To the editor:
The Riverdalians for Free Inquiry sent the following letter to the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture on April 10.
Although the following occurred many weeks ago, we feel we would be remiss in not bringing this sad affair to your attention.
On Feb. 19, 2008 a lecture was scheduled for your facility. It was to be presented by Professor Tony Judt.
Professor Judt is University Professor and Director of The Remarque Institute at New York University. He has lectured on four continents and all over the USA. He is the author or editor of twelve books and is a frequent contributor to many journals including The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times. Among his honors is being the recipient in November, 2007 of the Hannah Arendt Prize.
Two weeks before Professor Judt was to speak, his lecture was cancelled. Why? Based on the flimsiest reasons and erroneously conceived “facts,” Curt Collier, your leader and Manny Neuhaus, your president, presented us with such conditions that, unless we accepted them, the talk would be cancelled. And this we could not do.
This was done after ads and press releases were submitted to media, including college papers at Columbia, Fordham, Mount St. Vincent. This was done after information about the talk had been enthusiastically received by the head of the history department at the Fieldston School … and by members of the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club … and by groups in Westchester deeply anxious to listen to Prof. Judt.
And this was done after your own publication, Concern, advertised the presentation.
Some background about this distasteful affair is in order:
During October 2007, Sam Goldman (one of the undersigned) contacted Curt Collier about using the Ethical Culture Society meeting room for a presentation by Prof. Judt. The talk would delve into the Mideast situation and, because it would occur in February, 2008, the relevance to the primaries scheduled for that time would be touched upon. There was a tentative agreement arranged; however, Mr. Collier stated that approval from the Board had to be obtained. This was accomplished after the Board met.
However, there were some caveats given. The presentation should neither have “Mideast” in its title nor elaborate on the situation there in its body. Also, Curt Collier should moderate and control the questions. And thus began a sequence of events that can only be described as un-American, un-democratic and a desire to pre-censor a public forum with an eminent, much honored speaker.
Surprisingly, Professor Judt agreed to change the title and topic of his talk to “Why Do They Hate Us? Some Reflections on The New Anti-Americanism.” This new title and only this title was given, and I emphasize was given to Mr. Collier. It, along with the rest of a press release was also provided to Grace, your secretary, in early January 2008, as she requested, and it appeared in your publication.
Astonishingly, Mr. Collier called me after the Concern appeared in print with the Judt ad in it to say that he did no know of the title and had been deceived. In no way does this conform to the facts. He said that unless a change in title and emphasis to his liking was made, the presentation was cancelled. Naturally, we Riverdalians for Free Inquiry were amazed that this would be demanded barely two weeks before the scheduled talk.
Then, shortly thereafter, our amazement grew when I received a call from Manny Neuhaus. He confirmed what Mr. Collier had said. However, he said that the presentation could proceed if the title was changed to “Why They Hate Us: The Rise of Anti- Americanism in Europe.” I presume that Mr. Neuhaus felt that adding “Europe” would insulate further the Mideast from mention. And, in addition, Mr. Collier must remain as moderator and arbiter of questions.
And this un-democratic demand to pre-censor was rejected.
Thus, your Ethical Culture Society has stained itself by acting in this situation without ethics … without morality … and certainly without the desire to bring to Riverdale the knowledge that a supreme historian of our time can offer.
To the editor:
Steven Siegelbaum suggests that my canceling a speaking event by Prof. Judt speaks loudly as to my notions of democracy and ethics (“Collier, Burton squash free speech,” letters, April 24). I hope it does, as this was the point.
As I write these words I sit in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This is my second trip to the former Yugoslavia. Once before I rented a car in Belgrade, Serbia and drove through the mountains, past the suspicious boarder guards, through the ravaged “ethnically cleansed” fields of Srebrenica where scores lie buried in mass graves and into the battle scarred Sarajevo. Along the way I saw several destroyed villages haunted by ruined lives, and despite being years past the war, this perpetually divided land still reeked of fear and hatred. I’ve seen this before … and unless you’ve experienced it first hand, you can’t imagine what it feels like in the pit of your being.
An ethicist like myself spends many an hour pondering why humans can be so incredibly brutal towards one another in the name of religion or nationality … hell, in the name of soccer. We have within us the capacity to be an amazingly tribal species, masking our bigotry with “holier-than-them” theologically split hairs and equally divisive political conveniences that make cultural murder inevitable, all while rationalizing that we are right because we know our ways to be true. You might argue that the hatred between Serb, Bosnian and Croat goes back centuries and has nothing to do with the struggles between Arabs, Egyptians and Israel since these borders were set by the conquering British having wrestled them away from the Ottoman Empire who stole them from, the Romans, who … on and on ‘til Og slew Gog eons before Cain replicated the act.
