Last Friday The City Club of Cleveland announced that Corey Lewandowski will be speaking at a City Club forum in early August. In a normal era, news that the former manager of a successful presidential campaign is coming to Cleveland to provide his view of the first six months of a new presidency would be greeted with interest and some excitement, even from those who hadn't supported the campaign.
As we all know, we're no longer in a normal era, and Lewandowski was not a normal campaign manager. Nevertheless, he was critical to the strategy that put a real estate mogul and reality television phenom in the White House, and when he's on Fox News, he's shaping the thinking of more than two million Americans. Those facts alone make him someone any speaker’s platform would be interested in inviting to the podium.
But, just as Donald J. Trump’s ascension to the presidency was met in some quarters with protest and incredulity, the announcement of Mr. Lewandowski, a Fox News contributor, taking to the rostrum at the City Club received pointed pushback. This was most evident on Twitter.
One member of our community tweeted, “Having creeps like Corey Lewandowski speak is doing untold damage to a hundred year legacy. Really disappointing.” Another: “Sad choice for speaker. What could he even contribute to @TheCityClub @CLewandowski_ is not up to par with the quality speakers you get.”
Having creeps like Corey Lewandowski speak is doing untold damage to a hundred year legacy. Really disappointing.— Questionable Milo (@MyFriendCamilo) July 14, 2017
And so on. Many were even less civil.
are you fucking kidding? which members were chomping at the bit for this asshole to come to town?— Akshai Singh (@chezrebellion) July 14, 2017
Clearly, some members of our community find it troubling that the City Club’s commitment to provide a venue for citizens to be in direct dialogue with the people attempting to shape the future of the nation might involve giving the platform to people with whom they vehemently disagree. The resulting backlash is a local version of a nationwide trend.
On college campuses, speeches by conservatives have been shut down. At a church recently, a teenager testifying about her LGBT status found her microphone cut.
The City Club has seen this type of intolerance before, tense moments in our institutional history: when pro-Israel audience members refused to accord due respect to a Palestinian-American speaker; when an audience member asked a blatantly racist question of a leading African American intellectual and Atlantic correspondent, or, in 1924, when our board of directors almost broke apart because socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs had accepted the Club's invitation to speak. From our vantage point, intolerance for dissent isn’t a characteristic of the Left or the Right—it’s equally prevalent on both ends of the political spectrum.
In reality, it's not actually as prevalent as a handful of loud tweets might make you think. Intolerance rears its head with certain topics and certain speakers, but even amidst the negative Twitter-storm, others in the community thanked us for our "efforts to embrace civic discourse, even when the people, policies or opinions aren't popular" and reminded us of Louis Brandeis's advice that the remedy for distasteful speech is more speech, not enforced silence.
At a recent City Club forum, Drew Genszler, the CEO of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, spoke of the importance of coming together in conversation when he told the audience, "We are better than this moment, as a nation."
He's right. We are.
If we value free expression and the civil exchange of ideas, then we are called on to embrace and practice these values inclusively, not selectively.
If we value the places in our community that are designed for ordinary citizens to pose exceptionally challenging questions to elected officials, national leaders and even sitting Presidents, then we must engage in dialogue with those who are shaping public discourse, maybe especially when we disagree with their positions.
That’s what we’ve always strived to do at the City Club. As I noted on Twitter in response to the pushback, there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about the Creed of the City Club, which was written by Ralph Hayes in 1916. It is longer than this, but two lines merit our consideration:
I hail and harbor and hear persons of every belief and party; for within my portals prejudice grows less and bias dwindles.
I welcome to my platform the discussion of any theory or dogma of reform; but I bind my household to the espousal of none of them, for I cherish the freedom of every person’s conviction and each of my kin retains his own responsibility.
As community members, as Americans, we have a choice. We can seek the views and thoughts that confirm our biases, or we can look for opportunities to broaden our understanding. We can choose to benefit from the commitment to free expression that is part of our national and cultural DNA, or we can oppose it. In 105 years of practice, we have found that standing on the side of free expression has always been the right choice.