, then patronizing antisocial art in the evening, over Brie and Chardonnay, before wending on to even more perverse forms of revelry. The phrase “cultural elite” itself evokes the perennial target of the stream of prodemocracy radicalism that runs from 19th-century midwestern populism through C. Wright Mills and the New Left to modern cultural studies. (Even Gingrich guru Alvin Toffler devoted a chapter to the term in his 1964 book The Culture Consumers.) But however evocative of these dissenting traditions the term may be, Gingrich’s “cultural elite” is a code word for the party of tree-love-and-atheism, living high on the hog in urban centers where feminist ideas, same-sex practices, and multiracial friendships are part of the furniture. When push comes to shove, of course, it’s really just a scare word for “queers.”

No one should be surprised to find the old bogeymen of race and sexuality at the root of these assaults. What’s more striking is the appeal to class and against state-sanctioned privilege. What this means is that the usual liberal responses are insufficient. Two in particular stand out: the pursuit of the level playing field in the case of affirmative action, and the right to artistic freedom in the case of support for the arts.

No one should desert affirmative action because it sometimes serves as a vehicle for a privileged few. But overcoming racism involves taking race into account on a permanent basis, rather than on a remedial one. To take the remedial option is to accept that those who built and own the playing field will decide when and where it is sufficiently level, as conservatives from Justice Scalia on down are currently doing. Neither fair play nor a color-blind Constitution ever existed in the past, nor are they likely to appear any time soon. Race is history, and will continue to be so; white folks especially will have to learn to respect this principle. It’s just as important, however, to take up the gambit of class. When pushed to the wall, North American elites have always been willing to grant forms of symbolic justice (like affirmative action) while standing firm against economic justice. Hence the divisive emergence of class polarization among minority communities. Far from scrapping affirmative action, we should insist that its programs are important but are not enough, and that much more is needed.

A similar response applies to the arts. Siegelike assaults from the right are currently encouraging artists and their audiences to retreat to the safe haven of an ideological defense of artistic freedom against bureaucratic barbarism. We should know by now that the safe haven is really a quarantine zone, in which artists are not only immune from public accountability but are also excluded from public dialogue. We should also recognize that, ever since the Romantic period, the cult of artistic freedom has been used as a weapon to intimidate those uninitiated in the esthetic mysteries. Even now, this cult sustains the gulf of arrogance that separates arts communities from the folks who labor in the cultural marketplace, that is, in the culture and media industries—a sphere of production that, despite its capitalist overlords, has released some of the most vital social energies of this century (at the same time as it has suppressed others). The alternative to retrenchment is to take advantage of the current crisis to renounce that cult altogether, to establish firm new ground within public discourse, and to seed the future with a live populism that ignores the arts’ no-go zones.

This will involve some manipulation of opportunities that were created under bad circumstances; some history-making, as always, under conditions not of our own choosing. Having been dragged into the culture wars, for example, we are often forced to defend the weak form of multiculturalism. Why not insist instead on the need for cultural justice, which lies in the future, as yet unachieved? Cultural rights are surely as integral to citizenship as a vote or a social wage. And when we are forced to defend “the arts,” why not speak instead of cultural expression in a broad, inclusive sense, and not simply about professionals, whose freedoms have been so unduly fetishized?

If history really does progress, then there are times, as Marx once said, when it progresses through its bad side, not through the ideal, noble, shining side that the liberal mentality in many of us (whether we are liberals or not) is conditioned to applaud. There is every reason to believe we are living in such a time.

Andrew Ross is a professor and director of the American Studies program at New York University.