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Friday, July 07, 2006

Our father 


Our father died on this day, eight years ago. I know I still think about him every day, and wish so much that he could see what great grandchildren he has. Perhaps he does see.

Back when this blog had about 40 readers a day, I published the eulogy I gave for him at the service we had at our family's cemetary in Buckingham County, Virginia, where we buried his ashes. Perhaps our somewhat larger audience would also appreciate it. In any case, you will see in this eulogy many of the themes that I return to in my writing on this blog, particularly regarding the need to resist, rather than capitulate to, people who try to suppress free speech by violence or disorder.




Chellowe Cemetary, July 13, 1998

Our father, whose ashes we bury here today, was – in a most redundant sense – a “unique individual.” He was a political conservative in the most left-wing community the United States has ever indulged – the American university of the last thirty years. He believed that the best music, clothes and hairstyles ever devised were those that were popular on Ivy League campuses in the middle 1950s, but he understood the “current” thinking of college kids better than any of my friends’ fathers. He was not a devoted churchgoer, but he had such strong feelings about the changes in established religion that he banned the current version of the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer from this service. He was a Republican who voted for Richard Nixon twice and he served as an officer in the United States Navy, but he retained a fundamental distrust of big institutions, including both federal regulatory agencies and multinational corporations. He was a wonderful father, husband and son, and he most wished to be remembered as a professor, scholar, medieval historian and librarian.

On this occasion, I wanted to tell a brief and fairly cerebral story about my father that taught me an important lesson, and makes me as proud today as I was at ten years old, when the events in question occurred. Most of you have never heard of these events, or if you have you probably do not appreciate their significance to me.

In February 1972, the University of Iowa Psychology Department invited a Harvard psychologist, Richard Hernnstein, to speak on research he had conducted with pigeons. Professor Hernnstein was controversial, because the previous September he had published an article in the Atlantic Monthly suggesting that social and economic success in the United States might derive in part from measurable intelligence, and that since measurable intelligence was at least to a certain extent inherited, it followed that social and economic success might also be inherited. This position posed a sharp challenge to prevailing orthodox radical thought, so the organized left resolved to oppose Professor Hernnstein wherever he spoke, even when he was addressing totally unrelated matters, such as pigeons.

In the Iowa case, the front organization for the Students for a Democratic Society, the infamous SDS, repeatedly and publicly expressed their intention to prevent Professor Hernnstein from speaking, notwithstanding his formal invitation from the University. True to their threats, the SDS and its allies demonstrated so vocally that Professor Hernnstein was unable to speak and had to cancel his presentation.

The University administration remained basically silent during the days preceding and following the cancellation of Professor Hernnstein’s speech of February 25, refusing to discipline those responsible for the violation of academic freedom and free speech that had occurred. After a week of inaction by the administration, on March 3, 1972, Dad read a statement to his Medieval History class. Excerpts from the statement, and the aftermath of Dad’s decision to cancel a class in protest, I think reveal a lot about our father’s willingness to fight for what is right:
Before you start writing, there is one matter which I feel I must talk to you about, even though you are probably sick of hearing about it. The deliberate and successful attack on academic freedom which occurred here a week ago was the most tragic and upsetting thing which has happened in the three years I have been here. I feel that I can’t continue to perform my duties here without saying or doing something to make public my sorrow and my sense of outrage.

Because there is such pressure for conformity in a large industrial society, a university has to promote diversity more than ever before. But it cannot offer you diversity of opinion or provide anything more than mere indoctrination unless every faculty member has the fully guaranteed right to say what he thinks is the truth, not simply what one political group wants him to say. This right is academic freedom. Without it, I could not remain in this profession and your prospects for a broad and diversified educational experience would be gone ….

I think that neither you nor I can afford to have this issue swept under the rug. As a means of symbolizing my protest at the administration’s failure in this case, I am canceling Monday’s lecture in this course. I hope that you will take a few moments during that hour to reflect on the fact that freedom is very hard to win and very easy to lose.

A firestorm of publicity erupted. Backed into a corner, the administration disciplined the students involved, decertified the SDS front organization, and, for good measure, censured my father for canceling his class.

My clearest direct memory of these events is of a conversation I had with our father as the controversy was playing out in the press. I asked him why he had canceled his class and gotten into trouble with the University (a fairly straightforward question from a ten year old boy). I will always remember his reply: “The right of freedom of speech does not matter for people we all agree with. Freedom of speech only matters for people whose ideas we deplore.” It is a seemingly obvious point that even Americans often forget. For me, those words flash through my mind every time I learn of an attempt to suppress free speech. I cannot help it – it is a piece of Dad that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

As the son of a historian and a librarian, I took it upon myself to review Dad’s voluminous and well-organized files in the preparation of these remarks. Almost a year before, in April 1971, our father had anticipated the entire episode in a letter objecting to a draft Statement on Professional Ethics being circulated by the University of Iowa Faculty Council. The draft Statement asserted that a “professor’s first priority should be to do all in his power to prevent death and injuries due to violence” during periods of high tension on campus. Dad denounced that requirement, writing that:
[w]hen conditions on campus are abnormal, the threat usually involves a demand for scapegoats, as some tried to make ROTC a scapegoat for last year’s Cambodian intervention. It is at these crucial moments that the first obligation of faculty members must be to act rationally and to stand firmly behind any member of the community whose rights are threatened. Standing firm is a difficult matter, since capitulation often appears to be the only way of averting violence. Nevertheless, every time we sacrifice somebody else’s rights in the hope of avoiding bloodshed we are guilty of unethical and unprofessional conduct and make our own rights less secure and less respected.

