In “President Trump vs. Big Bird” Mr. Kristof says that to value the humanities and the arts isn’t wimpish or elitist. It’s civilized. Which is what Mein Fubar and his cronies aren’t. Ms. Collins says “Trump Remembers the Ladies” and considers a celebration for Women’s History Month in an administration where women are rare. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
So what if President Trump wants to deport Big Bird?
We’re struggling with terrorism, refugees, addiction, and grizzlies besieging schools. Isn’t it snobbish to fuss over Trump’s plans to eliminate all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?
Let me argue the reverse: Perhaps Trump’s election is actually a reminder that we need the humanities more than ever to counter nationalism and demagoguery.
Civilization is built not just on microchips, but also on arts, ideas and the humanities. And the arts are a bargain: The N.E.A. budget is $148 million a year, or less than 0.004 percent of the federal budget. The per-capita cost for Americans is roughly the cost of a postage stamp.
The humanities may seem squishy and irrelevant. We have a new president who doesn’t read books and who celebrates raw power. It would be easy to interpret Trump as proof of the irrelevance of the humanities.
Yet the humanities are far more powerful than most people believe. The world has been transformed over the last 250 years by what might be called a revolution of empathy driven by the humanities. Previously, almost everyone (except Quakers) accepted slavery and even genocide. Thomas Jefferson justified the “extermination” of Native Americans; whippings continued in American prisons in the 20th century; and at least 15,000 people turned up to watch the last public hanging in the United States, in 1936.
What tamed us was, in part, books. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” famously contributed to the abolitionist movement, and “Black Beauty” helped change the way we treat animals. Steven Pinker of Harvard argues that a surge of literacy and an explosion of reading — novels in particular — “contributed to the humanitarian revolution,” by helping people see other viewpoints. There is also modern experimental evidence that reading literary fiction promotes empathy.
The humanities have even reshaped our diet. In 1971, a few philosophy students, including an Australian named Peter Singer, gathered on a street in Oxford, England, to protest the sale of eggs from hens raised in small cages. This was an unknown issue back then, and passers-by smiled at the students’ idealism but told them they’d never change the food industry.
Looking back, who was naïve? Today, keeping hens in small cages is illegal in Britain, in the rest of the European Union and in parts of the United States. McDonald’s, Burger King, General Mills and Walmart are all moving toward exclusively cage-free eggs, because consumers demanded it.
Singer, now a Princeton University professor, is a wisp of a man who defeated an agribusiness army with the power of his ideas and the muscle of the humanities. (Singer has a terrific recent book, “Ethics in the Real World,” that wrestles with how much we should donate to charity, and whether wearing a $10,000 watch is a sign of good taste, or of shallow narcissism.)
In short, the humanities encourage us to reflect on what is important, to set priorities. For example, do we get more value as taxpayers from Big Bird and art or music programs, or from the roughly $30 million Trump’s trips to his Mar-a-Lago golf resort will cost us when he’s tallied nine visits in office (he’s already more than halfway there)? That’s also more than the cost of salaries and expenses to run the National Endowment for the Humanities, not including the grants it hands out.
Do we get more value from billions of dollars spent on deportations? Or from tiny sums to support art therapy for wounded veterans?
Then there’s our favorite bird. The Onion humor website reported: “Gaunt, Hollow-Eyed Big Bird Enters Sixth Day Of Hunger Strike Against Proposed Trump Budget.” In fact, Big Bird will survive, but some local public television stations will close without federal support — meaning that children in some parts of the country may not be able to see “Sesame Street” on their local channel.
In 2017, with the world a mess, I’d say we need not only drones but also Big Bird, and poetry and philosophy. Indeed, our new defense secretary, Jim Mattis, apparently shares that view: He carried Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” to Iraq with him.
It’d be nice to see Mattis drop off “Meditations” for the new commander in chief. And maybe present the first lady a copy of “Lysistrata.”
Look, I know it sounds elitist to hail the humanities. But I’ve seen people die for ideas. At Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, I watched protesters sacrifice their lives for democracy. In Congo, I saw a tiny Polish nun stand up to a warlord because of her faith and values.
