Forum on Peace at St. Olaf's · 23 February 2004

By Scott W. Johnson--PowerLine Blog, 02/24/04

My presentation on Winston Churchill at St. Olaf College yesterday turned into an unexpectedly exhilarating experience. Rocket Man trekked down to Northfield with his son Eric to lend moral support. I'm grateful for Rocket Man's generous remarks below on the event and Eric's perceptive comments on it afterwards. Please indulge these additional notes.

I was originally invited to submit an application to lead one of 40 seminars to be given at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum hosted this year by St. Olaf College. The students inviting me to submit an application were looking for the expression of a point of view that they thought would be in short supply among the anticipated orgy of hate-America pacifism; Jimmy Carter was to be the keynote speaker and the theme of this year's Forum was announced as "Striving for Peace: Roots of Change." The seminars were to address "grassroots activism."

It occurred to me that Winston Churchill's comprehensive efforts to awaken his countrymen to the dangers posed by Hitler and Nazism while he was out of high office during the 1930's might work as a subject. It would respond to the assigned theme and provide an alternate view of how peace should be promoted. In part, I intended to discuss how Churchill had opposed the English peace movements that had helped bring on World War II.

I submitted an application for a seminar titled "'Facts are better than dreams': The statesmanship of Winston Churchill in the 1930's." I described the subject as Churchill's efforts to awaken his fellow citizens to the necessity of rearmament and military force to confront the Nazi threat. Naively I wondered to myself how they could turn it down.

The day I received e-mail notice that the proposed seminar had been turned down I called to ask the program co-chair why it had been rejcted. He told me that the topic involved events so long ago that it would not be of interest to the students attending the Forum. It wasn't until later that I learned that several of the accepted seminars involved historical subjects, although in those cases the seminars rigorously hewed to an anti-American or pacifist line.

Among the seminars and programs scheduled for the weekend were the following:

"Being Peace," a dance seminar: "Understanding peacefulness requires, in part, having experienced it oneself. This session will explore a variety of body-mind activities geared toward generating an inner state of peace. We will work with the movement principle of 'yield,'… which propel adults toward physical, mental emotional and spiritual change."

"Making Music, Making Peace: Common Purposes and Shared Skills," a choral workshop: "Many of the skills essential to peace-making are also essential to music-making: listening, envisioning, mutual trust, repair, cooperation, collaboration. People who build their capacities as music-makers are also building their capacities for grassroots peace-making."

"Peace and Change through Public Art": This project "imagines a fictitious and yet believable National Historic Site sparking both controversy and healing. Amid a massacre site it tells the 500-year story from the perspective of native peoples and culminates with an apology…."

Beyond satire. However, reader Rick Vatsaas e-mailed a good question yesterday: "I am curious as to why the conference did not feature a seminar titled 'Peace Through Synchronized Nudity' since that seems to be such a popular tactic these days." The seminar lineup reminded me of George Orwell's description of the "magnetic force" of Socialism that attracts "every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England." The Nobel Peace Prize Forum seemed to be working the same kind of magic.

The St. Olaf students who had invited me to submit the seminar application refused to take "no" for an answer. They undertook a letter writing campaign to the program selection chairmen, the president of the college, and to the regents. The program committee co-chair and president sent letters responding to the students; it is difficult to capture the condescension and deceit that permeate these letters, but King Banaian of the SCSU Scholars site has done a terrific job in "More on the Nobel Peace Prize Forum." Take a look.

The students hatched the idea of presenting the rejected seminar as an independent "teach-in on appeasement" competing with the official seminars. They circulated flyers touting "the man they didn't want you to hear." On Thursday preceding the Forum weekend they met with a St. Olaf regents' group and expressed their concerns about the stifling climate of intellectual conformity on campus. They perceived their meeting to be a success and received nothing but expressions of support from the regents.

The students sent out a press release on the program that attracted the attention of the Star Tribune. When Kevin Duchschere of the Star Tribune called me to interview me about the event, he asked me twice whether I was preparing a lecture specifically for this program.

Was this some kind of a joke? Studying for the talk and working on a draft is all that I had been doing in my free time over the previous month and I had just finished a draft of the lecture the night before I spoke with Kevin. I still haven't figured out what thought lay behind his questions, but Kevin was a total pro and a delight to speak with. I e-mailed him the draft and I think he read it. When I spoke with Kevin again Friday night to ask if his story would run on Saturday, he concluded by asking me what Churchill biography he should read. A good sign!

I had wanted to tell the story of Churchill in the '30s to the greatest extent possible through his contemporaneous words. I read his newspaper columns of 1936-39 collected in Step By Step (long out of print), his parliamentary and public speeches, and his correspondence. In two biographies I found excerpts from Churchill's speech of February 17, 1933, condemning the Oxford oath; I had never noticed the speech before -- it drips with a contempt that was perfectly appropriate to the Nobel Peace Prize Forum itself -- a real find.

Just when I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by Churchill's career, reader Jon Stein of Cold Spring Press sent me a copy of his company's wonderful new brief life of Churchill by Robin H Neillands, Winston Churchill: Statesman of the Century. The book helped me put things in perspective.

On Friday our radio hero Hugh Hewitt invited me to appear for a segment on his show to tout the teach-in. I felt bad about my performance on the show. On Saturday morning, however, when I met the student reporter who was covering the event for the St. Olaf student newspaper, the first thing she told me was that her father had heard me in Los Angeles while driving home from work and called to tell her that she had to attend the program. The power of talk radio!

The students who had promoted the event were Britt Haugland, Brittany Larson and their colleagues in the St. Olaf Committee for Intellectual Diversity. Their efforts turned out a standing room only crowd for the talk. I prepared a two-page chronology of Churchill in the '30s as a handout and optimistically brought 75 copies with me. It's the handout that the students are looking at in the photo Rocket Man posted below. The 75 copies were not enough.

Turning up at the event was the St. Olaf dean of students and the college communications director. It seemed that the college administration was trying to do damage control, another sign of the waves the students had made with their publicity. I think it's fair to infer that these students have the administration on the run -- '60's-style

Giving the talk was an emotional experience for me. To bring an image of Churchill's greatness to a receptive audience of students who knew nothing about him, to recite the words whose force brought Churchill to power and changed the history of the world, to place Jimmy Carter in a Churchillian frame of reference, were humbling and inspirational tasks.

The questions and comments from the students following the talk were engaged and responsive. What about President Bush? What about preemption? What about 9/11 and the war against the United States? When did the British public turn to Churchill? What about North Korea?

I was struck after the talk by how many of the students, mostly guys, stayed around to express appreciation. Appreciation for what? My impression was that they appreciated hearing someone articulate a point of view that expressed their own instinctive respect for the guardians of freedom.

Additional comments on the event are offered by The American Thinker in "New wave teach-ins" and by Belief Seeking Understanding in "Conservatives say St. Olaf leans to left, eh?"

UPDATE: My colleague Peter Swanson has started a new blog titled Bias CLE 599 to 1 and posted a comment on the St. Olaf festivities: "Teach in at St. Olaf."

This article originally appeared on and is used here by permission.