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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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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.” 

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