The humanities do not immunize a society from cruelty and overreaction; early-20th-century Germany proves that. But on balance, the arts humanize us and promote empathy. We need that now more than ever.
Now here’s Ms. Collins:
Women’s History Month is coming to an end. Donald Trump must be absolutely exhausted.
“… the White House has been hosting events all throughout March,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters, launching into a list of activities that culminated Wednesday in a visit by the president to a special Women’s Empowerment Panel. The administration regarded this gathering as so important that it featured every single female cabinet member.
Yes! All four!
Actually, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao couldn’t come, so they substituted Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “My cabinet is full of really incredible women leaders,” the president said, looking at the quartet.
There are 24 people in the cabinet. This is one of the reasons that pictures of White House decision-making resemble a meeting of the Freemasons.
Besides Chao, the cabinet women include Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations, and Linda McMahon, head of the Small Business Administration. While everybody wants to encourage small business and at least some of us want to encourage the U.N., neither of those would be regarded as exactly superpower positions.
The final slot, secretary of education, belongs to Betsy DeVos, whose confirmation hearing was highlighted by the discovery that she didn’t know about the rights of disabled students.
“I’m so proud,” the president beamed. He then set off on a quick march through women’s history, with shout-outs to Susan B. Anthony (“Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?”), Harriet Tubman and “the legendary Abigail Adams.”
Trump referred to Abigail’s famous letter asking John Adams to “remember the ladies” when writing the new country’s laws. He did not mention her husband’s response, which was, “I cannot but laugh.”
The theme for the White House women’s celebrations appears to be Failure to Appreciate Irony. On the one hand, multiple panels on women in business and families. Meanwhile, over on the nonsymbolic side, a passionate push for a bill that would have sent women’s health care costs through the roof.
“Really? Take away maternity care? … Who do these people talk to?” Hillary Clinton asked, somewhat rhetorically. This was during a speech to California businesswomen that marked the return of the feisty, political Clinton who spent a year warning people what would happen if they made Donald Trump president. Welcome back, Hillary.
Given the shortage of cabinet members, female Trumps have been called into play for the administration’s version of March Madness. Melania Trump gave a talk honoring the State Department’s International Women of Courage award winners, two of them from countries the president wants to include in his immigration ban. She also showed up for the four-women-in-the-cabinet panel. “Melania said, ‘This is something I just have to be at.’ She feels so strongly about it,” said her husband.
We are leaving the first lady alone. Presidential relatives who don’t mess in politics are off bounds.
Relatives with a West Wing office and security clearance are, however, fair game. Whenever the White House is trying to manufacture feminist credentials, Ivanka gets hauled out as Exhibit 1.
She’s certainly all over the place. Hosting a round table of women business owners. Sitting next to Angela Merkel to discuss vocational training. Sitting at Dad’s desk for a photo op during a visit by the Canadian prime minister.
“A great discussion with two world leaders about the importance of women having a seat at the table!” she tweeted. “That’s not a woman in power,” retorted comedian Trevor Noah. “It’s Take Your Daughter to Work Day.”
To be fair, Ivanka has been pushing Congress for a big child care tax deduction. It’s a laudable concept, except for the part about being unlikely to pass and giving most of the benefit to families that need it the least.
But she’s dropped all pretense of trying to get her father to support reproductive rights. After his health care defeat the president sneered at the right-wing House Freedom Caucus for having “saved Planned Parenthood.”
This was a guy, you’ll remember, who used to praise Planned Parenthood for its work promoting women’s health. Now he’s got no problem driving it into the ground. And in lieu of abortion rights, there’s been no attempt to expand women’s access to contraception.
Meanwhile, the White House was promoting its women’s history celebrations as being all about empowerment. It was, Spicer claimed, a longstanding presidential obsession — Trump had “made women’s empowerment a priority throughout the campaign.”
Well, there were those apologies for having bragged about being able to grab women by their private parts.
“Nice try, Sean,” retorted Emily’s List, recalling stories from that campaign of yore, including estimates that Trump paid men on his campaign staff one-third more than women.
Whoops, back to irony. Susan B. Anthony would be appalled. Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony? Elizabeth Cady Stanton? If they were around today, you know who they’d be picketing.