Monday, November 30, 2009

Civility Break

A brief respite from the bookish to point out a timely and well-meaning speech by Jim Leach, former GOP congressman and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Delivered at the National Press Club in D.C. on 20 November, Leach's speech is "Bridging Cultures." You can read or watch it here (and thanks to E.J. Dionne for bringing the talk to my attention today in his column, "A courageous call for civility."

Leach's speech begins by noting how a study of the humanities (including history, philosophy and religion) might inform and transform the making of public policy, but he quickly segues into a broader point:

"It is particularly difficult not to be concerned about American public manners and the discordant rhetoric of our politics. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify - or cloud - thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts.

Recent comments on the House floor have gathered much attention, but vastly more rancorous, socially divisive assertions are being made across the land, and few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled 'fascist or 'communist.' And more bizarrely, significant public figures have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism - the notion of 'secession.'

One might ask what problem is there with a bit of hyperbole. The logic, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, is the message. If we lost 400,000 soldiers to defeat fascism, spent a fortune and lost thousands to hold communism at bay, and fought a civil war to preserve the union, isn’t it a citizen’s obligation to draw on the humanities to lend perspective to words that contain warring implications? There is, after all, a difference between holding a particular tax or spending or health care view and asserting that an American who supports 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. One framework of thought defines rival ideas; the other, enemies."

Leach points out that spirited debate and "uncivil behavior" are nothing new: "What is new are transformative changes in communications technology, in American politics, and the issues facing mankind." He encapsulates some fairly recent (and to many minds unwelcome) changes in American political culture (including the under-representation of the center in Congress, the unrepresentative nature of the political party leadership, the presumed immorality of the opposing side in an argument, cultural ramifications of military policy, &c.) which have contributed to the state of things today, and suggests that things could and would work much better for "all legislators to consider themselves responsible for governing and for both sides to recognize that the other has something to say and contribute."

In his concluding paragraphs, Leach notes "How we lead or fail to lead in an interdependent world will be directly related to how we comprehend our own history, values, and diversity of experiences, and how deeply we come to understand and respect other peoples and societies. Citizenship is hard. It takes a willingness to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another. ... Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Just as polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing approaches such as Lincoln’s call for a new direction 'with malice toward none' can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together. ... If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and our way of life?"

He's right, of course, but it's incredibly heartening to hear it said. Jim Leach is one of the most intelligent and impressive thinkers in public life today, and frankly the country would be better off if there were hundreds more like him in the halls of power. Since we only have one, though, it's tremendously important that he continues to make his voice heard. It is easy to get caught up in the name-calling and hyper-partisan mania that infect so much of our political discourse today. A breath of reasonable fresh air is awfully nice now and then.