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Offending American Sensibilities

Guest Column Aram W. Harrow

In her recent column ["National Endowment for Smut," April 3] Elaine Y. Wan '01 condemns the National Endowment for the Arts for spending taxpayer money on art that some people don't even like. Oh, horror! Through diligent research, I've found another, slightly larger use of taxpayer money that is also arguably wasteful and may even offend the morality and sensibilities of the average American as much as federal art funding.

For decades, despite knowledge of continuing genocide and repression in East Timor, the United States Army trained Indonesian special forces in such topics as "advanced sniper techniques" and "riot control." Did you know that your tax money helped sponsor this training? Aren't you proud? A bit of the hard-earned money you made from working house desk, cleaning blackboards, or typing algorithms went to help butcher Indonesian minorities.

Of course, the corrupt military-industrial complex has other uses for its $271.6 billion (an incredible sixth of our entire budget) that the rest of the world (albeit all non-taxpayers) might find a tad indecent as well. While U.S. diplomats try to negotiate global non-proliferation agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty internationally, domestic military spending dooms most of these efforts. Congress recently approved $3.6 billion for ballistic missile defenses that backers admit would require "renegotiation" of the ABM and, insanely, new, more powerful nuclear weapons are being developed with advanced computer simulations and powerful lasers to circumvent the CTBT's narrow definition of "test."

If one doesn't like a particular piece of objectionable art, simply not looking can often prevent most of the harm done by it. Unfortunately, no amount of "not looking" at the military will change the fact that global efforts for a permanent war crimes court similar to the ad hoc ones set up for Bosnia, Rwanda and World War II are being blocked by our government's refusal to allow U.S. soldiers to be prosecuted internationally for crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, lobbyists for Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors are spending millions to push for the inclusion of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. For them, NATO expansion is a bonanza of new weapons sales. For economically and militarily enfeebled Russia, however, it is a symbolic slap in the face, a contradiction of our post-Cold War promises of cooperation, and a blow to the political standings of the pro-Western democrats who are the only way to guarantee a peaceful Russia. Already, chances for ratification of a landmark arms control treaty, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), have disappeared as Russia has been forced to revise its defense doctrines to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons.

So why should we care about how our soldiers prepare for war? Because it is our tax money being discussed here. And the history of governments "ensuring peace by preparing for war" is even worse than the history of government choices for the arts.

While completely disarming might not be ideal, our "defense" forces have abandoned that role long ago and now have created new threats (who often react as such) to justify their own existence. China, Iraq, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, terrorism, drugs and organized crime are a few examples.

In his State of the Union, President Clinton reaffirmed his decision to heavily fund our preparations for war (actually, "two major regional wars") when he remarked, with unwitting irony, that "a strong military and diplomacy are two sides of the same coin." The next time you visit Dresden or My Lai or a minefield in Cambodia or the victims of the "smart" bombs dropped on Iraq, try to analyze whether you would want your tax dollars spent on what you see.

As for the NEA, while they do review the art they fund for artistic merit (lewd or not, the abstract arrangement of coins in my dresser probably won't get a grant, for example), they rightfully do not screen out "indecency" (a term considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a 1997 ruling against the Communications Decency Act). Instead "obscenity" (a term with explicit exceptions for artistic, moral or political value) is banned more generally. I also don't think it's "elitist" to argue that we would be much more culturally impoverished if art was never controversial or even unpopular in its time.

Aram W. Harrow is a member of the Class of 2001.