Robert MacNeil and The Cudgel of Culture

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007; C01

Last year when Americans for the Arts gathered here for their annual lobbying confab and the rah-rah speech to the faithful known as the Nancy Hanks Lecture, the guest of honor was William Safire, a self-described conservative curmudgeon. What a difference a year makes.

With congressional power shifted to the Democrats and star-studded hearings on the role of the arts in America scheduled for today, the chairs of the various subcommittees and caucuses that can send a little love in the arts' direction received lusty ovations. And the guest of honor was Robert MacNeil, the journalist, who gave a bold and perhaps even controversial speech that included sustained criticism of religious fundamentalism.

Speaking to about 1,000 of the fervent at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, MacNeil lamented the influence of fundamentalism on science education, individual freedoms and the larger public dialogue about the hot-button moral and political issues of the day. Since he left PBS's "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" in 1995, MacNeil has been chairman of the board of the MacDowell Colony, a tony artists' retreat in New Hampshire. And so, no surprise, he leapt to the defense of artists, in particular, from the influence of fundamentalism and the perils of the culture wars.

"It is inevitable that artists should become the targets of such fundamentalist anxieties," he said. "Because it is in the nature of artists to push the frontiers of taste and morality, to show society both its pieties and its hypocrisies."

Twenty-five years ago that would have been the boilerplate viewpoint you'd expect to hear at an annual arts promotion fest. But many people who support the arts, and alas many artists themselves, have learned the painful lessons of the debates over obscenity that savaged the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s: Don't emphasize controversy. Look useful. Talk up the education angle.

Not MacNeil. His talk began with some biographical data (he worked his way through college as an actor and wanted to be a playwright) and some obligatory "my debt to art" talk. But he quickly turned his attention to what he called "the swing to Puritanism" that "gained energy when political consultants and lobbying organizations discovered the catnip (and the fundraising power) of pandering to those who could be persuaded that art is decadent, or immoral, or homosexual, and destructive of finer values."

And he argued that the importance of real creative freedom in the arts has never been more important, given this country's ideological battle with violent, fundamentalist Islam. He even went so far as to compare Islamic fundamentalism with Jewish and Christian fundamentalism.

"I am not for a moment suggesting that our fundamentalists harbor any violent intentions," he said, "but the initial psychology is similar to that which inspires Islamic reformers."

There was a little history -- a short disquisition on the differences (Islam never had a "Reformation" comparable to that in 16th-century Europe) -- and a poli-sci nod to the importance of the Enlightenment, when it came to uncoupling state and religious power. And it all built to a peroration borrowed from John F. Kennedy, "We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient" -- with "omniscient" pronounced with voluptuous attention to all four syllables.

As catnip goes, this is pretty nippy for the arts crowd, who gave it a standing ovation.

There are a few problems, however. Despite MacNeil's connection of art, and artistic freedom, to the war of ideas behind the so-called war on terror, it's not exactly clear what art is supposed to do.

"I think art can be an important weapon in the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism," MacNeil said. But how? And what kind of art?

The speech included a call for more "soft power," more diplomacy, more exchange of art. But much of the art that matters, the art that challenges "taste and morality," and the art that the MacDowell Colony should be supporting, is art that won't win hearts and minds in most Muslim countries. If you argue that art is important in the war of ideas, you have to find relatively anodyne art if you're struggling against deeply conservative and traditional societies.

So you pick the safe stuff, perhaps some Gershwin (MacNeil is a big fan), or Shakespeare (he credits an encounter with Laurence Olivier's film of "Hamlet" as transformational). But alas, you're still at a loss with what to do with all the art that takes most advantage of those difficult freedoms you cherish.

You can't win the war of ideas in the Clash of Civilizations with Robert Mapplethorpe photos, an obvious observation that the conservative scholar Dinesh D'Souza elaborated upon at book length in his scabrous attack on American liberals, "The Enemy at Home," which is subtitled "The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11." Unless, of course, you view art not as propaganda for your values, carefully packaged for foreign audiences, but rather as a form of moral reformation within your own society. Artistic freedom isn't important as an example to other people, it's essential as a goad to American conscience.

It was, perhaps, courageous of MacNeil to speak so bluntly, to an essentially liberal audience, about the threat he sees in fundamentalist Islam.

But there was something missing in this line of thinking: An acknowledgment of the extent to which the war on terror has corrupted American culture, so that we live mostly untroubled by the knowledge that we are a nation that tortures, imprisons people with little recourse to law or justice, and prosecutes optional and preemptive wars. MacNeil's defense of artistic freedom was stirring. But like the proverbial physician, we need to heal ourselves.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company