Wyo, Wyo, Wyoming

April 28, 2010
Categories: Education, News
william ayers photo.jpg
William Ayers is Wyoming-bound.

We’ve kept you abreast of developments regarding the University of Wyoming’s attempt to ban controversial professor William Ayers from speaking on campus — an effort that led to a lawsuit filed by Denver attorney David Lane.

Yesterday, United States District Court Judge William Downes held a hearing in Casper at which the university claimed its actions were motivated by security concerns, not speech issues. But Downes didn’t buy that.

Moments ago, he delivered a ruling videoconferenced to Denver during which he ordered that Ayers be allowed to speak at the university tomorrow.

Downes cited a four-part test in his decision, ruling that Ayers’s free speech had been violated, that the university’s decision to bar him would cause irreparable harm, that his speech would be in the public interest, and that he can speak in the campus’s multipurpose gym. Although he said it’s unclear if the gym is a designated free speech area or a limited public forum, he determined that the point is moot because the school has no written policy establishing its status.

Regarding the security concerns, Downes said, “These fears were based on, at best, veiled or indirect threats and apprehension” — calling it a “heckler’s veto.” He stressed that “fear is not enough to override the First Amendment.”

After reading an e-mail sent to the university by an anonymous individual, who felt school officials were “f-ing morons” for letting Ayers speak, Downes asked, “Where is the threat in that?” The same went for other terms, including “douchebag,” “assholes” and “prick,” as in this sample message: “For those of you who allowed this prick to speak, I think you should eat a mouth full of buck shot… All the worst to you. Mike.”

About the author of this note, Downes said, “Mike is heavily exercised, and he leaves us no doubt about his opinion of Mr. Ayers. But to read that as a direct threat is patently ridiculous.”

Among the precedents cited by Downes was 1965’s Willams v. Wallace, in which Judge Frank Johnson ordered that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King Jr. be allowed to march from Selma to Montgomery — a landmark ruling in the civil rights movement.

Downes added, “The Bill of Rights is a document for all seasons… Mr. Ayers is a citizen who wants to speak. He needn’t have any more justification than that.” He ordered the university to work with the plaintiffs, led by student Meg Lanker, to organize Ayers’ speech, which is slated to take place at the multi-purpose gym on campus tomorrow at a time to be determined.

Lane’s take? “Judge Downes acted in a very courageous fashion,” he says. “This should send a message to universities across the country that they can’t use security as an excuse to stifle free speech.”

Tags:

David Lane, Michael Roberts, University of Wyoming, William Ayers


Fallout From Calling Off Bill Ayers Talk

April 15, 2010

The University of Wyoming, which called off a talk by William Ayers, the one-time Weather Underground leader who is now a leading education researcher, is facing new criticism over the move. While Ayers has been canceled before, Wyoming officials were frank about their concerns over political fallout from a visit (as opposed to claiming security or scheduling problems). As a result, a Colorado lawyer, David Lane (also the lawyer for Ward Churchill), announced that he will sue the university for free speech violations unless it invites Ayers, the Associated Press reported. The suite would be filed on behalf of a student who wanted to see him talk on campus.
Inside Higher Education
April 13, 2010


Class Conflict

April 15, 2010

In the current fight over higher public education we might re-affirm our commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal, the belief that every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force. Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights; each is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. And this means that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; and conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.

We want our students to be able to participate and engage, to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions—who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? How in the world shall I proceed?—and to pursue answers wherever they might take them. We focus our efforts, not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in civic life.

We might declare that in this corner of this place—in this open space we are constructing together—people will begin to experience themselves as powerful authors of their own narratives, actors in their own dramas, the essential architects and creators of their own lives, participants in a dynamic and inter-connected community-in-the-making. Here they will discover a zillion ways to articulate their own desires and demands and questions. Here everyone will live in search of rather than in accordance with or in accommodation to. As we wrangle over what to pass on to the future generation, and struggle over what to value and how, students must find vehicles and pathways to question the circumstances of their lives, and wonder about how their lives might be otherwise. Free inquiry, free questioning, dialogue and struggle must take their rightful place—at the heart of things.

Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful questioning and free inquiry. Much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime throughout history. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt.

