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Bridging Cultures

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

National Press Club
529 14th Street NW
Washington, DC 20045
United States

November 20, 2009

As Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities I speak today to underscore the importance of the humanities at a time when the world is in flux and the judgment of its leading democracy is in question.

The United States is currently engaged in military conflict in two countries more than a third of the way around the world, each with a unique set of problems. Our engagement in South Asia is a result of a anarchist attack on our shores plotted by terrorists from mountainous redoubts. Our engagement in the Middle East was undertaken against a country that was not involved in the plot against America but was mistakenly thought to be on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction.

In making assumptions about the wisdom and the manner of intervening in the affairs of other countries, would it be helpful for policy-makers to review the history of the French colonial experience in Algeria, the British and Russian experience in Afghanistan, the French and U.S. experience in Vietnam—before rather than after—a decision to go to war?

Would it be useful to study the differences between and within the world’s great religions? And would any aspects of our own colonial history be relevant to decision-making—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 an open-minded 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 human kind. Likewise, thoughtful 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?

At issue today is a world struggling with globalist forces on the one hand and localist instincts on the other. Divisions are magnified at home as well as abroad.

It is particularly difficult 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.

Recent comments on the House floor have gathered much attention, but vastly more rancorous, socially divisive assertions are being made across the land, and few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled “fascist or “communist.” And more bizarrely, significant public figures have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism—the notion of “secession.”

One might ask what problem is there with a bit of hyperbole. The logic, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, is the message. If we lost 400,000 soldiers to defeat fascism, spent a fortune and lost thousands to hold communism at bay, and fought a civil war to preserve the union, isn’t it a citizen’s obligation to draw on the humanities to lend perspective to words that contain warring implications? There is, after all, a difference between holding a particular tax or spending or health care view and asserting that an American who supports another approach or is a member of a different political party is an advocate of an “ism” of hate that encompasses gulags and concentration camps. One framework of thought defines rival ideas; the other, enemies.

The poet Walt Whitman once described America as an “athletic democracy.” What he meant was that our politics in the 19th Century was rugged and vigorous and spirited. Nativism, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment, and, of course, toleration of human degradation implicit in slavery and indentured servitude “hallmarked” much of American thought and many of our social structures.

Indeed, violence was part of 19th Century political manners. A Vice President shot dead our greatest Secretary of Treasury for suggesting he was “despicable” in a duel in which the dueling pistols were filed to a “hair” trigger, causing Alexander Hamilton to fire prematurely skyward. Moments later Aaron Burr vindicated Hamilton’s assessment of his character by mercilessly gunning down his adversary, who may have been duped.

So, uncivil behavior is nothing new. What is new are transformative changes in communications technology, in American politics, and the issues facing mankind.

The impact of new social media constitutes a subject much covered by others, so I would like to devote a few minutes to commenting on the changes in American politics in relation to challenges in the world.

In teaching at Harvard and Princeton upon leaving Congress, I developed a series of what I call two minute courses in American governance. And let me cite several:

