University Relations and Communications

National Humanities chairman calls for 'Better Angels of Our Nature' in public discourse

September 17, 2010


Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269


To hear Jim Leach’s full address, you can click on the link at Yellowstone Public Radio,


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — In March of 1861, newly elected President Abraham Lincoln tried to sooth harsh feelings and resentment for some of his countrymen bent on civil war.


“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln said in his in inaugural address. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


""In the early 21st century, where political divisiveness is center stage in newspapers, blogs and on television, it might be a good time to once again summon those “better angels of our nature,” the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities said Friday at Montana State University Billings.


Speaking to about 200 people at MSU Billings’ Petro Theatre, Jim Leach noted the framers of the U.S. Constitution understood the importance of “vigorous advocacy” of differing points of view and built in safeguards so that those expressing those views could be protected. It was their way of ensuring a level of respect for “the others” in society who didn’t walk in lock-step those in power.


That historical context is important to remember in 2010, he said, as Tea Party advocates and other groups are turning politics as usual on its ear.


“It’s important to respect that movement and respect the underlying reasons why people might be unhappy,” Leach said.

Leach gave an address on “Civility in a Fractured Society” as part of a 50-state “American Civility Tour.” The address at MSU Billings was his only stop in Montana.


A former Republican Congressman from Iowa, Leach became Chairman of NEH in August, 2009.  He has made civility and cross-cultural understanding the centerpieces of his chairmanship.  He maintains civility in many American conversations — the willingness to consider other views in the context of history and philosophy — is endangered.


Speaking on the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution — “eleven score and three years ago today,” as he put it in Lincoln’s parlance —  Leach reminded the audience that words and phrases used in the course of dialogue do make a difference.  And in public matters, it’s a big deal.


“Sometimes they bring out the better angels of ourselves and sometimes they bring out our baser instincts,” he said.


Too often in modern politics and public matters, he said, people are concerned more about the calculated moves and results instead of the integrity of the process. As a result, negative advertising and campaigning carry the day instead of integrity and character.


“How do you pull people together when negativity is the driving force?” Leach asked. “The right temper and integrity should be the driving force.”


Noting that many people compare politics to sports, Leach found it ironic that in these days, “the great American sports ethic is higher than the political ethic.” There is not a high school coach in the country who doesn’t implore his players to respect the other team, he said. Yet politicians seem to have forgotten that golden rule.


Turning things around will require work, he said. He said citizens should pay attention to the proliferation of money in politics, redistricting decisions that can favor one party over another and voter participation. While many people are registered to vote, only about half actually follow through on Election Day and fewer than that participate in primary elections.


And at a time when polls show that the highest proportion of voters in two decades say it is time for their own member of Congress to be replaced, those elections count.


“Those (primary) elections are the ones that pick the candidates for the general election and set the tone for the general election,” he said.


Leach also encouraged college students to pay attention to political matters, even though public matters might not be as interesting as the latest Facebook post.


“Great issues are at stake and they are at stake more for youth than for elderly people,” he said.


PHOTO ABOVE: Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, speaks about the need for more civility in public discourse during an event at MSU Billings on Friday.