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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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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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