The land of the free-thinker?

Among the institutions starved of funds by the budget proposed by House of Representatives Republicans is the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration – the agency responsible for tsunami alerts and hurricane predictions. Nice timing. But then any agency faintly smelling of government paternalism is fair game for a campaign that takes as its targets anything not cherished by business and the market, those same forces that have lately served us with such crackerjack competence and disinterest.

On Thursday a vote was taken to block any federal funding for National Public Radio. The pretext is spartan fiscal retrenchment but the $420m supplied by the budget to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio is peanuts beside the real big spenders that weigh stonily on American indebtedness: entitlement programmes like Medicare.

But this act of small-minded cultural vindictiveness isn’t about dollars and cents; it’s about purging the United States of “elite” institutions that have dared to impose themselves on the commonwealth of commerce in the name of public interest; the equation of civism with Marxism. Other pariah institutions include the Environmental Protection Agency that has been forbidden in a House vote from restricting carbon emissions. But the hottest air has been directed at the infamy by which taxpayer dollars have gone to what is deemed to be the propaganda arm of an enemy occupation: liberalism’s conspiracy to indoctrinate Middle America. NPR, says one eager blogger responding to the proposed ending of taxpayer support, should be called “National Pinko Radio”.

If some of you are scratching your heads trying to square this notion of American Agitprop with programmes the likes of Prairie Home Companion and Sesame Street, it’s just because you have been brainwashed by such sinister creatures of state power as the BBC. To anti-public broadcasting zealots like Roger Ailes, the President of Fox News, NPR showed itself to be “Nazi” (his word) when it fired a commentator, Juan Williams, for declaring on air that the mere sight of people dressed in “Muslim garb” on a plane made him “uneasy”. Ailes later apologised to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League for his equation of the exterminators of six million with an NPR sacking, but refused to moderate anything he’d said about the company.

To be sure, those running NPR and the CPB don’t always help their own cause. An NPR executive was caught on secret videocam declaring that members of the Tea Party were crazed evangelicals not wholly unstained by race prejudice, and was pounced on as further evidence of the NPR Plot Against America. The heads of both the foolishly unguarded exec and his unfortunate boss were plattered in short order. But it’s the Thing Itself that the holy warriors of Republican fundamentalism want to zero fund: the baleful legacy of New Deal liberalism. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting – the agency that tops up funding primarily to the hundreds of local public radio and television stations around the country – was the creation of the Lyndon Johnson years and so, to the righteous right, is indelibly stained with what they imagine to be the creeping socialism of that epoch.

Obama’s budget actually proposed a small increase to the funding of the CPB; a gesture of his belief in its educational remit which may well get sacrificed. National Public Radio; its local affiliates, and Public Television, which only get between 10 and 15 per cent of their funding from federal sources (the rest is from corporate and other sponsorship and membership fund drives), will survive the onslaught. But when every day brings news of another revolution, civil war or cataclysm, and America needs all the independent, first-hand news it can get, commercial networks have stripped down their foreign reporting to next to nothing.

Understanding the rest of the world, however, is not a priority for the American right. It would rather live in the echo chamber of unexamined chauvinism. What sells on the radio airwaves is the adamant cant of the righteously uninformed. The initial response of the most sanctimonious of the Fox News boomers, Glenn Beck, was to declare the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to be a “message from God”. But then, as the great historian Richard Hofstadter showed in his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, politicians have often deferred to the revelations of the hot heart rather than the cool reasoning of the mind. Thus it doesn’t seem a stretch to see the crusade against “liberal elites” as targeting the presumptions of empirically acquired knowledge itself – and public broadcasting, with its disinterested commitment to informing the public free of the pressures of the marketplace, is by virtue of that very fact demonised as alien to the American way of life.

Not all, not even a majority of Americans, share that view. Local public TV and radio stations are more woven into the fabric of heartland life than the crusaders imagine. But the curse of public media is its habitual decorousness of utterance, and if it wants to survive this present frontal assault it had better speak up for the common weal of opinion and do so with the robust self-belief that its noble cause deserves. Articulate truth will win. Or so Thomas Jefferson, that old deist, thought. And even the Tea Party professes to love him.

Peter Aspden is away

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