Thursday, May 12, 2022
Our forums sometimes make you mad. Here’s why.
Every now and then there’s a forum we place on the calendar that might make you upset. The speaker is so distasteful that you feel they shouldn’t be heard—not by anyone, and certainly not at the civic forum that you value and rely on. Usually, it’s a speaker of some significance or notoriety.
We do this for a reason, and it’s not because we disagree with you or agree with the speaker. The reason we do this is because we think it’s in the best interest of the community and democracy.
In 1923 renowned socialist Eugene Debs was one such speaker. Debs had famously been arrested after an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio. It was a difficult moment for the First Amendment, to say the least. Upon his release from prison, the City Club’s public affairs committee suggested he be invited to speak. This was so contentious that it was punted to the board of directors, who voted 6-4 in favor of the invitation. Debs accepted, and prominent business leaders protested, wrote letters, and resigned their City Club memberships. It got so bad that the club’s board president refused to preside over the forum. Debs ultimately begged off, for fear that he wasn’t truly welcome. He was correct in his assessment, and that is to the Club’s lasting shame.
In 1962, Robert Welch, the founder of The John Birch Society was invited and Club members and community members rose up again. Welch spoke and was confronted by questions from the diverse audience. More recently, Palestinian American scholar Noura Erakat, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and Israeli dissident historian Ilan Pappé all provoked an angry response from certain corners of our community. You might have been among those who came, who were angry, or who were gratified that we offered the platform.
One of our favorite stories comes from 1967, when the segregationist Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, spoke. City Club members were among those protesting right outside the Club—likely they’d organized the protests. And when the forum was about to begin, they put their signs down, came inside, and listened. And during the Q and A, they vigorously questioned Governor Wallace.
When President George W. Bush spoke in 2006, a great number of people in attendance were vocal critics of his administration. And the Q and A was perhaps one of the most difficult public appearances he endured, thanks to questions from two of the Club’s former presidents. The President’s inability to answer one question actually earned some coverage by The Daily Show.
Humor aside, that combination of behaviors—caring so deeply you want to shout it out; actively listening to a speaker you vehemently disagree with; asking probing, challenging questions of that speaker—is at the heart of what we do. It’s what makes the City Club one of the very few places in America where the leaders responsible for the policies you may vigorously disagree with will answer your questions. Or, if they don’t answer your question, their dodge happens in the public spotlight, for all to see.
We may not get to every question, and we may not be able to provide a platform for every speaker of importance in our community, but there’s no other place in our community or our state where this is happening, where you can pose your question to the leader you think should be called to account.
That doesn’t happen when speakers are canceled. That doesn’t happen when events are shut down by the heckler’s veto.
Ultimately, we believe that having these speakers—as controversial as they might be, as distasteful as you might personally find them—makes this democracy of ours a little bit stronger. Because it’s only in a democracy that values freedom of expression and vigorous public debate that such a forum can exist and thrive. Our forum depends on our freedoms and your participation. In turn, those forums strengthen the democracy that preserves those freedoms.
So if you look at our list of upcoming forums, and you see someone who makes your blood boil, start crafting your question. Sharpen it. And then get yourself a ticket. And if you’re so opposed to that speaker that you can’t imagine paying to hear them, give me a call to talk about it. If I can’t convince you, I’ll buy you a ticket.
See you at the forum.