I’ve been blogging for over six years now but am still frequently surprised at what captures the attention of the blogosphere and what doesn’t. Last Wednesday evening, the Atlantic Council presented Distinguished Leadership Awards to former heads of government President George H.W. Bush and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, General David Petraeus, IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, and baritone Thomas Hampson.

What goes viral? The remarks of Hampson’s introducer, Kareem Dale.

Andrew Malcolm
, a veteran correspondent and former press secretary to Laura Bush now blogging for the LA Times Top of the Ticket blog, picks out Dale’s statement that, “At the White House, as we always like to say, we love MSNBC.” This, after the network’s “Morning Joe” team introduced him. Several bloggers, including former John McCain campaign aide and Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb, picked up on this, reacting according to which side of the partisan aisle they sat.

The Atlantic Council loves MSNBC, too — especially Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. They truly helped make the event a night to remember. Otherwise, we’ll leave the partisan sniping to others.

I will, however, weigh in on another aspect of the controversy, brought up by Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. Reacting to Dale’s claim that, “For far too long in this country, arts has been the program in this country that is cut when things get difficult. For far too long in this country, arts have been an afterthought. For far too long in this country, arts have been treated as second class, and arts have not been viewed as integral to educating the youth of tomorrow,” Morrissey retorts,

Says who? In what country does Dale live? We have more access for ordinary citizens to the arts now than any time in human history. The entertainment industry alone generates billions of dollars every year in free-market pursuits such as cinema, television, music, and the like. Artists have no restrictions on their output other than the economic limitations of their talent and dedication. Thanks to the Internet and the expansion of broadband connections, the arts have come closer than ever to the hoi polloi.

Ah, but that’s not what Dale means. Dale means that we’re somehow not a viable society because we don’t have the federal government funding artists. Well, we provide a free market for their wares, provide protection against copyright infringement, and allow people to succeed or fail on their own merits. The government has no legitimate role in promoting the arts beyond these basic protections. Even if it did, when times get tough and government has to live within its means, does Dale want to seriously argue that the arts are somehow a higher priority than national defense, enforcing the law, or even Medicare and Social Security? Should people go without prescription drugs so that a SoHo performance artist can get a federal patronage to subsidize art that doesn’t sell on its own?

Now, I’m sympathetic to Morrissey’s view on prioritization of funding. But I would stop well short of saying that “The government has no legitimate role in promoting the arts beyond these basic protections.” Dale was talking specifically about arts education for our youth, which study after study has shown to be an important aspect of mental development. Beyond that, as our Distinguished Artistic Leadership Award honoree Thomas Hampson put it in his acceptance speech, the arts are about more than mere entertainment.

I’ve always taken our wonderful motto, E Pluribus Unum, very, very seriously, and it seems to me very much like Mr. Dale announced and gave us recognition and importance to this process, that the arts and humanities are a kind of diary of the individual experience. And if you read in your program that wonderful correspondence between President Bush and Chancellor Kohl, most of it is about people’s reactions.

And most of those people, if you asked them today, would forget the specific details of what happened to them on that momentous occasion when the Wall fell, and everything that was around it, but not one of them, I promise you, would forget how they felt when they realized Germany was going to be unified, or any other facet of that experience. And the fantastic thing about that is it is that very stuff of what arts and humanities are about.

It’s the blueprint of individuals. You know, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that another word for creativity is courage. We’re not the high end of the industry. We are, in the arts and humanities, a lively dialogue of the understanding of why people do, e pluribus, in unum with another, and find respect for that.

The history of the Cold War can not be told without reference to great leaders like Bush and Kohl. But it would be incomplete, too, without mention of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Nevil Shute or Stanley Kubrick or Mikhail Baryshnikov. Great art can seem more real than reality itself.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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