From the President: Column by Thomas M. Becker


Happy holiday week! The grounds of the Institution will be teeming this week with multiple generations of families celebrating their togetherness amidst the joy of the Community Band, fireworks, Children School Parade, and all manner of spontaneous expression that complements the programming in the Amphitheater, Hall of Philosophy, Lenna, Fletcher and elsewhere. Where on earth would you rather be?

We also gather with an opportunity to demonstrate a kind of community in dialogue that is rarely, if ever, evident in our country today. The challenge before us is to talk seriously about the issues within and the conduct of the campaign for President of the United States across partisan lines, without diminishing the significance of the differences between the candidates and our individual beliefs about the issues, while also carrying out that conversation with civility and mutual respect.

We have designed the morning lecture program to serve such conduct. Jim Lehrer will be with us all week. Jim’s experience and reputation for fair-minded journalistic excellence should set a tone conducive to the outcome promoted above. Monday and Thursday’s guests, Andrew Kohut of Pew Research and Ralph Cicerone of the National Academy of Sciences, respectively, are decidedly non-partisan in their approach to the subject matter. Tuesday and Friday pair Republican and Democrat in the person of Donna Brazile and Whit Ayers on campaign strategies and Mark Shields and Michael Gerson on broader observations of the contest for support. Wednesday Jim will take us inside his experience as a moderator of presidential debates dating back to 1988.

So that takes us to you and me. How will we behave in the course of these discussions?

I have spoken about how moved I was by the audience during our week on Iran last summer. Several of the lecturers shared information and perspectives of Iran’s history and interaction with the West in ways very difficult for an American audience to hear. And yet, you listened respectfully, participated vigorously in the question and Answer periods, and gave applause respectful of the integrity and scholarship of the lecture. I am very hopeful you will hold the lecturers of the coming week to the same standard. I suggest you not reward slogans that satisfy your political leanings but seek the reasoning behind such conclusions. I further ask that you not shut out statements that are not your political choice but rather listen even more closely for the quality of reasoning within the argument posited. Finally, rather than a parade of applause to one point of view, then another, as if we were conducting the Old First Night Battle of the States, we hold our applause until the conclusion of the lecture and reward the entire effort with your sense of its quality.

Finally, I hope that in the conversations you have over dinner or ice cream on your stroll around the grounds you do not let your disagreements on these issues put a halt to conversation nor to your friendships. If our friends are limited to those with whom we agree on issues as important and complex as those before us in this election we will surely fail in our expression and preservation of this democratic union.

One area where I do encourage your sense of partisan support is Saturday in the Amphitheater when the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 2012 Season. These wonderful musicians produce a Herculean body of work over the nine weeks in which time they will perform 21 concerts, without once repeating a repertoire. You might also save wild applause for Chaim Zemach, who is celebrating his last of 44 years of work with the orchestra. Chaim and Hildegard are fixtures within the community. Chaim’s cello virtuosity has been a foundational strength of the orchestra. His twinkling blue eyes and wit have been particularly showcased in his stunning collaboration with Jean-Pierre’s Dance Program as he played and danced with his cello about the Amp stage.

Happy Fourth of July.