Last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof joined Robert Redford, Mike Huckabee, and Norman Ornstein in conflating the humanities with federal subsidies for the humanities. Kristof assumes that those of us who think we could muddle through without the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) must not understand the importance of books. He therefore sets out to educate us.
"The humanities may seem squishy and irrelevant," Kristof writes. "We have a new president who doesn't read books and who celebrates raw power. It would be easy to interpret Trump as evidence of the irrelevance of the humanities. Yet the humanities are far more important than most people believe."
Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance, "famously contributed to the abolitionist movement," while Black Beauty "helped change the way we think about animals." In fact, "Steven Pinker of Harvard argues that a surge of literacy and an explosion of reading—novels in particular—'contributed to the humanitarian revolution' by helping people see other viewpoints." You may be wondering how Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, and Black Beauty, published in 1877, could have been supported by grants from the NEH, which was established in 1965, or why such wildly successful bestsellers (or any of the other novels that people willingly bought during the "explosion of reading") would have needed taxpayer support even if it were available.
If Kristof's argument is hard to follow when he talks about influential novels, it is downright incomprehensible when he turns to Australian philosopher Peter Singer's impact on chicken welfare, a subject to which he devotes three paragraphs. His point, Kristof says, is that "the humanities encourage us to reflect on what is important, to set priorities."
Which brings us to Big Bird. Kristof concedes the giant yellow muppet "will survive" even without the CPB. Still, he worries that "some local public television stations will close without federal support—meaning that children in some parts of the country may not be able to see 'Sesame Street' on their local channel." That does not seem like much of a loss, since about 94 percent of U.S. households have access to such programming through pay TV or streaming video, and children also can watch Sesame Street at the PBS Kids website.
Lest you think that Kristof "sounds elitist" when he talks about the importance of Big Bird, he wants you to know that "I've seen people die for ideas," including the Tiananmen Square protesters who in 1989 "sacrifice[d] their lives for democracy." What that has to do with the merits of federal funding for the CPB is anyone's guess. Kristof seems to be invoking dead dissidents in the name of keeping Sesame Street available on all of the local channels where it currently can be seen.
Kristof manages to bring it all together in his conclusion. Well, not really. "In 2017, with the world a mess, I'd say we need not only drones but also Big Bird, and poetry and philosophy," he says. "The arts humanize us and promote empathy. We need that now more than ever."
Kristof implies what Ornstein said explicitly: "For millenia, a key measure of a nation's greatness has been appreciation for culture—music, art, dance, theater. Ax NEA, NEH,we lose that." In other words, if you're against the NEA, you're against the arts, and if you want to eliminate the NEH, you want to eliminate the humanities. Never mind that grants from those agencies represent a drop in the bucket of total funding for the arts and humanities.
By the same logic, you oppose education if you oppose the Department of Education, and you oppose shelter if you oppose the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For Ornstein and Kristof, there is no difference between valuing something and insisting that the federal government force other people to pay for it—an attitude that is far more fiscally consequential than the programs they happen to be defending right now.