Selected Skirmishes: Dressing Up the Emperor


H.L. Mencken once observed that every philosopher spends his career proving that every other philosopher is a jackass, and that—remarkably—they all succeed. A similar metaphysical suicide pact is now proceeding apace in our nation's capital. It is the tug-o'-war over federal funding for the arts: Decency vs. Diversity.

The battle has been joined by born-agains made faint by Robert Mapplethorpe's ultra-gayness; this is the biggest sexual gross-out for the Believers since the formerly Rev. J. Bakker was caught flashing "homosexual looks" at his deacons. But the Righteous have tripped a vicious counteroffensive by the Politically Correct. Mockery of Jesse Helms has become an art form unto itself within the hippest precincts of this nation's culture map, where "diversity"—extolling the multicultural superiority of all those lucky enough not to be (current or future) Dead White European Males—is the theme of choice.

Decency, which enjoys popular support among the great unwashed, was legislated into the federal grant-making process last October by those wild and wacky protectors of American virtue, the U.S. Congress. But the Diversity legions have slipped behind enemy lines. It turns out that virtually all the congressional designated enforcers of Decency—people with Ph.D.s and NSF grants and season tickets to incredibly important theatrical events—are actually agents of Diversity.

When put to the task, the National Endowment for the Arts board soon found that "standards of decency are subjective, indefinable and irrelevant to the consideration of artistic excellence, which is the primary concern of this panel." Hence, the NEA determined that "the best way to meet congressionally mandated 'standards of decency' is to make sure its grants reflect the widest possible diversity of American values and culture."

That semantic twist is itself deserving of artistic subsidies, so self-satirical is the absurdity that replacing decency with diversity erases the legislative ambiguity. But the irony mushrooms: When NEA chair John Frohnmayer bravely states, "I am not going to be a decency czar," the mock-serious "diversity czar" substitution almost leaps out at the audience. That's powerful theater.

Decency, diversity…what's in a name? Plenty. The code word dictates an entire mechanism of control. Trust me: You'll have no trouble distinguishing the Decency crowd, dredged from the brackish Southern waters so heavily patrolled by the Upright (to wit: Sen. Helms), from the Diversity crowd, carefully coiffed in the 'do of haute kultur. These are two nonintersecting constituencies, each thirsting for clout.

When an agency of the state allocates favors to private parties, it must use some judgment to identify legitimate claimants. That's so dangerous a task that the advance of liberalism can largely be tied to the centuries-long effort to throw off the shackles of government licensing of the press. It wasn't that the standard used by government licensers needed adjusting—freedom demanded abolition of governmental standard setting itself. The dirty little secret of arts funding (not to mention press licensing under FCC broadcast regulation) is that the act—not the state standard—is itself censorship. Outfitting the arbiter in the slacks of a "decent," "diverse," or even "public-interested" type o' guy simply makes a fashion statement.

But in Washington style counts. Imagine, if you will, the command performance of Boork, the two-headed Samoan tenor/bass (he's a duet) who is a magnificent Witness for the Lord, buck naked. He charms and thrills his audience; he bedazzles with poetry, amuses with biting prose, warms with festive song. But…is he decent? Is he diverse? He's bare, and he's Christian, and he's a Pacific Islander, and he's funny, entertaining, and melodic…OK. Let's just take a vote.

And that's all it is, this decency, diversity, standardism. (The granddaddy here is "public interest, convenience, or necessity," the most trusty regulatory standard). If you've got a "standard," then you must appoint a learned committee of Wise Men to oversee the High Purpose for which you've been given public power. The "standard" masks moral/aesthetic judgments otherwise arbitrary and capricious, clothing matters of subjective taste in an official bureaucratic uniform.

When one looks across the spectrum of Washington allocation games, one can observe the regularity with which select classes of grantors and grantees become wedded to each other and then jointly attached to the spigots of the public finance system. In arts funding, a safe haven from all retrograde influences has been found under the "diversity" code, but the output is anything but diverse (except in a purely token, skin color/ gender sense, which assists the paperwork tremendously). The true purpose of the standard is clear: Plying a scheme that gives your friends and political allies hundreds of millions of dollars makes you a very big man on whichever campus your uncle chooses to endow.

But the panache with which the sophisticates trash the selectively decent Moral Majoritarians, without so much as a squint at the spotlight glaring on their own selective diversity, merely indicates the lure of lucre, the magnetism with which federal funds separate men from truth. They are perfectly right to abandon any sort of a decency test.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics at the University of California, Davis. This year he is a visiting scholar at Columbia University.