Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Arts and Civil Society on Maggie’s Farm

Reconnecting Individual Plight with Common Struggle
Well, he hands you a nickel,
He hands you a dime,
He asks you with a grin
If you're havin' a good time,
Then he fines you every time you slam the door.
(“Maggie’s Farm,” by Bob Dylan)
     Civil Society, which includes nonprofits, unions, and artists, needs a common vision that reconnects individual plight with common struggle nationwide. I was reinforced in this conviction by three articles that appeared Tuesday in my local paper, the News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware.
     The first deals with the dearth in funding for Delaware non-profits, as reported by Mary Kress Littlepage, author of “Philanthropy in the First State.” According to the report, state non-profits “lack the organization, financial stability and sufficient support from foundations, corporations and individuals to handle the state's growing needs.” If this is true in tiny Delaware, U.S. banking capital and home to half the nation’s corporations, it is replicated, I am sure, all across the United States of Maggie’s Farm.
     The second, an AP story by Brett Zongker, describes President Obama’s salutary interest in the arts, evidenced by White House performances, arts workshops there, and an infusion of stimulus funds into the arts sector, which, according to the article, “employs nearly six million people at a hundred thousand nonprofit art groups.”
     The last, seemingly unrelated to the other two, actually strikes the common theme: the atomized approach to the human condition that focuses on individual plight rather than social solutions to that plight.
     The story touts a visit by celebrity scold Bill Cosby, who brought his personal responsibility message to inner-city youth at Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House. Author of "Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors," Cosby asserted in an interview that "[s]ome people seem to use the fact that racism exists to create an inertia of entropy,” adding that “[s]ome 'poverty pimps' want us to not move to become unstuck."
     Now, it is a recurrent myth that Black leaders from Frederick Douglas to W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, and Al Sharpton trade responsibility for victimology.
     Not so fast on connecting “the Cos” to that myth. Maybe he agrees with Frederick Douglass in how taking individual responsibility can turn folks from “victims to victors”: "He who would be free must strike the first blow."
     Striking the first blow is not the recommendation of Littlepage’s nonprofit study, which was prompted by the Public Policy Institute, an affiliate of the state Chamber of Commerce. It prescribes “more robust leadership so the nonprofit community can speak with a stronger voice to donors and local governments.”
     Don’t expect John Taylor, formerly of the News Journal and now Institute Executive Director, to invite anyone to challenge corporate wisdom at the follow-up forum scheduled at the University of Delaware March 22 and 23.
     Neither in community service nor in the arts may one “strike the first blow” without untoward consequences, even when one’s weapons are mere words, unless one speaks with an empowering common vision and powerful allies.
     For example, while the Obama administration may have signaled a revival of state support for the arts, Obama appointee Yosi Sergant was blown out of his National Endowment for Arts job when he suggested that artists address health care, education, and the environment, after Fox News mouth Glenn Beck belched.
     Similarly, the nonprofit ACORN, which pushed charity too close to empowerment, was entrapped, framed, and slandered by Fox and then unconstitutionally stripped of its funding by the Democratic-controlled Congress. At this writing, the U.S. Eastern New York District Court has just issued an injunction against the funding cut-off.
     In both cases, when conservatives led the charge against a civil society of empowerment, liberals led the retreat.
     Civil society, according to the London School of Economics “refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action,” distinct from “the state, the family, and the market,” but whose relation to state, family, and market remains “complex, blurred and negotiated.” It is essential to the workings of democracy. Negotiation and uncoercion are key.
     The problem is that civil society in the USA is atomized and obsessed with individual victimization, if you will, counseling a foreclosed homeowner here, protesting prison conditions there, advocating for individual identities of race or gender, or writing a pretty lyric about dreams of roses blossoming in the ordure. As we have seen, when civil society challenges power, then state and market will turn from negotiation to coercion, which negates both civil society and democracy.
     So how do we revive “Hope,” now foundered on bank bailouts, militarism, and astroturf tea parties? How do we move to a common vision, a common struggle, and a successful grassroots movement?
     One model is what I have observed working and writing in Ecuador, a model adopted in various ways throughout Latin America. Civil society—unions, left parties, NGOs, women, gays, charities, liberation churches, artists—have developed a common vision, an alternative to the “neoliberal” triumphalism of big banks, captive political parties, and free market individualism. In fits and starts, they have made dramatic advances recently across the continent, with the voices of the poor now heard, their needs addressed, and a flowering of people’s culture.
     It is time for local artists and writers to rebuild their roots in the community and to fulfill their role in civil society. Get your nickels and dimes from Maggie if you can, but unite to demand power to the people.
Sunday, Dec. 13 Update:
     The News Journal dropped the other shoe Sunday with three op-eds and an editorial on the non-profit crisis, "indicative" according to the editorial, "of a 20th century sense of entitlement to donors based more on stated needs. . . than. . . an ability to get the mission accomplished as efficiently as possible. " Not too much about the sense of entitlement to bailouts for banks after wrecking the economy or to tax cuts for corporations who have outsourced jobs and accelerated the needs addressed by non-profits beyond their capacity to "get the mission accomplished." 


  1. i'm still looking for that non-profit that can say we're on the right track,mission accomplished,i'm being nice

  2. Thanks for comment. Don't quite follow who "we" is, but I suspect you find fault with nonprofits. My point here is not so much whether they are self-serving or bug folks too much for donations, but that relying on corporate donors keeps them from tackling issues at their roots, rather than their branches. Similarly, artists deal with personal effects rather than social contexts, alienation, rather than the alienator.