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The Real Ruckus over Budget's 'Cowboy Poets'? The GOP Hates Funding Art

Friday, April 15, 2011 - 11:58 AM

There are times when Democrats and Republicans both appear as caricatures and feed their stereotypes. This was on display when Sen. Harry Reid appeared every bit the liberal goofball by invoking "cowboy poetry" as a potential victim of the GOP's brutal budget. And even more so, when conservatives acted like cartoon villains by picking a schoolyard fight against art.

That's right: To take a break from crusading against women's health, the Republican Party returned to its long-time feud with American culture, demonizing the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. From Palin to Limbaugh to Pence, GOP royalty took turns beating up Big Sky Country and our cowboy heritage.

Conservative icons John Wayne and Ronald Reagan - both of whom are honored with statues at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City - must be rolling in their graves.

Conservatives didn't mean to wage a war on cowboys; It was really a brawl with Harry Reid who, in defense of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, gave an example of a homestate cultural event that had relied on federal funding to get rolling - the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Harry, you couldn't have said "Western Folklife Center?" Nobody would have balked. But even those of us who carried poems in our pockets for yesterday's "Poem In Your Pocket Day," those of us who believe in the value of oral history and support projects like StoryCorps, those of us who have founded and run arts organizations (full disclosure: The Tank, a non-profit presenter of new work by emerging artists, and of which I am a founding director, has received a grant from the NEA in the past)… even we have to admit that "cowboy poetry" sounds a little funny.

That's not to say it isn't real and isn't valuable. But Senator Reid delivered the right-wing exactly the prompt they needed to attack the arts. It's not as controversial as the work of Robert Mapplethorpe which Jesse Helms used as his launching pad to attack the NEA. And it won't have the staying power of the "Bridge to Nowhere," which continues to dog Republican Senators and a certain possible Presidential candidate from Alaska. But "cowboy poetry" does seem like a prompt for a satiric New Yorker cartoon.

Now that we're done chuckling at Democrats, let's really look at what the Republicans are doing here: The one-two punch of distraction and destruction, which is their signature move. This annual gathering brings 6,000 people to a town with a population of 17,000, which has enormous, positive economic impact on the city. Are Republicans against culture because it contributes economically?

The festival is largely funded by ticket sales; the amount it gets in support is slight. But numbers have never stopped the Tea Party Express. The NEA's total budget is no more than a rounding error in our national expenditures. Defunding it won't balance our budget. It will, however, reveal something about our values.

Conservatives don't hate cowboys; They just hate the idea that our government would help fund art. I'm not going to claim conservatives hate art altogether, but they don't want us supporting it with taxpayer dollars. The greatest civilizations in history have celebrated culture. Thriving economies around the globe invest in their national art institutions. So why not in America?

Leave aside the economic impact for a moment. Leave aside the educational value of programs like Sesame Street (progressive organizations never fail to rally their base defending Big Bird). Leave aside the pride communities feel when they gather at a cultural center or attend a musical performance in honor of their town. And leave aside the efficiency of federal dollars: that minimal public investment leverages a tremendous amount of private support and volunteer energy.

Even all those compelling arguments aside, why would it make more sense that we send unmanned drones operated like video games by remote controls in Virginia to kill people half a world away than it would to encourage 6,000 Americans to come face-to-face and share stories, mark a transforming landscape and strengthen a common identity in Elko, Nevada?

Let's invest more in peaceful gatherings and less in war. Let's invest in developing our culture - and creating jobs, community pride and a national narrative - and divest from the next best killing device. A talking, singing seven-foot yellow bird may sound just as far-fetched as a remote-controlled, armed drone - yet I know which I'd rather support.

And next time Republicans want to make fun of the Western Folklife Center, they shouldn't be allowed to do it in D.C. I'd dare any of one of them to head to Elko and address the 6,000 attendees of the Cowboy Poetry Convention. I promise you those cowboys would educate them about life out west, could best them in a lasso contest… and might even teach them a little something about art.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."

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