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Civility in a Fractured Society (Excerpts)

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress
53 Washington Square
New York, NY 10012
United States

March 4, 2010

Thank you, John, for such a thoughtful introduction. Let me reciprocate your kind words with the suggestion that I can think of no one held in higher regard in my time in Congress than you. Indeed, I can think of few Americans who can match your monumental career: distinguished public service capped by what is probably the most successful university presidency of a generation. I wonder if you ever thought that service as Majority Whip in the House of Representatives would lead to becoming one of New York’s biggest landlords.

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In teaching at Harvard and Princeton after leaving Congress, I developed for lecture purposes a large number of what I termed two minute courses in governance…. In honor of your former president and my former colleague being the first descendant of the land that gave birth to Western democracy to serve in Congress, I might mention one dubbed Classics 101.

In his majestic chronicle of the Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides noted how early in the struggle the Athenian assembly became perturbed 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 didactically let his reporting tell a story, this one of decaying values.

Perhaps the greatest flowering of civilization involving the fewest number of people in the shortest time period in history occurred in the 5th Century B.C.
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.

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Today civilization is on trial as radical elements in distant parts of the world stoke differences between and within faith systems.

In response to violent acts of various parties and the dislocating consequences of the global recession, a divisive rhetoric of anger has been precipitated in recent years in the West as well as the East. On the assumption that civilization requires civility, I have commenced a 50-state civility tour to suggest that Americans would be wise to tone down the words we use to define differences between fellow citizens and adversaries, actual or potential, around the world.
If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and way of life?

When given a choice, people in many societies prefer to live near and communicate with those of like background. An emanation of this phenomenon appears in the new media in America where citizens are gravitating to the networks and blogs that share their perspective, sometimes to an extreme.

Analogously, in much of the Muslim world a single-dimensioned drum beat of anti-Western, particularly anti-American, sentiment is being advanced on a daily basis.

The unresolved issue is whether the new communication technologies are of a nature that will facilitate bringing people together or cause greater cleavages within and between cultures.

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While divisive tendencies seem most evident at the moment, it is likely that in the long-term increased access to information and enhanced capacity to communicate with others will prove to be unifying. But this is neither certain nor prone always to be the case. What appears certain is that politics in virtually all societies will be affected by a twittering, Internet world. Political movements are apt to emerge more quickly and have deeper consequences.

In America the movement for change that brought us our current President utilized the Internet in unprecedented political ways. Now, counter-movements, sparked perhaps by the model of the President’s campaign, are using the Internet to voice concerns about everything from the irrational—the President’s birthplace, for instance—to the deeply rational—the explosion of public debt.

Given legitimizing attention by cable T.V., a tea party movement has taken hold over the past few months and a counter-phenomenon, a coffee party effort, has emerged in the past couple of weeks. Each movement appears to have a different chemistry but shares a common disappointment with one or both of the political parties, and a similar dismay about many aspects of American politics.

This afternoon I visited the New York Historical Society. At its wondrous, NEH-supported exhibition on “Lincoln in New York” I was mesmerized by a portrayal of several citizen movements. Pictured was a 30,000 strong rally of New Yorkers calling themselves “Brooklyn Soporifics” who objected to Lincoln and his anti-slavery stance. Next to it was a picture of a group of like-dressed, brown-suited torch bearers called “Wide Awakes” who were marching the streets of the city in support of Lincoln during the same 1860 campaign.

It would be unfair to make philosophical analogies to the tea and coffee parties a century and a half later. What is relevant is that spontaneous citizen activism is not new in American history. And what is analogous is that media innovations have precedents. By the time of Lincoln’s presidency, newspapers had begun to experiment with more pictorial images and several New York papers had come to enjoy a national political audience with regional reporters and a daily distribution in Washington, D.C.

Motivations are never precisely clear or the same for participants in political movements like the tea and coffee parties. But what appears to motivate citizens to join political rallies of one kind or another today ranges from concern for social values to job losses to government bail-outs to levels of public spending to public manners, some preferring spunky outbursts and some a lower key, more respectful dialogue.

At a time of a 20% or more decline of real asset values of America and American families, many citizens are disappointed with government and can identify with aspects of new political movements. The challenge for public officials is to recognize the legitimacy of public angst and for citizens to come to grips with reality within a framework of our country’s traditional ideals.

Reality is that public confidence in government has waned over the past several decades and there is a sense that things may be getting worse in politics.
The dominance of money and the trend of both parties to choose candidates at the philosophical edges make governance a rambunctious art with rapid pendulum swings.

It is always difficult and usually misguided to project electoral results. Yet if this Spring’s winds are maintained, it would appear that a more closely divided Congress will come into being after this Fall’s election. The result that matters most is not which party may come to be in the majority, but whether the two parties can work together for the common good in the wake of divisive campaigns.

There is a question whether the 2010 mid-term election will have analogies to 1994. An even bigger question is whether 2011 will be a repeat of 1995 when our governance structure was tested with brief government shut-downs.

Far more extreme problems existed during Lincoln’s term when he was challenged in the North by some for being too slow to advance emancipation, by others for being obsessively anti-slavery, and by “states rights” advocates who considered him capriciously nationalistic for advancing a draft and wanting to deny governors, especially a partisan foe in New York, control over militias drawn from their states.

Challenging times have brought confused values. Samuel F.B. Morse, for instance, stood out as a seemingly Renaissance man, an inventor, artist and founder of the National Academy of Design, but in politics he might be considered a regressive intolerant, advocating nativist, anti-Catholic, pro-slavery causes. A prominent New York leader of a multi-state, anti-Lincoln movement known as the “copperheads,” he argued in 1862 that “It may be necessary to destroy the Administration to preserve the Government.”

In the middle of our most traumatic war, Morse’s logic was brazenly dangerous. It is similarly un-compelling today.

The national interest is not served by a dysfunctional, rules-hamstrung Legislature, a corporatist Court, an irreconcilable face-off between the Legislature and the Executive, and most of all, a citizenry in which individuals have an increasingly difficult time respecting those with whom they differ.

Citizens should be expected to disagree vigorously with each other and take their disagreements to the ballot box. But after the election we all have a vested interest that a government of, by and for the people doesn’t implode. Nihilism is not the American way.

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Thank you.