  1. Political Science 101 begins with the observation that, with episodic swings, the country over the past generation has been approximately one-third Democratic, one-third Republican, and one-third independent. Grade school math tells us that one-half of one-third is one-sixth. So 16 2/3% of the voters nominally control candidate selection in a typical election, but because only one in four (often a fraction of this figure) participate in primaries where legislative candidates are chosen, it is 1/4th x 1/6th, that is 1/24th that is often the maximum percentage of the electorate which controls the electoral choices offered by each of the parties. This 4% is socially quite conservative on the Republican side and vigorously liberal on the Democratic. Hence, legislative bodies intended to represent that vast cross-section of the American public increasingly reflect principally the philosophical edges. America is a pragmatic, centrist-oriented society. For virtually all of our history citizens have had an aversion to the extremes. Yet, compounded by recent patterns of redistricting, the majoritarian center is vastly under-represented in Congress today and in state legislative bodies as well. It hardly has a seat at the legislative table.
  2. Political Science 102: To the degree parties are controlled or defined by their party apparatus—i.e., city, county, state, and national party organizations—it is impressive that the number of participants in party organizations is a “de minimus” part of one percent. Participants are to be respected for giving of their time and energy but it is a mistake to assume that either of the party organizations is reflective of society as a whole and sometimes not even of the majority who vote for candidates in a general election.
  3. Political Science 103 is that in primaries for President, Republican candidates lean to the right and then if nominated, scoot to the center in the general election; Democrats, vice-versa. But in Congress the scoot is seldom evident. Approximately 380 of 435 House seats are designed or gerrymandered in such a way as to be safe for one of the parties. About half of these safe seats are held by Republicans and half by Democrats. With few exceptions, safe-seat members must lean to the philosophical edges to prevail in primaries and, if nominated and elected, have every incentive to remain firmly positioned far from the center because the only serious challenge to their career choice is likely to come from within the party’s attentive, uncompromising base. Institutional polarization is the inevitable result.
  4. Psychology 101 relates to the fact that an increasing number of issues in Congress are perceived to be of a moral as contrasted with a judgmental nature. Advocates of one perspective or another assume that an individual on the other side of a moral issue is by implication advocating immorality. On the left, the problem is frequently evidenced by those who assume that increasing social spending for almost any compassionate cause is the only moral choice; and on the right, by those who assume that the moral values of one or another group should be written into law to bind society as a whole.
  5. Philosophy 101 is the absence of abstraction. Legislation is increasingly driven by partisan concerns rather than consideration for philosophical notions like the public interest or the greatest good of the greatest number. Idealism has given way to a legislative dynamic in which the dominant considerations are how to respond to issues vibrant in a party’s base constituencies and how to balance the influence of various moneyed interest groups.
  6. Philosophy 102: 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. There is a lot written today about globalism, but this century is also about localism. To adapt to a fast changing world, one must understand both of these phenomena—the fact, as Tip O’Neill repeatedly noted, that all politics are local and a corollary that all local decisions are affected by international events. Caution must accordingly be taken in assuming that great power advocacy of a compassionate cause can necessarily trump the desires of small states to make decisions about their own futures, even seemingly irrational ones.
  7. Military Science 101: Military strategy in the last generation has become increasingly sophisticated with considerations of questions ranging from overwhelming force doctrine to end-game strategies to concern for the sustainability of American public support for policy initiatives. But left out of in-depth consideration have been cultural ramifications: Cultural Factors that go far beyond protection of heritage sites and respect for “mannerly” traditions. The lesson of our times is that military strategy must include consideration of unintended consequences, particularly the after-affects of intervention from the perspective of the society most affected and those in the world that share similar cultural traditions. At issue is not simply whether democracy is better than other methodologies of social organization and whether it can be readily imposed from the outside, or whether it is justifiable to seek to advance an individual rights ethic that increases opportunity for women and minority groups. At issue also is the sobering question of whether good intentions can be counter-productive and lead to greater internal conflict, social disruption, and potentially increased radicalization, and whether progressive transformation of any society is more likely to be achieved through other means than military intervention. Culture is more powerful than politics and surprisingly capable of withstanding change wrought disproportionately by force of arms. So there is no misunder-standing, what I’m suggesting is that strategic thinking that lacks a cultural component is inadequate for the times.
  8. Sports 101: There are profound analogies between politics and sports. A journalist, Grantland Rice famously got it right three quarters of a century ago when he observed that winning and losing are less important than how the game is played. Likewise in politics. The temper and integrity of the political dialogue are more important for the cohesiveness of society than the outcome of any election. The problem in politics is that there are so few rules and no referees. The public must be on perpetual guard and prepared to throw flags when politicians overstep the bounds of fairness and decency. Just as football players, wrestlers or members of a tennis team compete to win, they also learn to respect their opponents. It is asking too much for candidates and their supporters to do the same in politics?
  9. Literature 101 involves a set of four books called the Alexandria Quartet by the British author Lawrence Durrell. Set in Egypt between the first and second World Wars in the ancient city of Alexandria, the first book spins a story from the eyes of one of the participants. Then Durrell proceeds to describe the same events in subsequent books, each a narrative from the prespective of other participants. One wonders: why read about the same events more than once? The reason is that each story is profoundly different. The moral is that to get a sense of reality it is necessary to see things from more than one set of eyes. This may apply to interactions in community, in a court room, or in international relations where what America does may seem reasonable from our perspective but look very different from the perspective of a European or African, a Middle Easterner or Asian. Adding the eyes and ears of others to one’s own capacities illuminates rather than narrows judgment.
  10. Reality 101: In the most profound political science observation of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein suggested that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking. Human nature may be one of the few constants in history, but 9/11 has taught that thinking must change not simply because of the destructive power of the big bomb, but because of the implosive nature of small acts. Violence and social division are rooted in hate. Since such thought begins in the hearts and minds of individuals, it is in each of our hearts and minds that hate must be checked and our way of thinking changed.
  11. Reality 102: In Western civilization’s most prophetic poem, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats suggests that the center cannot hold when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Apocalypse may not be a field of study but it would seem that the chaos of modernity has produced a perspective related to values. Citizens of various philosophical persuasions are reflecting increased disrespect for fellow citizens and thus for modern day democratic governance. Much of the problem may flow from the fast-changing nature of our society which has so many destabilizing elements. But part falls at the feet of politicians and their supporters who use inflammatory rhetoric to divide the country. Candidates may prevail in elections by tearing down rather than uplifting, but if elected, they cannot then unite an angered citizenry. Negativity raises the temperature level of legislatures just as it dispirits the soul of society.
  12. Past Congresses have often been feisty, but what is so confounding about today’s politics is the break with a central aspect of the American political tradition. Historically, legislative decision-making has 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. As the majority party increasingly views itself as the exclusive vehicle of legislative governance, the minority sees itself more in the European parliamentary tradition as the opposition; and vice-versa.

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.

Unlike natural physics where Sir Isaac Newton pointed out that action equals reaction, in social chemistry reaction can be greater than action. Name calling in the kindergarten of life can lead to a hardening of attitudes and sometimes physical responses. Hence civil discourse is about more than good manners. To label someone a “communist” may spark unspeakable acts; to call a country “evil” may cause a surprisingly dangerous counter-reaction.

How we lead or fail to lead in an interdependent world will be directly related to how we comprehend our own history, values, and diversity of experiences, and how deeply we come to understand and respect other peoples and societies. Citizenship is hard. It takes a willingness to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.

In this context, I have proposed that the NEH in concert with the state humanities councils initiate a “Bridging Cultures” program aimed at enlarging our understanding of America’s diverse cultural heritage and the history, language, and art of other societies.

I have also determined to commence a 50-state civility tour, not to express judgment on any issues of the day, but simply to try to make clear that coarseness in public manners can jeopardize social cohesion.

Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Just as polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, 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.

Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy in this change-intensive century than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square.

If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and our way of life?

Thank you.