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We Can't Cut the NEH, New York Times Columnist Says, Because Books Are Important

Nicholas Kristof conflates the fate of federal subsidies with the fate of the humanities.

Ontario Heritage TrustOntario Heritage TrustLast 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."

Sesame WorkshopSesame WorkshopWhich 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.

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  • A Cynic's Guide to Zen||

    "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."

    Ask them what?

  • Social Darwinist||

    No better way to make the case for books being important than to use a television character as an example.

  • Not a True MJG||

    Children were stuck being underdeveloped 'tards until Sesame Street and preschool came along.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    Sesame Street and preschool started the obesity epidemic.

  • Social Darwinist||

    No better way to make the case for books being important than using a television character as an example.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Kristof manages to bring it all together in his conclusion. Well, not really.

    It's like reading a play-by-play account written by a guy as he's having a stroke.

  • Not a True MJG||

    This is embarrassing.

    "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."

    Of course, the personal qualities of the president must be a reflection of the attitude of the people in general.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Everything within the State, nothing outside the State. So saieth a man whose fortunes rise or fall upon his punditious influence with the State.

  • A Cynic's Guide to Zen||

    Dude, I made some killer Alfredo Mussolini last night! With mushrooms!

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Mushrooms, the most fascist of edibles.

  • Brandybuck||

    I visited a mushroom farm once. You literally do keep them in the dark and feed them bullshit.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I'm going to need to get that recipe from you, comrade. Or else.

  • CooterBrown||

    It is sad that our president is a barely literate retard. But he was elected as an eff you to the establishment. And he won the primary because he was smart enough to see that you only win that by being meaner to Mexicans than the other guys.

  • ||

    It is sad that our president is a barely literate retard.

    "For millenia, a key measure of a nation's greatness has been it's ability to be successfully lead by barely literate retards."

  • Schizoidman_21||

    He writes books though. Don't I remember hearing endlessly about Obama's biographical fantasies...that is, books?

  • Longtobefree||

    If the federal government doesn't do it, it does not really exist. Is that a fair summary of his babbling?

  • Robert||

    Yes! The NEH went into libraries & planted antiqued copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin with old dates on them, then planted references to it in various other books. It's the conservative principle in art.

  • Robert||

    Well, not all the libraries, of course; just the ones Kristof & his friends would visit.

  • Robert||

    Hey, it worked on Henry Lincoln, didn't it? (See Holy Blood, Holy Grail.)

  • WC Varones||

    Government media is neat!

  • BYODB||

    What really kills me are all of the advertisements that have suddenly popped up from outlets like PBS practically begging the public not to cut their budget. All I can think about while watching those commercials is 'hey, my tax dollars paid for this advertisement instead of their core mission'.

    If I were a donor for PBS I would instantly stop donating for something so crass, but since it's the government everyone just seems to smile as they waste tax dollars in defense of their budget to the public.

    The most telling part is where they aren't even advertising to ask for more private donations. /facepalm

  • Paper Wasp||

    My local PBS affiliate runs next to nothing anymore but infomercials designed to appeal to olds: various spiritual quacks and patent-medicine pushers, CD collections of pop hits from the '50s and '60s, old Suzy Orman shit. At least they finally stopped hawking the ridiculous Rich Dad/Poor Dad property-flipper infomercials. It's all brought to you with frequent beg-a-thon breaks featuring local hostess Paula Nemzek, a dugong dressed in women's clothing. There's virtually no local programming, and the rest of the time, it's melodramas from the BBC on Masterpiece.

    I emailed them once after one of Kiyosaki's shitfests to tell them there's no reason for me to ever donate to them. Why would I support a bunch of infomercials? Why would I pay to support a Kiyosaki property-flipping scam? Dugong herself responded to me, and told me the infomercials generate tons of donations, while the more "redeeming" stuff doesn't. She snottily said that my assessment of Kiyosaki's property-flipper bullshit was "just one opinion." Oh, OK. That's high-quality TV, then. My bad. Stopped watching.

    I've seen local programming and better things on other PBS affiliates, when I'm traveling. But still, if they can make money from bluehairs by hawking a bunch of garbage, they don't need public funds.

  • ||

    Why do you hate Ken Burns?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    'Cause of his pumpkin pie haircut.

  • Paper Wasp||

    Because watching him is like watching Martin Short doing Katharine Hepburn and Ed Grimley at the same time.

  • ||

    "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."

    That is not only not right, it's not even wrong. Pay no attention to the association between aristocracy, income inequality, and 'arts appreciation'.

  • GILMORE™||

    '''....every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."


    ― Frédéric Bastiat, The Law

  • Necron 99||

    Came here to post that. Proggies haven't changed in the last 168 years, why start now?

    Long live Frédéric Bastiat!

  • Necron 99||

    Came here to say that, then the squirrels ate my comment.

    Long live Frédéric Bastiat!

  • Necron 99||

    Fucking comment section squirrels.

  • BYODB||

    This quote is applicable to fully half, if not more, of the arguments put forward by the left. I was thinking it myself as I read the article, thanks for adding it!

  • Number 2||

    How on earth did Bastiat manage to write those words without an NEH/NEA grants?

  • Bob Armstrong||

    Would those words have survived with an NEH/NEA ?

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Excellent and totally appropriate Gilmore, thanks. It is their playbook.

    I used to live in a town in Ohio that would continually place taxes for education expansion on the local ballot until they eventually won. If anyone was opposed a bunch of kids would show up at their door, with their minders of course, and ask why they didn't value their education. Point was if you questioned the 36 million dollar proposed budget for a new high school, you must be anti child and anti education. Everyone was assured this was the right plan for the right amount of money to take care of all educational needs for the community for the foreseeable future.

    The school was built about 15 years ago, and have recently heard that it not sufficient and has to be added to, so another special election for another property tax.

  • Paper Wasp||

    I got that treatment at a barbecue when I said I was voting down the school levy, as I usually do. "But the school is OOOOLLLD! It's 15 years old!"

    "I went to high school in a building that was built 70 years before I started there. Most of my college major courses were in one building that was over 100 years old when I attended. I think you can still actually learn in an older building. *wink*"

    Fire department, same story. They came around collecting signatures for a bond measure for new stations. I said, "The stations around here are barely ten years old. The one serving my own district was built five years ago."

    "Yabbut NEW TECH blah blah high-quality service blah blah--"

    "Have you ever been to NYC or Boston? They have fire stations there that are over 100 years old. They still manage to put out fires. Bye." Always vote that shit down.

  • MarkLastname||

    Alternatively, I would point out that when you give someone $10 million to build you a house and then all they do is build you a shed, the sensible response isn't to conclude 'hmm, I guess I should've given him 20 million.' it's to ask what he did with the other 9.95 million.

    Almost invariably, school districts have more than enough money. If their facilities are poor, it's almost certainly because they're mis-spending it.

  • Bra Ket||

    "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."

    But what question did he ax them?

  • A Cynic's Guide to Zen||

    Poseur.

  • dschwar||

    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."

    I was going to rip on Kristof for being unaware that Sesame Street has moved to HBO. However, it is possible HBO is just making new episodes and all the old ones remain with PBS.

  • wareagle||

    you could further rip him for ignoring that Sesame Street is a mega-million dollar corporation perfectly capable of existing off of the public tit. God, these people are insufferable.

  • Not a True MJG||

    HBO gets first dibs on new episodes. PBS airs them nine months later.

    The deal saved Sesame Workshop and allows them to produce twice as much content, but people still bitch about it.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    All the new HBO episodes will air on PBS as well. Basically, the HBO deal just means more episodes of Sesame Street per season, and kids with HBO will get to watch them a little bit sooner.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    PBS is still going to air the HBO episodes.

  • Radioactive||

    Axe them? Cool off with their frickin heads!

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    "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."

    Two upcoming military projects:

    A new drone model dubbed Project Big Bird.
    A new stealth drone that evades detection by being covered with yarn.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    "Big Bird" was my nickname in college.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Did your jaundice eventually clear up?

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    I was called "Big Bird" because "bird" is a euphemism for penis, and I have a large penis. I also have a distinct way of walking, which is most likely caused by the large penis.

  • ||

    I was called "Big Bird" because "bird" is a euphemism for penis, and I have a large penis.

    I'm pretty sure throughout the English-speaking world, that birds are euphemistic for females and that if either character were to be a euphemism for a well-endowed man, Snuffy would be it.

  • Zeb||

    Is "bird" referring to women much of a thing outside of Britain?

  • ||

    I'd always understood 'the birds and the bees' as being 'bees pollinate flowers' and 'birds lay eggs'.

