I’ve been following the tenure of National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach as he has undertaken a series of speeches seeking to spread the gospel according to Barack Obama. Shortly after his installation as chairman Leach commenced a 50-state “civility” tour preaching the gospel. Not even Bruce Springsteen has thought to pull off a 50-state tour, but then again Springsteen has to pay his own way. Like Springsteen, however, the song remained the same at each destination. The NEH has thoughtfully collected Leach’s speeches in an online archive. Leach’s speeches present a case study in the partisan political uses of “civility.” Warning: Reading Leach’s speeches can kill brain cells.
I covered the progress of Leach’s tour in a six-part series: An introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6. Now comes word via an NEH press release that Leach has completed his 50-state tour. The NEH press release highlights Leach’s deep thoughts at the end of the road. Here are the comments that Leach seeks to memorialize for the ages in the press release:
“[P]olarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety.”
I think I know what he means. Like the warden in Cool Hand Luke, Leach wants us to get our mind right and get on the team. The press release elaborates Leach’s reference to the threat to public safety: “Civility concerns had grown with the acidity of the Congressional debate on health care reform. But the topic took on a grim added significance in January of 2011 when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and a number of her constituents were shot by a deranged gunman in Tucson, Arizona.”
What does the attempted murder of Rep. Giffords by a deranged gunman have to do with polarizing attitudes? According to Leach, those of us in need of attitude readjustment appear to share responsibility for the acts of Jared Loughner. So far as we can tell, however, it is equally likely that Loughner’s derangement derived from a reading of the speeches of Jim Leach. Another quotation:
“Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy in this change-intensive century than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square. If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and our way of life?”
Who lacks an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square? Suffice it to say that you (we) know who we are. Another quotation:
“[Civility] doesn’t mean that spirited advocacy is to be avoided. What it does require is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on each other.”
What a relief. Spirited advocacy has Chairman Jim’s approval. Another quotation:
“Citizens should be expected to disagree vigorously with each other and take their disagreements to the ballot box. But a government of, by and for the people is obligated to conduct the nation’s business in a manner that respects dissenting views and those who hold them.”
What is he talking about? What is the contrast that Leach draws between citizens and the government? Does he have any idea what he is talking about? Another quotation:
“We cannot lead the world unless we spiritually rearm, not with intolerance for others, but with faith in traditional American ideals – honor, dignity, love, or at least respect for neighbors, near and far. As Lincoln noted in words borrowed from Scripture, a house divided cannot stand.”
Lincoln thought the United States could not stand divided against itself between freedom and slavery. He said it would cease to be divided, becoming all free or all slave. He accused the president and Supreme Court of seeking to nationalize the institution of slavery. His “house divided” speech was one of the most incendiary and polarizing speeches ever given by a major American politician. Would Lincoln’s speech pass muster under the Leach rules? No way.
Anyone who has read Lincoln knows that he hated slavery. He even took the United States to war against the advocates of slavery who seceded from the Union. Where was the respect for neighbors near and far?
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should end the quotations from Chairman Jim with Leach’s reference to Lincoln. It is a reference that belies Leach’s point, assuming Leach really has one.