Donald Trump recently announced his proposed budget, and among all the draconian cuts to many small but very beneficial programs, there are the usual cuts demanded by conservatives to arts programs (The National Endowment for the Arts, et al.), and drastic cuts to various science agencies.
I’m not going to get into the many cost-benefit arguments that get tossed around; rather, I’d like to look at another aspect.
Why do these programs get Federal funding anyway?
Let me make my case with two arguments – one literary, and one historical. The former covers the Arts, the latter the Sciences.
The Aeneid is one of the classics of literature. Written some two millennia ago, it tells the story of Aeneas and how he led people from the Fall of Troy to settling in Italy where his descendants would found the city of Rome. For the modern audience, it’s a tale of refugees from a war-torn country looking for a place they can call home.
In Book 1, Aeneas and his band of refugees have landed on the Libyan coast. He’s seen a city in the distance, so he goes off to sneak around that city and see if there’s a chance they can get help there. He sees a lot of signs of prosperity, but nothing that would indicate they’d be welcome or even safe there.
He wanders into a grove near where a temple is being built. As it happens, there are plenty of murals / relief sculptures there, depicting the very war that Aeneas has fled from. Aeneas sighs, and says (to himself) that it means they can expect to be treated fairly and with compassion.
There’s a problem in translation, however.
The exact text reads:
Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem.
“Lacrimae rerum” can be translated as either “tears for things” or “tears of things”. In one sense, it implies that “the universe feels our suffering”, in another, “suffering is a part of what we are”. The next line hints at how it’s supposed to be interpreted. It translates approximately as “Release (your) fear; this fame will bring you some deliverance.” In other words, “They’ve heard of our war, we can trade on that fame.” I think the best translation of the “lacrimae rerum” line is that of Kenneth Clarke: “These men know the pathos of life, and mortal things touch their hearts.”
This happens to be the first time in the city that any sort of artwork or decoration is mentioned. When Aeneas sees it, he finally feels that he and his people have nothing to fear from the city dwellers. He takes it as a clear sign that he is not among barbarians.
A society that prizes art is one that is civilized, and can at least be reasoned with. When a government refuses to fund the Arts, it is a sign that they are sliding towards a cold, mechanized totalitarianism. Art becomes a useless frivolity…. Support of the Arts shows that a Society as a whole cares for people – and can be counted among the civilized nations.
With regards to the support of the Sciences, I’m just going to quote this passage from Congressional testimony, since Robert R. Wilson does it better than I ever could.
On April 17, 1969, he was testifying before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy as part of the AEC Authorizing Legislation for FY 1970 (the Atomic Energy Commission’s budget for the next year). As the Director of the National Accelerator Laboratory (eventually known as Fermilab), he was being grilled on the matter of the lab’s $250 million price tag. That’s over $1.6 BILLION in 2017 dollars.
Senator John Pastore (D-RI) led the questioning:
“Here we are. We have these Senators going all over the District of Columbia. It has been on the front pages. They are going all over the country showing how many people are starving, how many people are hungry, how many people live in rat-ridden houses.
“Here we are, asking for $250 million to build a machine that is an experimental machine, in fundamental high energy physics, and we cannot be told exactly what we are trying to find out through that machine.
Wilson gave a little lecture on nuclear physics, and the sorts of things they wanted to study. He wrapped up that response with a bit of history of nuclear power (and its benefits in reducing pollution), and then made a general appeal:
“Because of the kind of research that we are now starting, men will eventually be able to enjoy a richer life, in an intellectual and spiritual sense certainly, but also in their physical well-being.”
Pastore wasn’t satisfied:
SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?
DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.
SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?
DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.
SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?
DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.
It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.
SENATOR PASTORE. Don’t be sorry for it.
DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.
SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?
DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.
In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.