We have kept up with the deep thoughts of National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Jim Leach since he was appointed by President Obama. Previous posts include “Jim Leach’s bridge to nowhere” and “Civility for thee…”
Leach customarily holds himself out as having read Lawrence Durrell’s highly literary Alexandria Quartet and has taken to using the Quartet as a teaching tool in his speeches. One wonders, however, whether someone who has read all four novels of the Alexandria Quartet would say, as Leach does, that “Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas,” or that “The choice for leaders is whether to opt for unifying statesmanship or opportunistic partisanship.” I would like not to think so.
When instructing his audiences in the virtues of civility Leach provides instruction of another kind. He shows how the advocacy of civility can be used as a political tool to disparage your political opponents and invite them to stifle themselves. Leach is at it again in his recent speech at the University of California, Davis.
In this speech we get Leach’s teaching on civility. Yet we get no discussion of the recent incident at the University of California, Irvine, a school in the same system as UC Davis. At UC Irvine a Muslim student group shouted down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and prevented Oren from speaking. There is no hint anywhere in the speech that a Muslim might be capable of incivility. Whatever the merits of civility, occasionally one needs to be reminded that courage is one of the classic virtues.
We get Leach’s take on the role of civility in human affairs: “There are few greater threats to civilization than intolerance.” As can be seen in spots around the world that Leach doesn’t care to mention.
We get Leach’s thoughts on “the never-sleeping nature of history” which, in Leach’s hands, ironically becomes a sure cure for insomnia.
We get Leach’s framing of the Holocaust in history: “While the past may at times have murky dimensions, there is clarity about the Holocaust.” Leach is apparently a little murky on the lack of clarity about the Holocaust in the Arab/Muslim world.
We get Leach’s speculation on the possible fate of Einstein’s out-of-wedlock daughter with “his Serbian girl friend.” Leach postulates that she might have died in the Holocaust. He speculates further that if she did die in the Holocaust, she might otherwise have lived to cure cancer. If she did die in the Holocaust but might otherwise have lived and cured cancer, she offers a lesson in the price of intolerance: “Does this not underscore that mankind’s greatest sin was mankind’s greatest loss?” Maybe!
We get Leach’s invocation of Matthew Shepard, who was killed in 1998, and not, as Leach states, a half-dozen years ago (here Leach was recycling old speech material from 2004 and forgot to update his shtick), Emmett Till (!), various acts of swastika-painting, and of course the obligatory references to Kristallnacht, Auschwitz and those “of the Jewish faith.”
We get Leach’s adage: “[I]t is self-evident that fear of the different is a weakness of the human condition.” Thomas Jefferson somehow overlooked that particular self-evident truth.
We get another Leach adage. “It is our obligation to recognize the forewarnings of history.” If only we could recognize them!
We get Leach’s homespun wisdom: “Whatever our backgrounds, in politics as in family, vigilance must be maintained to insure that everyone understands each other.” In Leach’s case, however, we understand him all too well.
We get Leach on politics, through a glass darkly: “Politicians routinely develop conflicts that do not technically rise to a legal standard of corruption because legislated law and now judicial fiat have weakened that standard.” But somehow we know what he means!
We get Leach on Thucydides’ “didactic chronicle of the Peloponnesian Wars” and this thought: “The democratic seed that popped so briefly up on a rocky peninsula facing the Mediterranean Sea incubated for centuries with sporadic budding across the world before its eventual transplantation to our fertile soil.” Hey, it’s not Donald Kagan or Victor Davis Hanson, but it’ll have to do.
Every paragraph contains some absurdity and infelicity, something that a competent English teacher would circle in red. Leach betrays unfamiliarity with the mundane adage that good writing is an aid to clear thinking. It is itself an important contribution to civil discourse — even more important than stigmatizing your political opponents as uncivil bigots.
It is never too late to learn how to write clearly. Leach might want to take the time to do so now that he is the head of an agency that promotes the humanities, or ask for the assistance of a staff member to edit his deep thoughts prior to pronouncing them.
But Leach obviously has no interest in the mission of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is auditioning for the bigger job that, he is sure, awaits him in the next round of Obama appointments, if only he continues to flatter his patron in the hallowed style of the courtier.
UPDATE: Mark Bauerlein comments on Leach’s “50-state civility tour.” Leach is coming soon to a town near you; consider this your “forewarning.”
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