- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

The government is in blitz formation right now, with new “czars,” massive bailouts, bridge loans and stimulus packages ready to charge at the offensive line of civil society.

So it was the ideal time for Quincy Jones, the great composer and producer, to propose afresh an idea he has had for years: a new Cabinet-level post to promote the arts and humanities.

“The next conversation I have with President Obama is to beg for a secretary of arts,” he said in a recent radio interview.

He pointed to ministers of culture in countries such as France and Germany as models for the new agency.

Feeling inspired, a couple of New York musicians started an online petition to encourage the new administration to adopt Mr. Jones’ idea. As of this writing, the petition boasted nearly 150,000 electronic signatures.

Notwithstanding this bullish moment for a vastly enlarged federal government, as well as Mr. Jones’ obviously good intentions, a secretary of arts is a misguided idea — and not merely because the federal government already has a terrifically divisive track record of involving itself in the arts. (See “National Endowment for the Arts,” “controversies.”)

First of all, take Mr. Jones’ European culture-ministry analogue. In France, especially, the government sees itself as a bulwark against an American-led juggernaut that threatens French cultural ecology.

It’s a little odd, then, to hear domestically of the withering of American culture while our foreign counterparts speak of it as a large-looming menace.

There’s little evidence that the state is much good at what George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen calls “cultural protectionism.” Indeed, the perverse outcome of such efforts is to clog native arteries of creativity. “Protected artifacts often lose their artistic competitive vitality,” Mr. Cowen wrote in the libertarian magazine Reason. “Protection actually decreases an industry’s chance of competing successfully in world markets.”

And if America is doing too well in the arena of global cultural competition, as nearly everyone who’s paid to fret about such things agrees, what would be the job of an American culture minister?

In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Jones mentioned young people’s ignorance of American musical icons such as Duke Ellington and John Coltrane as an example of a specific problem to be remedied.

Naturally, the French don’t fear American jazz masters, but, rather, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and other lowbrow American imports.

Thus it becomes clear that we’re talking about the marginalization of certain kinds of culture, not of culture generally.

More precisely, we’re talking about familiar problems of arts “awareness” and of scanty arts education.

Already, our hypothetical secretary of arts is bogged down in a turf war with the secretary of education — and the latter is politely informing the former that, sorry, achievement levels in reading, math and science are his primary concern and there are only so many hours in the day …

So, rather than trying to erect a new bureaucracy when budgets are busting and attention is drawn inexorably to more pressing matters, why not try something much cheaper and more efficient?

Mr. Jones, if you encounter another kid who has never heard of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, take matters into your own hands: Direct him to the Internet.

Better yet, so as not to indirectly encourage illicit downloading, let’s wangle some philanthropic dollars, and maybe even a congressional appropriation, to buy a few million volume-discounted iPod Nanos and pre-stock them with some essential jazz and traditional pop. Write up a curriculum — consult rocker and blues historian Steven Van Zandt on how this is done - and ask the Save the Music Foundation to help you deliver the package to classrooms.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

All it takes is some personal initiative and what an ex-president once called “the vision thing.”

If we migrate too far up the food chain of the federal government and somehow wind up at that big oval-shaped table where Cabinet meetings are held, we’ll paradoxically become more easily ignored than ever — and, I’d wager, about as successful in our mission as the French are in propping up their native motion-picture industry.

When he was a candidate, President Obama was fond of saying that change in America occurs “from the bottom up.”

Well, so does culture.

Let’s keep it that way.

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