Something strange has happened to the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Age of Obama, and what has happened signifies something important about the age. Yet few seem to be paying attention. The lack of interest is understandable; it too signifies something important about the age. Among the enormities inflicted on the nation by the Obama administration, the degradation of the NEH is small potatoes.
Obama made his mark on the NEH with the appointment of Republican former Rep. Jim Leach to serve as its chairman for a four-year term. Or should that be former Republican Rep. Jim Leach? Having been defeated for reelection to the House in 2006, Leach abandoned his party and endorsed Obama in a speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. For his service to Obama, Leach must have had dreams of office higher than the chairmanship of the NEH — his name was floated as the possible United States Ambassador to the United Nations — but the NEH is what he got. Leach was sworn in as chairman on August 13, 2009.
Leach represented a district in southeastern Iowa for 15 terms. As chairman of the NEH he has found it hard to leave politics behind. The NEH itself is of course supposed to be nonpartisan. In his capacity as chairman, however, Leach has become an Obama mouthpiece, courtier, toady, ninny, relentlessly promulgating the Obama administration line. Surely this is not what Congress had in mind when it created an agency to support the humanities.
Speaking to a staff town hall meeting following his inauguration as chairman, Leach announced a new “bridging cultures” theme for the NEH. “In an era when declining civility increasingly hallmarks domestic politics and where anarchy has taken root in many parts of the world, it is imperative that cultural differences at home and abroad be respectfully understood, rather than irrationally denigrated,” Leach said.
Leach is proud of that sentence. It is included in the NEH press release on his swearing in as chairman. Like Leach’s full-blown NEH speeches, the sentence demonstrates the cosmic gulf between Jim Leach’s opinion of his abilities and Jim Leach’s abilities. If he were to cast his pseudoliterate prose into rhymed couplets, he might be a character out of Molière. His speeches are illogical, incoherent, long and soporific. They are written in a style that might be characterized as educated illiterate. One wonders: Shouldn’t the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities be able to write a clear English sentence?
No sooner had Leach been sworn in as chairman than he began to give a series of speeches lecturing his fellow citizens on matters great and small. An enterprising editor could compile a book of Quotations from Chairman Jim derived from Leach’s NEH speeches. The book might prove both entertaining and useful. It could be used in writing classes to teach students what not to do. Among the quotations, for example, we would find:
There is something about the human condition that wants to be allowed to make governing decisions at socially cohesive levels where citizens may have impact.
America at its wisest recognizes that what is at issue in the world is the fundamental question of how to advance civilized values and inter-relate in civilized ways.
It is the prospect of a Hobbesian jungle in the wake of the challenges of totalitarian man that is central to the concerns of this new century’s first decade.
Human nature may be one of the constants of history, but 9/11 has taught that human conduct must change, not simply because of the destructive power of the big bomb,but because of the implosive nature of small acts.
To fail to study history, to refuse to derive lessons about the nature of man and the human condition resplendent in literature, and to refuse to think through philosophical and ethical quandaries of the day are invitations to magnify the misjudgments of contemporaries and repeat the mistakes of others in the near and ancient past.
[T]houghtful scholarship that is available but not pondered by policy-makers who might have limited interests or ideological biases is a prescription for social error with many costly dimensions.
On the assumption that this is neither a time for scholarly cave-sitting, nor vacuous citizenship, should it not be clear that little is more costly to society than ignoring or short-changing the humanities?
Government-to-government relations implicitly reflect national power contrasts whether or not military power is being asserted.
Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas. Other frameworks describe enemies.
Leach seems to think that giving speeches is a core function of his role as chairman. The NEH has thoughtfully collected his speeches in an online archive. In his November 2009 speech at Washington’s Press Club Leach announced that he was undertaking a 50-state “civility tour”aimed, as Inside Higher Ed reported, “at overcoming the divisiveness that marks so much political and social discourse in the United States today.” Not even Bruce Springsteen goes on 50-state road trips, but then again Bruce Springsteen has to pay his own way.
The remaining parts of this series can now be found here (part 2), here (part 3), here (part 4), here (part 5), and here (part 6).