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. Have we missed something?
The new chairman of the NEH is former Republican 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 last month 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.”
This was not enough. Elsewhere in the speech he returned to the subject of Obama: “The good news is that the President has a mandate to rethink policies in place and appears to have chosen first class professionals with open minds to advise him,” Leach announced. He touted Obama’s Cairo speech as “one of the great humanist speeches of our time” (not the greatest since the Sermon on the Mount?) and took a harsh look at the current political scene:
We have all followed the outburst of a congressman from South Carolina during the President’s recent address to Congress. Less noted, and vastly more significant, than the much publicized congressional utterance is the fact that significant political figures and many citizens have over the course of the last year charged our current President with advancing policies that were either “communist,” or “fascist” or both, and suggested that members of his party in Congress should be investigated for “un-American” activities. Several in public life have even toyed with history-blind radicalism–the notion of “secession.”
Words matter, for they reflect emotion as well as thought. The ones cited above are politically and personally charged. In a legal sense they are, of course, protected by free speech, but the question is whether they nonetheless are part of a vocabulary of hate, jeopardizing social cohesion and even public safety.
The theme of the speech was the NEH’s “Bridging Cultures” initiative. According to Leach, the initiative is aimed at changing the allegedly “disrespectful” attitudes of many Americans toward Muslim contributions to culture. I’d settle for Leach building a bridge of respect to Americans such as Rep. Wilson, but he clearly has bigger fish to fry.
The anthropologist and National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood raises a red flag concerning Leach’s speech here. I urge you to read all of Professor Wood’s commentary on the speech. Professor Wood says just about everything that needs to be said about it.
I want only to add a footnote to Professor Wood’s comments on Leach’s speech. The speech is miserably written in a style that I would characterize as educated illiterate. The author of the speech badly needs a course in remedial writing. Yet one finds in it 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 use the phrase “more contemporaneously,” as Leach does, or say of them “[i]t ends up that each story is profoundly different”? I would like not to think so.
Leach holds the Quartet almost as high in his esteem as he does Obama:
I have suggested to the students I used to teach at Princeton and Harvard that the most important geo-political tract of the last century was that of a family of novels–the Alexandria Quartet by the British author, Lawrence Durrell. Set between the first and second world wars in the ancient library center, Alexandria, Durrell wrote four books about the same set of events, each a first-person perspective from the eyes of a different participant. One wonders why read about the same events more than once. It ends up that each story is profoundly different. The moral is that to get a sense of reality, it is necessary to see things from more than one pair of eyes. This may apply to interactions in a community, a court room, or in international relations where what America does may seem reasonable from our perspective but look very different from the eyes of a European or African, a Middle Easterner or an 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.
Leach deduces a serious relativism from the novels’ experiment with point of view. Americans think the United States is exceptional, the Islamic Republic of Iran thinks it the Great Satan. Who is to say? Here Leach also faithfully promotes Obama’s line.
For a relativistic kind of guy, 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 the average American regarding his country wrong? Or is the Leach uncertainty principle the final revelation vouchsafed to man at the end of history?
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 “bridging cultures.”
JOHN adds: Enough years have passed since I read the Alexandria Quartet that I can no longer comment on the novels’ political significance, if any. But I do recall having a considerable crush on Justine at the time. Alas, I never met anyone quite like her in South Dakota.
PAUL adds: And let’s not forget that Anna Karina played Melissa in the 1969 movie version.