Bloviation and the humanities

We’ve followed the speeches given by Obama administration National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Jim Leach here (commenting on Leach’s “The tension between speaking and listening”), here (commenting on Leach’s “Bridging cultures: NEH and the Muslim world”), and here (commenting on Leach’s “Civility in a fractured society”).
Leach’s speeches demonstrate the cosmic gulf between Jim Leach’s opinion of his abilities and Jim Leach’s abilities. If he would cast his pseudoliterate prose into rhymed couplets, he might be a character out of Molière. His speeches are illogical, incoherent, long and soporific. One wonders: Shouldn’t the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities be able to write a clear English sentence?
In his speeches one frequently finds 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 in his “tension” speech, 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 deduces a serious relativism from the Quartet‘s experiment with point of view. For a relativistic kind of guy, however, Leach seems awfully sure of himself. When it comes to passing judgment on his fellow Americans, we find that Leach quickly sheds his advocacy of respect for differing perspectives.
In his “civility” speech, Leach criticized the Supreme Court as “corporatist” and criticized “most of all, a citizenry in which individuals have an increasingly difficult time respecting those with whom they differ.” Why? “Nihilism is not the American way.” Where is the Alexandria Quartet when you need it? For a guy who badly needs a course in remedial writing, Leach communicates his point (and he does have one) when he wants to: those who disagree with him are un-American.
Last month Leach gave a speech in Philadelphia to the American Council of Learned Societies. He titled the speech “Jurisprudence and the humanities.” He returned to the themes of his earlier speeches and took a walk down memory lane, recalling another speech he gave to the council four years ago. He quoted himself:

Would it have been helpful for the leader of the free world to have read Greek tragedy–Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides? Or perhaps Greek mythology–tales, for instance, of Oedipus?
Would it be helpful for policy makers then and now to study Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War? And would it be helpful for all of us to continually pay heed to Hannah Arendt’s philosophical treatise, The Origins of Totalitarianism?

Given the ascension of Leach’s patron to the presidency, he is no longer quite so concerned about the president’s reading list, though he still wants us to know that he is well read. Having reminded us of his education, Leach moved on to the subject of his current speech.
Like his presidential patron, Leach takes issue with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. Leach “ruminate[s] at some length” (oh,oh) about the case, “which is about who we as a people are and how we make public decisions.” Anyone trying to understand the fundamental free speech issue involved in the case would best turn his attention elsewhere.
Leach thinks that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address somehow illuminates the issue decided by the Court in Citizens United: “In America’s most trying moment, our sixteenth president did not go to a Pennsylvania battlefield to extol corporations. Nor at Gettysburg did Lincoln celebrate his own virtues.”
Leach interjects a stray but deep thought that he lifts from his earlier speeches: “Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas. Other frameworks describe enemies.” Lincoln did not celebrate his own virtues at Gettysburg, but Leach did not follow his example In Philadelphia. Having cited Whitman, Leach offered a pseudoliterate song of himself to criticize Citizens United:

It is no accident that as the economic gap between rich and poor is widening in America, so is the political gap between powerful elites and seemingly powerless citizens. This correlated economic and political phenomenon is exacerbated by the Court’s linguistic gyrations. To invest with Constitutional rights an inanimate entity, the Court conflates two sets of words–“money” with “speech” and “corporation” with “person.” But the democratic basis of our individual rights is the precept that governmental legitimacy springs from the people. There are no words in the Constitution and no commentary in the Federalist Papers that suggest a conflation of “money” with “speech” and “corporation” with “person.”
Linguistically, no thesaurus suggests a commonality of meaning of these sets of words. Biologically, a corporation cannot vote or run for office. Philosophically, it is an artificial creation of the state which in turn is a creation of the people.
Corporatism is not the American creed. The inspiring words of our founders were about free men born with inalienable rights. It is they who speak. It is they who can assemble. It is they who are considered equal amongst each other.

The relevant constitutional text in Citizens United was this one: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech[.]” The statute at issue in the case expressly prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech that is an “electioneering communication” or for speech that directly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate. The constitutional text does not distinguish among individuals, corporations, and unions. Rather, it is aimed at Congress’s power. It limits the power of Congress to enact laws abridging the freedom of speech.
In other words, while purporting to address the substance of the issue before the Court in Citizens United, Leach was bloviating. He didn’t hit bottom until he located the Court’s decision on the arc of our history that bends back toward slavery, i.e., “that early part of our Constitutional heritage that was self-evidently unjust.” Talk about civility!
The new issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly reports that Leach’s office in Washington’s refurbished Post Office building is filled with painted wooden cutouts of famous “iconoclasts,” among them “Rep. Jeannette Rankin, the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both world wars [and] Henry Wallace, vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, who lost his place on the ticket to Harry Truman…”
Henry Wallace! I have long thought that Roosevelt’s replacement of Wallace with Truman on the Democratic ticket in 1944 provided irrefutable proof that God looks out for the United States. Wallace was a fool who would have altered the course of history very much for the worse if he had succeeded Roosevelt to the presidency in 1945 instead of Truman. Among other evidence of Wallace’s foolishness, one thinks of Wallace’s 1948 campaign that led him into an alliance with the Communists who were the backbone of the Progressive Party.
In his review of the biography of Wallace by John Culver and John Hyde, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., quoted Wallace’s comment on Roosevelt’s replacement of Wallace on the ticket in 1944:

Wallace was, not unreasonably, bitter about the dissembling manner in which Roosevelt had handled his dismissal. He felt betrayed and, in a remarkable lapse for a man not given to earthy language, wrote in his diary about one of FDR’s explanations, “I did not even think the word ‘bullshit.'”

So might it be said of the speeches of Jim Leach.


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