Yet to do so in my estimation is to make a one-sided exegesis of history. You say I stifle free speech? Let them all come and speak, let the tale of human inequity be told again and again from Arab and from Jew, from Christian and from Pagan, from the fear-mongering political Right and the tepid Left and I tell you the only thing we will learn is that we have an amazing ability to look at the same set of facts and see different answers. But didn’t you know that already? It was a skeptical David Hume who said facts do not teach values. Two can see a mother strike a supposedly impudent child and one will see a soul-killing abuser while the other sees a caring mother who won’t spoil the rod over the prospect of raising a child with character. In either case, the values emerge not from the facts, but the dictates from the heart of the observer.
I would like to hear more dialogue, but can’t these begin with an appreciation for the deeper claims of the other? When we’ve argued these facts to death (as I thought we had), might we one day start talking less about what divides us and more how similar we all are, if only in our self-loathing ability to find the needs of others repulsive?
For me, as an Ethical Culturist, at the core of all this wrestling to wrench a begrudged adulation from others is at heart a longing to matter in this universe … to feel needed and respected. The key to the door, then, begins by affirming dignity, and this practice has little to do with the facts.
I would argue that unless we can appreciate that same yearning within others all the rest of our litany of injustices are but textbook examples of the point. This is not the musings of a dreamy-eyed idealist but one who has felt white-hot rage at the neck. From this I also know that real strength does not come from the lethalness of our military might nor theirs, but from the courage of those who still believes that we can work this out. This is my ethical faith.
Society for Ethical Culture
•To the editor:
Re: “Group accuses rabbis of stifling free speech,” front page, April 17
I’m total agreement in freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is being able to speak freely without censorship. The right of speech is guaranteed under international law through numerous human rights instruments. The synonymous term freedom of expression is sometimes preferred, since the right is not confined to verbal speech but is understood to protect any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.
In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country, although the degree of freedom varies greatly. Industrialized countries also have varying approaches to balance freedom with order. For instance, the United States First Amendment theoretically grants absolute freedom, placing the burden upon the state to demonstrate when (if) limitations of this freedom are necessary. In almost all liberal democracies, it is generally recognized that restrictions should be the exception and free expression the rule; nevertheless, compliance with this principle is often lacking.
There are many theories of free speech. One justification for free speech is a general liberal or libertarian presumption against coercing individuals from living how they please and doing what they want. Free speech promotes “The free flow of ideas essential to political democracy and democratic institutions” and limits the ability of the state to subvert other rights and freedoms. It promotes a marketplace of ideas, which includes, but is not limited to, the search for truth. It is intrinsically valuable as part of the self — actualization of speakers and listeners.
This analysis suggests a number of conclusions. First, there are powerful overlapping arguments for free speech as a basic political principle in any liberal democracy. Second, however, free speech is not a simple and absolute concept but a liberty that is justified by even deeper values. Third the values implicit in the various justifications for free speech may not apply equally strongly to all kinds of speech in all circumstances. A classic argument for protecting freedom of speech as a fundamental right is that is essential for the discovery of truth.
Yet I feel that there should be restrictions on free speech. Ever since the first consideration of the idea of “free speech” it has been argued that the right to free speech is subject to restrictions and exceptions. A well-known example is typified by the statement that free speech does not allow falsely “shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.” Other limiting doctrines, including those of libel and obscenity, can also restrict freedom of speech. The case Brandenburg vs. Ohio found that U.S. government could restrict free speech only if it was “likely to incite imminent lawless action.” To the extent speech may be regulated, it ordinarily must be regulated in a viewpoint — neutral manner. In the United States, when a government proscribes certain speech based on the content, the regulation is presumptively unconstitutional.
Various governing, controlling or otherwise powerful bodies in many places around the world have attempted to change the opinion of the public or others by taking action that allegedly disadvantages one side of the argument. This attempt to assert some form of control thought of discourse has a long history and has been theorized extensively by philosophers like Michel Foucault. Many consider these attempts at controlling debate to be attacks on free speech, even if no direct government censorship of ideas is involved.
The opposite of freedom of speech is censorship. Censorship is the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful or sensitive, as determined by a censor. The rationale for censorship is different for various types of data censored. Censorship is the act or practice or removing material from things we encounter every day on the grounds that it is obscene, vulgar and/or highly objectionable. Whether it is on TV, in music, books or on the Internet, censorship is an inescapable part of human society.
HOWARD S. COHN