Walter Pierce

re: Our own little Culture War

by Walter Pierce

Get ideology out of NGO funding already  A tricky deadline this week for the column: We went to press late Monday as usual, but last night the Lafayette Consolidated Council voted on an ordinance that would phase out city-parish funding for external agencies — non-profits or, in parliamentary parlance, non-governmental organizations. If council members voted as they indicated they would, the ordinance fell 6-3 and NGO funding remains intact — as it should. If a couple of councilmen changed their mind and voted in favor, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about the counting of chickens.

Being that most members of the council — who in theory represent their constituency — are in favor of funding external agencies, it’s time we as a community find a permanent and practical means of doing so without revisiting this annual culture skirmish. And that’s exactly what this is — the shucks and awe of the Culture War. No one says it explicitly — at least not at council meetings or in the dry verbiage of ordinance — but it’s all over the comment section at an undercurrent that art is for sissies and weirdos and, worst of all, liberals. “NGOs are Trojan horses whose real goal is the employment of bourgeois bohemians who can’t find a real job,” observes “Robispierre” in the comment section attached to last week’s cover story. Robispiere’s unfortunate preference for alliteration over definition aside, the naysayer sentiment that putting on a festival or bringing opera to Lafayette — or working for a financial pittance in a social service non-profit for that matter — is somehow not a “real job” is echoed in every comment section of every story having to do with things cultural or relating to higher education: the certainty that colleges and arts centers are run by liberals for liberals. I haven’t checked but wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the March 19 INDsider blog on a chocolate-making seminar didn’t elicit cries of “activist fudges!”

I don’t dislike naysayers. I have friends who are naysayers. Well, I have a friend who is a naysayer. OK, I’ve met a naysayer. But this is getting tiresome. Lafayette Consolidated Government spends a fortune maintaining three public golf courses. What percentage of Lafayette residents play golf? Two percent? I can’t imagine that greens fees cover the operational and maintenance costs for the courses. But most of us are OK with that expenditure — we’re not asked whether we choose to subsidize it — because golf is apolitical and country club memberships are way damn expensive, but mainly because municipal golf courses, like art centers, contribute to making Lafayette a livable city. And so do social service organizations that serve the most marginalized members of our fair burg.

City-Parish President Joey Durel — a Republican — sees this much more pragmatically, fortunately, at least insofar as cultural NGOs go: They offer a significant return on the investment. As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money. Giving Festival International $72,000 and getting upwards of $1 million back in sales tax, hotel-occupancy tax and other revenues — not to mention municipal prestige — is a hell of a bargain.

Create a public policy. Get the funding out of the council. Make the funding permanent — that’s the next step. If we as a community walked away from last night’s council meeting exhaling a collective “Whew! I’m glad that’s over for another year!” we’ve accomplished nothing. Lest this become our own little version of the naysayer assault on the National Endowment for the Arts, Lafayette must call a cease-fire in this culture battle and disarm our Dick Armey.