Last Saturday, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities James Leach undertook a whirlwind tour of Anchorage. This included his graduation address at Alaska Pacific University, a breakfast meeting with Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, viewing a private performance by Inupiaq rapper and storyteller Allison Warden and enjoying a guided tour of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. There his childlike enthusiasm matched that of the museum’s youngest visitors in viewing a mind-boggling Rube Golberg contraption within the Imaginarium Discovery Center.
“Marvelous,” exclaimed the 68-year-old NEH Chairman. “Wonderous.”
Between engagements, Chairman Leach graciously carved out 45 minutes to sit for a Door 15 interview, excerpted below. A version of this exceprted interview was published today in the Anchorage Press as part of a new content-sharing arrangement.
The full interview with Chairman Leach will be published in the fall issue of The Forum, the quarterly newsletter of the Alaska Humanities Forum.
What are your impressions of Alaska as well as how Alaska is regarded in the Lower 48?
First of all, Alaskans should understand how well respected they are in the Lower 48. There is this image that I don’t think is a misperception that Alaska is closer to a frontier spirit than any other state. I mean, just the landmass of this state is so unbelievably expansive, that it’s easy to look at Alaska in 2011 and think of how a 19th century immigrant must have looked at America way back when.
Alaska has to me a Western tinge to it. It stands out for its incredibly remarkable circumstances, partly because of its geological mass, partly because of the geological richness of its natural resources. Unbeknownst to most in the Lower 48 is the importance of Alaska as a border state for America and how its border positioning is going to become vastly more significant in the years ahead. And I stress this because of what will almost certainly in the next century be hugely more significant issues for transportation and quite possibly for geology when you contemplate the geological resources that could exist in Alaska. And so in many ways Alaska is going to be on the cutting edge of issues of extraordinary importance for the Lower 48 and Hawaii.
You had a recent breakfast meeting with [Alaska Lieutenant Governor] Mead Treadwell. What did you discuss?
The lieutenant governor is a great advocate for Alaska issues and one of the issues he most forcefully emphasized to me is the importance of preserving Native languages in Alaska. He emphasized the importance of language preservation not only as a way of helping to preserve cultural roots but also to understand modern day issues that relate to Alaska climate and the world environment.
From these ancient Native languages one learns the movements of caribou and the stories of weather patterns in centuries past can be illuminated by studying Alaska native languages—understanding these weather patterns can be of vital importance to reckoning climate change today.
Of course, there is the more obvious value of language preservation in giving people a sense of ties to and respect for the past, but my conversation with the lieutenant governor was especially illuminating to me in describing the ways that preserving Native languages could be of great benefit in the study of climate issues.
Also we talked at some length about the strategic importance of the polar area in terms of all the rapidly emerging geopolitical and economic competitions and challenges to the United States from other countries—China, Russia, Canada, to name a few—and the lieutenant governor’s opinion, which I happen to share wholeheartedly, that it’s important for the U.S. people and their government to pay more attention to our polar region and to do so immediately, for there is no time to waste.
You’ve talked often in recent years about how the glaring polarization of politics in America has led to what you term the “underrepresentation of the great American middle.” How did you see this phenomenon playing out in the most recent U.S. Senate race in Alaska?
First of all, I think that any examination of the most recent U.S. Senate race in Alaska has to begin with the primary process, because I think the most under-analyzed and under-appreciated dilemma in American politics relates to our primary elections. People forget that in terms of citizen choice making in our democracy, there are two elections that occur in the principal races, one is the primary, and one is the general. People for the most part focus on the general election to the exclusion of the primary, and they do so at the great and growing peril of our political system.
Think of it this way: if primary voter participation is between one in eight or one in twelve of the populace, that means that one in eight or one in twelve of the populace determines who the candidates are in the general election. Is that a truly representative democracy?
Look at it from another perspective of statistical analysis, and just take a breath and bear with me here because I believe this point to be absolutely vital and grossly misunderstood: We begin with the assumption that about a third of the voting populace are Democrats. A third are Republicans, and roughly a third are non-affiliated. These are rough estimates but in terms of decades-long trending they hold true. Now, half of one-third is one-sixth. That means, that in a best-case scenario of full voter participation in a primary, we have one-sixth of the American people controlling the Democratic party and one-sixth controlling the Republican party via the primary election systems.
But of course we don’t have anywhere near full voter participation in primary elections. So if only one in four voters participate in the primary, then you have one-twenty-fourth of the public controlling a certain party, and if your participation in primary elections is even lower you can one-48th of the populace determining who the party’s candidate in the general election will be.
Now, if you analyze who this one 24th or one 48th of the population is, well, they’re pretty darn conservative on the Republican side and pretty darn liberal on the Democratic side, and the great middle of American is left out of this process.
What I’ve observed in the past three decades or so is that the Democratic party has been in a sense the more stable party. They have remained consistent with their allegiance to a sort of an old-fashioned liberalism. Meanwhile, the Republican party—my party—has evolved from a Goldwater-ite conservatism to a more social conservatism and a more populist conservatism, and, I dare say, a more extreme version of conservatism that Ronald Reagan would not have endorsed.
