Picking Your Side in the Culture War

April 01, 1995|By DANIEL BERGER

There's a culture war, as Pat Buchanan wisely predicted, but people have difficulty determining which side they are on.

A traditionalist view is that culture helps to define nationality. Therefore, it is the business of the state to promote and shape, if not dictate or define it.

Many nations came to be through cultural revival. Late-blooming European nationalisms began largely as language movements. The Irish Republic and France stand out as democracies that make promotion of the national culture the central business of the state.

The creation of the U.S. was followed by linguistic nationalism, associated with Noah Webster and, a century later, H. L. Mencken, both anxious to prove that American language differs from (and is superior to) English. It follows that American letters, music, painting and architecture define national character.

This traditionalist view informs attitudes on several current political questions, as follows:

* Standard American English should be the official language of the country. Foreign languages should not be used for public instruction because the job of schools is to turn children into Americans. It disserves children to delay their mastery of the language of career opportunity.

* Schools should teach cultural as well as ethical values, aiming to turn out cultured Americans. Achievements of black Americans and of women must be emphasized within this framework, not substituted as an alternative to it.

* What further flows from this view is that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Human- ities are weak but essential agencies that need strengthening.

It is quite possible to criticize an endowment grant or broadcasting program as subverting the cultural purpose. The remarkably few transgressions that are endlessly cited emphasize how traditionalist and safe most of the choices have been.

The main effect of the two endowments and corporation has been to decentralize arts away from New York and Hollywood.

They understand only too well the politics of federal support and spread their patronage by congressional district, quietly understanding that some Congress members are more equal than others. They bring culture to Main Street.

In my view, the most important of the lot is National Public Radio and its stations (beneficiaries of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), which bring musical arts, public issues and news to the outbacks and hollows where private enterprise will not carry them. It creates national standards available to all; no other institution does.

National Public Radio is also the one that it would be in my interest to destroy. Some serious news consumers have abandoned newspapers to rely on it, which cannot be said for television. It it died, some would come back.

The opposite view of culture would hold that such values are those of a small elite inflicting its own tastes on others, that any government support is thought control, and that these matters are best left to the marketplace.

This view flows from sociologists of two generations back discovering relativism in values, holding that nothing is better or worse but merely ours or theirs. More recently, this attitude is promulgated within the humanities, in deconstructivist criticism, and in rap lyrics and other outpourings of counter-culture.

Anyone who champions Black English as a legitimate language equal to any other, who denounces Western culture as white male European imperialism, and who demands that Native American philosophy be accorded equality with European philosophy in university studies, should demand the dismantling the endowments and corporation. No one else should.

Anyone who thinks Leonardo da Vinci's art innately superior to the graffiti of the Jones Falls embankments, or that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is intrinsically better than gangsta rap regardless of the age or ancestry of the listener, ought to support establishment culture.

I can understand a nihilist who believes that ''Masterpiece Theatre'' is the arbitrary taste of a wealthy elite that can afford to support it commercially. I cannot understand Newt Gingrich thinking that, in view of other things that he thinks.

Scrapping these institutions might be minuscule deficit reduction, libertarianism or cultural revolution. It would not be conservatism.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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