President Obama appears to believe that civil society ought not to be truly independent of government. His latest effort in this direction is his recent phone call lobbying the arts community to use their talents to help the President and his party pass health care legislation. It is similar to his call to America's Rabbis to use their pulpits to lobby for the same legislation. (And his reaction agaist civil soceity in action at the town halls might reflect the same beliefs. Community organizing ought not to be done independently, and the middle class ought not to be asserting its own ideas an interests Only ogranizing on behalf of the Progressive agenda is letitimate). This effort is unprecedented:
As a former National Endowment for the Humanities official told me, "Nowhere, as far as I know, has there been even the suspicion that federal agencies under any administration have been enlisted by the administration to further specific legislation or legislative goals. And that's what happened. [They said,] 'We want to make art that will specifically advance Obama's agenda.' "
Given the importance of the US government in funding the arts, this is a big step (The fear of precisely such leverage is one of the main things that leads conservatives to oppose government funding for arts. Once the government pays for something, it will, inevitably, attach strings). Of course, as Michael Lewis notes during the Obama campaign, America's artists became more politicized than they had been in quite some time. As Lewis notes, great art can have a moral agenda, but when it descends to regular partisan politics, it usually turns into kitsch. Presumably, the President thought he could use his following in the arts community to help push his preferred legislation through Congress.
The President here continues a trend that David Billet noted in a recent issue of Commentary by examining President Obama's desire to reduce the tax deduction on charitable contributions. Billet disagrees with this post of mine from last year. I suggested that there is no reason to give wealthy people a tax deduction when they write a large check to Harvard to get their son into the school. Billet notes that altering the status quo for charitable contributions would risk undermining civil society in general. The argument gives me pause, suggesting it would be very difficult to alter the law in one way without changing much else. More to the point, Billet connects this with a larger effort of Lefty groups to use the levers of power to direct civil society. Nothing should simply be free of government control, and free to do whatever it wants in American society, it seems. It must always be pushed to support another agenda:
The most notable campaign against the philanthropic status quo has been waged by the California-based Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit that seeks greater "racial and economic justice" by attempting to force greater minority representation in government, commerce, and higher education, mostly by publicly shaming or suing companies into doing the right thing. (The institute's name is a play on the practice by banks of "redlining" poor neighborhoods as bad credit risks; "most of our money," its director has boasted, comes not from donations but "from lawsuits.")
After a Greenlining study found that a mere 3 percent of private grant money in California went to minority-led causes, the group waged a concerted campaign on behalf of state legislation to require foundations with assets over $250 million to disclose the race, gender, and ethnicity of board members, staff, business contacts, and individual grantees (at one point sexual orientation was also included), and to report the amount and percentage of grants to organizations in which 50 percent or more of board members and staff were minorities.
I suspect that President Obama is sympatetic with that agenda. Any pool of money that can be used to further his agenda, which he regards as the national agenda, ought to be co-opted. In short, the President thinks America is a community of 300,000,000, and he wishes to organize it as if we were a republic the size of ancient Sparta.