Open debate under assault in America

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By Scott Graber

It is Saturday, early, humid and still. It is July and this, of course, is Beaufort. This July, however, is different.

This morning I don’t have my Gazette — there is no longer a Saturday issue — nor do I have the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ’s “weekend edition” comes by mail and generally doesn’t arrive until Monday.

I do have my computer and have, grudgingly, learned how to use Google and routinely navigate my way to recently published articles. This morning I have a piece from Harper’s titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”

The piece begins by saying the obvious. That we are in a “moment of trial” where powerful protests for “racial and social justice” are in the streets, surging through the social media, splayed across the front pages of newspapers that I don’t have this morning.

The piece goes on to say that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of liberal society, is becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture; an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy in a blinding moral certainty.”

The piece — signed by writers like Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling and Atul Gawande — says “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away … as writers we need a culture for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good faith disagreement without professional consequences.”

This piece comes not from Donald Trump or his apologists, rather it comes from left-leaning writers, journalists and column-writers who see a growing “censoriousness” and unquestionable righteousness coming from college students, university professors who “disinvite” speakers and who call for the firing of faculty who have strayed away from accepted dogma. But here, in Harper’s, is a plea for unfettered, unpunished debate and for keeping one’s mind open to new, uncomfortable opinion.

For my generation — those creaking souls now in their mid-70s — this is a hard thing to do. We have been sentient for six decades and we have seen a lot of trial and tribulation. We have seen felons and fools as well as genius and generosity. We have come a very long way and now, at long last, we believe we know what is true and how the world works.

In my own case (“Oh boy, here he goes again”) I have a set of beliefs, one of which concerns the American Civil War. That belief was neatly captured by the film-maker, Ken Burns, about 20 years ago.

One remembers Shelby Foote speaking — in his sonorous Mississippi accent — about the tactical tenacity of J.E.B. Stuart and Ulysses Grant. One remembers the letters (from doomed farm boys on both sides) read against the haunting strains of Ashokan Farewell. One remembers that millions tuned into this series and talked about it for months thereafter.

Now, these same doomed soldiers (if they were Southern) are compared with the Schutzstaffel — and J.E.B Stuart has assumed a Rommelesque persona. On maybe Hans Guderian is the better metaphor. There has been a sea change that may have something to do with the passing of the World War II generation and the thinning-out of the Boomers.

I just don’t know how or why this has happened.

I have five friends with whom I meet every Thursday afternoon. We talk about Trump, about the virus, about race, about education and retirees and resorts on barrier islands. And we disagree. Sometimes we raise our voices and shout, “That’s a crock of ______!” Sometimes we are a little more precise in our criticism.

But at the end of the hour — sometimes two hours — we adjourn with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and, if necessary, apologize and affirm the fact that each of us is entitled to his or her view however moronic or misguided. With the help of that full bodied Cab we gaze out into the nearby marsh (and sky) marveling at the drama of the contrasts and colors.

The writers who put together the Harper’s piece know their history — the French Revolution in particular. But they also know the right to disagree, to say something odious (not harmful) is precious. And that open debate, in these strange and turbulent times, is under assault.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at