David Cameron’s Culture War

NEW YORK – British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has announced some of the most draconian public-sector cuts any developed country government has ever attempted. Indeed, his minister of education recently declared that funding for Britain’s universities would be slashed by as much as 40%. But the most shocking aspect of the move is that arts and humanities departments will be targeted more aggressively than science and engineering, which are supposedly better for business.

The war against the arts and humanities is nothing new – though this is the first time that the fight has migrated so directly to Britain. Ronald Reagan pioneered a wave of policy and propaganda in the United States in the 1980’s that demonized the National Endowment for the Arts. Ever since, Republican governments in the US have slashed funding for ballet, poetry in schools, and sculpture, while demagogues like former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have gained political traction by attacking controversial visual arts.

But the Cameron government’s approach is more sinister than the old right-wing tactic of taking aim at disciplines that can be derided as effete. The British cuts reveal a push in developed countries – one that also started in the US – to target the kinds of education that lead to an open, vigorous civil society and a population that is hard to suppress.

In the former Soviet bloc, it was the poets, dramatists, cartoonists, and novelists whose works encoded forbidden themes of freedom, and who were targeted by the secret police. Today, they are bullied, silenced, and tortured in places like Iran, Syria, China, and Myanmar.