Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Bill Ayers Cancelled at U of Wyoming -- Critical Thought Under Fire

Several months ago, I shared a podium with Bill Ayers and Mark Falcoff at an event organized to demand that the charges be dropped against Gregory Koger. Gregory, many of you may remember, was arrested and brutalized for filming as I made a peaceful statement at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago on the morning of my talk they had invited me to give and then canceled for political reasons.

Mark, Bill and I all told stories of the harassment, suppression, and dis-invitation we had received by institutions that pride themselves on valuing an open exchange of ideas in the face of right wing witch-hunts and threats. This truly escalated under the Bush Regime, but continues under Obama. Bill spoke of how, ever since he became a cartoon-character-foil for those trying to demonize Obama going into the election, one of the forms of repression he has confronted is that a few right wing fanatics will get hysterical when they hear he has been scheduled to speak somewhere and then the University (or other institution) will cancel his speech "for his own safety and protection."

This seems to be playing out again at the University of Wyoming. Layered on top of that are dishonesty and spin coming from the University itself as they seek to justify their cancellation. You can read the whole thing at Bill Ayer's website:

Here, I will excerpt the very end of his statement as I feel it speaks most poignantly to what is at stake in this type of chilling cancellation.

"As campuses contract and constrain, the main victims becomes truth, honesty, integrity, curiosity, imagination, freedom itself. When college campuses fall silent, other victims include the high school history teacher on the west side of Chicago or in Laramie or Cheyenne, the English literature teacher in Detroit, or the math teacher in an Oakland middle school. They and countless others immediately get the message: be careful what you say; stay close to the official story; stick to the authorized text; keep quiet with your head covered.

"In Brecht’s play Galileo the great astronomer set forth into a world dominated by a mighty church and an authoritarian power: 'The cities are narrow and so are the brains,' he declared recklessly. Intoxicated with his own insights, Galileo found himself propelled toward revolution. Not only did his radical discoveries about the movement of the stars free them from the 'crystal vault' that received truth insistently claimed fastened them to the sky, but his insights suggested something even more dangerous: that we, too, are embarked on a great voyage, that we are free and without the easy support that dogma provides. Here Galileo raised the stakes and risked taking on the establishment in the realm of its own authority, and it struck back fiercely. Forced to renounce his life’s work under the exquisite pressure of the Inquisition, he denounced what he knew to be true, and was welcomed back into the church and the ranks of the faithful, but exiled from humanity—by his own word. A former student confronted him in the street then: 'Many on all sides followed you…believing that you stood, not only for a particular view of the movement of the stars, but even more for the liberty of teaching— in all fields. Not then for any particular thoughts, but for the right to think at all. Which is in dispute.'

"This is surely in play today: the right to talk to whomever you please, the right to read and wonder, the right to pursue an argument into uncharted spaces, the right to challenge the state or the church and its orthodoxy in the public square. The right to think at all.

"This is some of what I would have discussed in Wyoming, but that will not happen, at least not this week. Canceling this talk underlines the urgency of having multiple and far-ranging speeches, dialogue, and discussions at every level and throughout the public square."

posted by Sunsara Taylor at 6:59 PM


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