Week Five Column from the President

Welcome to Week Five of our 145th Assembly.

What an exhilarating week we’re leaving. Normally in this column, I start right off with “what’s to come,” but I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the incredible body of work we experienced, as Chautauquans, as we explored “Russia and the West.”

A longtime Chautauquan shared with me that he thought our Week Four programming was perhaps the best example he had ever seen of the reason that Chautauqua was created in the first place.

Thank you all for engaging so deeply in the week, and if you missed the week, it’s worth a stop at the pavilion outside the Amphitheater to get the lectures from our 10:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. lecture series. (The lectures are also available at I only wish that there was a publicly available recording of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Music School Festival Orchestras’ combined performance of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony. The sheer force of 150 orchestral musicians created a raw, powerful and gripping soundtrack to our week. Bravo.

All of that sets us up perfectly for the week ahead, as we probe “The Ethics of Dissent.” If dissent is the “highest form of patriotism,” at what point does dissent become harmful subversion? How does the First Amendment color the American debate on this subject, and what about other countries where these protections are nonexistent or less explicit? Is violence ever justified and, if so, at what cost? In this week, we’ll examine the obligations of active citizens and cultural critics, look at the role dissent has played in the development of democracy and a muscular civil dialogue and consider how dissent has changed — in the forms it takes, how it is responded to and the rules by which society allows or prohibits it.

In our companion interfaith series, we’ll explore the same theme with a twist. When one is dissenting in the public realm, morally, what can one do, what must one do, what must one not do? In what circumstances (ever?) does the end justify the means? When trying to change minds about something, what must never be violated, what line must never be crossed? In this week, we will seek to discern what an effective “ethics of dis- sent” can look like.

While there are so many things I could lift up in the life of our programming this week, there are two special moments to which I’d like to call your attention. Thanks to the generosity of Chautauquans Barbara and Twig Branch, we will award our inaugural Chautauqua Janus Prize, a new annual prize that celebrates an emerging writer’s single work of short fiction or nonfiction for daring formal and aesthetic innovations that upset and reorder literary conventions, historical narratives and readers’ imaginations. On Wednesday, July 25, we’ll celebrate Nicole Cuffy’s work Atlas of the Body. I highly recommend getting a copy from the Chautauqua Bookstore, and I hope you’ll join us in celebrating this wonderful work and prize.

For those who were with us last week, you heard me say from the Amp stage a few times that in weeks where we are probing difficult or controversial material, it’s more important than ever that we dig deep to keep an open mind. I continue to believe it’s our job to both delight and infuriate by bringing diverse viewpoints, and if you agree with everything you hear in a week, we should get a failing grade.

At a public strategic planning session last week, several conservative-minded Chautauquans raised concerns about balance in our programming. I mentioned to them then (and share with you now) that our team extends scores of invitations to key conservative voices across the country to share their thoughts. Some, such as New York Times columnist David Brooks, happily accept. Of course, some do not accept our invitations. In that same conversation, it was raised, as it has been raised with me before, that outbursts of applause when we are listening to a lecture where an idea of a certain ideology is expressed has the unintended consequence of expressing that alternative views aren’t welcome. I have been trying to solve this puzzle since arriving at Chautauqua and have publicly spoken about this topic many times.

Just as I have with so many other items, let me say this. Chautauqua is a community that we create together, and, in this instance, I offer two thoughts to consider: 1) our 2019 season of themes has been published and is readily available. We are happy to accept recommendations for conservative and non-conservative speakers alike, particularly if the recommendation comes along with a personal connection that helps to pave the way for an introduction; and 2) for those Chautauquans who clap and cheer when your ideology is expressed from the stage, please be conscious of the message that this sends. How Chautauqua responds in community is in the hands of the community, and I hope we’ll be able to create a community where diversity of thought is celebrated.

Speaking of community, please allow me to close by expressing my deep sadness over the loss of a dear member of this one. Bob Reeder left this world this past week. He and his wife, Carole, have been pillars of our year-round community for some time, and Bob probably framed half
of the art and mementos that hang in many homes here. His volunteer efforts over the years and his deep love for Chautauqua and Chautauquans made a quick impression on my heart since the first time I met him and Carole; his entire family is in my thoughts and prayers.

This is going to be a deeply thought-provoking week at Chautauqua. Let’s bring the best of our community to the discussion. In doing so, I believe we can model the best in human values for all who choose to engage here.

Tags : From the PresidentMichael HillThe Ethics of DissentWeek Five 2018
Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill