Closing Three Taps Address: “Doubling Down on Democracy’s Platform”
Three Taps of the Gavel closing the 149th Assembly
Dr. Michael E. Hill, 18th President of Chautauqua Institution
When I was a little boy, I used to lament things that were hard. In those moments when I found myself complaining to my father, his reply would often be: “It builds character.”
Chautauqua, as we round out our Summer Assembly season, I have stood witness to many things that were indeed hard about our time together this summer. We entered our summer with COVID still an ominous presence. We struggled to find the necessary staff to operate Chautauqua amid a national labor shortage, and we were looking at all of this as we geared up for the first full season Chautauqua has had in person since 2019. These worries would later be dwarfed.
To say Friday, Aug. 12, was hard would be a gross understatement. As I have said on numerous occasions since that day, it was unlike anything we had experienced in our nearly 150-year history. Before I share any further thoughts, please allow me to extend the prayers of the Chautauqua community both to Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese for their continued recovery, and I want to say more about that in a bit, but it goes without saying that they have been foremost in our minds these past many days.
As a quick aside, someone sent me a very thoughtful email recently asking whether it was appropriate to pray for Mr. Rushdie, who is an avowed atheist. My response was and is this: The faithful should always pray for those suffering. I deeply respect that that may seem askance to those who claim no faith tradition or who count themselves as atheist. If this pertains to you, I hope you will respond to my call for prayers by reading Mr. Rushdie’s work as a celebration of the writer he is and the symbol of free expression he embodies. Chautauqua will never abandon its faith traditions, but our value of inclusion calls us to make way for those who may need or want a different path to offer support. The beauty is that both live alongside one another, as it should be here, and if that were the case in the world at-large, we’d all be better for it.
I have done little more in the past 16 days than reflect on that morning. It often haunts my dreams.
Tragedy and trauma have a way of forcing us inward, to examine and re-examine what happened, what it all means, and producing an endless stream of “what ifs.” We will continue that critical examination, but our experience of tragedy and trauma also must have even broader meanings for us to discover. I have come to at least one very clear conclusion: I think that what we experienced on Aug. 12 may not be so much about building character, as my dad would have said, but rather it produced a moment that has helped us to better understand the character of Chautauqua that already existed.
In the hours and days that followed that fateful morning, Chautauqua was consumed by media the world over. The resulting characterizations of us, our mission and our purpose reflected back to us a story of Chautauqua that surprised even those who have been engaged here for generations. This is what we heard others say about Chautauqua:
- This is a magical physical space, and an enduring example of the best in life at all levels: individual commitment and values, family connections and tradition, a community of possibilities, goals that transcend boundaries of race and faith and gender and politics.
- Chautauqua has a rich and unique history of hosting open discussion as well as championing diversity of thought, religious pluralism and free expression.
- Chautauqua is an enduring example of the best in civic life at all levels.
- Chautauqua is a place of tolerance, a place where ideas are discussed and where opposing views receive thoughtful and nuanced consideration.
I found myself moved to tears reading these descriptions.
… a community of possibilities, goals that transcend boundaries of race and faith and gender and politics.
… championing diversity of thought, religious pluralism and free expression.
… a place where ideas received thoughtful and nuanced consideration.
But why is it that those from the outside were able to articulate something we have long struggled to define? Why did it take a moment of terror to fully see what has long been here? Those are certainly interesting questions, but I ask this community to reflect more deeply on this one: What would it look like to truly claim this mantel in a world that needs us, that wants us?
President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to Congress about the nation’s political discourse five days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and he shared these words:
“So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of law, and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.”
Why? Why is it that decades after President Johnson called us to leave behind the forces that divide us do we again find ourselves in this moment?
Cornell West said, “We are prisoners of a blood-stained, tear-soaked hope.” We have now seen at our very own Chautauqua blood that was spilled on our platform, and our tears could fill our lake, but that’s not the end of the story. It can’t be. Prof. West continued, even implored, “We are free to imagine and create a more deeply democratic world than we have yet witnessed in history.”
But how do we do this? How can Chautauqua, in our corner of Western New York, play this role? How can we not, in this community of possibilities, with goals that transcend boundaries of race and faith and gender and politics.
Now is the time for Chautauqua to double down on its mission to convene the quintessential platform for democratic thought and vision. To those who may suggest that Chautauqua’s heyday is past; that our long-form of lectures is out of fashion; that our bedrock commitment to religion is ill-founded in modern life; that our celebration of contemporary literature as a flashlight in the darkness is a lovely metaphor at best; that the exploration of the best in human values at a time when humanity can too often seem value-less is pointless, I say this: The world — in the voices of media; of speakers, teachers and artists who have graced our stages; of people representing generational families and first-time visitors alike; of those who have only heard of this storied place but never stepped foot on the grounds — all of those early voices sang a song in unison declaring and celebrating that Chautauqua’s existence in the world today is a reason for hope.
And I also want to acknowledge a smaller but pointed group of voices who called us to task, who said we have far more work to do than we may believe, and those voices, too, underscore the need for this Chautauqua. If we are to cherish dialogue across difference, difference must be present. We believe it’s far more present than these voices would portend, but to remove the ambiguity, we announced an initiative yesterday to provide more transparent line of sight into Chautauqua’s programmatic focus, how we pursue it and how we will measure success.