The cancellation of an invitation to speak to a legitimate campus group at Wyoming in April is a case in point. Of course I would like to come back now, and in fact the only action that would fully repudiate the wrong decision, and then undo the harm, would be for the president himself, author of that weirdly disingenuous statement (based on a profoundly dishonest narrative), to host me. OK, that’s unlikely, but still…

I’ve said to anyone who’s asked that an invitation should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement, and that inviting someone to campus could be, as well, an opportunity to debate, to sharpen arguments, to engage in spirited disagreement. Perhaps that was the case here. I’ve also pointed out that I am in no way the injured party in any of this. I spoke freely a week ago Monday—to myself, my kids, my colleagues and students—and I was fine. The injured party is the group of faculty and students who wanted to engage me—for whatever reasons (and I have only the vaguest sense of who my original host was, or how the talk might have gone). It was their freedom, not mine, that was trampled, out of misplaced fear or petty expediency, or both.

And then one wonders: if my ideas are so toxic, shouldn’t the noisy posse that shouted down the most basic values in a democracy press the university president to scour the library and purge it of all of my books? Perhaps he should head them off by getting their first, burning the books himself. Who else should be purged, and on what basis? Maybe convicted felons (I’m thinking Martha Stewart, George Ryan, G. Gordon Liddy, and Scooter Libby, but not me since I’ve never been convicted of a felony) should be banned. Or bad role models (all eye-of-the-beholder stuff, for sure, but I’m thinking Elliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods). Or advocates of violence as a proper means of social change (definitely not me, no matter what you hear on the blogasylum, but lots and lots and lots of government officials—from virtually every government in the world). And try to think, then, of what standard exists in the mind of the Wyoming president that impels him to ban me, and only me. What if the French Club invites Sarkozy, or the China Club Hu Jinao or Ha Jin, or the Literature Club Junot Diaz or James Frey or Arundhati Roy, or the Prison Rights Club Mark Clements or Ronnie Kitchens or Nelson Mandela? Should there be a panel to scrutinize every potential speaker and certify them as….what, exactly?

Any way, there is something much greater at stake here than some small speech I might have delivered to 75 students. As campuses contract and constrain, the main victims become 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. Oh, freedom.

Wyoming is taking a step onto a slippery slope, and I think journalists, right next to academics and librarians, ought to dispense with the tired and bloodless “he said” and then “he said” and then “he said” form of reporting, and try to explain the serious issues underneath all of this, which have everything to do with whether the public space can be spared for a while longer. Everyone in Wyoming, whatever their politics and orientations, have a stake in the outcome.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A delightful video emerged from the recent student-led struggles at the University of California organized to resist the grinding and relentless undoing of public higher education: a student attends to her daily routine, writing, reading, sitting in a lecture hall, while the camera focuses here and there, and a voice-over intones: “Pen: $1.69; Textbook: $38; Backpack: $69; Dinner (a tiny packet of dry noodles!): $.50…” And at the end of the list: “Education [pause]…Priceless.” The tag-line is perfect: “There are some things that money can’t buy; don’t let education be one of them.”

The crisis in public higher education (mirror to the crisis in K-12 schooling) is not a joke at all: tuition and fees are sky-rocketing across the country, and are already out of reach for millions; staff cut-backs, lay-offs, and reductions in student services have become common-place; massive student loans have replaced grants and scholarships; class-size is increasing while course offerings are decreasing; hiring freezes and pay-cuts and unpaid mandatory furloughs are on the rise as tenure-track positions are eliminated. These and other “short-term” strategies for dealing with the financial crisis are consistent with the overall direction that has characterized public higher education for decades: “restructuring” as biz-speak for a single-minded focus on the bottom line. And all of this is part of a larger crisis of the state, and larger choices about who pays, and who suffers.

A few snapshots: state support for the University of Illinois system stands at about 16% today, down from 48% two decades ago. In California state colleges will turn away 40,000 qualified students this year, while the community colleges, in a cascading effect, will turn away 100,000. And this year a 32% fee hike is proposed at the University of California at Berkeley, (a proposal that triggered the current student movement there) while the school pays its football coach $2.8 million a year, and is just completing a $400 million renovation of the football stadium. The sports reporter Dave Zirin sums this mess up nicely: “This is what students see: boosters and alumni come first, while they’ve been instructed to cheer their teams, pay their loans, and mind their business.”

These and similar trends are national in scope and impact: the average college graduate is between $20,000 and $30,000 in debt for student loans (not including credit card and other debt), compared to $9,000 in 1994; Pell Grants cover less than 32% of annual college costs; less than 20% of graduate students are unionized, and student labor at below market wages keeps the whole enterprise afloat; tenured and tenure-tack faculty are disappearing, today holding barely 30% of all faculty lines; out-of-state students are increasing in most public schools because they pay significantly higher tuitions, and that pattern is turning public colleges and universities into “engines of inequality,” places with both less access and less equity, less social justice and fewer highly qualified students, private schools in fact, while remaining pubic in name only.

