Words: Culture

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The Independent Online
Most governments rename their departments from time to time, if only to show that they're breaking fresh ground, and the new name is usually more pretentious than the last. Thus the Ministry of Housing and Local Government became the much grander Department of the Environment, and the Department of National Heritage did the job of the dear old Ministry of Works. Now National Heritage becomes the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, with Chris Smith as its Pooh-Bah, working closely with an Interdepartmental Creative Industries Taskforce serviced by creative industrialists. Whose ghost is that I see hovering in the background? Can it be Peter Simple's character, Alderman Foodbotham, chairman of Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee?

We ought not to scoff, for this is surely an excellent initiative. It's just that we've been taught by George Orwell to distrust such relabelling. Giving a different name to something doesn't necessarily make people think differently about it; all it does, most likely, is to alter the meaning of the name - calling a propaganda machine the Ministry of Information, for instance, merely alters the meaning of the word information in that context. A group of mafiosi may declare that they have "eliminated" a man, but he's still dead, as his widow may have noticed.

The question is, what do we mean by culture and how (if at all) does this differ from what Mr Smith wants it to mean? Certainly his view of it embraces Covent Garden and the Poetry Society and the Festival Hall, and obviously it excludes the yob and drug cultures. But it's rather vague. And there are other more distant overtones. A totalitarian regime wants to ban non-representational art, say. What better name for the relevant body than the Ministry of Culture? Humpty Dumpty chose his own meaning for whatever words he used, but we all know what happened to him.

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