Politicizing the NEH

Peter Wood

 Do Americans under-appreciate Muslim contributions to world culture?  The National Endowment for the Humanities thinks so.  NEH has launched a major initiative titled “Bridging Cultures” which aims at changing the “disrespectful” attitudes of many Americans toward Muslim contributions. 

NEH Chairman Jim Leach, speaking at the Carnegie Corporation of New York on September 29, described his plan for the humanities to help change “the temper and the integrity of the political dialogue” in the United States in a manner that sends, “an implicit message to Muslims in our country and in other parts of the world that we deeply value the contributions of their diverse and fascinating cultures.”  The speech, titled “Bridging Cultures:  NEH and the Muslim World,” is posted on the NEH website. 

Leach’s remarks are surprising on several counts. In tone, they depart from NEH tradition, which has generally celebrated American cultural achievement rather than castigate Americans for their failings. In substance, his speech amounts to an indictment without any evidence.  American culture is not awash in “disrespect” for Muslim cultural contributions. A case could be made for the exact opposite: schools, colleges, museums, and other cultural institutions have been going way out of their multicultural way to point out the glories of Muslim civilization for the last decade. 

But most of all, Leach seems perilously close to politicizing the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH has had narrow scrapes before, but Leach is doing something new in using the agency to advance the President’s agenda in areas well outside the NEH’s traditional purview.  This seems all the more ominous in light of the recent scandal involving the Obama administration’s attempt to politicize the NEH’s sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts.  In that case, an Obama political organizer named Buffy Wicks participated in a conference call on August 10 to artists and art groups in which she urged them to use their talents to advance Obama’s health care and energy and environment proposals. The NEA official who arranged the conference call, Yosi Sergant, was fired after the story became public. Powerline has a good summary of the events. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities was created by Congress in 1965 as an independent federal agency to promote excellence in the humanities.  It provides grants to preserve and to provide access to cultural resources and supports educational, research, and public programs. The NEH website lists some of the excellent programs—they really are excellent—that NEH has supported over the years: 

  • "Treasures of Tutankhamen," the blockbuster exhibition seen by more than 1.5 million people
  • The Civil War, the landmark documentary by Ken Burns viewed by 38 million Americans
  • Library of America, editions of novels, essays, and poems celebrating America's literary heritage
  • United States Newspaper Project, an effort to catalog and microfilm 63.3 million pages of newspapers dating from the early Republic
  • Fifteen Pulitzer Prize-winning books, including those by James M. McPherson, Louis Menand, Joan D. Hedrick, and Bernard Bailyn

NEH hasn’t been immune to criticism over the years.  President Clinton nominated Sheldon Hackney, who served as NEH Chairman from 1993 to 1997, and under whose tenure NEH published a draft of National History Standards that were attacked by the previous NEH chairman, Lynn Cheney, as an exercise in political correctness.  In that controversy, Jim Leach, then a Republican Congressman from Iowa broke with other Republicans to support continued funding for NEH. 

Leach was nominated for the NEH chairmanship in June by President Obama and confirmed in August. In June,  Sam Tanenhaus writing in The New York Times cited Leach’s nomination in an article titled “Sound of Silence: The Culture Wars Take a Break,” as evidence that the sometimes heated debates about culture were cooling off. Indeed, we at the National Association of Scholars issued our own press release expressing our “satisfaction” with Leach’s nomination.  We thought it represented a welcome decision to avoid entangling the NEH in partisan battles. Steve Balch said, “This might have been the occasion for the appointment of an academic with a political agenda.  Instead, President Obama has chosen a politician with a humanistic one.”

Our hope now seems to have been misplaced.  The story of what appears to be happening at NEH, however, has yet to be reported.  So the first task is to establish the record.

Respect Cultural Differences

During his confirmation in August, Leach spoke of his hope that the Endowment could be used to bridge cultural differences, but his initial statements were vague. After he was sworn in on August 13 as the NEH’s ninth chairman, he gave a town hall style speech to NEH staff in which he announced “bridging cultures” as NEH’s new “theme.”  Leach told the staff, “In an era where declining civility increasingly hallmarks domestic politics and where anarchy has taken root in many parts of the world, it is imperative that cultural differences at home and abroad be respectfully understood, rather than irrationally denigrated.” 

