October is National Arts and Humanities Month. In honor of the occasion I’m writing to announce that the Wyoming Humanities Council (WHC) will be conducting a new series of programs and activities beginning in fall 2010 bringing Wyoming citizens together to focus on an important and timely topic: civility.
Much has been made of these “uncivil” times. As Americans, we are all familiar with the words and images that have characterized our political landscape in recent months and years: politicians resorting to ugly personal attacks and extreme public statements, the advent of the inchoate tea party movement and the inchoate, mocking response to it, all this amorphous anger, the mob chaos of political town meetings, entire TV “news” programs devoted to one-sided polemic, and here, closer to home, the uproar over Bill Ayers and extremists threatening to burn religious texts on the capitol steps. Even in Wyoming where we know that we daren’t offend our neighbor for risk of offending the entire community that sustains us, we are not immune.
The fuel we seem to keep pouring onto the fire is distilled from a variety of sources: the proliferation of electronic communication leading to an increasingly polarized media (what journalists Halperin and Harris refer to as “the freak show”), the increasing geopolitical phenomenon in which people choose to live where their political views will be reinforced (what author Bill Bishop refers to as “The Clustering of Like-Minded America;” and a frustrated electorate facing the seeming impossibility of getting anything done in the almost complete absence of compromise – we have all been burned by the volatility of these forces.
Of course, our democratic experiment has often been characterized by periods of national upheaval where incivility reigned. The publication “America’s Civil War” in its most recent issue stated “…if you think politics are polarizing now, try to imagine the angst in this country after Abraham Lincoln was elected president 150 years ago…” Cabinet members resigned, seven states voted to secede from the Union and Federal property in South Carolina was confiscated and/or destroyed leaving Ft. Sumter as the only federal property remaining. Yet, though far perhaps from the depth of the divisions which resulted in our great Civil War, the word “secession” has wormed its way back into the national dialogue. Our current cultural environment does call into question the cohesion of our nation and our collective ability to confront the enormous issues facing us - economic, environmental and social.
It is not that we should disagree less. Indeed, part of our American dynamism comes from the fact that we are born and bred to argue. Our democracy draws its strength from it. The esteemed journalist Howard Fineman in his book “The Thirteen American Arguments,” argues that, if anything, we don’t argue enough “…about the fundamentals. The … arguments bitterly divide us, but they also define, inspire, and ultimately unite us by bestowing legitimacy on hard fought deals…”
The difference today seems to be civility – what National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach refers to as the willingness and ability to “walk in another’s shoes.” I had the honor of meeting Mr. Leach during his visit to Wyoming last month as part of his 50-state “American Civility Tour.” Leach, a 30-year Iowa Congressman known for his effectiveness in working across the aisle, launched his tour to “call attention to the need for civility in public discourse.” I have seldom met a more erudite gentleman, yet, he puts this all very simply: “Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion.”
While pondering this piece, I thought of civility in light of my own family’s history of public service. Many of us are known to be “scrappers” who don’t back down from a fight and are prone, for better or worse, to speak our minds. My grandfather Milward, during his term as Governor in the late 1950’s, once wrote a quite uncivil letter responding to a constituent who seems to have taken issue with his conduct in office. Granddad dashed off his vitriolic missive and told his Chief of Staff Bob McManus to “mail the thing to that #@$&% SOB.” Bob did as he was told. Later that day, Governor Simpson came to him and asked, “…you didn’t mail that letter, did you!?” Bob said that he had. Granddad exclaimed something like “Oh God, we’ve got to go get it!” and they walked (I’m sure with less than sure legal footing) to the postmaster who agreed to retrieve the letter before it left the post office. From then on, when granddad had occasion (as he apparently continued to do) to direct his Chief of Staff to “mail the thing to that dirty rotten…!” or something of the like, Bob would wisely pocket the letter so when he was asked the inevitable “you didn’t mail that thing did you!?,” he simply retrieved it from his vest pocket – a sort of “pocket veto” of an uncivil instinct, for which the family is eternally grateful.
How do we confront this issue here in our beloved, wonderful and still wild Wyoming? The Wyoming Humanities Council’s Civility Matters! initiative was inspired by Chairman Leach’s call to action. The WCH describes these statewide programs as being “…presented in a variety of formats and will explore historically contentious events, as well as contemporary state, national, and international issues. Wide-ranging topics may include "cyber-civility" and public discourse in the digital age; sports and civility; cyber and school bullying; academic freedom; generational differences; national topics, such as second amendment rights, labor relations, and energy and water issues; regional topics, such as the Rock Springs Massacre, the Johnson County Wars, and the World War II Heart Mountain Relocation Center; and international topics, such as Islamic contributions to world cultures and the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.” The variable format for these discussions is intended to encourage interaction and will include visiting scholar presentations, online film and book discussions, summer watermelon/ice cream socials, publications, and community potluck dialogues.
The Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources is proud to provide support for these programs and feels they will benefit Wyoming as we explore the issue as a state and rededicate ourselves to our proud “live and let live” credo, to arguing and disagreeing while retaining our civility and our mutual respect. Back to Fineman, our civil discourse, our arguments, “…produced a civil war, the still-smoldering embers of racial tribalism, and pitiless economic competition; but they also produce the freest of societies, an ongoing (if imperfect) accommodation between capital and community, and a Constitution that stands as a beacon to the world even if we sometimes honor it in the breach. Arguing keeps us moving fitfully forward – toward being worthy of the gifts God gave us.”
As we celebrate National Arts and Humanities Month, I invite you to participate in these activities and be a part of this important discourse. After all, it’s the American thing to do!
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Milward Simpson, director of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, wrote a guest op-ed for the Oct. 24 Casper Star-Tribune. His essay focused on the new Wyoming Humanities Council program on a timely topic -- civility. This is a slightly longer version of the CST op-ed: