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Civility, Obama Style

The portentous pronouncements of the humanities czar

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Among the many surprises of Barack Obama’s presidency, perhaps the most unexpected have been his appointments to the federal government’s egghead agencies—the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Even his ardent admirers might admit that the current president’s selections were sub-Bushian. 

Jim Leach Cartoon

Thomas Fluharty

It was an article of faith with Obama’s snootier acolytes that George W. Bush was a philistine and a moron. (“Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot” was stripped across the bumper of many a Prius puttering around the reality-based community back in the day.) In fact Bush’s appointments showed he took the cultural agencies seriously. If not a man of high culture himself, he knew one when he saw one. To the NEH he brought a world-class historian of Renaissance painting, Bruce Cole. He selected Dana Gioia, one of the country’s most admired poets and literary critics, to lead the NEA.

Although unusually accomplished, these men were in line with the appointments of previous presidents, who generally picked their chairmen from the country’s large reserve of artists, scholars, and arts administrators. Even Bill Clinton had the inspired idea to pick the celebrated actress Jane Alexander to run his NEA. And he’s from Arkansas.

But Barack Obama? Memoirist, prose stylist of distinction, resident of Hyde Park, prowler of used bookstores, professor of constitutional law? The man whom Michael Beschloss (Distinguished Professor of History, Charlie Rose Tech) called “probably the smartest guy ever to become president”? Surely he would use the opportunity to look beyond the things that divide us as Americans and, drawing on our core common values that we all share as Americans, appoint chairmen who could lift us up and speak to the heart of the American narrative about who we are as Americans. Some artist or scholar—a well-known pottery maker, even. A macramé artist. Pete Seeger. I don’t know. 

No, though. Instead Obama has used the agency chairmanships as spoils of political hackery. To run the NEA, he appointed a Broadway producer (“Big River”) named Rocco Landesman, whose chief qualification for the job was to share a business office with one of Obama’s most fertile fundraising “bundlers,” another Broadway producer (“Hairspray”) called Margo Lion, whose generosity earned her a place atop Obama’s “arts policy committee.”

Not a brainiac, Landesman first broke into public consciousness with a speech declaring that Obama is “the most powerful writer since Caesar.” The claim wasn’t as ludicrous as it first sounds—Landesman meant that the president was the most politically powerful person since Caesar who could also be thought of as a writer—but it was still pretty ludicrous.

“This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt,” Landesman said, “and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln.” Good thing he inserted that indispensable fudge word “arguably.” Obama is indeed the first president to have written his own books since Teddy Roosevelt, but only if you don’t count Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and, arguably, Bill Clinton. And Obama couldn’t be the first president to write his books really well since Lincoln because he, -Lincoln, didn’t write any.

Obama made an even odder choice to run the NEH. Jim Leach is a former Republican congressman from Iowa whose only credential in the humanities seems to be his cofounding of the Congressional Humanities Caucus in 2004, after he had been in Congress for 27 years. His other qualifications must have struck the president as more decisive. Leach was perhaps the earliest prominent Republican to endorse Obama for president, an endorsement he throatily reiterated in a full-dress speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. 

Leach’s Obamaphilia didn’t come as a complete surprise. In his 30 years in Congress, he earned a reputation among the mainstream press as a “Reasonable Republican” who could be counted on to rise above petty partisanship. In ordinary language, this meant he was a liberal Republican who voted with Democrats on crucial issues like abortion rights, campaign finance, and environmental regulation. His annual rating from Americans for Democratic Action was sometimes double his rating from the American Conservative Union.

Unlike some other Reasonable Republicans I could name, Leach deserved much of the admiration his admirers felt for him. He was earnest, soft-spoken, impeccably honest, accessible, and hardworking, and he cleaved to his own kind of integrity, refusing, for instance, to accept campaign contributions over $500. But some admirable qualities are not required to achieve the status of Reasonable Republican in Washington: wide learning, deep intellect, or even managerial skill. Unfortunately, these are the qualities you’d hope to find in a federal advocate for the humanities and the arts. 

Obama’s choice of a brassy Broadway financier and a retired professional politician to be his intellectual ambassadors reveals in the president a sensibility that is neither lowbrow nor highbrow, but no brow—a consuming political calculator working outside any consideration of the arts or the humanities at all. 

How far outside? Lucky for us, the NEH has assembled Leach’s speeches in a handy archive on the agency’s website. Together they open a window into the intellectual life of the administration of the smartest guy ever to become president. 

For the theme of his tenure Leach has chosen “civility,” or, as I have come to think of it after thrashing my way through his archive, the New Civility, to distinguish it from the old, easy-to-understand civility that most of us are familiar with. 

