Freedom to say the earth moves Ian on Sunday
By Ian McDonald
Stabroek News
January 19, 2003

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We are fortunate in Guyana that even in the worst times of party paramountcy the full ruthlessness of power was never exercised wholesale. Then when Desmond Hoyte took office, authority was increasingly opened to questioning and counter-views. And in the PPP/Civic's democracy since then, there has been as ample scope for differences of opinion, variety of expression, and consideration of alternative approaches to governance as anyone could possibly expect to find - at least in countries where the pressures of poverty and opposing ethnicities are such complicating factors.

Yet, this favour is never something we should ever take for granted. Any Government, as it settles into power, as it becomes accustomed to exercising authority and increasingly enjoys the feel of doing so, is subject to becoming more and more impatient over any questioning of that authority. A tendency to believe and declare "We know best" is likely to become more pronounced. This applies to even completely legitimate Governments. It is a tendency which must be firmly resisted not only by anyone with an independent mind but also by the Government itself which in the end has much to lose by the stifling of contrary opinion, by not allowing the inquiring mind to range far beyond what authority may think suitable.

The trouble is that it is all too easy to give in to authority merely because it has the power. It makes for a simpler life. There are great advantages in cooperating with power. To consent is to survive. Authority can summon up such a weight of inside knowledge, massed expertise, and accepted tradition that it readily overcomes doubt and intimidates difference - without ever having to resort, for instance, to force or the threat of force. The wonder is, indeed, that the spirit is ever strong enough to rise above the temptations, much less the threats, which the flesh is subject to from authority. And, of course, all too seldom does it happen. The Sakharovs of this world are rare.

These thoughts are reinforced by two celebrated dramatic reenactments of extraordinary historical events. Our own experience in Guyana is so infinitely remote from these events that it may seem strange to conceive of any connection between what happened on these historical occasions and our own situation. And, of course, in reality there is none - though it is true what happens in extreme cases can always serve the purpose of teaching what may happen in any case.

I recently saw again on TV Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List" and remembered reading the marvelous book by Thomas Keneally on which the film was based.

Oskar Schindler was a German who loved the good life and who eagerly profited through the relationship which he cultivated with the Nazis. In other words, he was as fallible as most of us are. Indeed, his widow claimed that he was extremely selfish and ignoble. Yet, somehow, who knows why, the fire of doubt was kindled in him and, at great risk, he (and, let us add, his loyal wife) became the saviour of 1,200 Jews who would otherwise have gone to their deaths in the killing-camp of Auschwitz. What impelled him to do what he did? What leads to such an unlikely epiphany in an ordinary, very fallible man? What made up his mind? What touched his heart? What impulse deep within him moved his spirit?

There is also the wonderful play by Bertolt Brecht, "The Life of Galileo", which I saw years ago and which I have been reminded of by reading a biography of the great Renaissance scientist-astronomer. It is a story about survival and also about the price paid for survival. Galileo steals the idea of the telescope from Dutch scientists, creates a much-improved version with which he can examine the heavens and becomes able to show that the moon revolves around the earth just as the four moons of Jupiter revolve around Jupiter and Jupiter and the earth revolve around the sun. The sun, not the earth, is the centre of our universe - which means that the earth is not the centre of God's design. This is not good news for the Church whose clout this new knowledge could well diminish. Galileo is forced to recant because he is afraid of torture.

In the play in particular, Galileo is shown as no staunch genius-hero-saint but as an ordinary, weak, sensual man intimidated by the prospect of pain and quite unwilling to risk very much for his intellectual convictions. History tells us that Galileo wrote his last great book "I Discorsi" in secret, fully intending to smuggle a copy out of Italy so that while he might be silenced, his thinking would triumph. In Brecht's play, however, Galileo is shown secretly copying "I Discorsi" because having a spare copy flatters his vanity; smuggling it out comes about by mere accident. In this confrontation between authority and the inquiring mind Brecht is intent on showing that authority easily triumphs. Brecht had in him both the loyal party-man and the subversive sceptic: "Embrace the butcher," he wrote in one of his poems, "but save the world." And there is all of that ambivalence in the picture he draws of Galileo. At the end of the play one is sad to see that subversive truth is no match for the power of the authoritarian Church. There never came a time when Galileo was prepared to stand up and say "Enough!" After he was condemned and ordered to renounce his belief that the earth moves around the sun he accepted his fate and could only bring himself to mumble under his breath the famous words "Eppur si Muove" - "But still it moves."

Galileo, Schindler - two men who in their different ways opposed authority - lead me into thinking again how profoundly important it is to preserve, in the face of all power and tradition and intimidation, an inquiring mind and a sceptical spirit. Sterility grows in the indoctrinated or subservient mind. Fruitfulness flows from doubting and questioning

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