A wish list for the new president
1. Repeal the 1st Amendment. This may seem extreme, but let’s be honest, it’s not at all up to date. In this country, we are famously free to express ourselves, but despite such clever innovations as the Internet, no one will read, see or hear our work unless it can be profitably sold or can be displayed beside shiny advertisements.
This is an odd sort of freedom. It means censors are unnecessary. The market does their work effectively and with less controversy. The market, as Karl Marx observed, brilliantly obscures the true nature of social relations. Artists, as a result, find themselves confused as to their role (to chase truth? beauty? Wal-Mart?) and the place of their work in our society. This must end.
There is not a single Marxist on your economic team, President-elect Obama, so I doubt you’ll do away with capitalism. Instead, repeal the 1st Amendment. This will be less difficult than you might imagine. Thanks in part to your predecessor, we have grown accustomed to sacrificing trivial liberties in the name of greater goods.
2. An e-mail petition has been circulating urging you to create a Cabinet-level position for a secretary of the arts. Please consider nominating Iraqi journalist Muntather Zaidi. His shoe-pitching performance in Baghdad last month displayed a startlingly precise understanding of the proper relation of the artist to those in power.
Should his current confinement render him unavailable for the job, consider nominating, as a group, the Guantanamo detainees. While unorthodox, this choice would allow you to follow through with your promise to close the Guantanamo facility and simultaneously solve the dilemma of the detainees’ collective fate. Their experiences have given them a unique and privileged perspective on American culture. And given that the “extraordinary rendition” program, of which many of them are graduates, was pioneered by the Clinton administration, their presence would prove a useful counterbalance to the many Clintonites already selected for your team.
3. Some of your liberal supporters have suggested attaching something like the Depression-era Works Progress Administration to your proposed stimulus package. This idea, while well-meaning, suggests that our government fails to sufficiently fund the arts. This is not true. We value different arts and fund them handsomely. Pyrotechnics, for instance, and prison architecture. We successfully incarcerate more people than any other country -- bombs and prisons are our pyramids, our sphinx!
You have remained mysteriously silent on our nation’s commitment to these art forms. Please consider a plan that would enlist underemployed writers and artists in our grand munitions and prison-building projects. When they have completed this mission, they can inhabit the cells they’ve built and thereby combat homelessness. Incarceration is good for the economy (in many counties, it is the economy) and for literature -- think of Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn, Genet, Malcolm X. Who would they be were it not for bars and walls?
4. Please do not interpret the above to mean that artists and writers would turn down grants, tax rebates, back rubs, tips. I suspect I speak for everyone when I say: We are not too proud!
5. As a subsidiary request, please consider giving priority placement in any job-creation programs to the broadening pool of idle MFA graduates. The bloody history of the last century has demonstrated the hazards of creating an educated class without taking adequate measures to employ and contain them. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were educated in Paris and returned to a Cambodia that lacked sufficient opportunities for their advancement. Look at the trouble they wreaked!
Artists are full of subversive and utopian ideas. Imagine the havoc they might unleash if, unsupervised by market forces and the calming influence of state patronage, they should attempt to put their ideas into practice.
Ehrenreich is the author of the novel “The Suitors.”