“Civilization requires civility,” Leach likes to say, and the chairman has ensured that civilization will trickle down through his agency and, he hopes, into the country at large. Each year the NEH hands out about $140 million in grants to roughly a thousand hat-in-hand humanists. Program directors who receive an NEH grant are now expected to agree to the agency’s published “Principles of Civility,” an Obama-era version of the old loyalty oaths. Under the agency’s auspices public seminars have been held in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, teaching the locals the value of the New Civility and its Principles. Most ambitious of all, Leach undertook his own “civility tour” across the country. He began the tour in late 2009 and finished it in May of this year. 

Even with the end of the tour, Chairman Leach is still talking about civility. After appearing in 80 cities and towns in 50 states over the course of 19 months, he probably couldn’t stop if he wanted to. And it’s not clear that anyone other than his wife would notice if he did. Leach’s civility tour was not a public relations bonanza. It drew little comment in the national press. One notable exception is the irreplaceable Scott Johnson of the blog Power-line, who tracked the tour with a pitiless, though civil, eye. Another is the columnist E.J. Dionne. In a column to mark the launch of the tour, Dionne wished Leach good luck and wrote, “My hunch is that this very civil man may have to put up with a lot of incivility along the way.”

Dionne was, of course, wrong. In declaring his hunch the columnist was merely observing the first rule of the New Civility: Whenever an admirer of the president issues a call for civility, which happens often, we are to pretend that he’s doing something courageous, even outré, standing bravely against the irresistible current of the culture at large, which in revenge will try to make him its victim. We all like to puff ourselves up this way. But Republicans have been struck by an odd coincidence, that civility in the public debate became a national concern right about the time they began resisting the president and his policies. 

“Evidence of growing social fissures is real,” Leach said near the beginning of the tour, in the spring of 2010, when the premonitory rumblings of that fall’s Republican landslide were first being felt. Leach mentioned the “comments several months back on the House floor” during the health care debate. “Citizens are becoming less open minded and more disrespectful of their leaders, other faith systems, and each other.”

He had one particular leader in mind. “Many citizens have over the course of the last year charged our current President with advancing policies that were either ‘communist,’ or ‘fascist,’ or both. .  .  . Several in public life have even toyed with history-blind radicalism—the notion of secession.” 

Words like these, Leach went on, while “protected by free speech,” are “a vocabulary of hate, jeopardizing social cohesion and even public safety.”

How so? “Hate groups, some armed,” he continued, “are on the rise.” He didn’t produce any evidence for this claim—Leach is not a detail guy—but still: “Vastly more rancorous, socially divisive acts and assertions are being made across the land.” 

He told audiences about the recent murder of a young Ecuadorean immigrant in a small town in New York, where a gang of thugs called the local Hispanics “beaners.” The uncivil name-calling escalated into organized harassment—“beaner hopping”—until one day the thugs stabbed the Ecuadorean boy to death.

“For those who might question what is so awful about a simple expression of personal bigotry,” Leach said, “it must be understood that there are few greater threats to civilization than intolerance.”

And there’s more where that murder came from. In asking his audiences to practice the New Civility, Leach looked back on the horrors of the last century and mentioned the First World War, the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, and the “prejudice driven murders of Emmett Till” and Matthew Shepard. His conclusion: “Fear of the different is a weakness of the human condition.”

Reading this I could imagine an audience searching for the appropriate response to the chairman’s speech. His line of reasoning is not entirely clear. He seems to be saying that not only do “intolerance” and a “fear of the different” lead to murder and genocide, they also lead to a sickening lack of civility. Perhaps in a perfect world—in the “hate-free nation that must be our common goal”—the gang of thugs stabbing the young man from Ecuador would suddenly stop themselves and hang their heads in shame: “How could we be so impolite?”

As I read further into the archive, however, I saw that I might have been misunderstanding Leach’s point. This is not my fault. As a prose stylist, Leach is no Obama. His sentences come in odd shapes and sizes, and he tends to back into them, verb first, keeping his reader off balance. For example: “Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy .  .  . ” And: “Seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual, one country, or one political party.”

I don’t know where he got that “determinable.” With a little jiggering the sentence could easily have lived without it. But it’s a good example of his method of choosing words—the bigger the better. Earlier I said that civility was the chairman’s theme; Leach prefers to say his policies have a thematic. You’ve already seen that religions are really faith systems. “Argumentation is a social good,” he writes, tossing aside the commoner word argument as not fancy enough for a humanities guy. Cultures don’t differ; they have cultural differentiations

The helium often spreads throughout the entire sentence. On its way from brain to teleprompter to voice box, a simple idea like “nobody’s perfect” expands into “Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition.” Sometimes sentences swell to proportions so large and bumpy you can scarcely see from end to end: 

Indifferent to the most unpardonable ramifications of human prejudice, many of the seemingly best and brightest in civilization’s most advanced cultures manipulated with little compunction manifestly oppressive circumstances in furtherance of self-interest.

Even the shorter effusions can be puzzling, thanks to the chairman’s preference for the abstract word over the concrete. “Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas,” he said often on the civility tour. “Other frameworks describe enemies.” I think the phrase “framework of thought” is what stumped me. Isn’t a “framework” a “thought” too? So thoughts about thoughts describe enemies? And ideas—they’re thoughts too, right? So thoughts about thoughts define other thoughts? I am sure they do, but after reading 27 speeches I’m not sure that this is what he means. My current guess is that he hoped to say: You can choose to take disagreements personally or you can choose to judge them on the -merits. If anyone has a better translation I’m open to suggestions.

Another recurring sentence, or one of its variants, often serves as the opening line of his civility speeches. It is not what the speechwriting trade calls a “lapel-grabber.”

“Perspective is always difficult to apply to events and circumstances of the day.” 

Now, in my reading, Leach floats off with that very first word, perspective. Does the sentence mean it’s difficult to see current events in light of history or philosophy? Surely he couldn’t believe that. Does he mean it’s hard to remain disinterested when thinking about today’s controversies? If so, he’s got a point, though a trivial one. Does he mean that we should consider the long-term effects of our current disputes? We should, we should! 

But maybe that’s not what he means. He likes to say the NEH is in the “perspective dissemination business,” which is no help at all.

Perhaps the context makes plain the meaning of such Leachian puzzles? Not in my experience, no. But Leach seems to think so. Context is his favorite word; “in this context” and “in the context of” are his favorite phrases. The context could be anything. “In the context of a newly challenged America,” he will say. “In the context of Jefferson’s love for this university .  .  . ” “In the context of American history .  .  . of growing demographic burdens .  .  . of the challenges in higher education today .  .  . of philosophy .  .  . of jurisprudence .  .  . of life experience .  .  . ”

“In this context” and its siblings are among the most unnecessary phrases in the language—as a general rule, any sentence would profit from its removal. As I read through the archive I began to dread its next appearance, which was never far off. Just say “in a newly challenged America” and get on with it. For crying out loud.

It was only later that I realized why the chairman likes to use this particular crutch to prop up his sentences. Yes, “in this context” sounds vaguely academic, like something an egghead would say, but, more important, it makes his theme—his thematic, I mean—appear much grander than it truly is, once all the helium has been released and the abstract nouns shooed away. By putting events in the context of his choosing, he can make connections that aren’t there. Thus a harsh debate over health care, “in the context of history, philosophy, and life experiences,” can be understood as merely a milder form of the murder of an Ecuadorean in small-town New York, which in turn is but a small-scale iteration of the Holocaust. 

Context provides a rebuke to those who would consider the New Civility trivial or silly: You shouldn’t roll your eyes at something that, properly understood, could stifle the urge to slaughter entire peoples. Yet Leach never gets around to defining what, precisely, the New Civility is. He first tries the via negativa, as the humanists used to call it, defining civility by explaining what it is not.

“Civility is not principally about manners,” he says. “The concept of civility implies politeness, but civil discourse is more than good etiquette.” This is the point at which the New Civility detaches itself from regular old civility, which is principally—indeed, solely—about manners. The old civility is social, a matter of behaving the right way: speaking softly, listening quietly, keeping your temper in check. The New Civility is psychological, a matter of thinking the right thoughts: thinking, as it happens, like Jim Leach and his boss. 

“What is required is a greater willingness to consider—respectfully—diverse views, recognizing that we are all connected and rely on each other.” Listening quietly is no longer enough—that’s just run-of-the-mill politeness. The New Civility requires us to “consider respectfully,” to “place other views in the context of history, philosophy, and life experiences.” Under the old civility we could be satisfied if people listened quietly because polite silence was all we could reasonably expect; whether you were considering other views respectfully or recognizing that we are all connected was your own business. 

Now it’s the chairman’s business and he has ways of finding out: Do your statements show that you’ve found the proper context? Leach of course is happy to provide it. Our present situation, in his view, is binary: Leaders can either “opt for unifying statesmanship or opportunistic partisanship.” Voters can choose between “those who seek unity by respecting diversity, or those who press debilitating cultural wars or extreme ideological agendas.” 

We can be certain—it’s plain from the context—which side Jim Leach and President Obama are on. The problem is, they can’t be certain about the rest of us. Their New Civility is premised on the idea that the country’s heated debates are caused by the opportunistic partisanship and extreme agendas of their adversaries. It assumes that the people on the other side are dealing in bad faith. It assumes, in other words, the very worst of their political opponents.

That’s why Leach had to invent the New Civility: Under the old civility it would be considered uncivil—and recognized as political hackery, prettied up.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College

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