Friday, June 5, 2020


Almost 50 years ago - on September 21, 1970 - The New York Times inaugurated its "Op. Ed." page. Literally "opposite the Editorial Page," it was intended to contribute "toward stimulating new thought and provoking new discussion on public problems." The idea was to add to the paper's regular columnists "two or more contributors six days a week, writing on the widest possible range of subject matter and expressing the widest possible variety of opinion." At the time, my Marxism professor, an old Weimar intellectual, one of many such refugees whose presence at that time enriched the City College faculty and New York's Upper West Wide, remarked that the Times was now becoming interesting to read!

With characteristic self-importance, the paper proclaimed that day that it was creating "an intellectual forum from which, to paraphrase Terence, nothing will be foreign that relates to man and his society." While I would agree with my old professor that the op. ed. page made the Times more interesting, I doubt I would ever have ascribed to it the degree of importance it continues to claim for itself!

So what to make of the current controversy about Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and his infamous "Send in the Troops" op ed, initially posted on-line on Wednesday and originally scheduled to appear in print on Sunday. The article apparently set off a firestorm of opposition within the Times itself, initially prompting Opinion Editor James Bennet to defend his decision to run the piece, a position he and the paper have been in retreat from ever since. Apparently it has been quite a controversy within the Times, a controversy that has spread outside because it fits so stereotypically into the contemporary "culture war" between those whom Times writer Bari Weiss has labeled the "wokes" and the "liberals."

Like most people my age, I am more likely "liberal" than "woke," and I worry when exposure to ideas and opinions that differ from one's own is perceived as threatening rather than challenging, when ideas and opinions (and their authors) are to be cancelled rather than responded to and rebutted. That said, only the State is ever constitutionally prohibited from abridging free speech. All of us draw the line somewhere at what we will listen to or read,  what we deem worthy of being taken seriously or responding to - whether because the opposing idea or opinion is factually false or because it is morally abhorrent. Media platforms are no exception, although given their greater social significance (especially in the case of the Times), how broadly or narrowly that line is drawn, how inclusive or exclusive the limits of acceptable speech,  really does matter. The original aim of the op. ed. page, to expose us to "the widest possible range of subject matter and expressing the widest possible variety of opinion," so that "nothing will be foreign that relates to man and his society," remains valid and important - maybe more now than then in our polarized, tribal culture in which most people increasingly expose themselves only to ideas and opinions that they already agree with.

That said, however, while allowing unfamiliar or uncomfortable ideas to be heard has its place, that was not necessarily the case in this instance. Senator Cotton is, after all, a United States Senator (seen by some also as a potential presidential aspirant some day). As such, he already enjoys a position of immense power and importance and can easily express his views and publicize them to his heart's content. There is no need for an Op.Ed. page to promote the ideas and opinions of people like that, in effect enhancing his already powerful platform. Even if his views were not factually questionable or morally abhorrent, even if his views were more morally palatable, he would have no need of precious space on the Times' platform to make his case. By all means, the Times should be ready and willing to allow different voices to be heard on its pages. Ideally, they should actually contend with each other on those very pages. And, just as candidates for elective office often benefit and become stronger candidates from having had to respond to serious opponents in party primaries, learning to listen to ideas and opinions to which one objects and learning to respond substantively to them (not just express negative feelings about them) will often make one a better advocate for one's cause, while better understanding why others think differently. (One of our greatest problems right now is the inability of many people on either side of our tribal divide to understand at all how and why people they disagree with think the way they do.)

A well edited op.ed. page can contribute greatly to diversifying our public debate and who participates in it. But to do so the value of an op. ed. page is precisely in creating space for those on the other side of the balance of power, those who might otherwise have a harder time getting a hearing. 

(Photo: Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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