Dad, we love you and will never forget you. May you rest in peace in the Virginia soil that you loved so very much.

I wish so much that he were able to tell us what he thinks of the great questions of our age, which seem of much greater moment than those which concerned us in the summer of 1998. And I hope so much that I am able to teach my own children lessons that they remember for the rest of their lives.

12 Comments:

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Jul 07, 08:52:00 AM:

I remember crying when you posted this the first time.

It happened again. It is still as wonderful, though, as it was then.

Thanks.  

By Blogger Gateway Pundit, at Fri Jul 07, 11:23:00 AM:

What a wonderful tribute.

God rest his soul.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Jul 07, 11:35:00 AM:

I believe I sat and spoke with him at his 25th reunion in 1982. You introduced me to him. Am I correct?

God bless the good among us and those departed.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Fri Jul 07, 11:42:00 AM:

That is indeed a beautiful tribute, TH.

You serve your father's memory well, I think.  

By Blogger cakreiz, at Fri Jul 07, 11:45:00 AM:

You serve your father's memory well, I think.

Well said, sirius. The ultimate compliment to father and son.  

By Blogger Sissy Willis, at Fri Jul 07, 12:44:00 PM:

His light shines bright in the son whose intelligence and integrity we've come to know and admire through your blog. God bless.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Jul 07, 12:49:00 PM:

Well said, Sissy. Actually, we are doubly blessed in that regard :)  

By Blogger Scott Kirwin, at Fri Jul 07, 02:50:00 PM:

Well said.  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Fri Jul 07, 03:21:00 PM:

That your father the historian and I never had the chance to discuss our shared interest in our family history is one of my deep regrets. His archival efforts are legendary and one of these days I will take advantage of CV's offer to see the fruits of your father's incredible efforts to make sense of all the accumulated family ephemera in Virginia.

For my part, I recall his ready laugh and apparent ease with distant northern relatives on those ocassions when we would turn out en masse for weddings (and now funerals). It is a tribute to your father's humanity that my Dad, more radical in politics than the rest of the left-of-center branch of the family put together, looked forward as much to staying with your parents on his annual trips to Princeton as to the Headmaster's Association gathering that was his cause for being there in the first place.

Fondly,  

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Fri Jul 07, 07:32:00 PM:

Thanks TH. Dad would indeed be proud of you (even if enraged by some of what you write from time to time).

It is too bad more college professors have not remembered the simple concept that Dad illustrated so well at Iowa way back then.

I hope you had a good day today. It was pretty tough down here only in part due to this anniversary, but your post cheered me up, strangely enough. It reminded me about my old friend McNooder, and the things his legal counsel said about our "1st amendment family." Pretty funny stuff, and I guess that only goes double now.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 08, 11:23:00 AM:

Your sentiments about your father's influence on you were wonderful and truly time and occasion appropriate for me. My New Jersey Dad, a WW2 Veteran and a similarly thoughtful and cerebral kind of guy to yours, is currently staying with my wife and I here in New England because he's going through some major health issues right now. Your story immediately compelled me to have him read it, but I hesitated, certainly not wanting him to possibly misinterpret why. Well, I threw caution to the wind, and was so glad to hear him say he loved it. He even read the posted comments. I just wanted him to know, to make certain he understands, and especially at this very dangerous point in his life, how his only child feels about the father he loves and respects so very much. Thank you, thank you, for giving me the opportunity to have that moment with him.  

By Blogger OBloodyHell, at Sat Jul 08, 11:53:00 AM:

Nice piece. Sounds like you had a father who very much understood what it meant to be an American, no matter how "unhip" some might have considered him.

Between understanding the former and understanding the latter, my vote is for grokking the former, every time.

"A function of free speech under our system of government is to INVITE DISPUTE. It may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea."
- Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas -

"The right to dissent is the only thing that makes life tolerable... the affairs of government could not be conducted by democratic standards without it."
- Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas -

"Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could easily defeat us all."
- Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas -

"Censorship is the roadblock in the traffic of ideas."
- William Rotsler -

"Censorship is sooner or later a weapon directed against free thought."
- Paul Borchsenius -

"Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books, except the books nobody can read."
- George Bernard Shaw -

"We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we are sure, stifling it would be an evil still."
- John Stuart Mill -

"If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
- John Stuart Mill -

"America has been feeling the effect of a deep moral malaise. Our country looks to government to put us back on the right track. We have become like a herd frightened by fiery conflagrations, or packs of hungry wolves. So with a thunderous clop of hooves, our leaders begin a tremendous stampede to evade danger. At first, as the movement grows in size and speed it is exciting. Even when a few heads are trampled underfoot, we know in our heart s the group will be safe... still, a herd can follow its leaders over an unseen cliff. Pray we will still have a strong Bill Of Rights to stop us from running the herd too far."
- Samuel Gelerman -

"The only social order in which freedom of speech is secure is the one in which it is secure for everyone... and, as those who call for censorship in the name of the oppressed ought to recognize, it is never the oppressed who determine the bounds of the censorship. Their power is limited to legitimizing the idea of censorship."
- Aryeh Neier -

"...An hour's perusal of our national charter makes it hard to understand what the argle-bargle is about. The First Amendment forbids any law 'abridging the freedom of speech.' It doesn't say 'except for commercials on children's television' or 'unless somebody says 'cunt' in a rap song or 'chick' on a college campus."
- P.J. O'Rourke, 'Parliament of Whores' -

"If there is time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and the fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis -  

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