Our text for today is the parable of the parboiled frog. You know it: when a frog is dropped into boiling water, it immediately saves itself by jumping out. But when a frog is dropped into a lukewarm bath and the bath is gradually heated to boiling, the poor thing is lulled to death.
Is it hot in here, or is it just me?
I spoke this week with a woman who runs a wonderful-sounding community arts program in England, part of my research for a writing project. She told me all about her work, answering my many questions about funding and other practical matters. In Britain, as in Europe generally, there is lots of public funding for arts work (although British artists aren’t thrilled with it because it has switched from what they call “revenue funding”—”general operating support” to us—to project funding, which is shorter-term and more competitive). Some of the arts money comes from a national lottery, some from taxpayer funds, some from European Union programs to promote peace in conflicted regions or participation and inclusion of marginalized communities. As with all government programs in all regions of the world, these are highly imperfect, filled with jargon and bureaucracy, and I am sure, honored as often in the breach as in the observance. (What with race riots and hate killings in France, for instance, the Europeans can’t lay claim to every social superiority.)
With all my disclaimers in mind, though, what do you think of what the official Labour Party platform has to say about its cultural policy goals? Here’s a sample:
Equality and inclusion are at the core of our political beliefs. It is right that our cultural policy represents the diversity of all our distinct communities bringing about a situation where true equality of opportunity results in a more equal and just society. The arts and sport can play a crucial role in bridging barriers between different groups and fostering a sense of community cohesion and our ambition is that they continue to do so, innovating and leading from the front. Our black and ethnic minority communities, our lesbian and gay community, older people and those with a disability should all be recognised and celebrated by our cultural policy.
If you need a reality check, this country’s egregious cultural policy has the National Endowment for the Arts focusing on crackpot initiatives like its “Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest,…an exciting new national initiative to help high school students learn about great poetry through memorization, performance, and competition,” and its “Shakespeare in American Communities,…the largest tour of Shakespeare in American history.”
I don’t for a moment doubt the difficulties community artists in Britain face getting bureaucrats and policymakers to see things clearly and invest wisely. But at a certain point in our interview, the woman on the other end of the phone line exclaimed as follows: “We’re in the fairly hideous position with our government now, and the thing is, there are no alternatives. That must be rather like you.”
Well, no. Perhaps it was rather like us when Jimmy Carter was president, or maybe even Bill Clinton. But not really. I was reminded that many Europeans have no clue how tattered the American social contract has become. I remembered being invited to teach in England in the late 1980s, taking part in some of those comparative conversations people use to get acquainted across cultural distances: how do you do that here? Oh, we do it a little differently… I remembered that when we said people in the U.S. sometimes die in ambulances or taxis between hospital emergency rooms, turned away for lack of medical insurance, our new friends thought we were making a sick joke, or at the very least exaggerating for effect. I wonder what they would think of some of the stories we could tell now, twenty years on.
When we compare U.S. policy to the other industrialized countries of the world—almost all of which have a narrower gap between rich and poor, universal healthcare, major investment in education and culture, and much, much more—it becomes obvious that we have allowed ourselves to become fricaseed frogs. It’s just that our national p.r. has been coated so thickly in lashings of America’s reputation as the world’s wealthiest nation, the rest of the world can’t see through to the truth—and neither can we.
Again, I have no special brief for the Labour Party, especially given Prime Minister Tony Blair’s penchant for carrying water for George Bush. Nor do I think political parties’ words necessarily prefigure their deeds. Still, you can cool off a little by checking out the policy platform—the social provision that is deemed essential to civil society—of Britain’s equivalent of our oh so debased Democratic Party. Consider how what looks “hideous” in its inadequacy to our counterparts abroad looks like a miracle of kindness to us.
It is getting awfully hot in here and no, it’s not just me.