Humanities Chair Calls For Civility

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(Host) Jim Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is in Vermont this week as part of the weekly series at the Statehouse, known as Farmers’ Night. 

Vermont is the 42nd state Leach has visited as part of his 50-state "Civility Tour." 

VPR’s Jane Lindholm has more.

(Lindholm) Chairman Leach launched his tour shortly after being appointed by President Obama in 2009.  Prior to taking the job, Leach spent 30 years as a Republican Representative from Southeastern Iowa in the US House.  Leach told VPR’s Vermont Edition that he’s seen the tone in Washington deteriorate over time.

(Leach) "Over the last several decades we’ve seen some new strenuousness brought into the political fray in which people are using language-fascism, communism-in very inappropriate ways.  But most of all in ways that are designed out of neighbors.  And I think American citizens should rethink that."

(Lindholm) But Leach says civility doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of disagreement, anger, or even raised voices.  In fact, he says, sometimes the best manners can disguise a lack of civility.

(Leach) "The number of times I’ve walked from a Congressional office to the House floor and a lobbyist has come up and said, ‘Hi Jim.  How’s your wife? We really need your help on this bill.’ And might turn to a colleague and say ‘we really helped you in the last election and we want to help you more.’ The implication being there’s money involved in this.  That can be very civil conversation but it can be a very coercive implication."

(Lindholm) Leach says vigorous arguments are essential to Democracy but that we need to treat one another with respect and actually *listen to what the other side has to say.

It makes sense for the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities to be carrying this message, because the Humanities, Leach says, offer a unique perspective for trying to imagine a more civil society.

(Leach) "If you go beyond academic disciplines, it’s really everything that deals with the human condition.  And the humanities are all about how we live with each other, as neighbors or possibly with enmity."

(Lindholm) For VPR news, I’m Jane Lindholm.

Listen to the full interview with Jim Leach.

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