Promoting Culture: Senator Jeff Sessions and the National Endowment for the Humanities

CatCultureHappens

What role should the humanities play in American civil society? What role should the government play in supporting the humanities as a field of inquiry?

These are the questions Alabama Senator and chair of the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions has brought to light in a recent letter to the National Humanities Endowment. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Sessions sent a letter to the acting chair of the NEH asking her to provide details about the NEH’s funding and peer-review practices.

Mr. Sessions asked for a detailed explanation of the process behind the NEH’s Muslim Journeys grants. “One would think that the NEH takes a fair and balanced approach to promoting culture,” the senator wrote. He asked for “an itemized list,” covering the last five years, “of all spending related to Christianity (e.g., Protestantism—Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal—or Catholicism) or Judaism where books or forums promoting one point of view were provided to libraries, etc.”

Mr. Sessions also asked Ms. Watson “to explain the peer-review process” and provide lists of peer reviewers for all education-program grants disbursed after April 30, 2013. “In the current fiscal environment, I question the appropriateness of such grants, and believe the public would benefit from a fulsome explanation of the entire review process,” he wrote.

The letter names several specific education-program grants (about $25,000 each) and the general topics they support—for instance, “What is belief?” and “What is a monster?” It does not mention that the grants go to scholars to develop and teach undergraduate courses centered on those topics. According to the NEH’s Web site, the Enduring Questions program supports “question-driven” courses that encourage students and professors “to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.”

You can read the full letter here.

Mr. Sessions argument that the NEH must take “a fair and balanced approach to promoting culture,” struck me as rather odd. Mr. Sessions seems to be working from misunderstanding about culture. One does not promote culture. Culture is. It is not promoted or demoted. “Promoting culture” makes as much sense as “promoting gravity.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Culture is a tricky term. A term that very smart people like Raymond Williams have spent a lot of time and energy thinking through. In one such piece of thinking Williams outlined three different general categories for definitions of culture. The first he called “ideal” where culture “is a state or process of human perfection, in terms of certain absolute or universal values.” Here culture is that which is greatest, wisest, most beautiful–in short, Truth. Second, culture can be “documentary.” In these definitions culture is a body of intellectual and imaginary work. In this view, art, music, and literature are culture. The newspaper would not be culture. Lastly, a third set of definitions are “social.” In these, culture is a particular way of life and a particular set of meanings and values associated with that way of life. Here the meanings and values are not confined to art and learning but extend out to institutions and ordinary behavior.

Returning to Senator Sessions, it seems his definition of culture aligns most with the notion of culture as “ideal.” Culture is a stand in for Truth. Indeed, it is also a stand in for “religion,” as his only examples of culture are various religious traditions. But his definition has a twist. It’s culture as ideal/Truth/religion in a plural society. For Mr. Sessions, culture is not simply the ideal toward which all humans, or even all Americans, are striving. No, it seems that what is greatest, wises, or most beautiful is up for grabs. Truth is up for grabs. There is a competition. It’s a cultural free market. So, the NEH must be sure it does not pick winners and losers. When he writes that the NEH should be balanced in “promoting culture” he means it should be balanced in promoting various claims to Truth.

But if we look at the purpose of the NEH and examine its founding document, the “National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965,” we find a different definition of culture.

(6) The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded
by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural
heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse
beliefs and values of all persons and groups.

(9) Americans should receive in school, background and
preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize
and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the
diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage,
and artistic and scholarly expression.

(10) It is vital to a democracy to honor and preserve its
multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas,
and therefore it is essential to provide financial assistance to
its artists and the organizations that support their work.

These sections of the law outline an understanding of culture that most closely resembles the “social” or “way of life” definition. Interestingly, like Mr. Sessions, this 1965 legislation also sees culture as plural, as “multicultural.” But here there is no competing claims to Truth. Rather there are diverse ways of being in the world, ways of life, ways of making meaning. There are diverse beliefs and values to be appreciated, not various claims to ultimate Truth to be adjudicated. In this definition culture cannot be promoted. It can only be “appreciated” to a greater or lesser extent. The NEH was meant to help us appreciate culture as a nation.

