Chautauqua – and the assault on free speech.

At 10.45am on 13th August 2022, Salmon Rushdie stepped onto to the stage at the Chautauqua Institute in New York state, free from the heavy security he had been forced to live with for many years following the Fatwa imposed on him by Iran in 1989 for writing The Satanic Verses. By 10.47 he was on the floor, fighting for his life following multiple stab wounds inflicted by a man intent on stopping the author exercise his right to say what he wanted and remain alive. Thankfully, though Rushdie has suffered life changing injuries, he is now on the road to recovery – and has been re-booked by the institute to return when he is well enough.

The Chautauqua Movement was founded on the shores of lake Chautauqua at the end of the nineteenth century to educate and support Sunday School teachers. This quickly expanded into a wider range of inspirational and educational lectures and other cultural events, with the aim of bringing differing religious and other groups together to share knowledge and find common ground between themselves. The ensuing eponymous institute has become a bastion of high minded and free–flowing exchange of thought; the word Chautauqua, likewise, became synonymous with the ideas of tolerance and sharing ideas.

Where did the word – Chautauqua – come from. It sounds Native American and is in fact an Iroquois word that came to mean, alternatively, a bag tied in the middle, or two moccasins with their laces tied together. Both meanings are supposedly references to the shape of the lake – the Chautauqua – beside which the Institute was built. It is the latter meaning that was picked up on by the Chautauqua Movement, basing their ideas on the benefits of people talking ‘toe to toe;’ meeting formally and informally, gathering to share ideas, ‘talking shop.’

It is therefore deeply ironic that this word, Chautauqua, which embraces the notions of free speech and inspirational learning, now has a new and unhappy association with a crazed attempt to supress both.

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