Two views of one lecture
NEH head Jim Leach makes a case for civility
Editors note: When National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Jim Leach came to Houston to talk about civility — and the lack of it in today's society — CultureMap contributors Nancy Wozny and Leslie Loddeke each felt moved to write how it affected them. Here's Nancy's civilized reaction.
"Civilizations require civility," so says Jim Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), during his "Civility in a Fractured Society" talk, presented by Rice University's Humanities Research Center.
Who knew? There's not much evidence in the election rhetoric of the past decade. One might conclude that civilization is in a dire state of erosion. Exactly, says Leach, who firmly believes the current state of political communication is crippling our ability to govern wisely. Leach traces the history of political manners back to the founder's protection of the "rights of man."
Leach was appointed NEH chair by President Obama last year, after a three-decade career in Congress as a Republican from Iowa and a teaching position at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He holds eight honorary degrees and has received numerous awards for his outstanding contributions to public service.
"This is not the worst time in history," offered Leach, reminding the crowd that in 1804 the then vice-president Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. "Consider the tension of the 1930s, where everyone suffered. Today some have never done better while others suffer. Yet the best and brightest have let the country down. There's a reason for hard feelings, but we need to think through those hard feelings."
On the other hand, Leach believes that a government without argumentation leads to tyranny. "Let's celebrate argumentation," he says. "We need to respect the right, the left and even the oddballs."
He got me on the oddballs. This last election seemed overwhelmed with fringe thinkers, some of whom won elections and are now in positions of power. According to Leach, the inappropriate rhetoric of this past election cycle was particularly disturbing, the words "fascism," "communism" and "succession" being the most troubling, and frankly, misused.
"Sports has a stronger ethics than politics," Leach insists. He's right, when a player doesn't follow the rules, the ref is there with a penalty. Bad manners are not tolerated.
In politics, it's just the opposite. Consider negative ads that exaggerate or even worse, downright lie, to make their point. Negative ads continue because, sadly, they have an impact. "You are rewarded, not punished," Leach says, about the power of negativity in political ads.
Leach is concerned, and rightly so, there's not enough talking about the public good. "Compromise is not a four letter word," says Leach.
Yet, it comes with a cost. Consider what compromise did to the health care bill. Obama even mentioned it in his somber post-election speech. But without it, we would have nothing.
Leach talked about his days in Congress, where if he didn't listen to the other side no action was possible. "Sometimes they even have a better idea," he offered.
Leach concluded with a plea to consider the importance of the humanities now more than ever.
"The role of the humanities is to put ourselves in each other's shoes," he says. "The best way to do that is through the study of history, literature and philosophy." So as a former philosophy major, I can take pride.
The take home message seems to be that both sides need to calm down, grow up, face our problems with less reactivity and genuinely listen to one another. Really? Even Christine "not a witch" O'Donnell?
OK. I'm listening. In the end, I took some comfort listening to Leach, a voice of reason, logic and well, civility.
Leslie Loddeke is shaken when an acquaintance tears into President Obama at a party; click here for her reaction to the lack of civility in today's society.