Let them Eat Opera: Pennsylvania Governor Corbett Gets Honored for Supporting the Arts While Slashing the Arts

What do you get for being a governor who cuts $860 million from his state’s education budget and forces schools to slash their arts education?  A Lifetime Achievement Award for support of the arts from the Pittsburgh Opera.

That’s what’s happening this Saturday to Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett and his wife, Sue.  

They’re to receive an award from the Opera while Corbett is in the midst of cutting basic-education funding, distressed-schools funding, higher education, and early childhood education.

Corbett’s is a case of, “I Decimated the Budget that Supports the Arts, and all I Got Was this Lousy Lifetime Achievement Award for the Arts.”

Corbett argues that no one, not even schoolchildren, are immune from the recession, which has forced brutal trickle-down budget cuts in States and municipalities.

I learned of this story from a friend of mine from graduate school. Her son’s public school has lost music and arts resources due to budget cuts that she and others are fighting. 

The Opera story has gone somewhat viral. A blogger who writes on Pennsylvania school funding got over 10,000 visits to her page after this story broke, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The real operatic performance may happen outside of the Pittsburgh Opera Saturday night, as protests are planned.

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley isn’t too persuaded by the protests, chalking them up to some kind of political virus: “People can protest whatever they want,” he says. “It is the season of protest.”

Don’t forget to get your immunization, folks.  There’s an outbreak of “protest” going around.

For their part, the Pittsburgh Opera might have a keen ear for arias, but they strike me as rather tone deaf in their response. They explain: “Gov. Corbett will be honored for his early work [my italics] as a teacher, and a long-standing protection of the public interest as attorney general.”  In other words, up to this point, it sounds like the Governor’s getting a “Lifetime Achievement Award,” but not for anything he’s doing in this lifetime.

The statement then concludes, however, that “additionally, as Governor, he has recognized the economic, educational and social value of the arts.”

Except that he’s apparently not doing anything of the sort.

There are a few reasons why this story might be getting attention, beyond Pittsburgh.

For one thing, it feels like a 99%/1% square off.  We’ve got the image of Corbett and his wife, hobnobbing with well-heeled and gowned benefactors of The Opera, the stereotype of a rich avocation, at a gala. The 99% go to “Parties,” but the 1% go to “Galas.”

Meanwhile, outside the Opera doors, you’ve got the restless hoi polloi. You’ve got public education students, parents, and teachers, who might not even be able to send their kids to a school with a music class.

Under the circumstances, the Lifetime Achievement Award creates an unfortunate atmospheric of “Let Them Eat Cake” obliviousness—and not for the first time in recent politics.

Also, giving a Lifetime Achievement Award for the arts to a governor who is slashing an educational foundation of the arts is one small, but provocative, example of the fantastical cognitive dissonance in politics today. Say you advocate one thing with your right hand to destroy it with your left.

The same cognitive dissonance happens in debates about abortion and birth control:  Denying women abortions or violating them with trans-vaginal probes is about protecting them and their health and their “right to choose.”

Unraveling the social safety net is about ending poverty.

Union busting in Wisconsin is about the “right to work.”  

Mitt Romney recommends that we let Detroit die, but, actually, he advocated to save it.

This isn’t “flip flopping” or even hypocrisy so much as a political tromp l’oeil.  Destroy the thing that you say you’re saving.

In Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, though, citizens are mobilizing.

The activism is working, too, even in dire times. The good news is that the Pennsylvania budget shortfall isn’t as bad as the Governor initially anticipated, and he might—might—be willing to negotiate to restore some funding. 

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