But even this grim picture can be brought into sharper, and it turns out, more painful focus. California spends more on prisons than on higher education—across the country, spending on corrections is six times higher than spending on higher education—and from 1985-2000 Illinois increased spending on higher education by 30% while corrections shot up100%. Here we get a clearer insight into the budget crises that are being rationalized and balanced on our heads: a permanent war economy married to a prison society, with the abused and neglected offspring paying for the sins of the parents.

I’ve been reminded again and again of Don DeLillo’s grimly funny and super-smart novel White Noise, whose narrator is Jack Gladney, a professor of “Hitler Studies” at a small mid-western college, who is sleep-walking through his life to the dull background sounds of TV and endless radio, the muzac of consumerism and electronics, unrestrained advertising and constant technological innovation, appliances and microwaves. When an industrial accident creates what is at first described officially as a “feathery plume,” but later becomes a “black billowing cloud,” and finally an “airborne toxic event,” everything becomes a bit unhinged. Jack’s response to an order to evacuate is disbelief: “I’m not just a college professor,” he whines. “I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.”

Well, not anymore, Jack. Our own feathery cloud has turned toxic at breath-taking speed, and those folks in the mobile homes might be your natural allies after all. When the administration at Cal closed the libraries and restricted hours of operation to save money, students implemented a 24-hour “Study-In” where they were joined by faculty as well as community members who had never before had access. Folks joined hands and chanted, “Whose university? Our university!” As one grad student said: “When we started we wanted to save the university; today we want to transform it, to decolonize it, to open it up.”

Higher education itself is being radically redefined by the wealthy privateers and the neo-liberals as a product to be bought and sold at the marketplace, a commodity like a car, a box of bolts, or a toilet, rather than either a right (something fought for by generations) or an intellectual, ethical, and spiritual journey (education as enlightenment and liberation). The meteoric rise of for-profit universities (and the mindlessly trailing along by eager university administrators grasping their freshly-minted MBA’s) is one part of that trend. Another piece is private universities competing to secure their advantages at the expense of their “competitors” as well as the public: Harvard with its $36 billion endowment, Northwestern with $7 billion. (Northwestern’s new president offered the silly sentiment that he was hoping to make his university “elite without being elitist,” and one wonders exactly what “public” or “common” interest these tax-exempt institutions serve?)

Perhaps it’s time to envision the world we want to inhabit, and then to begin to live it, here and now, on campus and off. Here are a few possible campaigns as starting points to get our creative and activist juices flowing: cancel all outstanding student debt (good enough for the banks, why not us?); equal pay for equal work; truth in language (a furlough is not a camping trip, it’s a pay-cut; “selective admissions” is more honestly restrictive admissions); universal free open-access high quality public post-secondary schools (whew!).

The current frontal attack on higher public education is an attack on democracy itself. Education is a perennial battleground, for it’s where we ask ourselves who we are as people, what it means to be human here and now, and what world we hope to inhabit. It’s where we assess our chances and access our choices, and it’s where we take up dynamic questions of morality and ethics, identity and location, agency and action. We want to know more, to see more, to experience more in order to do more—to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that we inherit, a world we are simultaneously destined to change.


Doublespeak at the University of Wyoming

April 6, 2010

On March 30, 2010, officials at the University of Wyoming, citing “security threats” and “controversy,” canceled two talks I was invited to give in early April, one a public lecture entitled “Trudge Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action,” and the other, a talk to faculty and graduate students called “Teaching and Research in the Public Interest: Solidarity and Identity.” I’d been invited in August, 2009, but one week before I was to travel to Laramie, I was told I had been “disinvited.”

In February, as the University began to publicize my scheduled visit, a campaign to rescind the invitation was initiated on right-wing blogs, accelerating quickly to a wider space where a demonizing and dishonest narrative dominated all discussion. A wave of hateful messages and death threats hit the University, and was joined soon enough by a few political leaders and wealthy donors instructing officials in ominous tones to cancel my visit to the campus. On March 28 an administrator wrote to tell me that the University was receiving vicious e-mails and threatening letters, as well as promises of physical disruption were I to show up. This is becoming drearily familiar to me, as I’ll explain.

