ONE OF THE MORE enjoyable conspiracies in which I have been involved was helping to start the DC Community Humanities Council, which just celebrated its 25 years anniversary. At the time, every state as well as Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico had a humanities council, but not the capital colony. This was not accidental. Beyond the normal indifference shown to the city by the federal government was the fact that DC was where Congress met and if the local humanities council did anything untoward it could hurt the humanities across the nation.
But the Marion Barry administration was putting on the heat, and finally the NEH began looking for some safe, responsible, non-trouble-making citizens to form the council. At one point they got the list up to 400 names, and I remember a worried looking NEH official coming to our office and interviewing me.
In the end, the vetting down to seven founding members wasn’t particularly effective. Not only did they let me in but also Rod French of George Washington University, whose scholarship included a close look at America’s free thinkers, the very freethinking author Sophy Burnham, the similarly liberated poet Ethelbert Miller and Del Lewis, later head of NPR and also ambassador to South Africa, who was frequently excellent even before they made him an Excellency.
At the time I noted, “I had voluntarily agreed to serve a cause whose meaning and purpose I thought I understood, but which I couldn’t decently explain to anyone who didn’t understand. I had done so somewhat whimsically and capriciously, in part because I sensed it all had something to do with constructive irrelevance, a subject which has come to interest me after years of excessive relevance and the not totally satisfying product of the same. It also seemed to favor my anarchistic side, since the humanities like to ask questions without providing answers while politics tends to provide answers without asking questions.”
The group was – and remains – the only urban humanities council in the country. It consisted of three blacks, one latino and three whites, four academics and three philistines, and four men and three women. In another first for humanities councils, it had co-chairs, one black and one white.
So on paper in 1981 we looked admirably diverse. What the NEH perhaps wasn’t expecting was that we were actually quite unified, got on exceptionally well, had lots of fun, and right under NEH chair William Bennett’s nose funded things like a film on liberation theology and another on the role of the sleeping car porters in the civil rights movement.
As a philistine on the council I tried to explain to my readers what a humanities was: “It’s probably worthwhile for a city with a budget of over a billion dollars to spend S300,000 on something that only our souls say is cost-effective. . .
“So what’s a humanities? I can’t really give you one answer. But I can give you several. It’s asking why before we say yes. It’s remembering something someone wrote two centuries ago when we can’t remember what we wrote yesterday. It’s mistakes we don’t have to make because they’ve already been made and solutions we don’t have to dream up because someone has already thought of them. It’s how we got where we are and where we might go from here. It’s things we can’t measure yet know have depth and breadth. It’s parts of our culture we might lose like the Indian tribe writing its language down and putting it in a book. It’s parts of our culture that we’re often slow to recognize as such, like the legislature in Georgia finally making “Georgia on My Mind” the state song and inviting Ray Charles to come down and sing it. It’s the moral, philosophical, and historical issues hidden behind the political babble. It’s rights and beliefs and their protection. It’s preserving the past and the future as well as exploiting today. It’s thinking as well as talking, questioning as well as answering. And it’s placing human values and culture at the center of our world and making machines and technology and Channel Seven serve us rather than the other way around.
“If we talk about things like these, we’ll be talking humanities whether we know it or not. And I think we’ll be reminded that they really do matter. And have all along.”
After five years of the Reagan administration I wasn’t so sure. Speaking at the fifth anniversary I said,
“Five years ago the DC Community Humanities Council was formed, charged with the diffusion of ideas, the encouragement of thought and the inspiration of rational discourse within this our nation’s capital. This was a little like trying to sell Bibles in a brothel, and I think that any fair assessment of what has occurred around us since we began would indicate that we have failed miserably. The best efforts of the council and its sainted staff have failed to halt a national and local stampede towards what is perhaps the most anti-humanistic era of our lifetimes.
“It is an era, to be sure, not without ideas and a sense of history but what ideas and what history. It’s as if the worst of the past had been resyndicated and put on Channel 20, with none of the other stations working. We draw from the economics of Morgan, Mellon and the British East India Company, the morality of Comstock, the civil liberties of Palmer and McCarthy, the civil rights of Tara, the lifestyle of Babbitt and Gatsby, the religion of Gantry, the political ethics of Teapot Dome, the business ethics of Ponzi, the gentleness of Nietzsche, the altruism of Ayn Rand, the ecological sensitivity of General Sherman, the spiritualism of Warren Gameliel Harding, the imagination of Rutherford Hayes the brilliance of Franklin Pierce, the expressiveness of Calvin Coolidge and the evolutionary theories of William Jennings Bryan. . .
“We have become the first society to know more about the external world than we do about ourselves. And now we even seem to be losing the ability to talk or write about the problem. It is an era in which, like the fifties, the man in the gray flannel suit is in the ascendancy, but unlike the fifties, when he was viewed with the ambivalence that economics forces upon us, he or she is now a cultural role model, and, unbelievably, even considered hip, charismatic and sexy.
“And it is an era in which we know how to promote, facilitate merge, network, manage, integrate, finalize and bottom line, but are losing the ability to make or to create. I have a nightmare that one day the country will awake and discover that there is nothing to manage, finalize and facilitate. There will be no one left to build anything.
“So we have failed — here in the jaws of the lion — but I would argue that given the powers arrayed against the humanistic ideal, failure has been the only sane and honorable course. And the failure, one hopes, is only temporary. Long ago, John Locke warned of the constant decay of ideas, and how they must be ‘renewed by repeated exercises of the senses.’ If not, ‘the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen.’
“The print is fading, but, thanks in part to this band of happy humanistic warriors, it could have been a lot worse. . . In a city that is obsessed with style, it is one of the few real class acts. So a toast to the Council for all it has done and will do and to the humanistic spirit. May we live to see it once more.”
Twenty years later, we are still waiting.