While the National Endowment for the Arts has attracted attention as a propaganda arm of the Obama administration, the National Endowment for the Humanities has so far escaped such attention. The new chairman of the NEH is Republican former Rep. Jim Leach. Leach supported Obama during the campaign and must have had dreams of office higher than the chairmanship of the NEH. The NEH itself is of course supposed to be nonpartisan. In his capacity as chairman, however, Leach has become something of an Obama mouthpiece .
In a speech this past September titled “Bridging cultures: NEH and the Muslim world,” Leach explained his support for Obama during the campaign: “[O]n a personal note, I chose as a Republican to endorse Barack Obama for President because I was convinced that never in American history was the case for a course change more compelling in international relations and because I had become convinced that seldom had a more natural humanist been chosen to represent his party for national office.” And that wasn’t all!
The anthropologist and National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood raised a red flag concerning Leach’s “Bridging cultures” speech here. Professor Wood says just about everything that needs to be said about it.
Leach is making himself something of a schoolmarm, both pompous and insipid, while continuing to curry favor with the Obama administration. Earlier this month Leach returned to the themes of his “Bridging cultures” speech in “The tension between speaking and listening,” at the Wayne State University Law School. Matthew Franck concisely disposes of Leach’s speech here.
In the speech Leach opines at Castroite length on politics, civiilty, the Supreme Court, and just about everything but the humanities. Unlike any previous chairman of the NEH, Democrat or Republican, Leach is turning the NEH into a political soapbox.
Leach purports to advocate civility while instructing various political actors in the deficiencies of their discourse, but Leach’s contribution has its own deficiencies. Like “Bridging cultures,” the speech is miserably written in a style that might be characterized as educated illiterate. The author of the speech badly needs a course in remedial writing.
One finds in both speeches Leach’s praise of Lawrence Durrell’s highly literary Alexandria Quartet. Would someone who has actually read all four novels of the Alexandria Quartet really say, as Leach did at Wayne State, that “Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas,” or instruct his audience that “The choice for leaders is whether to opt for unifying statesmanship or opportunistic partisanship”? I would like not to think so.
Leach holds the Quartet almost as high in his esteem as he does Obama:
In a set of four books published half a century ago called the Alexandria Quartet,the British author Lawrence Durrell describes urban life in the ancient Egyptian city Alexandria between the first and second World Wars. In the first book, Durrell spins a story from the singular perspective of one individual. In each subsequent book, he describes the same events from the perspective of others. While the surrounding events are the same, the stories are profoundly different, informed by each narrator’s life and circumstances. The moral is that to get a sense of reality it is illuminating to see things from more than one set of eyes. This observation can apply to interactions in a court room or town hall or to the international stage. What America does may seem reasonable from our perspective, but look very different to a European, African, Middle Easterner, or Asian.
Leach’s errors describing the Quartet suggest that he himself needs another pair of eyes to get a good perspective on it. It seems to have been a while since Leach actually read the novels, though he may be the first of Durrell’s readers to find a moral to the story.
Leach deduces a serious relativism from the novels’ experiment with point of view. For a relativistic kind of guy, however, Leach seems awfully sure of himself. One must wonder about Leach’s relativistic point of view. Is it exempt from the Leach uncertainty principle? How can he be so sure that he is right, and the point of view of other Americans (including a majority of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case) wrong? Or is the Leach uncertainty principle the final revelation?
Leach gives no hint of Durrell’s exploration of geography, love and sex in the novels. Describing Eve Cohen, the woman who inspired the novels’ enigmatic character Justine, Durrell wrote to Henry Miller. Durrell described Cohen as serving up “experience raw – sex life of Arabs, perversions, circumcision, hashish, sweetmeats, removal of the clitoris, cruelty, murder.” It’s the kind of thing that tends to get lost when you’re busy instructing your fellow citizens in “public manners.”