Since 1965 the meaning of culture has continued to shift. We have pop culture, subcultures, drug culture, campus culture, the culture of a workplace. Similarly, the definition of culture is fraught among those of us who claim to study it for a living. Yet, culture is still with us. This is why, to me, the “promotion of culture” makes as much sense as the “promotion of gravity.” At the end of the day there is something that tells us who we are, who others are, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do. There is something that has trained me to respond “Roll Tide!” when necessary. There is something that makes the words on your screen meaningful. There is something that makes cat memes funny. What is that? Culture is a pretty good name for it, I guess. And so, again, promoting culture is like promoting gravity. It doesn’t need promoting, it just happens.

Figuring out how it happens and what it does takes money, time, and expertise. That’s why we have the NEH. For now.

The Death of the Blogger: On the Limits of the Public Intellectual in the Digital Age

“We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but it is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting form the thousand sources of culture.” — Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

Over the weekend the twin gods of algorithm and chance saw fit to take a post I wrote for Religion in American History Blog and excerpt it over at Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. One one level I’m stoked that the Dish found my piece on Mircea Eliade interesting and relevant to their readers. But the relevance and interest they found was not necessarily what I had in mind when I wrote the post. Here’s what they excerpted from my writing under the title “Religion on Its Own Terms” with the preface that I was paying tribute to Eliade:

Eliade refuses to explain religion. Rejecting the reductionism of psychoanalysis or sociology, Eliade demands that religion be understood “on its own terms.” We do not explain religion, rather, the historian of religion describes and categorizes religion. The historian of religions looks for symbols, myths, and archetypes through comparison. Because the sacred is sui generis, unique, irreducible, we should seek understanding, interpretation, and pattern. Explanation is anathema.

But was I paying tribute? Or just describing Eliade. Here’s the following two paragraphs of the original RiAH post:

It was this approach–comparative, descriptive, phenomoneological–that dominated the field of religious studies in the latter third of the twentieth century in America. It was this approach that as a student I was warned away from and handed a J. Z. Smith article.

And it was this approach that had a profound effect on the way Americans would imagine something called “comparative religion” and the ways Americans imagined the sacred and spirituality.

So here’s the irony. The Dish excerpted my description of Eliade’s descriptivist approach to religion that I would, in the end, critique. The real gist of the post, as I imagined it, had nothing to do with paying tribute to Eliade or celebrating “religion on its own terms.” Rather, I was pointing out how Eliade’s brand of comparative religion, a search to understand “religion on its own terms” had become a popular approach in the United States through his influence in religious studies departments in the late twentieth century. A point proven by The Dish and their interpretation of my post as a tribute to Eliade. Eliade’s approach to religion is so deeply rooted in American culture that we can’t even see it when it’s right in front of us!

But there’s a further lesson here. As the Barthes quote above reminds us, the author has not control over the meaning of the text. Neither does the blogger. And neither does the public intellectual. While academics are used to their words and quotes suffering under the edits of the media–the twenty minute interview turned into a ten second sound bite–digital technologies were thought to signal a change. Now the academic would control the microphone. The recent move of The Monkey Cage to the Washington Post is a fulfillment of that hope. Academics writing for the people to the people! No reporters necessary.

But we can’t all be The Monkey Cage. Even in the world of the blogosphere where academics hope to take their ideas and research to the masses or even just to other academics, the author has no control over his or her meaning. What is the link but one piece in “a tissue of citations?” A blog but one of the thousand sources of culture? Indeed, the blogger is dead.

As Barthes closed his essay, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.” But perhaps things are not so finite for the blogger. Because the blogger is both reader and author. The blogger is both murderer and midwife. On the one hand the blogger kills the author. But on the other hand the blogger gives birth to a new reading, and new meaning to the text in through their posts and links.

The blogger is a beneficent cannibal, eating its own for sustenance and offering itself up as sustenance for others.

Quote

“Only one form of social activity has not yet been explicity linked to religion: economic activity.”

“Only one form of social activity has not yet been explicitly linked to religion: economic activity. Nevertheless, the techniques that derive from magic turn out, by this very fact, to have indirectly religious origins. Furthermore, economic value is a sort of power or efficacy, and we know the religious origins of the idea of power. Since mana can be conferred by wealth, wealth itself has some. From this we see that the idea of economic value and that of religious value cannot be unrelated; but the nature of these relationship has not yet been studied.”

