The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Speech: The Heritage of Western Civilization

May 4, 2018 by Michael B. Poliakoff

ACTA President Michael Poliakoff presented his lecture at Ashland University's Ashbrook Center on April 24, 2018.

Our topic for today is the commitment to free speech and freedom of thought that is the foundation for a society’s success, the engine of human progress.  We are going to see it in history in its full, creative power, and we are going to look at the threats that confront it today. Needless to say, it is an urgently important topic.

Lest I cast a pall, let me say that standing on this campus, I am optimistic. Ashland University is one of the few institutions in the nation that has endorsed strong principles of freedom of expression: students, faculty, administrators, and trustees have joined in this commitment. And there are few institutions in the nation that have articulated and taught so widely the principles of America’s Founding as the Ashbrook Center has done under Roger Beckett’s leadership and that of our late friend Peter Schramm. 

Those who believe in what Thomas Jefferson called “the illimitable freedom of the human mind” have generally been secure, if not complacent, that this birthright of our nation is an unassailable fact of American life. To borrow Jefferson’s words, “we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left to combat it.” 

But the fearless pursuit of truth with minds unfettered is indeed under assault. Let us be very clear in realizing that intellectual freedom and its handmaiden, freedom of speech, in all their manifestations in civic life and religion are rare and fragile phenomena that many throughout history have sought to crush out of existence. Protecting this freedom is no trivial matter. 

Let me illustrate that point in a German phrase: Dort wo man Buecher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen. “There where people burn books, they will ultimately burn human beings as well.” Heine wrote those lines in 1821.  A little over a century later, it was the works of such authors as Heine himself, along with Freud, Einstein, Kafka, James Joyce, Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad that were burned by the Nazis, soon followed, indeed, by the murder and burning of millions throughout Europe.  At a number of places in Germany, you can find Heine’s grim, ironic warning on plaques marking the spots, many of them on university campuses, where these book burnings took place.  And if you get a queasy feeling when you read nowadays about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn being pulled from school library shelves or the demand for warning labels attached to Ovid or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, you have good reason for your disquiet.  Or, indeed, just a few months ago, when Knox College in Illinois canceled the production of a play by Bertolt Brecht – one of the authors whose books 85 years ago the Nazis burned as “decadent.” And suppression by public shaming – continues: just this February, Kenyon College students and faculty kicked up such a row over a play about cultural insensitivity that the playwright in residence gave in and self-censored. The American campus has found neat ways to banish books even without the flames. 

The story of freedom of the intellect and the political freedom on which it depends begins in ancient Greece, and we will put a particular focus on ancient Athens, which cultivated these freedoms in a way not seen again until the Founding of our nation.  But the Greek miracle, which I do not hesitate to call it, transcended the Greeks.The achievement of ancient Greece, the breakthrough, was not a function of ethnicity or genetics. Freedom of the intellect and its supporting freedoms represent ultimately a story about the combination of social and political institutions that build free societies: it is a common human heritage from which everyone can learn.  And if I don’t provide any other takeaways in this presentation, please hold on to that thought.

The 6th century BCE is witness to a succession of thinkers who challenge the mythological pantheon of gods and goddesses and the prevailing explanations for the origin of the world. The essence of existence is water, said Thales; no, said Anaximander, it is “the infinite.” Anaximenes said “air”; “strife and change” said Heraclitus, symbolized by “fire.” “Indivisible oneness” said Parmenides, the thinker who so deeply influenced Plato. Xenophanes made the daring assertion: if oxen and horses and lions had hands, and could draw with their hands and do what men do, horses would draw the gods to be like horses, and oxen to be like oxen, and they would make the bodies of the gods similar to their own.  And there is not a scrap of evidence that he was ever prosecuted, or harmed… or even, dare I say, “de-platformed.”

Does this intellectual daring from 25 centuries ago seem trivial? When South African artist Ronald Harrison in 1962 defied the racist apartheid regime and painted the dissident black African leader Albert Luthuli as Jesus, he was arrested and the painting was banned from South Africa. Despots who think they can punish art, of course, are fools: the painting was smuggled to the United Kingdom and returned to South Africa in 1997. It has undoubtedly been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on the Internet…

To read the full lecture, click here >>


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