Last week, New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss created a media firestorm when she abruptly resigned from the esteemed newspaper. But that was only a sliver of the story. Weiss didn’t go quietly.
She penned an accusatory screed, stating that some of her former Times colleagues “bullied” her with no tolerance for different points of view not associated with “progressivism” or “liberalism.” In her remarkable 1,500-word blast, Weiss wrote, “Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.”
Yes, Weiss left on full blast — furnace and all.
Though some Times staffers reportedly labeled her assertions as disingenuous or embellished, we may have seen an in-house media divide not in ideology but in culture. In today’s context, if you analogize current factions by cultural attitudes, the progressives and liberals would be the “cool kids,” you know the ones who play in the rock bands after school and see the idealistic side.
The centrists and moderates would be the “math-loving crowd,” the nerd types with their horn-rimmed eyeglasses and philosophical discussions. It’s sort of like symbolism is cool on one side and practicality is the hot spot on the other.
Arthur Cyr, professor of political economy at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., said that during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, “It wasn’t about symbolic gestures. It wasn’t about the symbolism of taking down statues or defacing memorials or monuments. It was about changing policy and passing bills.”
Former Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who died at age 80 late Friday, knew about effecting change through policy-making. When Lewis was one of the marquee speakers at the monumental March on Washington in 1963, that event led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964; when Lewis participated in the seminal Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, that gathering led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Jim Zwerg served as a pivotal Freedom Rider with Lewis in 1961, the year he also met the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants. Vivian, who died at 95 on Friday morning, was more of a top-notch teacher for Zwerg, as Lewis was more of a prodigious peer.
The Freedom Riders were mostly college students determined to desegregate interstate travel in the South, where the custom was to separate passengers by race on buses and in terminals. At that time, Zwerg was a 22-year-old white guy who left an all-white area in Wisconsin to experience the segregated south as an exchange student at Fisk University, a historically black school in Nashville, Tenn.
A classic “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
Lewis, also at Fisk, inspired him to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement, to get into “good trouble,” as Lewis preferred to call joining the cause.
“Everyone respected his total commitment and discipline to non-violence,” said Zwerg, now 81. “John had a deep commitment to faith.”
Zwerg and Lewis were seatmates during the Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus ride from Birmingham to Montgomery as the Ku Klux Klan lurked in the shadows. Lewis also maintained a commitment to humility and openness, unlike many in today’s crucible of unfairness in which some embrace free speech and free thought but deny others that unalienable right.
Today, we see that intolerance on both sides — liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.
Zwerg, who called Lewis “his brother from a different mother,” remembered Lewis this way on the free-speech front, as the nation pauses to recognize one of the titans of the 1960s freedom fighters: “I can’t think of a time when John was ever really viewing himself as king of the hill. John’s humility was always there; he was a quiet guy for the most part. But when he gave his opinion, everyone shut up and listened.”
The art of listening seems to be in short supply in our current environment. And when many of us do listen, the response often focuses on shutting someone down, shutting someone out.
During the Cold War, irrepressible British Prime Minister Winston Churchill submitted, “Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without it being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.”
That apparently was Weiss’ argument at The New York Times in her exit essay, which essentially served as her personal “Declaration of Independence.” Was Weiss full of fine whine at the Times or was she just too honest for the venerable media giant?
As syndicated columnist Mona Charen wrote, “This narrowing of the American mind is making everyone dumber and nastier. Bari Weiss stands for dispassionate analysis in a world that increasingly favors zealotry and intolerance. That’s why her fate matters.”
The fate of Savannah Chavez also matters. Her father, Ismael, was one of two police officers murdered in an ambush on July 11 in the bordertown of McAllen, Texas. Savannah posted a sobering tribute to her father on Twitter, using the hashtag #bluelivesmatter. The backlash to Savannah’s Tweet was swift and unrelenting. Some callous individuals determined her hashtag as racist.
It apparently didn’t matter that her father was a homicide victim, as some attempted to shut her down.
Now, ponder that thought.