Jim Leach resigns

The Age of Leach at the National Endowment for the Humanities now draws to a close. On Tuesday NEH Chairman Jim Leach announced his resignation effective the first week in May.

Leach’s resignation calls for some kind of a reckoning. Judith Dobrzynski notes Leach’s resignation here. From inside the world of the arts and the humanities, she tactfully takes the measure of Leach’s tenure and finds it wanting. There is, however, more that can be said.

In a twist on the aphorism that has become a cliche, the Age of Leach involved repetition. Like history in Marx’s aphorism, Leach repeats himself — but in his case it is one damn farce after another. In his capacity as chairman, perhaps most notably, Leach became 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, and Leach was proud of that sentence. It was included in the NEH press release on his swearing in as chairman.

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. It has been my thesis that an enterprising editor could compile a book of Quotations from Chairman Jim derived from Leach’s NEH speeches. The book would 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 seemed to think that giving speeches was a core function of his role as chairman. 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.

Leach repeated himself endlessly on his 50-state civility tour. He proved over and over again the petty partisan purposes to which the call for “civility” could be put. Wherever he went on tour Leach discredited the call for “civility” by the likes of, well, him.

Leach continues his struggles with syntax and idiom to the end of his tenure. In the statement on his resignation this past Tuesday Leach shows, among other things, that he doesn’t know the meaning of the word “corollary” but that he believes he has strengthened “the idea base of our democracy.”

“I am grateful for the opportunity to have become associated with an agency that plays such a critical role in humanities research and public programming,” he said. “America needs an infrastructure of ideas as well as bridges and no institution over the past half century has done more to strengthen the idea base of our democracy than the NEH. The humanities are an essential corollary to the nation’s increasing focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).”

Inside the quotation marks are the words Mr. Leach composed at his leisure to reflect well on him and the job he has done as chairman of the NEH.

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