The air-conditioning was working on full blast, a must for late July in Alabama.
The refreshments were tasty, though decidedly alcohol-free. Hey, as the university president joked, it’s a Baptist university.
The crowd gathered at the Birmingham campus was well-dressed and well-mannered. It included some of Alabama’s top intellectuals, including Auburn University professor emeritus Wayne Flynt.
The speaker, a former Republican congressman from Iowa, made a passionate but wholly reasonable and soft-spoken plea to bring civility back to our national discourse.
Outside, though, the conversation was still as hot as a summer night in Alabama. Scan the dial, click the remote, log on to the computer and you’ll hear plenty of raised voices ticking off talking points.
On the Internet, ideological readers segregate themselves into friendly corners where the other side is mocked and only ideologically approved news makes it past the censors. (And where it is pretended most issues neatly divide into two sides.)
The e-mail inbox is brimming with half-baked conspiracy theories that neatly fit into the sender’s view of the world.
In short, Americans are increasingly walling themselves off from any point that rubs them the wrong way.
Jim Leach, the former congressman, current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and speaker two weeks ago at Samford, said you can see the split in the extreme terms Americans use to characterize their leaders.
For eight years, to his critics Dick Cheney was a fascist.
Now, another set of critics claims it’s Barack Obama who’s the fascist. Oh, and Leach noted, they also think the president is a socialist.
Leach is disturbed that he’s hearing the words “secession” and “nullification” more frequently. “These are words that have summoned people to war,” Leach said.
“The edges are coming to dominate,” Leach said, adding later, “We have legislative bodies where the notion of compromise” is considered unprincipled.
The NEH chairman knows a thing or two about “compromise” as a dirty word. Leach, whose campaign billboards included a picture of the congressman and one word, “integrity,” paid the price for his principles. His 2006 bid for a 16th term in the U.S. House of Representatives failed after he rebuffed national party plans to employ anti-gay tactics against his Democratic rival.
“Sports has a higher ethic than politics,” said Leach. (Tossing in Alabama and Auburn football references shows you’ve still got your political chops, congressman.)
Ever notice how many coaches emphasize respect for rival opponents? Can you imagine such declarations from politicians? Leach asked.
How many university presidents would hire a coach who promised to “cheat to win?” According to Leach, it happens too often in American politics.
The fault lies with money’s growing influence over our politics. Leach cited the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates of corporate money into U.S. elections. In his view, the court’s conservatives took a narrow case and decided to “make law.”
The result will be a further installment of our “corporatist democracy,” which Leach described as a system that cuts out citizens when their interests clash with the Fortune 500.
“Governance has to work,” Leach said. “And if we have a breakdown in governance, then we are going to have a very difficult time.”
In conclusion, he quoted William Butler Yeats’ famous line that the “center will not hold” because “[t]he best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The line could apply to our country, our state and even our community.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.