My husband is driving this noisy16-foot truck filled with his studio materials and tools to our new home in New Mexico. A month ago, we caravanned southeast along this same route: part one of the move, our worldly goods. If I’ve been MIA (and I surely have), that’s why—packing up, moving, unpacking, all the arrangements attendant thereto, and fulfilling my work obligations have consumed months. For the first time in ages, sitting in the passenger seat, I have the mental space to ponder instead of only to plan and execute.
I’m writing from that stretch of I-5 heading south dotted with a legion of wind turbines. They’re completely still today, ranks of stately sentries marching into the distance. They fool you. Varying in size from gigantic to merely large, they make it impossible to know whether they signal distance—perspective—or stature.
Which goes to the heart of what matters most. What kind of society do we want? One in which bigshots control the frame, or a society of equals who happen to be standing in different places?
For me, the thought experiment devised by the moral philosopher John Rawls said it all. If you had to construct social policies without knowing your own position in the resulting society—whether you’d be born among the most privileged or the most deprived of social and economic goods—what would you choose? I think most people would design circumstances that would render each person a not merely tolerable but a good life, even if one were among the society’s worst-off. I’d want a society where anyone could trade places without making life unbearable. Wouldn’t you?
This test points toward fairness and equality of opportunity. In Rawls’ philosophy, in fact, it also allows for differential treatment, but only when it works to the advantage of the worst-off, remedying injustice.
In actuality, of course, we don’t live behind the “veil of ignorance” Rawls proposes for his experiment. Instead, we are likely to be aware of our own privileges (even if we don’t admit it) or the lack thereof, and often we want to keep them regardless of the cost to others. Which is why every spiritual system ever devised proposes the antidote, something very like the Golden Rule, practicing compassion grounded in self-love and empathy.
And that’s why I marvel continuously at the way conventional cultural policymakers find it not only acceptable but laudable to propose and enact policies that consistently privilege the best-off. They treat culture as a kind of Hunger Games, a vast, spectacular competition that rewards a few and leaves the rest wanting.
Today, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (where I have the honor and privilege of serving as Chief Policy Wonk), released An Act of Collective Imagination: The USDAC’s First Two Years of Action Research. (Just enter your information to download your own copy, and please share the link!)
This is the first publication to summarize the USDAC’s work to date, as well as the lessons we’ve learned about translating community members’ visions into powerful ideas and actions. It offers a sample of generative policy ideas, from a Bureau of Cultural Citizenship to Cultural Impact Studies to Rapid Artistic Response in times of crisis. All of them embody and reflect foundational principles of cultural democracy. I want to highlight two of those principles here with quotes from the publication.
First, the principle that policy should reflect the public interest in culture, not be written as an assertion by a special-interest group of its own entitlement:
The public interest in culture is vast, but here in the United States, too many of the containers created to hold it have been inadequate to the task. Instead of engaging great questions of meaning and conviviality, of cultural citizenship and cultural democracy, attention has gone to incidentals. Most domestic cultural policy studies focus on quantification of what is (e.g., audience studies and expenditure analyses) rather than proposing and enacting what could be. The urgent need now is to turn things around, adopting policies and initiatives that embody the public interest in culture.
Second, the principle that policy must be grounded in true public dialogue, reflecting public aims:
One of the USDAC’s foundational principles is to link the local and national, generating a constant flow of information and energy in both directions. We need cultural policy that reflects the true nature of our urgent need for a new story. It must emerge from broad public engagement, grounding it in people’s concerns and aspirations, in lived knowledge rather than abstract or distanced expertise. We need to understand community-envisioned cultural policy as an instrument of community-directed development rather than something imposed on communities.
These should be core principles of all policymaking, not just cultural policy. I’d like to think the cultural policy establishment will see what the USDAC has proposed and the next sound we’ll hear is an avalanche of scales falling from establishment eyes. Instead, I think culture shift will continue to be a gradual process, with communities taking the lead and policymakers following when demand forces them to relinquish privilege in the public interest.
For now, I’m proud to say of the people-powered USDAC taking policymaking into its own hands: it’s a good start. Stay tuned: there will be much more to come, staring with #DareToImagine in 10 days.
Now, only three more hours on the road to the motel. “To Lay Me Down,” says Jerry Garcia.