Smart has a Target


When Bush One decided to roll into Kuwait, I was tuned to NPR. When Al and Tipper shared that gross-me-out tongue-dive at the 2000 Convention, ‘twas NPR that at least spared me the visual. And when the planes pierced the Towers that bright September morning, I was teaching a seventh-grade social studies class; while my lunchtime colleagues huddled around the teacher’s workroom TV, I spent the time in my car, listening and grieving to NPR.

For the past four decades, public radio has informed, educated and entertained millions, here and abroad. It has survived poor leadership, squirrely politicians, the Internet, The Daily Show and at least one high-profile scrape with its on-air staff. And, by God, with or without your tax dollars, it will survive into the future.

But no thanks to some archconservative, usual suspect pols.

Last month, 168 congressional Republicans and 3 Democrats took their latest best shot at cutting NPR’s public funding. While the House initiative failed (by 71 votes) the chamber’s culture-war penny pinchers swore to try again once their GOP newbies are seated come January. Given that Washington money accounts for around 2% of its total budget, in the long run this may prove more symbol than substance. But in a political and cultural climate in which even Sarah Palin gets a cable show and Fox News keeps kicking the competition’s butts, symbolism matters.

Just ask Fran Lebowitz.

When asked during an HBO special to explain why Obama has come in for so much vitriol, the always quotable Lebowitz suggested it’s about more than politics: it’s about symbolism: “America has always hated eggheads. When [they] … say elite, they don’t mean rich. America loves rich people. They mean smart.”

And is there a more symbolic representation of mainstream American smart than NPR? Might that be why public radio comes in for its own fair share of vitriol? Because it regularly expects us to be smart? Not better-than, not partisan, just smart?

Problem is, smart is work. At its core, smart requires a proactive approach to learning. It’s not just about couching old party lines in new words; it’s not just about buying into the most current and convenient Beltway babble in order to make a point; and it’s surely not just about bank accounts or academic degrees. Smart is about regularly exposing oneself to more than one set of assumptions. And there’s nothing elitist or partisan about that.

So, if the new tea-party House is indeed poised for another Bush Two-style campaign against smartness, no one should be surprised that public funding for public radio is once again on the carpet. Friends and supporters of NPR should take seriously the Republican promise to press anew for ending, or at least cutting, its federal support. If your House rep is staying on, contact her or him now. If your district is about to change hands, crank it up as soon as the swearing-in is done. Fellow pledgers, if at all possible, dig deeper. And non-pledging listeners, c’mon – time to get off the schnide. (If you’re not sure where to start, just go to and enter your zip code.)

On practical grounds alone, one could make the case that public radio may be better off by ending its federal dependency; just be done, once and for all, with the conservative sniping and chronic funding drama. But symbolically, NPR is an important, coast-to-coast standard bearer for informed opinion and public dialogue. For that alone, we should come to its aid.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2010

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