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Let’s give GRSF pass on politics (08/15/2007)
By John Edstrom

In today's letters section our readers will find an edited version of a four-page, single-spaced contribution, "Objects to including Gerson," from a writer taking issue with Great River Shakespeare Festival director Paul Barnes' equally lengthy defense of the decision (Wed., 8/8 edition) to feature as one of the Front Porch speakers sponsored by the festival, Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush. He is now engaged in U.S. AIDS relief work in Africa. Those who wish for the full benefit of this thesis may visit our web site.

In retrospect, I wish we had also edited Mr. Barnes, as we do not feel that he should have been obliged to deliver any elaborate apology or rationale for the appearance of Mr. Gerson. The early objection to Gerson, at least as it appeared in our paper, featured such choice rhetoric as, "right-wing, evangelical warmonger," "bloodstained warmonger," and the "lying [of] America into an illegal war." It is worrisome that such intemperate ranting would see fit to let itself out in public; it answers itself more fittingly than any outside response.

Today's letter expresses itself more calmly, at least, but no more logically. It begins in its first paragraph by blatantly misrepresenting Mr. Barnes as characterizing Gerson's speech as a "defense of our constitutional right of free speech." It goes on to torture the concept of free speech as the rights of donors "to donate money to ... causes the donor supports and the right to refuse to donate to ... those [he does] not support." Count on the academic to obscure the obvious.

What Barnes said was that the "experience taught me that it can be difficult to defend our constitutional right to free speech..." i.e., the experience of being attacked so viciously, irrationally, and unexpectedly. He points out that Gerson, besides having the greatest mainstream national reputation, is the first of the Front Porch guests who spoke from a conservative background, unlike the others whose political leanings would be "liberal-progressive."

In fact, listed among the credits of this season's other Front Porch speakers are having taught the first course in gay literature at Dartmouth, leading workshops on the Sacred Studies of the Divine Feminine, and "worldwide multicultural and transformational work."

What Gerson mostly spoke about was the good works being done in Africa by American foreign aid dollars in combatting AIDS. Wander off the college campus in Winona, and one might find a great deal more people dead-set against spending tax dollars fighting AIDS in Africa than imagining that their donation to GRSF could justify a demand to micromanage the selection of Front Porch speakers. But none of these people were heard from, hopefully because they felt that the Shakespeare festival was of a broad enough benefit to the entire community so as to exempt it from being held hostage to their personal politics.

For all the tedious wind about an inverted notion of free speech here, what is going on is the attempt to bully GRSF into self-censorship to the tastes of a small political minority. And for all its blather about donations, the pettiness and recklessness of its attack on GRSF prove it a supporter of minimal value or commitment.



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