Not a day has gone by in the last month that I haven't had a conversation about our new President, and implicit or explicit in those conversations is my own ongoing inner dialogue about the role of the City Club in what is undeniably a new era, one defined by what Ross Douthat of The New York Times frequently refers in his columns to as Trumpism. While the President’s goals are still being developed, we still have a citadel of free speech to run here, so we're going to keep doing that. The purpose of this post is simply to share with you, our members and the broader community we serve, what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how we're doing it. There are three big themes that we keep coming back to.
Letting our Free Speech Flag Fly
I love that it's the first amendment in the Bill of Rights that is the one devoted to freedom of speech (and the press and religion and assembly). Thanks, Madison! This devotion to freedom of expression is part of our nation's DNA and is our organization's highest calling. There's an instructive story to share that local author Carol Poh described in our 2014 history A Century of Free Speech at The City Club of Cleveland about the moment when noted Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs almost spoke at the City Club.
In 1922, Jack Raper, Peter Witt, and others proposed that Debs be invited to address the City Club and in December that year the public affairs committee voted to issue the invitation. City Club President Frank C. Cain directed that the invitation be held up until the board of directors could pass on it. On January 9, 1923, the board voted 6 to 4 in favor of extending the invitation. Francis T. Hayes, secretary of the City Club, issued the invitation, which Debs promptly accepted, agreeing to address the group in the near future. Meanwhile, according to the Plain Dealer, “five men prominent in the business and professional life of Cleveland,” indignant that Debs had been invited to speak, resigned from the City Club. Others protested by letter, and one, A. M. Goldsmith, circulated a petition calling on the board of directors to reconsider its decision upholding the public affairs committee’s decision to invite Debs. City Club President Cain refused to preside at the Debs forum “because of his personal feeling that Debs should not have been invited.” When Debs learned of the dissension within the club, he gently begged off, writing to club Secretary Hayes: “Feeling disinclined . . . to obtrude where there is any question of my being welcome, or as to the right of being heard in a forum avowedly open to free speech, I beg to withdraw my acceptance and to respectfully decline the invitation of the club."
Within the ranks of the Club, that episode is widely seen as a low point in our history, one in which we failed to live up to our commitment to the 1st amendment. Rancor and divisiveness in our community is no less prevalent today. Truly, there is more rancor in this moment than many of us would have predicted even three months ago. Speakers from the political right and left will continue to test all of us in our commitment to what Oliver Wendell Holmes described as "freedom for the thought we hate." So count on the City Club to bring you speakers who will challenge you to step into someone else's shoes, to understand why people from the other side of whatever issue feel the way they do and how they have come to their positions.
Make no mistake. This isn’t easy. It’s not easy to engage across difference with the intent to understand rather than convince. But we believe that is what is called for today.
Drawing the Line
This is as clear as we can be: There will be no hate speech. Here at the City Club, we believe freedom of speech extends to all potential speakers, but we draw a line when it "offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits." That's the definition from the American Bar Association and a useful guide for us. Though we mean to be clear, there really is reasonable disagreement about what constitutes hate speech. Some of it is easy to spot and name. In other instances, it's not so obvious. But keep in mind: hate speech is different than speech you disagree with. We will vigilantly fight the former and valiantly defend the latter. If you feel we are presenting hate speech, you should let us know..
Focusing on the Issues
Trumpism does seem to explicitly set out to remake the world order, by which I mean that longstanding geopolitical relationships have been swiftly upended, as has the conventional way of doing things in Washington, D.C. Where we think we can help is in providing a forum for understanding the nuances of these issues and reforms in relation to our lives, whether that's in the immediate moment or with more of a long view. Look to us to help you explore and understand not just this week's news on immigration, but also the impact of proposals to replace Obamacare, the meaning of the broader rise of populism around the globe, trade policy, education policy, energy policy, housing, the economy, and on and on. And of course, we won't only be thinking about trying to understand Trumpism. As many have pointed out, while DC does DC, the real change we feel happens at the level of metro regions and states. And that will continue to be where we put a healthy focus.
Even though it feels like so much is changing so fast, your City Club is still your City Club, still creating conversations of consequence in the interest of seeing democracy thrive, still providing the place for you to be in conversation with the people shaping our future and the people who can explain our present.
What you can do
Institutionally here at the City Club, we don't advocate and we don't take positions, but nevertheless, I've got a call to action for you—a few, actually:
1. Show up. Come to programs or join in via the live stream, the simulcast at the Parma Snow Branch of the Cuyahoga County Library on Fridays, the live broadcast on WCPN, and tweet us your questions.
2. Introduce yourself. When you're here, meet your fellow audience members. We are your tribe--the group of people who care about the community, who care about ideas, who are unabashedly wonky about policy, who can either describe how something like tax increment financing works (or, if not, would at least be interested in learning), who want to know you and what you're passionate about. So introduce yourself. There's really no downside.
3. Challenge yourself. One of my heroes is Ralph Hayes, who had my job in 1916 and wrote the Creed of The City Club of Cleveland. The first line is this: "I hail and harbor and hear men [and women] of every belief and party, for within my portals prejudice grows less and bias dwindles." I added women in there, as I think our founders would appreciate, but there's a bigger point. We exist so that prejudice may grow less and bias may dwindle. Come hear someone whose perspective you don’t agree with, whose party you’re not a member of, whose policies or arguments concern you. Challenge your thoughts, your opinions, and yourself. The only way we grow as a community is if we’re willing to hear out the other side.
4. Help us grow. If you're already doing 1-3, bring a friend or two to a program, spread the word about our upcoming events, or become a member yourself (If you're already a member, we’re always grateful for your support). But really, bring people. You are our best ambassador, and you make possible this beautiful, special Cleveland thing that we have here, a place devoted to hearing from all sides, to honest, forthright, robust debate, to giving ideas a full and thorough hearing, and to doing it all in a spirit of civic fellowship.