But we’ve also learned we need to be far clearer about our mission. Our mission is not to provide a home for debate. In debate, winning is the goal. In dialogue, finding common ground to work toward shared solutions is the goal. Debate involves countering the other side’s position without focusing on any care for relationships and, more importantly, partnerships to move beyond dialogue to action. Debate doesn’t work in a place that values community — that embodies community. Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put into solutions for good. That’s what Chautauqua is all about.
Our historic and founding vision still calls us to answer the question: “What does it mean to be human?” That is our role: to remind our nation and our world that humanity itself is worth fighting for. It cries out for explanation! It begs us to find a path! Because at the end of the day, the answer to President Johnson’s plea is no more than this: we must find the courage to marshal the best in humanity in our society and in ourselves.
So how do we do it? Chris Thile told us just this week from our own Amphitheater stage: “I feel like I’m at my best when I’m listening. That’s how we’ll effect positive social change.”
Chautauqua’s core ingredients of interdisciplinary and multi-generational exploration; our belief that the answer lies not in one person but in the best of all of us who show up, either here, online or in the world under the banner of this Chautauqua — all of us hold a piece of that answer and it is only when we convene, when we gather, when we listen, when we bring our best and our broken selves to this Chautauqua exploration that we can lift up the best in human values and the best in humanity itself.
In less than two years, Chautauqua will turn 150 years old. It’s more than a birthday; it’s a chance to reassert who we are for the next decade and beyond. How will we define this as we leave our Summer Assembly? How do we play a role in being part of the solution and not another example of what is broken in our world? How do we play a role in eradicating hate, starting with the anger, and fear and resentment that may live too deeply in our own hearts?
We do this for ourselves and for those we love, to be certain, but Chautauqua has never entirely been about those lucky enough to be here. Dr. Yolanda Pierce reminded us this summer that we need “an imagination that is rooted in justice, an imagination that serves another generation.”
My father was certainly right: hard things build character. Hard things also highlight character.
The violent attack that occurred on this very stage certainly illuminated our character. It also did something perhaps even more powerful: It offered an expanded definition of community.
We use that word a lot here, and I think it means something different for all of us. Community can be those we see year after year, if we’re fortunate to be here year after year. But I also saw deep community in the first-time visitor who also mourned what happened.
Community can be defined in generational numbers, but I also saw community in the brand-new employee who felt as fiercely a need to protect this place as anyone else.
What is true is that Chautauqua is not one community but a community of communities, all who find a reason to be here, to engage with Chautauqua.
For a time, we dropped all our labels and just loved one another.
How do we take all that we have learned in beloved community to strip ourselves of cynicism and selfishness and truly love our neighbor as ourselves? How do we ensure we take what we’ve learned here back to our other homes?
Abigail Marsh reminded us that the courage we need to tackle this comes from values, habits and a sense of purpose in a broader community.
So, tonight, as we close out our 149th Summer Assembly Season, here is my pledge, Chautauqua’s pledge to you:
- We will not shy away from bringing the most impactful voices to the forefront to share their truth, their experiences, their counsel to us and their humanity. We will not be made afraid of elevating the most important conversations of our time. Tonight, we double down on freedom of speech and freedom of expression. We double down on Chautauqua’s mission to serve as Democracy’s Platform.
- Neither the “fanatics of the far left nor the far right” will have a platform in Chautauqua. We will not allow the “apostles of bigotry and bitterness” to have any more oxygen. Those who want to live in a place of hatred and division have more than enough platforms on mainstream and social media; they will not find a new one here at Chautauqua.
- We will, however, harness the powerful intersection of the arts, religion, education and recreation across the generations to live up to the reflection we saw in the media mirror about the best that Chautauqua has to offer.
- We will always be a home for all those who are brave enough to bring their brokenness and their gifts to our sacred grounds, to our growing online platforms, and to our partnerships, to demonstrate that while the fringes may have a stranglehold on too many portals in our society, there will always be at least one place that meets people where they are to pose the important questions of our time and to, together, find answers.
- We will continue to champion dialogue across difference, in good faith, and the exploration and elevation of the best in human values. For it is in that elevation of those values that habits for good form and the definition of a broader, beloved community take hold.
At the end of the day, we must ensure that the voices who can change the world will always have a pulpit, a platform from which to be heard. And we pledge to welcome anyone brave enough to hear their messages because we, my friends, are the ones who have to take those words and put them into action. Democracy’s pulpit, democracy’s platform is Chautauqua, and we will continue to welcome anyone with ears to listen and hearts to respond. And we do this not just for us, but for the next generation and the generations to come.
If Maria Ressa was correct, and we have but a very short time to save our democracy, then let Chautauqua be the hallowed ground on which we make that stand. It is why we were created. It is why we endure. We only need the courage to transform our “tear-soaked hope” to truly live into being the “community of possibilities” the world so desperately needs.
I tap the gavel three times …
Chautauqua 2022 is just the beginning.
Save Your Trip
Fill out the form below to save your trip. You will receive a link to your saved list via email.
Save Your Favorites
Fill out the form below to save your favorites. You will receive a link to your favorites list via email.
"*" indicates required fields
You have now entered the season. Some website content may differ depending on the current season we are in: Summer or Fall/Winter/Spring. You can toggle between the two season options at any time.