Rory Leishman, a Canadian Bard of Wales

September 2000

[On the occasion of the presentation of Furedy Academic Freedom Award, at SAFS AGM, University of Western Ontario, May 13, 2000]

As many of you know, the contribution to SAFS that Chris and I made was given in the name of my parents, Bela and Dusi Furedy, who experienced the repressive horrors of Nazi and Soviet totalitarian systems and who, by emigrating to Australia, secured for me a freedom I could not have known in Hungary.

I am delighted by the SAFS’ Board’s choice of Rory Leishman of the London Free Press for this award, and I thank the Board for giving me this opportunity to comment on their choice.

The title of my remarks requires explanation. Here is a Hungarophilic account of why I think Rory’s contribution to journalism links him to the bards of Wales.

In 1857, Hungary's poet laureate, John Arany, was asked to write a poem in of Emperor Franz Joseph's visit to Budapest. It was some eight years after the Austrian Emperor, helped by the Russian Tsar's armies, put down the 1848 Hungarian revolution which had been initiated by Arany's contemporary, poet-soldier Sandor Petofi, who died in one of the last battles against the forces of the Austrian and Russian empires.

Franz Joseph’s 1857 visit celebrated a reconciliation of sorts with the Austrian emperor being crowned as King of Hungary.

In probably the most dramatic illustration of the dictum of Hungarian intellectuals, that it is their duty to be "rude to the government," John Arany submitted the poem, "The Bards of Wales", as the official contribution to the 1857 celebrations.

The poem is set in the 13th century just after the imposing English king, Edward the First - known as "Long Shanks’ - has conquered Wales. Edward demands that its famous bards should drink to his health and sing his praises. Instead, the bards, to a man, refuse. Each in turn steps up, and abuses the king, by singing of Eduard’s murder and pillage. Their "rudeness" to the King has drastic consequences.

To quote Arany:

Otszaz, bizony, dalolva ment
Langsirba velszi bard:
De egy se birta mondani:
Hogy: eljen Eduard

Or, for those of you who have neglected your civic duty to attend immersion classes and hence are not bilingual:

Full five hundred bards sang
As they went to burn
But none would sing
To praise King Edward.

Needless to say, Arany's rudeness to the Emperor's government was not to interfere with the official ceremonies, but the poem became lastingly significant for Hungarians. I suggest that it speaks to all who treasure freedom and dislike its oppressors. Those who ‘speak truth to power’ in Canada today do not suffer as the Welsh bards did. But they may well suffer in career advancement. I don't know and perhaps even Rory does not know for certain, whether he has missed out on professional opportunities since 1993, when he started to comment frankly on the problems in academia. Bur I would guess that he has experienced a degree of blacklisting along with smearing from several quarters. He has written many columns on values in higher education, and I’m sure most of you have read some of them. Let me just quote two comments cited by the SAFS’ member who nominated Rory for the award that pertain to our concerns with freedom in research and scholarship, and standards of excellence for students and faculty.

"In a free university, intensely controversial ideas should not be relegated to an intellectual waste basket, but exposed to a full, vigorous and intellectually honest debate. It's the only way to assure the truth will eventually prevail."

"Employment equity is wrong in principle. It demeans and harms the very designated groups it is supposed to help. The policy should be abandoned together with the so-called human rights commissions that have been established enforce it."

Someone who speaks out so emphatically against a subtle current of conformity performs a service of incalculable value for Canadian society in general. SAFS, in particular, which knows well the kind of blacklisting and smearing that outspoken thinkers can experience, is an appreciative beneficiary of Rory’s courage and independence of mind.

I feel sure that, were they alive and well to-day, Bela and Dusi, along with John Arany, and all others who value freedom of speech, would applaud giving the Academic Freedom Award to Rory Leishman, journalist and a symbolic bard of Wales. Congratulations Rory.