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Democratic nations," wrote the ever prescient Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, long ago in 1840, "will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful." What would Tocqueville have thought of today's assaults on the fabric of America's public culture?

The Republican leadership in Congress means to sever all links between American government and American culture. It wants the Federal Government to give no support at all to music, theater, ballet, opera, film, intelligent television, literature, history, archaeology, museum work, architectural conservation and the visual arts. It intends to abolish federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And it wants to do it tomorrow.

This plan isn't economic. Even its proponents have largely given up on the absurd fiction that canceling America's meager $620 million worth of cultural programs will do anything to reduce the present budget deficit of $180 billion. Not when a Senate committee last month approved a pork load for the military of $7 billion more than the Pentagon asked for.

Fiscal discipline? In fact, the project is cultural defoliation--an attempt to destroy "liberal" habitat. If there was any doubt about its momentum, the young velociraptors in Congress--freshman ideologues, mostly, squeaking with Newtish zeal--buried it three weeks ago. These boys and girls aren't even cultural Neanderthals. They're Jurassic. On culture, the limbic forebrain can hold one sound bite at a time, courtesy of Rush Limbaugh or George Will. PBS? "Elitist welfare for the rich." The NEA? "State-subsidized porn." The NEH? "P.c. revisionist history." By a vote of 230 to 194, driven by a rump of dozens of junior members, the House voted to "zero out" all funding for the NEA by October 1997 and phase out the agency in two years. The NEH and CPB are also in peril.

This blitzkrieg reached the Senate last week. The Appropriations Committee sided with the House, voting to cut next year's NEA budget 40%. But there are still plenty of Republican voters (and not a few legislators) who would like to see their local symphony orchestra, town theater or children's art-education program survive, and know that the prospects of their survival are bound up with continuing, if modest, support from the NEA. Though the NEH and CPB will prove much harder to kill, the prospects of the NEA's survival in the long run are dim.

Will this axman's folly put America alone among the nations of the world? Well, not exactly. Little of Haiti's national budget goes to culture. Zaire does not support a national theater, and cultural grants in Rwanda, even for victim art, may be assumed to be fairly small. No documentaries infected by liberal bias get aired on Tehran state television. Saddam Hussein's boys are not straining to underwrite feminist histories of, say, the Marsh Arabs of the Euphrates.

Clearly the American public culture imagined by Newt Gingrich and his fellow ideologues in and out of Congress, including their insatiable Fundamentalist Christian right wing, will not seem strange everywhere in the world.

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