Richard Kessler’s “Death Panels”: Wrong Words on Arts Education Funding


There are times I don’t post, and usually various reasons. Lately, the reason is because I fear there’s far too much noise in the blogosphere, and I see less and less of a point of adding to the din. That is not to say I haven’t a competitive nature. I do. Except when I think the chances of winning are so slim that the attempt to win is a useless and pointless spending of energy. In such situations, I’d rather throw in the towel and wait for a better opportunity. So, lately, I’ve been relatively quiet.

I have to tell you, however, that even when I’ve seemed not wholly receptive to feedback on my posts, I’ve appreciated receiving it. Foe and friend alike, in fact, have done me the great service of reading and replying responding to my ideas and commentaries, which is clearly preferable to being ignored. One response I have long taken to heart relates to tone — I’m the first one to admit that I’m a passionate guy, and in 2007 and 2008, my earliest blogging years, I often allowed my passion for a topic to overrule the need for moderation — resulting in a tone that not all found winning. Understand, I’m not apologizing for the substance of my rants or for reveling in the beauty of an opinion as it’s being formed. I’ve simply learned that not every passions requires a 15-megaton response, especially when a fly-swatter will do just fine.

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Then I come across headlines like “Death Panels for Arts and Education,” which appeared on Richard Kessler’s Dewey 21C blog last week, and I wonder if I’m an idiot — a fool with a “kick me” sign. Kessler is infuriated over President Obama signing a “stopgap spending bill that severely cut into education funding, including eliminating funding for the United States Department of Education’s arts education programs”; if Kessler’s dudgeon was any higher, it would have hosted the Oscars. Still, a headline like “Death Panels for Arts Education” reminds me of how easily the tone of a blog can turn wildly disproportionate to the outrage at hand.

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I do not wish to minimize what the spending bill means in terms of cuts — Kessler lists them for the world to see. Those of us perhaps less immersed in the minutiae of public funding for arts education likely don’t even know about all these programs, much less what their appropriation levels are. Well, that’s not quite accurate — we’ve all heard, I hope, of Reading is Fundamental. What we may not have known is that now, $25 million in federal funding for it is lost. (I guess if you’re a Republican, reading is not fundamental.)

What disturbs me is that Kessler, who is executive director of the Center for Arts Education, thinks it’s ok to haul out the phrase “death panels” as an illustration of his outrage. He even acknowledges the danger of his phrasing:

For those of you that might think using the term “death panel” is in bad taste and hyperbolic, no matter how one might define the politically hijacked term, think again. These cuts may very well kill some very fine and important organizations, as well as programs, providing invaluable services for children across America. And if you’ve ever spent time in under-served urban schools, you would understand the great value of these programs.

Well, guess what: we’re not going to teach anyone the “great value of these programs” by linking them with the phrase “death panels.” You know what it sounds like to me? It sounds like someone’s having a temper tantrum. Again and again I have said that we lack a comprehensive advocacy strategy and this, my friends, is not the way to create one.

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Moreover, we cannot complain about the radical right’s invention and propagandizing of the phrase “death panels” — which was never proposed by the President as part of the Affordable Care Act, and was entirely and indisputably the dissembling creation of that grisly standard-bearer of the anti-truth, Sarah Palin — if we’re going to turn around and use it ourselves. When a person of Kessler’s stature uses a phrase like “death panels,” we arts advocates are no better than those who oppose and demonize and defund us.

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Kessler noted in a more recent blog post that Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, has released some letters to the governors advising them to “go easy” on arts education cuts, and here the tone here is correct. So we know the guy isn’t beholden to hysteria and fear-mongering as a default tactic.

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What we need is our own vernacular — one as powerful as theirs.

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As the product of an arts education in New York City public schools, I’d be happy to assist Kessler is devising such a vernacular.

If only he’d call.