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Chancellor’s Colloquium Lecture (Excerpts)

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of California, Davis
1 Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616
United States

April 8, 2010

Thank you Chancellor Katehi for such a thoughtful introduction. In the wake of a series of incidents at high schools, colleges and universities across the land that range from harassment of immigrants to the painting of swastikas on doors of students to vandalism at LGBT offices to Ku Klux Klan hoods being placed on statues, I have been asked to try to put some perspective on the fracturing of civility on American campuses as well as in society at large.

First with regard to the general concept of civility: Few subjects seem duller than concern for public manners. But in the context of American history, where change was wrought in the crucible of debate about the nature as well as the rights of man, little is more important for the world’s leading democracy than recommitting to an ethos of thoughtfulness on campuses as well as in the public square.

The concept of civility implies politeness, but civil discourse is about more than good etiquette. At its core, civility requires respectful engagement: a willingness to consider other views and place them in the context of history, philosophy and life experiences.

Comments several months back on the House floor involving advocates on both sides of the health care debate have gathered much attention, but vastly more rancorous, socially divisive acts and assertions are being made across the land.

According to police authorities, a little over a year ago an Ecuadoran immigrant named Marcelo Lucero was stabbed to death by a group of teenagers in a small New York town. In this town, Hispanics had reportedly been frequent targets of harassments and for years had been scoffed at as “beaners.” Lucero’s stabbing is being described as an emanation of an activity known as “beaner-hopping.”

Maybe it is a long step from a derogatory “beaner” reference to “beaner-hopping” to a murderous hate crime, just as maybe it is a long step from swastika painting to the torching of buildings to mass murder.

Then again, history tells us it may be a short step. Indeed, in one of the world’s most advanced cultures it took less than a decade for the stoking of anti-semitic rhetoric to migrate to Kristallnacht and then Auschwitz.

So, for those who might question what is so awful about a simple expression of personal bigotry, it must be understood that there are few greater threats to civilization than intolerance. It is far better to address intolerant acts at their outbreak—that is, resist at the beginning—rather than after a chain reaction ignites.

Let me be clear. In the act of painting a swastika on a student’s door, the person wielding the brush is expressing both hateful ignorance of the individual who may be asleep in his or her bed and dangerous ignorance of the never-sleeping nature of history—that made and that in-the-making.

While the past may at times have murky dimensions, there is clarity about the Holocaust. Members of the Jewish faith were robbed on a systematic basis first of their worldly goods, then of their human dignity with the substitution of tattooed numbers for names, and finally of the breath of life itself. At death, mass graves were dug and no notification of individual fate made to kin or society at large. The message that a totalitarian state attempted to send was that part of humanity was not considered part of human kind.

For those that the prejudiced masses targeted hate, there was to be neither dignity in life nor death.

There are polls that show that anti-gay and anti-immigrant intolerance is weakening, especially among young people in America. But at the same time evidence of growing social fissures is real. Hate groups, some armed, are on the rise. One group, self-described as Holocaust deniers, rejects the incontrovertible evidence that millions were put to death in Nazi gas chambers and machine gun downed in roadside ditches from Ukraine to Byelorussia simply because of their chosen faith.

Here, let me recount a little known aspect of the life of Albert Einstein, the man Time magazine named Man of the Century. As a young man, Einstein had a child out of wedlock with his Serbian girl friend whom he subsequently married. There is no evidence of what happened to this child who was put up for adoption, although some speculate she may have been lost in the Holocaust. If this is the case, the question arises whether this child of genius or her children may have helped unlock the secrets of nuclear fusion or advanced a cure to cancer or other diseases. Does this not underscore that mankind’s greatest sin was mankind’s greatest loss?

This is why the use of history’s greatest symbol of hate—the swastika—here at Davis cannot be taken lightly. This is why the scars that are inflicted on a student’s soul may be more harmful than a wound to the flesh, and why such scars are not only inflicted on the one sleeping behind the door but on students everywhere whose great-grandparents or great aunts and uncles or cousins never emerged from German concentration camps.

In this context, analogous scarring is inflicted on people of color when Ku Klux Klan hoods are placed on statues as occurred recently at another California university, and on gays and lesbians when LGBT offices are vandalized as happened here on this idyllic campus.

Half a dozen years ago a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was attacked outside a bar in a Rocky Mountain town and dragged to a fence post where he was tied, further beaten and left to die. His mother, Judy Shepard, lamented at his funeral that “Matt is no longer with us today because the men who killed him learned to hate.”

“Somehow and somewhere,” she said, “they received the message that the lives of gay people are not worthy of respect, dignity and honor as the lives of other people.”

As we look back at a century hallmarked by the first World Wars in history and the killing of six million people of the Jewish faith as well as countless gypsies and mentally handicapped in the Holocaust; as we look at the senseless brutality of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and modern day Rwanda; as one looks at the prejudice driven murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Byrd, Jamie Ray Tolbert, and Matthew Shepard, it is self-evident that fear of the different is a weakness of the human condition.

When “prejudice” and its twin—hate—flourish, it is inevitable that violence isn’t far behind.