I think what you saw happening in Alaska during the last Senate race was the combination of low voter participation in the primary combined with the rapidly evolving positions of the Republican party moving toward the stark-right from the center-right, resulting in a candidate for the US Senate that clearly would not have represented the interests of the great American center. As a result, the great American center, or in this case the great Alaska center, woke up, rose up and corrected the imbalance of power. But that has been the exception of late in American politics, and I find that most unfortunate.
One of your first acts as Chairman of the NEH was to embark upon a yearlong Civility Tour in which you visited more than 60 cities in all 50 states to promote a series of public hearings for what you called “the great majoritarian center.” What inspired this undertaking and what did you learn from the experience?
My thought for the civility tour was to give voice to people who feel the same way I do about the level of civil discourse in this country, or rather the lack of civility in our national conversations, and I came to the conclusion that the vast majority of Americans are very concerned about the breakdown of respect between American citizens and the polarization of the country.
I couldn’t have been more impressed with how deep the thinking of citizens is on these issues. I was giving a talk at California college and a lady professor asked the question, she says, “Jim, where do you think diplomacy is taught in America?” And I gave a kind of a know-it-all answer. I talked about colleges and universities now having schools of public affairs and conflict resolution and the state department having a Foreign Service institute that teaches diplomatic history and diplomatic techniques.
When I finished she looked at me and said, ‘You’re as dumb as I thought.’ And I said, “Well, what is your perspective?’ And she said, “You know, diplomacy is taught at the dinner table, and what’s wrong with America is that families have stopped having dinner together.” And then she says, “I am chairman of the California Slow Foods Movement.” And I thought to myself, she had a real point. That obviously is not everything. But it’s probably far more significant than my referencing a school of public affairs.
You’re fond of quoting Albert Einstein saying that splitting the atom changed everything except our way of thinking. Einstein also said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.” Considering both notions, what is your estimate of human kind’s long-term odds for survival?
There is no doubt the challenges to our survival are greater than ever before. They come from two directions. One is from science, where we have the power to destroy the earth with weapons of mass destruction. But then there’s another aspect that is rife in the world today that is truly dispiriting and cannot be underestimated and that is the power of lesser weapons.
We’ve had terrorism that’s existed throughout history but never has it been globalized and never before the past decade have we given thought to the concept, and then hardly at all, that the more sophisticated a country is the more vulnerable that country is to terrorism. You can take a fertilizer bomb and place it in a rural setting in a developing country and it may cause a little damage, but it will hardly be extraordinary. Take that same device and position it next to a tall building in a major city and you can bring about catastrophic damage. Put it next to a power plant and you can take down the power grid and cause extreme havoc.
We as a country must recognize that were are intertwined with global terrorism in a way that is quite different in many respects from the Cold War or other perceived enemies of the past. Our great oceans and awesome military capacity cannot protect us from global terrorism, and this is deeply worrisome. We are going to have to come to grips with the causes of terrorism and what can be done about alleviating the ways of thinking that cause people to sink into the mindset of a terrorist.
It is self-evident to me that two fundamental things have changed in the world in my lifetime. One occurred in last 50 years with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The other occurred in during the last decade with the rise of global terrorism. Both threats—the threat of nuclear destruction and the threat of global terrorism—are going to be with us for a long, long time, and combined they have the power to destroy our planet. It’s not going to be enough for us to lash out militarily on a case-by-case basis. We must respond with military force where and when appropriate, but we must give serious consideration as well to comprehending and hopefully avoiding the kinds of factors on a global level that give rise to terrorists.
How can the humanities help in this regard?
Well, first let me clarify that the annual budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities is about 1/21,000th of the federal discretionary spending budget. That’s about the cost, per capita, of a postage stamp. So let’s keep that in perspective.
Now, what we try to stress with the humanities is the types of aspects of civilization that bring people together rather than divide us. For example, the NEH is having a series of conferences on the Muslim world and it’s contributions to world science as well as world literature and world history. This is not to deny that there are challenges in the Muslim world that are somewhat confrontational to the United States today, but it’s important to understand that there’s another dimension to the Muslim world, and if we can better understand that dimension we might be better off in dealing with its more challenging dimensions.
In that regard for example, American museums have some of the great resources of human civilization that many Americans don’t know. There’s a museum in Baltimore called the Walters Art Museum that has some of the great manuscripts of the Muslim world dating back seven, eight, nine centuries, and they have beautiful calligraphy and art, so we [the NEH] is putting these manuscripts online at some expense, so they will be available to Americans who are non-Muslims to understand and also be available to Muslim citizens everywhere in the world to look at their own heritage and traditions as a token of respect for their cultures.
The importance of such gestures cannot be understated. There is an old saying, that isn’t always true but it’s more likely to be the case than not, and that saying is that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other. But what is categorically true is that cultures that respect one another are less likely to go to war with one another than cultures that don’t. And this is where the humanities play an invaluable role, because if we ignore the humanities, and if we arbitrarily define another country as a culture we don’t respect or a religion we don’t respect or a way of living we don’t respect, the chances of violent conflict increase dramatically. And with the technology of violence being what it is at this point in history, well, I would argue that in this regard, ignoring the importance of humanities—of the perhaps trite but nonetheless profound saying of walking a mile in another man’s shoes—is no less than a matter of our mutual survival.
And so I would argue that, for about the cost of a postage stamp, each citizen of this country, by supporting the NEH, is supporting one of the best means for ensuring the survival of humanity.