Leach: Respect is key to social discourse, common good


Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, lectures in the Amphitheater Monday. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach said that in order for the government to strive for the common good, politicians and the country as a whole must learn to respect others enough to see through their eyes.

“If we don’t try to understand and to respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and our way of life?” Leach said.

Leach said that “fear of the different” is part of the human condition. He reached this conclusion by looking at history’s injustices in events such as world wars and genocides, as well as hate crimes and the wars in which the U.S. is currently engaging.

Leach, who currently is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was the opening speaker for Week Two’s topic on “Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good.” He spoke at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater.

Leach said politicians, in particular, are guilty of incivility. Be it between politicians in the U.S. or between U.S. politicians and those of other countries, Leach said, they disrespect and insult one another instead of creating proper, logical discourse.

To solve this problem, Leach said politicians must learn to see differing perspectives. Only then, he said, can we reach a common good.

To illustrate this point, he explained a set of books called “The Alexandria Quartet,” written between 1957 and 1960 by Lawrence Durrell. The four books tell the tale of a single set of events, but from the perspective of four different characters.

“To get a sense of reality, you need to get the story from more than one set of eyes,” Durrell said of the tetralogy. “That is, every single story was totally different. And with each story, you get a greater sense of what actually occurred and why it actually occurred.”

He said “The Alexandria Quartet” is a universal example of needing and respecting multiple perspectives on topics. It can be applied, he said, to law, foreign affairs, politics and more.

However, Leach said that the idea of viewing different perspectives isn’t as utilized in American politics as he would like. There’s a rift in the population today that he says should and could be repaired.

Leach’s lessons

In three decades as an educator, Leach came up with several “two-minute lessons” to explain the causes of these divisions in the U.S. population.

The first, which he calls “Political Science 101,” explains that the population is a third Democratic, a third Republican and a third unaffiliated. If one half of those unaffiliated vote for either primary party, that makes one-sixth voting for each.

However, during primary elections, only one-fourth of the population actually votes — meaning only one-twenty-fourth of the population decides the candidates for the main election.

Leach said a large portion of those who vote during primaries are either very conservative or very liberal. Thus, they vote for Congressional candidates that are either far left or far right. He said the center-right and center-left are underrepresented in Congress as a result.

For “Political Science 102,” Leach said those very same candidates who were elected tend to scoot toward the center-right and center-left in order to earn more votes. They do this, he said, because the majority of Americans are more center-left or -right. When elected, though, they rarely show that center lean.

In his lesson “Psychology 101,” Leach said a large number of issues presented in Congress are explained as issues of morality by both sides. The other side of the argument, he said, seems to always foster immoral values.

With the increase in globalization of late, Leach explained in “Psychology 102” that corporations are becoming less and less concerned with national issues and more with
international ones.

In giving his lesson “Sports 101,” Leach said politicians could learn something about athletes’ sportsmanship. Players respect and applaud one another and are punished if they do not. Leach said politicians, on the other hand, often focus on the negatives in their oppositions’ characters when the election is close.

As physicist Isaac Newton said, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Leach focused on this idea for his “Physics 101” lesson, saying the same applies to politics. The only difference, he said, is that the reaction is often much greater.

When a politician says something negative about an opposing candidate, the opposing candidate often responds with something much worse. Instead of respecting one another, a volley of insults comes and goes.

In “Humanities 101,” Leach said that developing as a country makes that country more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. An attack on a skyscraper is much more effective than an attack on a rural hut, he said.

Finally, in explaining his lesson “Humanities 102,” he said that there’s a distinction between politeness and civility. Too often, he said, politicians blur that line.

Has American culture peaked?

Conflicts and argumentation are important in finding the common good but must be conducted civilly, Leach said.

Despite this, he said the world is now waiting for us to come out of this rut. He added the world has looked to America for the past century as a leader in education, government and the arts. American society today, though, is being challenged.

