National Press Club

NEH Chairman Says Cultural Understanding Critical to Military Strategy, Politics, Social Discourse

December 1, 2009 | By Lorna Aldrich |

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James A. Leach, a 30-year veteran Republican Congressman appointed by President Obama to be chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, underscored the importance of the humanities when “the world is in flux and the judgments of its leading democracy is in question” at a Club Luncheon Nov. 20.

In a speech titled “Bridging Cultures,” he underscored the importance of understanding and respecting other cultures globally and locally. He cited specific instances in military strategy, in politics and in general discourse. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet , in which Durrell recounted the same events as experienced by different people, provides the moral, which Leach said “…is that to get a sense of reality it is necessary to see things from more than one set of eyes.”

“The lesson of our times,” he declared, “is that military strategy must include … the after-effects of intervention from the perspective of the society most affected and those in the world that share similar cultural traditions.” He raised the “sobering question of whether good intentions can be counter-productive.”

He particularly deplored the institutional polarization in the Congress that results when tiny fractions of the population determine the slate of candidates for each party and that 380 of 435 House seats are "safe seats," whose incumbents lean to the “philosophical edges” of their parties.

The situation, he explains, emerges from the fact that only a small proportion of the electorate votes in party primaries and that group tends to be from those edges. The growing predominance of issues perceived as moral rather than judgmental exacerbates the polarization, he said, because the other side of a moral issue is, by definition, immoral. More disturbingly, he said, legislative compromises are being made within the majority party, not between parties.

Beyond the Congress, the general population is making “rancorous, socially divisive assertions” without considering the importance of words, Leach said. He pointed out the difference between holding a tax or health care view and asserting that those opposed advocate an “ism” of hate.

“One framework of thought defines rival ideas; the other enemies,” he said. “Civil discourse is about more than good manners.”

A label such as “communist” or “evil” may cause a dangerous counter-reaction, he said.

Leach particularly objected to the use of “war,” as in “cultural wars.” Use of that word implies uncompromising, violence-inducing reaction, he sasd. He preferred “cultural differences.” He cited Thomas Jefferson’s approach to religion as the model; Jefferson, Leach sai d, decided to list the commonalities among religions rather than the differences.

These approaches are more necessary now than ever, he said, because the acceleration of change is creating circumstances that are “literally unprecedented.” Coping with this challenge requires imagination, a product of the humanities because, for example, reading a novel is a way of imagining other situations, he said.

Leach complimented the journalism profession by declaring that the best perspectives, better than those of legislators, are appearing in the opinion pages of the “great” newspapers. The thoughtfulness of the writing is “astonishing,” he said.