Today’s “buzz” in politics revolves around the real meaning of free speech. Can a conservative visit a college campus and inspire intellectual debate? Or, will that speaker fall victim to the “heckler’s veto” and be shouted off the stage of public discourse?
As a nation, are we mature enough to debate our differences civilly, even when we and our opponents share cocktails at a popular bar or eat tacos at a mediocre Mexican restaurant? Or, do some become obnoxious and force others out of the restaurant and off of the public square? Our headlines are replete with physical attacks and verbal harassment of those with who some disagree. It is a state of mind that is incompatible with a free people.
Yet, there is one place where opposing views are always debated with civility and, most often, with insight and reason. It is a place where no one’s MAGA hats are stolen and no eggs are splattered on the dresses of old ladies racing to leave a Trump rally. It is even a place where a few minds are changed. It is where both sides have their say with dignity.
That place is the opinion page on which this column is printed. Unfortunately, it is a place disappearing like a breakfast of black coffee and donut “sinker.” It was how the morning used to begin. The donut was dunked (there was no crème filling) as the coffee cooled and the newspaper was folded neatly on top of a paper napkin. As the bitter caffeine wiped the sleep out of the exhaustion that was the night before, columnists like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen spread a combination of gossip and innovation that made even unwelcome mornings tolerable.
Now, for many, columns of newsprint have been displaced by whipped lattes carefully covered so as not to chance a spill on the electronic knowledge machine which houses the internet. Sadly, the cup’s cover prevents the spinach muffin from being soaked like its sugar-glazed ancestor. And sadly, the knowledge and the humor of the newspaper columnist is all but lost in eye-popping electronic text that warns, “Russians Found Plotting With Trump To Profit From Hotel Mini-Bars.”
Many of us still enjoy the civility of a newspaper column. And for us, for a few minutes each weekend, we read the columns of The Pilot and wonder whether analogue conversation will re-emerge in this digital jungle. Perhaps we compromise with whole wheat toast instead of a donut, but we understand the need to discharge our anger with the written word.
A well-run opinion page is the civil outlet for uncivil thought. Unfortunately, like free speech, it is incompatible with profit. No advertiser pays to be associated with controversial political opinion. In fact, that is why many online newsfeeds often dispense with opinion pages.
So why does the Pilot print my column? I can only guess because I have never had the guts to ask my editor that question. I can only surmise that running an opinion column in a newspaper is an exercise in altruism. It is a decision to invest in civil discourse, hoping that the idea of a free press and the notion of free speech can be preserved. Or perhaps my editor and his publisher secretly dunk a donut in some black coffee each morning and cannot imagine that experience without well-reasoned, civil written opinion.
Perhaps I will never know. For this is my last column for a while. I have chosen to run for office. Our editor rightly decided that a regular weekly column in our small community would be unfair to my opponent. And, I understand that. Maybe it’s just my time to try to “do as I say do.”
I am grateful to The Pilot. It published my first Letter to the Editor when I was a young teen. It announced my bar mitzvah and, one day, may announce my death. It remains a place to which we turn for civil discourse. And, I am proud to have been a small part of it. Perhaps one day I will write a column again. But for now, I will sip my black coffee, sink my donut into my cup and read both the anger and the wisdom that is the gift of well-reasoned opinion page.