Protecting the funders and storytellers who make our national identity
Good or bad, every organization has a brand. A brand is a story, and storytelling has become a trendy way for companies to convey fresh and authentic messages about “who we are.” For the same reason, countries tell their national story to unite citizens with a sense of meaning in a common endeavor, one that indicates a future course. How we interpret the story evolves – it gets reaffirmed and retold for each new generation – but for the most part people agree on “who we are.” Until now.
New York Times columnist David Brooks worries the current American generation has lost its story, lost the basic agreement about where they’ve been, where they are, where they’re going. Brooks concludes America needs “somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an idea vision of what the country and the world should be.”
Ordinarily the United States has organizations that facilitate the telling of stories that keep the brand fresh with new interpretations. The problem is these aren’t ordinary times. In his first budget, Donald Trump cancelled the mandates of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Both were established in 1965 by a president who recognized arts and culture as an essential capability, evidence of America’s “advanced civilization” status. And for fifty-two years the myriad stories supported by NEH and NEA grants served to help Americans understand “who we are” and signal the brand’s direction.
Shuttering the endowments signals the national brand is going in a less appealing direction. Whether or not this latest president is a philistine intent on beating plowshares into swords, these cuts undermine how future American generations refresh and retell their story.
Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard, has rushed to defend the NEH. She wants people to know this is a profoundly important organization. Whether through small projects that put the humanities into parts of the country underserviced by museums or lectures or through national television broadcasts exposing tens of millions of people to pivotal moments in their nation’s history, the NEH helps Americans “understand how we came to be the nation, people, and world we are.” According to Faust, the NEH “challenges us to reflect on our identities as citizens [and] to ask profound questions about origins, legacies, and meaning, to contemplate where we are going as individuals and as a society and why.”
By facilitating the American story the NEH is a branding agency in all but name – and a relatively modest expense. Each year these two endowments spend about $300 million supporting artists, musicians, writers, and scholars – by no means a trivial sum, but still a fraction of the government’s annual $1.1 trillion discretionary spending budget. Name another program that, as Faust says, “nurtures our national soul,” or “links the past to the future and connects all of us to the purpose that guides us?”
Why would Republicans quibble with a program that influential?
Canadians should be paying attention. We have a similar funding body keeping our identity story fresh. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) is responsible for enabling the creation of much of Canada’s new academic knowledge in the liberal arts. Those stories position Canada among other countries as successful and healthy and helps demonstrate Canadians can engage with the world in meaningful conversation.
SSHRC facilitates the development of a smart brand for Canada but we can’t take its work for granted. The projects it funds – some mainstream and popular, others odd and obscure – may collectively add up to a picture of how intelligent people define our identity yet there are many people quick to dismiss it.
As a facilitator SSHRC receives few accolades and isn’t widely understood. SSHRC has to explain itself and take more credit for its own story for no other reason that strong brands are a form of protection. If the public can come to appreciate SSHRC as an enabler to Canada’s success then “anyone seeking to cut funding will,” as Jim Collins once wrote, “have to contend with the brand.”
Otherwise the Canadian philistines – and they are out there – may find it easy to defund SSHRC when they get the chance. It isn’t hard to imagine a populist Conservative government, modeled on Trump’s administration, advocating similar cuts.
We need more open dialogue about funding storytelling in the digital space — more support for our storytellers – not less. My message to our politicians: don’t curtail the work of organizations that facilitate the building of national identity. Whether that enabler is SSHRC, a museum, the National Archives, the CBC, the National Capital Commission, Parks Canada, or others like them, their work is building the smart brand Canada needs in ways we can’t always quantify or appreciate. Collectively, however, their impact is immeasurable. It’s in our best interest to sustain their work.