January 17, 2020

When the News Gets in the Way

Since this is our last issue of 2019, I had written a light-hearted, end-of-year column that was all set to go to the printer — until, that is, an accumulation of hot news items got in the way.

The column was a breezy reflection on the value of dreams. Now all I can dream about is that we’ll have a week quiet enough to publish it. For now, we must deal with the business at hand — an avalanche of news, mostly bad, some historic.

I’m writing this column early in the morning in the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (with a little white cat swirling beneath my chair), having just participated in a four-day “Strategic Dialogue” between Israeli leaders and officials from Australia and the U.K.

Guess what people were asking me about at the closing gala? Yup, a certain synagogue incident in Beverly Hills. A potential future prime minister, Gideon Sa’ar, had just delivered a candid address, and people couldn’t stop talking about the ransacking of a sanctuary in Beverly Hills. Maybe it was the ZIP code. 

A few days earlier, we were abuzz about the midnight deadline that had just passed in Israel triggering an unprecedented third election in 12 months. The next day, we were consumed with the election results in the U.K., which are paving the way for Great Britain’s historic divorce from the European Union. 

In the meantime, other news items were intruding, like the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump in the House of Representatives, for only the third time in U.S. history. 

Maybe instinctively, that’s why I stuck with the free speech cover — because Eisgruber’s ideal discourse is needed now more than ever.

And did I mention the latest deadly attack against Jews, this one in Jersey City,  and the president’s controversial executive order to combat BDS and anti-Semitism? Oh, and I almost forgot: The festival of Hanukkah is coming up!

In the middle of this news tornado, I was still working on a cover story I had planned for several weeks on one of my favorite topics: The state of free speech in America.

So, I had a decision to make: Should I bump the free speech cover for one on the killings in Jersey City? Or the presidential impeachment? Or Brexit and the fall of the anti-Semitic Jeremy Corbyn? Or Trump’s controversial executive order? Or the impossible stalemate in Israel? Or the attack at Nessah Synagogue?

While the free speech issue is timeless, the others are timely. Which should go first?

Maybe it’s because of my intense jet lag, but, as you can see, I decided to stick with the cover story on free speech and deal with the hot issues inside the paper.

For one thing, free speech is the foundation of a free society, not to mention the foundation of my profession, journalism.

But there’s something else: Free speech has become timely. That’s because it has come under assault, especially on college campuses, from activists who focus on its “microaggression” side effects rather than its fundamental value.

In these chaotic times, we need the freedom to rise up against the forces of hate, the wisdom to engage with dignity those with whom we disagree, and the curiosity and humility to constantly search for the truth.

These sentiments should not be casually dismissed by free speech junkies like yours truly. As I write in the story: “Our world is changing. As an evolving society, we are becoming more inclusive and sensitive to people’s feelings of alienation. Inclusivity is giving free speech a run for its money.”

The thrust of the story is on the innovative thinking of one man in the eye of the storm — Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber.

Eisgruber is a man of deep thought, empathy and cautious optimism. He argues that a vigorous free speech can coexist with a noble value like inclusivity. He threads the needle by reframing the free speech debate around “truth-seeking,” and seeing universities as “truth-seeking institutions.”

Under this unifying ideal, Eisgruber marries two seemingly opposite values. Indeed, as I write: “If the ideal revolves around the search for truth, the greater the inclusion of different voices, the deeper and broader that search will be.”

I encourage you to read the entire story. It is based on a remarkable keynote address Eisgruber delivered recently at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, titled “Contested Civility: Free Speech and Inclusivity on Campus.” 

I call the address “remarkable” because it aspires to a higher level of discourse that honors intellectual rigor and human dignity in equal measure.

Maybe instinctively, that’s why I stuck with the free speech cover — because Eisgruber’s ideal discourse is needed now more than ever.

In these chaotic times, we need the freedom to rise up against the forces of hate, the wisdom to engage with dignity those with whom we disagree, and the curiosity and humility to constantly search for the truth.

If one considers that ideal a ray of light, well, maybe this was a Hanukkah cover story after all.

Happy Hanukkah.