A particularly despicable note from Frank Smith who lives in Cheyenne and is active in the Wyoming Patriot Alliance, said, “Maybe someone could take him out and show him the Matthew Sheppard (sic) Commerative (sic) Fence and he could bless it or something.” He was referring to Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was tortured and murdered in 1998, left to die tied to a storm fence outside Laramie.

Republican candidate for Governor Ron Micheli released a letter he’d sent to all members of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees asking them to rescind the invitation. Matt Mead, another gubernatorial candidate, said through a press release that while he is a self-described “fervent believer in free speech and the free exchange of ideas,” that still allowing me to speak would be “reprehensible.” He concluded that I should have “no place lecturing our students.”

I sympathized with the University, and told the folks I was in touch with how sorry I was that all of this was happening to them. I also said that I thought it was a bit of a tempest in a tea pot, and that it would surely pass. Certainly no matter what a couple of thugs threatened to do, I said, I thought that Wyoming law enforcement could get me to the podium, and I would handle myself from there, as I do elsewhere. I said I thought we should stand together and refuse to accede to these kinds of pressures to demonize someone and suppress students’ right to freely engage in open dialogue. After all a public university is not the personal fiefdom or the political clubhouse of the governor, and donors are not permitted to call the shots when it comes to the content or conduct of academic matters. We should not allow ourselves to collapse in fear if a small mob gathers with torches at the gates. I wouldn’t force myself on the University, of course, but I felt that canceling would be terribly unfair to the faculty and students who had invited me, and would send a big message that bullying works. It would be another step down the slippery slope of giving up on the precious ideal of a free university in a free society.

No good. On March 30, 2010 the University posted an announcement of the cancellation of my visit with a long and rambling comment from President Tom Buchanan. He begins with the obligatory assertion that academic freedom is a core principle of the University, but quickly adds that “freedom requires a commensurate dose of responsibility.” We are charged to enact free speech and thought “in concert with mutual respect.”

Nothing that I did or said in this matter was disrespectful or irresponsible, and yet, in the absence of specific references, readers are led to imagine all kinds of offenses.

The announcement is punctuated with a deep defensiveness: anyone who thinks the University “caved in to external pressure,” Buchanan writes, would be “incorrect.” Anticipating what any casual observer would conclude, he builds a strained and somewhat desperate counter-narrative. Buchanan pleads that UW is “one of the few institutions remaining in today’s environment that garners the confidence of the public,” and that a speech by me would somehow undermine that confidence.

He concludes that “this episode illustrated an opportunity to hear and critically evaluate a variety of ideas thoughtfully, through open, reasoned, and civil debate, it also demonstrates that we must be mindful of the real consequences our actions and decisions have on others.” That’s some sentence, and while it’s impossible to know definitively what he’s referring to as the “episode” (it might be the public lecture itself, but then it could be the cancellation of the lecture, or even the barbarians at the gates threatening to burn the place down, or withhold funds, that would provide the opportunity to critically evaluate matters). It has an unmistakable Orwellian ring: we cancelled that lecture as an expression of our support for lectures! And it’s eerily similar to the classics: we destroyed that village in order to save it! Work will make you free! War is peace!

One of the truly weird qualities of the Buchanan statement is a hole in its center, the deafening silence concerning why the campaign against me was organized in the first place. The reason is familiar to me as noted: in the 1960’s I was a leader of the militant anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society, and then a founder of the Weather Underground, an organization that carried out dramatic symbolic attacks against several monuments to war and racism, crossed lines of legality, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense. And then during the 2008 presidential I was unwittingly and unwillingly thrust upon the stage because I had known—like thousands of others—Barack Obama in Chicago. The infamous charge that the candidate was “pallin around with terrorists,” designed to injure Obama, also demonized me. I’ve been an educator and professor for decades, but the hard right has accelerated the lunacy against thousands of folks— activists and artists, academics and theorists, outspoken radical thinkers—and wherever possible mounted campaigns exactly like the one in Wyoming. Often university officials stand up on principle and resist the howling mob, as they did recently at St. Mary’s in California; sometimes—as at a student-run conference at the University of Pittsburgh in March—they compromise, restricting access to talks and surrounding a speaker with unwanted and unnecessary police protection; sometimes, as in this case, the university turns and runs. It’s a sad sight.

Of course I wasn’t invited to speak about any of this, and it’s unlikely any of it would have come up without the active campaigning and noisy thunder from the relatively tiny group that is the ultra-right.

