He pointed to the First Amendment as the foundation of this country, the bedrock of all the other freedoms we have, including the liberal education the students just received. Elsewhere freedom of speech is under attack.
“Across almost the entire Middle East, free thought can bring punishment or death…the same is true in Bangladesh, Pakistan, across great swathes of Africa. These past years the public space for free thought in Russia has been shrinking. In China state …[there is] a level of thought repression unprecedented in human history.”
This week (11/2/15) the director of a Ukrainian language library in Moscow was placed under house arrest for allowing access to banned Ukrainian books. In Iran two poets were sentenced to long prison terms and flogging for their poetic writings that were said to offend anti-Western factions.
In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Badawi is a writer and blogger who has been jailed, fined, and flogged. He has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and is serving a 10-year prison sentence for insulting Islam on his website.
The authorities also jailed Badawi’s lawyer who was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “undermining the government, inciting public opinion, and insulting the judiciary.”
In China over 30 individuals (doctors, lawyers, students, teachers, writers, etc,) have been detained, jailed or exiled for defending free speech or their pro-democracy views.
McEwan spoke of the brutal attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the puzzling objections of some of the writers attending the recent American PEN gathering to defend free speech throughout the world.
At times free expression has been threatened in this country. One need only remember the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his reckless, unsubstantiated accusations. Even during the administration of George Bush, I felt that free speech was limited in some areas. And the same was true during the Vietnam-era protests.
McEwan called on the students to remember the words of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
He concluded his address by quoting George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.”
We live in a privileged time in this country with unlimited freedoms that we usually take for granted. We never can be reminded too often of the liberties we enjoy. At the same time, there are always potential threats to these freedoms.
I am reminded of what Thomas Jefferson was said to have remarked, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”