Coyne: This isn’t a culture war, it’s a good old class war

It’s the culturati, not their Harperite foes, who have made the arts cuts a ‘wedge issue’

When Stephen Harper launched his now celebrated broadside at the cultural-industrial complex (“all sorts of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayer, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough”), the response was as predictable as it was incoherent. In most countries, the argument for subsidy is couched in a huffy insistence that art is not a business like any other. But this is Canada, where rent-seeking is both our highest art and our most profitable business, so here artists have learned to protest that, in fact, they are a business, and should be subsidized like any other.

I don’t propose to rehash the whole argument here. (Interested readers will find the subject explored at punishing length at Suffice it to say there is a difference between support of the arts and state support of the arts, and that the separation of art and state would be as much to the benefit of art as anything else. (“Above all,” said Dégas, “we must discourage the arts.”)

What was more interesting was the political response. The instant analysis from all corners of the political class was that Harper was playing “wedge politics,” using a largely symbolic issue—the $45 million in funding cuts that precipitated the fracas is a tiny fraction of the Heritage Department’s budget—as a means of splitting off one group of voters from another. This is commonly agreed to be a heinous crime, especially as practised by Conservative politicians. The possibility that those on the other side of the issue—the Liberals quickly announced an increase of $250 million in arts funding in response—might be doing the same thing does not seem to have occurred to anyone.

But of course they do. Just as Harper was appealing to his base (“ordinary working people” who “come home, turn on the TV” and see all those “rich galas” they paid for), so the Liberals were appealing to theirs (the people who receive the subsidies, and those who identify with them). Harper may have been tapping into the resentment his people feel for their people, but rest assured Stéphane Dion was doing exactly the same. Each, in his own way, was offering to protect his’n from their’n. In a word, it was about class: class envy, class snobbery, call it what you will, but that’s what it was.

We aren’t accustomed to thinking of Canadian politics in terms of class, or not outside the confines of the NDP. We’re more used to breaking it down by region, or language, or ethnicity. But it’s there, lurking just below the surface, and Harper’s Conservatives have shown unusual skill in finding its fault lines. Only it isn’t class in the old sense, as defined by income or parentage or—vulgar Marxists of the world unite!—the means of production. In our time it is defined by education, and profession, and by the cultural affinities that flow out of these. The media see Harper talking about subsidized whiners or ivory towers and scream “culture war.” But it isn’t culture war. It’s class war. It’s not about right and left. It’s about lower and upper.

Like out-of-elbow aristocrats, the Brahmins of today are not necessarily to be found in the upper reaches of the income scale. That indeed is the point. As lawyers, academics, civil servants, journalists and the like—symbolic analysts, in Robert Reich’s phrase—they operate in a higher realm than mere commerce (though it has never stopped them from taking payment for their work). That is what makes the issue of arts subsidies so interesting as a class signifier. It is the culturati, not their Harperite antagonists, who have made this a wedge issue over the years, as a test of class loyalty. The perspiring middlebrows they have herded into the subsidy tent are anxious not to be thought uncultured, but more anxious still not to be thought lower class. It isn’t love of the arts that unites them. It’s horror of “the market”—of them.

In many ways, the Conservatives are mining the same territory as the Republicans in this regard: less soccer moms than NASCAR dads, or their Canadian equivalent. Only, in this country they are wooed less with cultural offerings than economic. Read those Conservative budgets: it jumps out at you. The tax credit for tradesmen’s tools. The special tax exemption for truckers. Coded messages, more symbolic than substantive, that say “we’re on your side.” It’s pandering, of course, but of a particular kind. The Liberals have historically sliced up the electorate, as it were, vertically: along the traditional lines of region and race. They pandered vertically. The Tories pander horizontally: by class.

At its worst, Tory/Republican class politics appeals to an ugly anti-intellectualism, a contempt for expertise, as in the Prime Minister’s airy dismissal of economists who disagree with his GST cuts, or criminologists who despair at his approach to crime. But Liberal/Democratic class politics has its own ugliness, an almost unconscious scorn, best expressed by the famous story of the Manhattan matron’s utter bewilderment at Richard Nixon’s election: “Nobody I know voted for him.” It is a worse snobbery for believing itself rooted in merit. The educated look down upon the uneducated, the cultured on the uncultured, without even that paternalistic benevolence that marked the aristocrat of old.

I’ve heard it said that Barack Obama (Harvard Law, Class of ’91) can’t be elitist because of his humble origins. This misses the point. Class in our time is not about where you’re from, but where you’ve been.