I would have focused my talk on the unique characteristics of education in a democracy, an enterprise that rests on the twin pillars of enlightenment and liberation, knowledge and human freedom. Education engages dynamic questions of morality and ethics, identity and location, agency and action. We want to know more, to see more, to experience more in order to do more—to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that we inherit, the world we are simultaneously destined to change.

To deny students the right to question the circumstances of their lives, and to wonder how they might be otherwise, is to deny democracy itself.

It’s reasonable to assume that education in a democracy is distinct from education under a dictatorship or a monarchy; surely school leaders in fascist Germany or Albania or Saudi Arabia or apartheid South Africa all agreed, for example, that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard, and master the subject matters; they also graduated fine scientists and musicians and athletes, so none of those things differentiate a democratic education from any other.

What makes education in a democracy, at least theoretically, distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force. Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights; each is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. Democracy is geared toward participation and engagement, and that points to an educational system in which the fullest development of all is seen as the necessary condition for the full development of each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.

In a vibrant and participatory democracy, we might conclude that whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children is precisely the baseline and standard for what the wider community wants for all of its children. If children of privilege get to have small classes, abundant resources, and a curriculum based on opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the furthest limit, if the Obama kids, for example, attend such a school, one where they also find a respected and unionized teacher corps, shouldn’t that be good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere? Any other ideal for our schools, in John Dewey’s words, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”

We want our students to be able to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions—who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? How in the world shall I proceed?—and to pursue answers wherever they might take them. Our efforts focus not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in civic life.

Teaching in a democracy encourages students to develop initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. Education in a democracy is always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider world.

How do our schools at every level—K-16—measure up to the democratic ideal?

Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful choice-making. Much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt. While many long for an education that is transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce schooling to a kind of glorified clerking that passes along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run.

Educators, students, and citizens must press for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardized tests which act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance; an end to starving public schools—including public higher education—of needed resources and then blaming teachers for dismal outcomes; and an end to the rapidly accumulating “educational debt,” the resources due to communities historically segregated, under-funded and under-served. All children and youth in a democracy, regardless of economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, qualified and generously compensated teachers.
We might try now to create open spaces in our schools and our various communities where we expect fresh and startling winds to blow, unaccustomed winds that are sure to electrify and confound and fascinate us. We begin by throwing open the windows. We declare that in this corner of this place—in this open space we are constructing together—people will begin to experience themselves as powerful authors of their own narratives, actors in their own dramas, the essential architects and creators of their own lives, participants in a dynamic and inter-connected community-in-the-making. Here they will discover a zillion ways to articulate their own desires and demands and questions. Here everyone will live in search of rather than in accordance with or in accommodation to. Here we will join one another and our democratic futures can be born.

A primary job of teachers and scholars and journalists, and a responsibility of all engaged citizens, is to challenge orthodoxy, dogma, and mindless complacency, to be skeptical of all authoritative claims, to interrogate and trouble the given and the taken-for-granted. The growth of knowledge, insight, and understanding depends on that kind of effort, and the inevitable clash of ideas that follows must be nourished and not crushed.

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.


The Burdens of Empire

April 4, 2010

Pity the poor imperialists. Brimming with self-serving justifications–we come in peace, we stand for freedom, we represent a better way–and sporting those confident smiles, they invade and occupy a distant land, and meet, to their never-ending surprise, resentment and resistance at every turn. The pattern is always the same: they install a puppet regime that acts as the initial justification for their presence, and in the blink of an eye, the puppet is found to be inadequate and expendable. He is then criticized, demonized, and finally removed, overthrown, or shot (remember Diem!). So it is in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It would be interesting if the New York Times, for example, had an editorial writer who knew or could honestly draw on history, or who wasn’t tethered to a desk in the US State Department. We might have been spared the editorial on April 3, “President Karzai Lashes Out.” His “rambling speech” is “delusional,” for he doesn’t seem to see that the US is focused on “protecting and improving the lives of Afghan civilians as well as on defeating the Taliban.” When Karzai says the US is on the verge of becoming invaders, the Times alerts us all that he has entered “hazardous territory.” In case Karzai himself misses the point, the editorial warns that Washington can always “work around him if needed'” and that his future may well be doomed.
Of course we can’t really expect journalists to have much perspective in the United States of Amnesia, but a short eight years ago, when Karzai was installed with noisy proclamations and celebration, a host of thoughtful commentators said it would necessarily come to this.
And so it has, without a word of self-criticism.


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