Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities
Thank you, Clem, for such a thoughtful introduction. I couldn’t be more pleased to be here with Esther and this convocation of humanities leaders and to have the opportunity to visit with my old friend, Bob Kerrey, who was one of the truly independent Senators of this generation.
For me, it is a particularly sentimental matter to meet in Omaha, the finest town in America to go “wife shopping.” That is, 3 1/2 decades ago at a speech I tentatively delivered seeking support in a fledgling race for Congress, an event that attracted an audience of four, I met a wisely skeptical young woman from Nebraska, and a year later found myself 20 blocks up Dodge Street from this hotel at St. Margaret Mary’s church facing the loveliest bride in the land. So let me affirm again: Omaha is the finest town in America to go “wife shopping.”
I was raised 300 miles east of here in Davenport, a wonderful community sited on the westward side of the Mississippi, as Omaha is of the Missouri. These two towns vie with St. Louis for the appellation “Gateway to the West.” St. Louis was the first significant provisioning center for trappers, traders and sod-busters, but the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was at Davenport. A decade later, Omaha supplanted both St. Louis and Davenport as the frontier’s eastern edge with the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act of July 2, 1862.
On this extraordinary day 16 months into his presidency, Lincoln not only launched the Union Pacific Railroad on a path to the sea but signed the Morrill Act establishing land-grant colleges which, matched 80 years later by the G.I. Bill, amounted to the greatest expansion of educational opportunity in American history. I mention this conjunction of legislative initiatives signed into law on the same day because at a time of national peril Lincoln set a precedent of investing in the future. Our Manifest Destiny was facilitated by public investments in infrastructure and learning.
We gather here today in another trying period. We come to affirm our commitment to revitalization of a critical aspect of American life: the humanities.
The Congress and the president have thoughtfully seen fit to recognize the importance of the work of the NEH and of the state humanities councils by entrusting us with a higher level of funding than we have seen in 14 years. But, still, in inflation-adjusted numbers NEH appropriations are barely more than a third of 1979 levels and remain less in unadjusted dollars than in 1994.
An important aspect of my job is to make clear that while there is a cost to all government programs, little can be more costly to society than short-changing the humanities. The humanities are the soul of society.
To illustrate why humanities matter, let me underscore the relevance of scholarship and its intersection with what has been dubbed “the public humanities.”
The United States is currently intertwined in two civil wars, both more than a third of the way around the world, each with a unique set of problems. One is in the wake of a terrorist attack on our shores plotted from a mountainous Afghani redoubt. The other was precipitated against a country that was not involved in the plot against America but was thought to be on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction, a thesis since debunked.
In making assumptions about the wisdom and manner of intervening in the affairs of other countries, would it have been helpful for policy-makers to have reviewed the history of the French colonial experience in Algeria, the British and Russian experience in Afghanistan, the French and U.S. experience in Vietnam?
Would it have been helpful to study comparative religions and observe the historical implications of the Crusades and their relevance to peoples in the Middle East today? And what meaning might be found in our own colonial history—the asymmetric tactics, for instance, of Francis Marion, the South Carolina patriot known as the Swamp Fox, who attacked the best trained army in the world at night and then vanished into impenetrable swamps during the day?
The NEH advances scholarship in these and other areas. But how does a society translate scholarship into public policy? This is a challenging undertaking because it involves multiple parties—serious scholars on the one hand and a curious public and professional policy-makers on the other.
A monk contemplating alone in a cave may be admirable, but wisdom that isn’t shared is noiseless thought in the forest of humankind. Likewise, thoughtful scholarship that is available but unread 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, the role of the state humanities councils is critical.
Some of you are aware that I have suggested that the NEH focus on a “bridging cultures” theme. What is meant and how do our institutional pieces fit together?
Whether the NEH and the state councils should include foreign dimensions in public cultural engagement is not a choice. We are in an interdependent world, and how we lead or fail to lead will be directly related to how well we come to understand and respect other peoples and other societies. It will also depend on how we come to understand ourselves—our own history, values and diversity of experiences.
In a political setting that is bordering on a civility crisis at home and a civilization crisis abroad, it is my intention to launch on behalf of the NEH a “civility tour,” visiting every state in the union and helping initiate discussions about the state of American civility.
It is impossible for a thinking citizen not to be concerned about American public manners and the discordant rhetoric of our politics. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify—or cloud—thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts.
There is a mantra all our mothers taught us that sticks and stones break bones but names don’t hurt. Unfortunately, in the social life of our nation this isn’t always the case.
We have all followed the reactions of a Member of Congress who blurted on the House floor that the President of the United States was lying in a speech to the Congress. On the other side of the aisle a Member described Republican health care plans as amounting to a desire that people simply “die quickly.”
The paucity of respect reflected in the above comments pale, however, to a background of increasingly spiteful partisan rhetoric. In a political system characterized by historic antipathy to extremes, the decibel level of partisan voices is rising. Rancorous, socially divisive ideological assertions are being made with such frequency that few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled “fascist” and “communist.” One Member of Congress has even suggested that colleagues be investigated for “un-American activities.”
Most bizarrely, some in public life have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism—the notion of “secession.”
Even the most cursory study of history would reveal the gravity and implications of such polarizing language. We fought a war across two oceans to defeat fascism and spent billions and sacrificed thousands to hold communism at bay. And a century and a half ago, over 600,000 Americans were killed in a bloody civil war over the question of secession. That war, we thought, settled two issues: that slavery was incompatible with humanist, democratic values and that these United States are indivisible, inseparable from each other. We are a union, after and above all.
