Since the overwhelming Republican victory in the November elections, the Democratic party leadership has appeared confused and timid. Instead of challenging proposals like the Contract With America, the Democrats have for-saken their ideals and tried to mimic the Republican agenda. For example, shortly after the recent elections President Clinton indicated that he might not oppose Republican plans to legalize prayer in public schools. In contrast to this cowardice, Barbra Streisand expressed a clear, bold vision for America in her speech last week at the Institute of Politics ARCO Forum.
Streisand's speech was both an aggressive repudiation of the ideology of Newt Gingrich and a reminder of the true attributes of liberalism. She began by claiming that the Republicans were "waging a war for the soul of America." Streisand attacked Republicans for their divisive politics of name-calling and intolerance and presented a more humane, inclusive agenda. She effectively challenged the Republican assault on artistic and cultural programs funded by the federal government and the artistic community in general.
The arts, like education, are essential to society, Streisand argued, and should not be left entirely to the whims of the marketplace or the ideological fancies of the majority party. She noted that government arts funding during the Depression produced many cultural treasures and that government endorsement gave arts national prestige. Streisand endorsed federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. She dispelled the myth that these programs need to be cut to help balance the budget by comparing their low costs to wasteful Pentagon spending.
Some of the alternative political and cultural views produced through these programs threaten Republican hegemony and especially annoy the narrowminded religious right. Streisand identified the Republicans' real reason for targeting these programs for the budget axe--a reactionary desire to return the country to the conservative cultural framework of the 1950s (the era of suburban bliss when minorities and women "knew their places").
Streisand defined the purpose of art as more than entertainment; art often provokes thought and discussion and reflects a search for truth. Because artists frequently question authority and established norms and try to understand the experiences of others, they are often the vanguard of social causes. Artists championed the causes of civil right, protection of the environment and AIDS research before these causes were politically popular.
Streisand was proud to say that she was a liberal, an increasingly unpopular statement today as Democrats scramble to the "center" of political debate. She chronicled the liberal record: the fight to abolish child labor, to institute the five day work week, to promote civil rights and liberties, to protect the environment and to establish a social safety net with programs such as Social Security. Liberals should continue this tradition of tolerance and egalitarianism, instead of subscribing to an ideology that pits "normal Americans" against the poor and the "cultural elite."
While Streisand proved to be an unpolished public speaker (due to stage fright), and although she was not able to adequately address all the questions posed to her, she spoke with exemplary moral courage. She even compares favorably to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who spoke at the IOP in January. Christopher delivered a long, dull speech that amounted to little more than a junior high school civics class. Unlike Streisand's, his address was neither challenging nor thought provoking.
It is unfortunate that the leaders weelect to progressively reform our system and to fight for their beliefs often do not display the fortitude or vision necessary to lead our nation. The Democrats do not exhibit the moral strength necessary to wage a war for America's soul, to prevent Gingrich and his cronies from legislating cultural repression. If the Democrats believe they can regain public support by drafting watered down versions of Republican proposals, they may be in for an even greater shock in 1996.
David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.