“Around the world, people are asking whether America has peaked, whether we’re on the precipice of social decay or the edge of renewed greatness,” Leach said. “That question can only be answered by our actions. Everyone is responsible. All are called upon.”

Q: One of the most divisive elements of today’s society is 24-hour cable news, whether it’s MSNBC or Fox News. What can average citizens do to counter the fear and anger that these networks perpetuate?

A: Well, freedom of speech is obviously everybody’s right. About the only thing that can be done is to vote with one’s hands — that is, to click off one approach or another. But the bigger question is in many ways, the new communications technology is changing American society, and if we think of the 19th century, often every community had two or three or four newspapers, and some of them looked pretty virulent in their views. There was a Whig paper, Democratic paper, often an immigrant paper — sometimes of a different language than English, but with the 20th century, we’ve gone through a lot of changes, and as we enter the 21st, these changes have become accentuated. At the beginning of the century, we had our first mass media with radio and television, and as people have larger audiences, the effort was to encompass everybody, and so you had an effort to make balance an important thing, and then the newspapers consolidated, so it wasn’t just a Republican paper or a Democratic paper. Balance is, for economic reasons, pressed, and then often papers get to show balance. We’ve tried to have on editorial pages a prominent conservative and a prominent liberal commentator, but what has occurred is that with new ways of advertising, newspapers have lost their revenue and so has television, and so people are looking at ways to develop audiences, and some people figured out that one way was to abandon traditional efforts of balance particularly to appeal to audiences, and so it became fashionable to appeal to conservatives, symbolized by Fox News, fashionable to appeal to liberals, symbolized by MSNBC. These shows ended up getting a bigger audience rating than the traditional networks. ABC, CBS and NBC aspired to be balanced, although that doesn’t mean everybody in the public thought they were balanced, but they truly aspire to. And this has become a very awkward circumstance for everybody. Then the news media, of course great newspapers have lost the capacity to fund deep research, often different kinds of investigations to hold local and national government accountable. Now we have some things replacing it. There are some non-profits that are doing journalism in an interesting way, and then intriguingly, even those newspapers are getting to be less comprehensive; there’s no one in this room that can’t go to a computer and with a click or two, tie in to some of the truly first-class blogs on almost an hourly or daily basis. One can get updates on what’s happening in the Middle East, in the Far East. One can get wonderful academic journals, and then one also has the choice of getting some incredibly shallow, prejudiced perspectives. I sometimes suggest to people that the great battle underway is between those who choose both to see blogs or information from different sides but also choose to see in-depth, quality things versus those who choose not to. This is becoming one of the great social cleavages in the United States today. That there are some people who choose only to go to exactly what they think is the perspective that aligns with their biases to begin with, and others who go to what might be considered deeper, more thoughtful approaches. This is something we’re going to be living with for a time. And so one of the really unanswered questions is whether the huge new communicative capacities existing in this country and increasingly around the world will be a force to bring us all together or whether it will be a force to divide us and fracture us even more. My own personal suspicion is it’s going to be a little bit of both. We’re going to have a lot of ups and downs in these curves.

Q: Can you set an example wherein a figure has effectively contended that an opposing point of view is profoundly wrong, yet the ideal of civility has been maintained?

A: We’ve seen many people from many different perspectives reflect different views. One that I thought was rather wonderful was the terrific friendship between Harry S. Truman and Herbert Hoover. And I once heard a lecture by David McCullough, the historian, and it was a lecture about Hoover, but he made this comment at one point. The reason that Hoover and Truman were so close, he said — as a historian, I have no evidence whatsoever, but I’m certain of this statement, which I love, as a historian to acknowledge. He said they were both bookends to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who they recognized would be the heavyweight president of the century based on timing and certain calls that were made, but they each knew that they were far smarter, and they resented it.

Q: You discuss the role of corporate influence, as this questioner asks, if you distinguish between that influence and that of the unions and a variance on all of this is how does one protect the freedom of speech without corrupting campaign finance?