Leach elaborated only a little on this theme in a wide-ranging interview with Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik, posted as a podcast, September 2.  He told Jaschik:

I am going to put in a new dimension [to NEH]—an initiative I am calling “Bridging Cultures”—and I am going to be emphasizing a little greater international dimension in programming.  But the intent is not to change the basic structure.   [We will be] adding an emphasis. It is not intended to slight existing fields.

This bland pronouncement unsurprisingly provoked little notice or comment. But during the Jaschik interview, Leach did signal a surprisingly aggressive tone in criticizing the opponents of the Obama administration and in praising the President. He told Jaschik that he was concerned about the readiness of Americans to hurl insults in political debate and to deploy words such as “socialism, communism, fascism.”  “Socialism—what does it mean?”  he asked.  The humanities, in Leach’s view, offer the opportunity to bring “perspective to living.”  To illustrate, Leach cited some literary examples, including Huckleberry Finn’s decision not to turn the escaped slave Jim over to his pursuers.  But Leach also sees the humanities at work in President Obama’s actions. He observed:

To my knowledge, [President Obama] has never used the word “humanities,” but if you take the speech he gave in Cairo, it is arguably one of the great humanities speeches of a modern day president.  It was all about the humanities. 

He added that Obama’s “life story is partly about at least an aspect of American history that has a humanities dimension.”  Taking stock of Obama’s administration, Leach declared, “We have a more instinctive humanities national leadership than at any time at least since Lincoln.”

There is perhaps no surprise in an Obama-nominated agency head praising President Obama, but Leach’s magniloquence seems weirdly out of place in speaking of the humanities—that branch of learning that extols the importance of good judgment, proportion, and thoughtful assessment.   

Culture Wars

Leach’s insistence to Jaschik that “the institutions of civilization [ought to] emphasize civilized values” seems anodyne, but others have begun to express worries that Leach is not especially attuned to the danger of his agency getting caught up in extra-mural affairs.   Michael Franc, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for government relations, told Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post, "One of the unstated victories of the Bush administration is that they took the politics and hot-button nature out of the NEH.  Since then, they seemed to be promoting great poems, great literature. There is a challenge for Mr. Leach...not to let the agency become politicized."

Trescott, in her report, “New NEH Chairman Takes Aim at the Culture Wars,” also quotes Leach expressing his discomfort with the tenor of American political debate: 

"I am appalled by the notion of cultural wars. We used to address ourselves as a melting pot, and diversity is a wonderful thing, but common objectives are also good," he says. For an advocate of tempered talk, the summer's brawls at the town halls on health care were unfortunate. "A little vibrancy of debate is reasonable," says Leach. "But I am amazed at how little attention is brought to words. We have a president who has been called a socialist, a communist, a fascist. And then I've heard the word 'secession.'"

Leach also mentioned “Building Bridges” to Trescott, but apparently without emphasizing its focus on Muslim culture. He told her it was about “greater international exchanges, and domestically I hope we can talk about words and values," and added that he wants “to help Americans understand and feel connected to the rest of the world.” 

Let’s back up a paragraph to Leach’s declaration, "I am appalled by the notion of cultural wars.”  This is a remarkable confession.  Struggle between competing conceptions of culture is really the very essence of culture.  Although the term “culture war” (Kulturkampf) dates to only the 1870s and Bismarch’s campaign against the Catholic Church, the idea is much older.  Aristophanes in The Clouds depicts rival Athenians championing opposed views of Greek culture.  We can follow the thread of competing conceptions of culture into almost any era, any civilization, any tribe.  Wordsworth and Coleridge in enunciating what became the Romantic movement were igniting a culture war against the reigning standards of classical taste.  Among the headhunting Iatmul of New Guinea in the 1930s described by the great ethnographer Gregory Bateson, rival clans furiously argued for competing creation myths. Literary critics, anthropologists, classicists—indeed scholars in virtually all the disciplines of the humanities—routinely regard culture not as a static thing made up of consensus but a zone where people argue over the really important questions of life.  Culture is “agonistic,” to use one of the trendy lit-crit terms, or culture is “contested,” as anthropologists say these days. 