  • Zeb||

    I thought the "birds and bees" thing was more about using things kids already know about nature to introduce them to the idea of sexuality rather than an extended metaphor for reproductive biology.

  • ||

    Also, chicks are birds.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    I was called "Big Bird," because "bird" is a euphemism for penis, and I have a large penis. I also have a distinct way of walking, which is most likely caused by the large penis.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    More like Big Squirrel, am i right?

  • Adans smith||

    I didn't know Uncle Tom's Cabin was funded by taxpayers. he needs to read 1984 and Animal Farm .

  • Robert||

    Uncle Tom should definitely read those.

  • steve walsh||

    It's really sad how the humanities, art, literature, etc. have ceased to exist in the three weeks since POTUS released his budget cutting government funding of same. Sad. Really, really, sad.

  • Brian||

    Books are very important. Where would we be today, without Atlas Shrugged? I'm sure he's asking himself that.

  • Robert||

    Look at all these things that can be considered "humanities". Some of them are very good. There's a federally funded National Endowment for the Humanities. ... Profit!

  • Rhywun||

    Do kids even watch Sesame Street anymore? It can't be nearly the "cultural institution" it was when Gen X and before were growing up.

  • A Cynic's Guide to Zen||

    I think children would be more inclined to be YouTube consumers and the like. I mean, there's Nielson kids (who don't actually exist) and actual kids; I'd bet your answer lies in the Google AdSense metrics.

  • Rhywun||

    I think children would be more inclined to be YouTube consumers

    We are so screwed.

  • A Cynic's Guide to Zen||

    Hell, if you thought the Boomer's parents fucked up....

  • Delius||

    My children rarely did, and that was more than a decade ago (they are 19 and 17 now). There was much better programming available even then. Sesame Street is the Sears of children's programming -- still there, and sorta has some of the things that you want, but going in feels like stepping back into a different age.

  • Voros McCracken||

    The continued conflation of the teams "need" and "want" into one catch-all term continues.

  • DenverJ||

    "weed" or "nant"

  • Brandybuck||

    I majored in literature. Of all the great classics I have read over the years, hundreds, it's very very hard to pin any down that were government funded. But what the fuck do I know, my betters keep telling me only the government can't fund culture.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    When you point that out to the proggies, they retreat to their fallback position: the federal money is "seed money".

  • Number 2||

    Come now! You're telling me that Homer, Shakespeare, Botticelli, Beethoven, Bach, and the cavemen who drew animal figures on the wall did not have NEA or NEH grants? Please now...

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    The first four had royal patronage, the 5th had the Lutheran Church, and the cave man had quarters of mammoth voluntarily brought to his dwelling while he was painting. But no grants. And yet art flourished because those with means and interest paid someone to produce what they wanted.

    Lesson for our times?

  • Zeb||

    Is royal or church patronage really terribly different from government grants? The church and nobility didn't exactly get all their money through voluntary donations or honest exchange.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    ATTN REASON.ORG:

    You have squirrels are they are eating comments. Can you please fix this problem???

  • Kevin47||

    Peter Singer is an Australian who literally supports euthanizing babies. But yeah, he taught us empathy for chickens, and so we should fund Elmo.

  • ||

    "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....

    I don't know Pinker's politics but I am wondering how an Ivy League professor can pontificate on the importance of seeing other viewpoints without fearing for his life.

  • ||

    Kristof seems to think emotion equals logic.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: We Can't Cut the NEH, New York Times Columnist Says, Because Books Are Important
    Nicholas Kristof conflates the fate of federal subsidies with the fate of the humanities.

    Well, here's a question.
    If the humanities are so important, then why doesn't Kristof, Robert Redford, Mike Huckabee, and Norman Ornstein give a few millions out of their own pockets to the NEA, NEH, and CPB so the taxpayers wouldn't be burdened with subsidizing such wonderful and enlightening entities?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Kristof seems to think

    I'm'a stop you right there.

  • Anti_Govt_Rebel||

    Yes. To repeat Sullum, just because something is a good idea doesn't mean Washington has to do it.

    By the way, Kristoff says we need both drones and Big Bird. With regard to drones, if Washington wasn't obsessed with committing mass murder in other countries, "we" would not need the drones.

  • Len Bias||

    Kristof can't honestly believe this, he just wants to scare people into belie being that the dark ages are around the corner.

  • Len Bias||

    *believe

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