It is therefore extremely troubling that in recent weeks a Congressman who was one of our most distinguished civil rights leaders has been spat upon, that a gay Member of Congress has been subjected to homophobic remarks, and that with increasing frequency public officials are being labeled “fascist” or “communist,” sometimes at the same time. And more bizarrely, hints of history-blind radicalism—notions of “secession” and “nullification—are creeping into the public dialogue.

One might ask what problem is there with a bit of hyperbole. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s observation about the media, the logic is the message.

Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas. Other frameworks describe enemies.

If 400,000 American soldiers sacrificed their lives to defeat fascism, if tens of thousands more gave their lives to hold communism at bay, and if we fought a civil war to preserve the union, isn’t it a citizen’s obligation to apply perspective to incendiary words that once summoned citizens to war? There is, after all, a difference between supporting a particular spending or health care view and asserting that someone who prefers 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.

Citizenship is hard. It takes a commitment to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.

Words matter. They reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify—or cloud—thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels of our nature, sometimes baser instincts.

Stirring anger and playing on the irrational fears of citizens inflames hate and sometimes impels violence.

Conversely, just as demagoguery can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing language such as Lincoln’s plea in his Second Inaugural address for “malice toward none” can uplift and help bring society closer together.

The choice for leaders is whether to opt for unifying statesmanship or opportunistic partisanship.

Likewise, the challenge for citizens is to determine whom to follow: those who seek unity by respecting diversity, or those who press debilitating cultural wars or extreme ideological agendas.

But civility is more than about governance. At issue is whether we perceive ourselves as belonging to a single American community with all its variety, and whether we look at people in other neighborhoods and other parts of the world as members of families seeking security and opportunity for their kin just as we do.

Whatever our backgrounds, in politics as in family, vigilance must be maintained to insure that everyone understands each other. Vigorous advocacy should never be considered a thing to avoid. Argumentation is a social good. Indeed, it is a prerequisite to blocking tyranny and avoiding dogmatism. Rather than policing language, the goal should be to uplift the tenor and tone of debate and infuse it with historical and philosophical perspective.

The poet Walt Whitman once described America as an “athletic democracy.” What he meant was that 19th Century politics was rugged, with spirited debates about immigration, taxes, and slavery. Things could also get violent. A vice president, Aaron Burr, killed our greatest Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel triggered by Hamilton’s claim that Burr was a “despicable” character. Tragically, that judgment was vindicated at the duel where Hamilton fired prematurely skyward, perhaps not realizing that the triggering mechanisms of the pistols had been filed to a hair trigger.

So, uncivil acts, in this case one legalized in the state in which the duel occurred, are nothing new. What is new in our social discourse are transformative changes in communications technology, debilitating changes in American politics, and the gravity of issues facing mankind.

In the most profound political 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.

I have often assumed that in America process is our most important product, and that our Constitutional processes have propelled our history toward greater justice for all.

But we still have systemic weaknesses, particularly relating to the confounding dimension of money in politics, a problem that has just been further complicated by the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case in which the court has approved direct corporate giving for and against candidates.

It is no accident that just as the gap between rich and poor is widening in America, so the political gap between the powerful and the common citizen is also growing.

Politeness may be an aspect of civil discourse but civility and polite words are not synonymous. Moneyed speech that carries strings may be the most uncivil speech of all. It eviscerates reasonableness in public dialogue and distorts the capacity of citizens and policy makers to weigh competing views in balanced ways.

Many good people enter politics only to find that the system causes the low road to become the one most traveled. Politicians routinely develop conflicts that do not technically rise to a legal standard of corruption because legislated law and now judicial fiat have weakened that standard.

Speech is thus at issue from two perspectives. At one end, uncivil speech must be protected by the Court but filtered by the public and, at the other, corporate “speech” must not be allowed to stifle the voices of the people.

Let me conclude with an historical reference, one dating to the 5th Century B.C..

In his didactic chronicle of the Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides noted how early in the struggle the Athenian assembly became disturbed that the people on the nearby island of Melos had determined that rather than support Athens, they would remain neutral in the confrontation against Sparta. So, a vote was taken and an armed flotilla was sent to conquer the island. Shortly thereafter, the assembly reconsidered and sent a fast vessel to signal a return. Several decades later the issue was revisited and another flotilla was assembled and sent, this time without reconsideration. The men on Melos were killed and the women and children enslaved.

Thucydides wasn’t a moralizer but just as the great Greek tragedies and myths unfolded with lessons for all people in all times, he let his reporting tell a story, this one of decaying values.

The democratic seed that popped so briefly up on a rocky peninsula facing the Mediterranean Sea incubated for centuries with sporadic budding across the world before its eventual transplantation to our fertile soil. This country owes much to the Athenian experiment with popular governance, not the least of which is the warning it provided that progressive civilizations can lose their way.

It is our obligation to recognize the forewarnings of history.

We must ask ourselves if we are likely to continue to lead the world if we abandon “e pluribus unum” as a national motto and fail to pull together.

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

Civilization requires civility.

Thank you.