Which is to say, Leach’s being “appalled by the notion of cultural wars” sounds mighty strange to anyone who actually works in the humanities.  Presumably he meant to castigate what he sees as outrageous displays of passion, nastiness, loudness, loutishness, and all the bumptiousness that comes from people who are too certain of their cause and too much in a hurry to get heard.  Clearly the Chairman has refined sensibilities. I’m not kidding. Listen to him talk with Scott Jaschik and you will hear a man of mild temperament and quiet demeanor who has a palpable distaste for the hurly-burly contentiousness of “culture” as it actually is.  One suspects he is no fan of Walt Whitman’s America.  The chairmanship of the NEH is a roost from which he can direct boisterous Americans—especially those who attend town halls but also those who rally to David Horowitz’s Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week—to muzzle it.  We need to get on with celebrating the achievements of Muslim culture.  That’s what the NEH is for: celebrating, not arguing.

I wonder if the irony has dawned on him yet.  Leach’s desire to promote his brand of civility, in which the “culture war” is hushed off stage, is the most aggressive and deeply uncivil stand ever taken by an NEH Chairman.  It quashes the very debates that animate the humanities, and substitutes a cold standard of conformity to a set of political goals. 

But let’s get back to that little-noted New York speech of September 29, in which Leach finally laid out what his bridge-building metaphor is all about. 

Handshakes on the Bridge to Nowhere

In that speech, “Bridging Cultures: NEH and the Muslim World,” Leach gave a rather full view of his notion of “culture.”  He was not defining it, but characterizing its scope and importance, as in “Government is a part of culture, not vice-versa.”  The importance of culture, in his view, is that there is a realm where people of good will can develop contacts and relationships across boundaries, thus enhancing the prospects for peace.

His hosts at the Carnegie Corporation included the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, and he presumably wasn’t trying to pass muster with anthropologists. If any of us had been present, we might have quietly mentioned that while inter-cultural contacts can be fruitful, culture is far more often a cause of conflict, misunderstanding, and hatred.  Culture is normative.  It provides reasons—powerfully compelling reasons—to look on people who don’t follow the same customs, or who have different values, as unworthy—perhaps as children of a lesser god.  People can overcome these prejudices and adopt a more cosmopolitan outlook, but that’s a complicated transition.  Culture is more the problem than it is the solution in this context.  And this is surely true of the Muslim world.

     But Leach is an optimist on such matters.  He argued:

It is the humanization rather than the demonization of individuals from different cultures that is so critical if non-violent approaches to problem solving are to be institutionalized. Without humanization—handshakes of understanding—there can be no trust and hence no family or national security.

In this vein, he criticized skeptics of “arms control agreements” and “multi-lateral diplomacy” as “pseudo-realists.” In Leach’s view “Americans prefer to work in alliances.” He also offered an analysis of “radicalism” as rooted in “nations that are ill-led, ill-fed, and ill-respected.”

Which, take note, is again to dismiss the role of “culture” as itself part of the matrix which gives rise to radicalism. In Leach’s view, apparently, culture can only be a force for the good, and when bad things happen, it must be because of failures of leadership, shortages of food, and a feeling of disrespect.  I am not clear that any serious scholars who study jihad agree that these are the key factors. But framing it this way allows NEH through the door that leads from promoting the “humanities” to free-lancing foreign policy.

Leach’s foreign policy concerns lie outside the traditional emphases of the NEH, but he sees vital connections between international relations and the humanities in the realm of “values.”  He explained:

International violence, economic insecurity, and the chaotic nature of accelerating change have produced a crisis of perspective as well as values. Citizens of various philosophical persuasions are reflecting increased disrespect for fellow citizens and thus for modern day democratic governance.

Apparently, raucous town hall meetings and harsh criticism of President Obama by conservatives are cut from much the same cloth as disrespectful statements by Americans about Muslim culture.  Both display a failure to promote civilized values.  “Building Bridges” will aim to improve the situation by modeling our better qualities.  Leach believes:

America cannot revive its infectious leadership until it revives its sense of self and reaches out respectfully instead of shunning, or, worse yet, name calling those with whom we differ.

Are these our only choices?

Be that as it may, it is distressing to see Chairman Leach lead the NEH in this direction.  Thus far his words don’t seem to have been translated into actual programs.  I hope he will take counsel before then and redirect his energies.  For that to happen, however, those who care about the humanities need to wake up to the danger.  A well-meaning man who is perhaps a little too enthusiastic about the President’s foreign policy objectives has talked himself into a program that violently distorts the mission of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He has built a bridge alright: one made of twisted rhetorical vines to get him across a chasm that separates legitimate contributions to the humanities from propaganda.  We need to pull him back.

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