Footnote 4 from the Conclusion of Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). There is so much in that footnote.

Miss America and Construction of the Other in American Culture

I have a new post up at Medium. Here’s a taste:

Last night Miss New York became Miss America. But even more importantly, Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American Miss America. The New York native brought Bollywood dance to the stage during the talent competition and spoke from her platform of “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.”

Yet, last night was also a time of thorough cultural incompetence. Both Buzzfeed and Jezebel have accounted for the range of racist tweets that went out after Davuluri was crowned. What’s interesting is the multiple levels of wrongness exhibited in the tweets. Some label Davuluri an Arab (she’s Indian-America), some label her a Muslim (her parents are Hindu and it appears she may be too), and some just flat deny that Miss America should look like anything other than this.

Continue reading at Medium

Remember Zelmo Beaty: Race, Religion, and Basketball in Salt Lake City

One of my favorite weekly podcasts is Slate’s Hang Up and Listen, a sports podcast that deconstructs sports media and culture with a wry wit that deflates American sports of all its self-seriousness. If sports talk radio is Duck Dynasty, Hang Up is 30 Rock.

Every week host Josh Levin signs off with the phrase “remember Zelmo Beaty.” Beaty, a basketball star in the 60s and 70s passed away recently and this past week Hang Up and Listen reminded us why we should indeed remember him. Stefan Fatsis’ obituary of Beaty opened by staking out Beaty’s importance as a pioneer for black players in professional basketball. But what caught this religious historian’s attention was the confluence of race and religion that surrounded Beaty’s move to Salt Lake City to play for the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association in 1970.

Free agency in sports was still years away, so Zelmo had to sit out a season in order to be released from his NBA contract. But during that season, the Stars were sold to Bill Daniels, a pioneer in cable television. Daniels moved the team to Salt Lake City, the population of which was literally 99 percent white. Beaty announced that he wouldn’t report if the team went to Salt Lake, in part because of tensions between black athletes and the Mormon Church, which didn’t let blacks serve as priests. Sports Illustrated reported at the time that that local leaders assured Daniels that his players “would be well treated.” Beaty and his wife Ann made their own visit, were satisfied with their housing options, and agreed to go. All of the other black players on the Stars followed.

Beaty then led the team to the 1970-71 ABA title and won the MVP for the playoffs. But even more than that Beaty changed the face of basketball in Utah.

The Stars eventually started an all-black lineup in all-white Salt Lake City. Beaty wound up playing four seasons there, and he deserves clear credit for making the city a viable place for pro basketball. As SI wrote in 1974, “Beaty quickly gained acceptance from the Utah fans, not only by leading the Stars to a championship in their first season, but by remaining quietly congenial and displaying his considerable innate dignity. He remains the only black player who owns a house in Salt Lake. And, according to other players, Beaty passed the word around the ABA that Utah was an all-right place to play.” The Stars would fold when the ABA and NBA merged in 1976, but the city regained a franchise when the Jazz moved from New Orleans in 1979.

We would never have gotten Stockton to Malone without Zelmo Beaty.

So, for historians interested in questions of race, religion, and sports: Remember Zelmo Beaty.

Syllabus: Honors Introduction to Religious Studies

I’ve shared syllabi in the past and I thought I’d do it again this semester. Below is the syllabus for my Honors Introduction to Religion Course this semester. As always, I’d love to hear feedback from folks and feel free to steal this and use it as you see fit. No twitter or blogging this time around–saving that for my upper level seminar.

Why the U.S. State Department Should Take My Introduction to Religious Studies Course

I wrote a piece last week over at Medium.com about the problems I saw in the U.S. State Department’s new Office of Faith Based Community Initiatives. Here’s a taste:

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry introduced the new Special Advisor of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, Shaun Casey. I invite both the Secretary of State and Mr. Casey to read along with my Introductions to Religious Studies course this semester because, from the statements they gave yesterday, both men are dire need of a more nuanced approached to religion. As Kerry himself remarked:

In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.

Well, I invite you to my class Secretary Kerry.

If they took my course Secretary Kerry and Mr. Casey would learn three things.

Read the rest at Medium.

UPDATE: Check out this piece from Gary Laderman on the State Dept. program. He has a similar take but with a different emphasis than mine.