A: Well, those are two separate questions, and first let me say that there’s a definitional thing that’s very important. The word “corporation” is implied in the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United about corporations can give money directly into campaigns also applies to unions, and it’s one reason why America’s unions supported, in brief, to the court, the ruling that was made. So the Chamber of Commerce and the unions had exactly the same position, and each enhanced their own power, and one of the least commented-upon implications of what one might describe as a corporatist ruling is that the Republican Party will get increasingly indebted to big corporations; the Democratic Party will become increasingly indebted to unions, and they both are to some degree to begin with, but this is a significant new increase that over time will become ironclad. And so one of the implications of the Citizens United ruling is the unionization of the Democratic Party when it comes to money and politics and the Republican Party when it becomes money and politics. But one of the aspects of Washington politics, it is truly not noted by the public if you take political action committees, which are the forerunner of all of this; unions give about 99 percent of their money to democrats, as people know. What people often don’t know is that when the Democratic Party controls the Congress, business gives about half its money to the Democratic Party and half to the Republican because business gives to power. When Republicans control the Congress, they give about 60 percent of their money to Republicans and 40 percent to Democrats, but corporations weigh in with both sides, unions with one side. And it’s a mistake to think that all sides don’t buy profunds with the same sources. As someone who chaired a committee of Congress called Banking, I’ll give you an anecdote that might surprise people: The Banking Committee has jurisdiction over commercial banks, investment banks, savings and loans. The Republican Party traditionally got its greatest support from commercial banks. The Democratic Party got much more support from investment banks and savings and loans, and the two sides then would vie for each other for both, and interest groups give not principally to parties in Congress, that is business; they give to committees with jurisdiction. So, a committee with jurisdiction over a field — both sides get lots of money. For example, the defense contractors give enormously to the Democratic and Republican parties on the Armed Services Committee. It’s a very natural thing, and so it isn’t as if there is huge division between the parties. Both sides vie for the same. It’s one reason that Ralph Nader likes to suggest that we only have one political party, not two. Now I think Ralph has exaggerated, but he has some rationale for his argument.

Q: There are lots of questions about what changes you might propose to create a more civil exchange between parties or how you might break the status quo, but there’s sort of a delicious phrasing in this question: As a congressman re-elected many times, I would consider you an elder statesman. As such, I think you might have something to teach our current lawmakers. How might an elder statesman approach, advise our current lawmakers to come to the center, increase civility and make better laws?

A: Well, first of all the only premise of that that I agree with is that I’m getting increasingly elderly. But there’s just so many human dimensions in all of this, and one I hinted at in my talk is people have to recognize what’s important to be loyal to. In all the pressures in Congress — and they just grew over the 30 years I was there — well, the party caucuses became dominant. When I was first elected, we had a caucus about every six weeks; the Republicans would get together. Then it became once a month, then every two weeks, then every week and then two or three times a week, and people come together. Republicans get together, and the words are unbelievable in describing Democrats. Democrats get together, and the words are unbelievable in describing Republicans. What you see in the public view is really much scrub compared to the private views in Congress, and what we have in the American political system is when you go at levels you have a city council, a state legislature, a federal legislature. It’s as if civility is in inverse proportion to ultimate power, and so in city councils you have relatively little incivility based upon ideology. Frankly, most city councils have one person who’s kind of a crank, at least in the view of the other members. Now the crank thinks the others are out of step, but it’s a personality thing. Then you get to the state legislatures and you get an increasing partisan dimension, but then you get to the federal level, and it’s just dramatic. To me, part of it’s attitudes, part of it’s money and where it comes and then there are aspects of politics that are kind of family oriented. When people read about old Congresses in the early part of the 20th century and frankly, members didn’t have a lot to do; most decisions were made by their leaders. There was an awful lot of socializing. And partly, the intriguing aspect of representative governance today is just how much interchange there is with peoples, and it takes a lot of time, and so the time between members is broken down, families are no longer central to the social life, and oddly when you read histories of the early part of the 20th century, there is a huge problem of alcoholism; Jack Daniels was everywhere. Today, Jack isn’t, and it could be that you need a little more presence of Jack to bring things back together. You certainly need a little more humanization. Let me throw out a sociological dimension of all of this: If you visualize a new primary process in both parties and the type of people both parties nominate, these are not types of people that would be close friends in the community, and there’s a sociological kind of awkwardness to this, and people are going to have to get together more on a level. I’ll tell you an anecdote about one of my favorite members I ever served with who’s from this area, might even have represented this area, but from near Buffalo was Jack Kemp, and I remember with my wife Deba, who is here, we went on a trip to Moscow once in which we had a Duma — that’s their legislature congressional exchange of views — and I remember a Democrat from Wisconsin named David Obey; he was a very smart Democrat, giving a pretty tough anti-communist talk, and Jack turned to me and said, “Jim, I didn’t know Democrats were anti-Communist!” And I said, “Jack, maybe it’s a good thing we have these jackets.” But we do need to just see each other in other frameworks other than stirring each other down on the house floor.

