We’ve had a lot of fun here in the past few years with the buffoonery of former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach, whose recently concluded tenure at the NEH offered a near-daily target-rich environment of pompous windbaggery and pseudo-learned posturing, while betraying not a speck of knowledge about or interest in the humanities themselves. Leach’s speeches will stand for years to come as monuments of educated illiteracy, and readers who enjoy this kind of thing can tap into our collected Quotations From Chairman Jim.
But not all of Leach’s hijinks were harmless. It is increasingly clear that a motif of his tenure was obeisance to President Obama. As we observed frequently, his preposterous “civility tour” was often little more than an excuse to call out and condemn Obama’s political opponents, including the Tea Party, for the effrontery of their dissent from the administration’s agenda. The irony of Leach’s sermonizing has become richer as we have learned in growing detail how Leach’s civility tour was reenforced by the IRS’s civility tour.
In no area was Leach a more willing tool than in his use of the NEH to propagandize for the Obama administration’s wishful thinking about Islam. Leach saw Obama’s much-vaunted Cairo speech as the blueprint for what the NEH should be doing, as he made clear in this fawning address to the Carnegie Corporation, and numerous Endowment initiatives followed, including the Bridging Cultures initiative, and the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf.
No one would deny that Americans could benefit from greater knowledge of the Muslim world. They would benefit even more from a greater knowledge of many other things, including the provisions of their own Constitution, and the advantages of limited government. But Leach’s Muslim initiatives at NEH come into sharper focus considered alongside Patrick Poole’s recent comprehensive study of the Obama administration’s misguided project of “outreach” toward the Muslim world.
In light of Poole’s work, it appear that Leach was using the NEH as an organ of administration policy and of powerful private supporters of the administration’s agenda. One might have thought that NEH was immune to the kind of openly politicized behavior (remember Yosi Sergant?) to which the National Endowment for the Arts was prone in the early years of the Obama administration. If so, one would have been wrong.
Consider the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf that Leach foisted on the Endowment, with the support of a $1.2 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation. Canegie is an organization run by Vartan Gregorian, under whose leadership Carnegie has become deeply invested in Islam-related initiatives, as well as serving as a conduit for Michael Bloomberg’s use of his private fortune to influence New York politics.
Gregorian had an agenda for the Bookshelf. An NEH source familiar with the project has explained that the grant was awarded by Carnegie to the NEH with the unwritten (but completely understood) proviso that there were to be “no books by Bernard Lewis on the list.” Lewis, who is the Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, only happens to have had a career of over 60 years as one of the world’s most eminent scholars of the Middle East. But evidently his views are not acceptable to Vartan Gregorian. And lo and behold, none of Lewis’s many books appear among the final group of twenty-five book on NEH’s list, which appeared earlier this year, and whose contents were shipped to 953 local libraries and humanities groups.
The Bookshelf has attracted little attention. Marvin Olasky has recently provided an excellent analysis of it, deserving of a wider audience. (There is also a follow-up here, and the entire list of books is here.)
Olasky makes clear the complete exclusion of voices critical of Islam and the dangerous Islamist tendencies within Islam. When asked about the exclusion of Lewis, NEH political flack Eva Caldera sniffed that his works were already “widely available.”
This statement Olasky found to be less than true, and in any event a statement that runs against the supposed justification for the Bookshelf: that Americans are woefully ignorant about Islam because they lack access to reliable materials on the subject. But he who pays the piper calls the tune, and the Carnegie Corporation was paying the bills.
But here is the point: Leach used the NEH, with the assistance of private funds from the Gregorian-run Carnegie Corporation, to support the administration’s pernicious policy initiatives, as described by Poole. Leach thus converted the NEH into a vehicle of pap and propaganda.
We glimpsed this in an NEH-sponsored exhibit at the New York Hall of Science in 2010. The exhibit — 1001 Inventions — celebrated Muslim “contributions” to the history of science. The New York Times’s Edward Rothstein skewered the show as an “identity exhibit,” meant more to “instill confidence” and provide positive “role models” for young Muslims than to reflect the past accurately. (I wrote about it in “1002 inventions.”) In his review, Rothstein also sums up much of what is wrong with the Leach’s NEH Muslim initiatives:
[O]ne tendency in the West, particularly after 9/11, has been to answer Muslim accusations of injustice (and even real attacks) with an exaggerated declaration of regard. It is guiltily offered as if in embarrassed compensation, inspired by a desire not to appear to tar Islam with the fervent claims made by its most violent adherents.
What is peculiar too is that the current Hall of Science show presumes a long neglect of Muslim innovations, but try finding anything comparable about Western discoveries for American students. Where is a systematic historical survey of the West’s great ideas and inventions in contemporary science museums, many of which now seem to have very different preoccupations?
An NEH that was doing its job, instead of carrying ideological water for the president, would be asking the same questions.