The increasing use today of the vocabulary of cultural wars and secession is deeply troubling. We have a unique national culture with a mosaic of subcultures. A critical question is whether we treat our many cultural differences with dignity and respect and as opportunities to grow and learn, or as divisive traumas worthy of warring over.
Where do the humanities, the NEH and the state humanities councils fit in?
The poet Walt Whitman once described America as an “athletic democracy.” What he meant was that American politics in the 19th Century was rugged and vigorous and spirited. So, in some ways there is nothing new in what we are witnessing today. Indeed, the 19th Century was riddled with nativism, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment and, of course, toleration for human degradation implicit in slavery and indentured servitude.
We have progressed but not as far as we should or can. And, as history has shown, societies can regress as well as advance. Citizen vigilance is thus every generation’s responsibility.
I love Whitman’s celebration of the common man and his artist’s sense for our post-Civil War frontier democracy, particularly his use of the athletic analogy.
I come from a state that has a football team, the Iowa Hawkeyes, that at least so far has played remarkably well this year. What is impressive is that the coach and the players, like the coaches and players of the teams they face, are taught to play hard as a unit and by the rules. Their opponents—Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State—are rivals rather than enemies. The teams respect each other. The referees throw flags if they see a clip or a player is off-side.
By contrast, in politics there are few rules and no referees. The public has to make judgments influenced by some candidates who have larger megaphones, often paid for by well-heeled interest groups, than others. Nevertheless, the goal of politics should be to emulate the best in American competition—coaches like Joe Paterno and Kirk Ferentz, Tom Osborne and Bud Wilkinson, John Wooden and Pete Carril, Dean Smith and Dan Gable, Vivian Stringer and Lisa Bluder; players like Nile Kinnick, Bill Russell, Bill Bradley, Shane Battier, Flo Hyman, and Tim Tebow.
In politics we sometimes assume great leaders are presidents. Some like Lincoln and FDR have been. But I have an affinity for those never elected to anything: scholar/statesmen like George Kennan who compassionately understood the Russian people and yet masterminded our Cold War containment strategy that reined in their totalitarian elite; Ted Sorensen who was the voice of a Camelot President; Harry Hopkins who devised a WPA program that instilled vastly greater federal resources in the arts and humanities relative to the GDP during the Great Depression than we devote today.
Past Congresses have often been feisty, but what is so confounding about today’s politics is the break with one central aspect of American tradition. Historically, legislative decision-making has generally been based on what might be described as a Hegelian give-and-take between the parties—the thesis being one party’s perspective, the antithesis the other’s, and the synthesis being legislation that accommodates concerns of each. Over the last several decades, however, a trend has developed or, more precisely become accentuated, where legislative compromises are being made almost exclusively within whichever party controls Congress rather than between the parties. The desire of the majority to accommodate the minority is waning, as is the desire for the minority to allow legislative “successes” for the majority. Balanced debate has been superseded by issue distortion and notions like the common good have given way to partisan and interest group calculations.
As party-line attitudes and voting have become harder edge, Congress is taking on some of the traits of European parliaments. The majority party is increasingly viewing itself as the legislative party of governance; the minority, the opposition.
Far better it would be for all legislators to consider themselves responsible for governing and for both sides to recognize that the other has something to say and contribute. In a society as complicated as ours has become, it is irrational to think that Republicans cannot find some Democratic initiatives helpful to society and that Democrats cannot from time to time vote with Republicans.
As for attitudes, the public goal should be to recognize that it is great to be a conservative or libertarian; great to be a liberal, a moderate, or progressive. But it is not great to hate. It is not great to refuse to respect one’s fellow citizens at home and refuse to endeavor to understand fellow peoples abroad.
The decency and fairness with which political decisions are made are generally more important than the outcome of any issue. The “how” almost always matters more than the “what.”
I spent three decades in Congress but began a public career in the State Department. In the few weeks I have been privileged to head this unique independent agency I have been impressed with the analogies that exist between the State Department and the NEH.
The various state and territorial humanities councils are like domestic embassies tied loosely into the NEH in Washington. The difference with the State Department is that in the humanities the energy flow is inverted. In foreign policy our ambassadors make recommendations and then in Washington the State Department in consultation with the White House determines policy. In the public humanities Washington may give a bit of advice or suggest direction but decision-making is in the councils. Leadership is decentralized.
Likewise in the academic humanities. The ferment of ideas come from outside Washington. Panels of experts drawn from across the land are assembled to peer-review proposals for grants that emanate from every corner of the country and sometimes abroad. Washington may suggest categories of interest but the creative work is done by scholars at hundreds of academic and cultural citadels.
In the public humanities there is little Washington may suggest that hasn’t been experimented with or inaugurated before. All of the councils represented here have programs—from the “Café Society” in Illinois to “Think and Drink” in Oregon to “Reflect” in Montana to Maine’s “Literature and Medicine” series to this state’s “New Nebraskans” and “Good Life” initiatives—that anticipate or might be considered part of a “bridging cultures” rubric.
The reason I consider it important from NEH’s perspective to refocus and reframe programmatic approaches with a cohesive theme is to emphasize that divisive attitudes and malicious words can, like hate speech, jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety. Conversely, healing approaches such as Lincoln’s call for a new direction “with malice toward none ” can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.
Bridging cultural divides and developng a sense for a common humanity are moral and social imperatives. Together, we in the humanities are obligated to help advance an ethic of thoughtfulness rather than conformity of thought, decency of expression rather than coarseness in public manners.
Civilization requires civility.