Q: To spread the responsibility for aggressive foreign policy across the entire populous, would you recommend reinstating the draft for military service?

A: I would hope we could avoid it at all costs — at most costs, I should say. The downside is terrific, because we are making a great social divide in the United States military, and that’s sad for society. When it’s coupled with no financial sacrifice either, we’re neither sacrificing financially or with our families in supporting a controversial set of wars. I think as a society, a draft should be avoided if we can, but I think it begins with quickness to go to war and the challenges we face and the judgment involved. The Iraq war is the first war — there might be an exception of the Philippine War — that we really attacked a country that had nothing to do with attacking the United States. Not that our leaders intended it that way to be, because I think our leadership thought it did, but there has been a lot of thought about intelligence failures. That is, there is a failure not to understand weapons of mass destruction or whether they existed in Iraq or not; there is a failure about this concept of “Yellow Cake,” which ended up being a made-up story, and we still don’t know the origins of the made-up, but there is a greater lack of intelligence in what is the meaning of the Muslim world and what would the meaning of intervention be. We had gone to war in the Gulf based upon aggression of Iraq towards Kuwait, and I think we had a proper cause to respond, but even though we’d been at war in the Gulf, a decade earlier than 9/11, very few decision-makers knew there was a distinction between Sunni and Shi’a, and almost nobody knew what that distinction was. Today, all educated Americans know the importance of the distinction, although most do not know exactly what that distinction is, but they know there is a distinction. That is an intelligence failure of the United States of America, and I mean very serious policymakers didn’t know these issues. If you think about history, whether we’re talking about the British or the Russians in Afghanistan, whether we’re talking about the French in Algeria and even by analogy, the United States in Vietnam. We should recognize that there is a real instinct for people not to be particularly appreciative of intervention. One of the theoretical comments that everybody talked about in the wake of Vietnam was when you’re thinking about war, what is your exit policy? That was talked about a little bit before these wars but people suddenly stopped talking about it, because there was no rational exit policy that existed. It seemed rational to policymakers that overwhelming force was sufficient to have overwhelming capacity to control events after the fact, and that didn’t prove to be the case. That is something that we’re all going to have to think through as a society. Now, the tragedy, of course, is that we’ve found that nothing is easier than terrorism, and so it’s probably something we’re going to be living with for a long time, and then the question’s going to be: If there’s another terrorist act, and let’s pretend it emanates from an obscure country that people don’t really know where it is today; how do we respond, and how do we respond constructively? We’re all going to have to be dealing with that issue for a long time to come, and every situation is going to be different, and we all hope it can be dealt with in ways involving small numbers of incredibly proficient people with incredibly great capacities, but we don’t know.

– Transcribed by Taylor Rogers

There is one comment

  1. Susan Tan

    I was very encouraged by Mr. Leach’s lecture. Although softly delivered, it carried a big message and key items for making change. My first visit to Chautauqua Institute; it was the best 4th of July ever! Thanks Daily for the write up. I plan to use it as discussion points here in Ohio.

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