OPINION: What matters

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May 23—Two veteran (old?) journalists were chatting and each confessed that there is less and less in the news truly of interest.

She might shut it all down and stay home and garden.

He might call it a day and read all the unread books at home. Or, listen, really listen, to all the CDs and records so carefully catalogued.

Or take up golf.

I suspect that there are many people who are not that enthused about "getting back" to a fully pre-pandemic life. And they are not all introverts.

But we are talking about something else here. In a poem called "Courage at 60," (which he later changed to 70 and then 75) the Irish-American poet Eugene J. McCarthy wrote: " Now it is certain./ There is no magic stone,/No secret to be found./ One must go/With the mind's winnowed learning."

The great George F. Will, dean of American columnists, and I think, at this point, the Elder of American conservative thinkers, recently wrote a wonderful column on the freedom of turning 80. He loves the republic and the thing for which it stands — essential human dignity and equality — more than ever. He appreciates the good things in life — a dry martini, a new dog, music — more than ever. But most of the controversies of the moment, like the passing fads in pop culture, seem ephemera or dross and not worth the expenditure of much energy.

Mr. Will asked if anyone now remembers what irked or offended him about the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush?

The New York Times recently treated us to one of those "insider" views of the Biden White House, and the President himself. Thanks, mostly, to a couple dozen anonymous sources, we learn than the President likes Orange Gatorade and the First Lady is a wine aficionado; that she eats fish, and he likes pasta with red sauce. We learn that the President is both decisive about his agenda and slow in making big decisions — demanding detail and extended debate from aides, and that this may be a perilous leadership style. We learn that he sometimes scolds aides who are not well prepared. We learn that he is impatient (but not as impatient as Barack Obama or Donald Trump) and that he may tell people who tend toward bureaucratise and jargon to speak in plain English.

Thus is the "new journalism" of Norman Mailer, and John Hersey, and even Hannah Arendt, reduced to gossip and both journalism and the presidency are further diminished, if this is possible.

So what does matter, really matter, in the public square today?

I think for Mr. Will, and many conservatives, what matters now is the great American whine. We have lost our mental and physical toughness and become entitled and presumptuous crybabies — and on a grand and wide scale.

For the late humorist George Carlin, what mattered was that the country was getting dumber and our language more vague and vacuous. Why do our schools keep getting worse and our students less literate and civic-minded when we keep putting more money into them?

For me two great public issues matter: One is saving the Earth — particularly the seas and lakes of this country and around the globe. This is as obvious as breath. And yet we have long been in denial.

The second is the war on free speech, which is really the war on free thought.

And this brings me to an unlikely pair — the actor Charles Grodin, who just died, (he was born in Pittsburgh and never lost his Yinzer dialect) and the writer Salman Rushdie.

I remembered Mr. Grodin as a comedic character actor in film, mostly some years ago, who reinvented himself as a fascinating, if sometimes off-puttingly bizarre, talk show host. I didn't know, until I read an obit or two, that he quit show business for a decade to be a stay-at-home dad. And I didn't know how many things he'd done. He wrote and directed plays. He wrote for TV. He was a respected Broadway actor. At one time he wrote a column for the New York Daily News. He did an Andy Rooney style commentary on 60 Minutes II. But what really came through about the guy was his utter, uncompromising singularity. Just an odd duck who stuck to his own comic sense and his own truth.

And where could such a bloke prosper but in America in his day?

And aren't the odds of someone like him being famous, or even heard, a little less likely in our day? Because he did not fit any niche, and he was OK with offending people with his thoughts.

Mr. Rushdie — talk about a guy not afraid to give offense — has a new book coming out — nonfiction. And he granted a long interview to a British paper. He is worried about the cancel culture.

Well, no surprise. He was almost ultimately canceled.

Mr. Rushdie said: "There's a youthful progressive movement, much of which is extremely valuable, but there does seem to be within it an acceptance that certain ideas should be suppressed, and I just think that's worrying. Wherever there has been censorship, the first people to suffer from it are underprivileged minorities. So if in the name of underprivileged minorities you wish to endorse a suppression of wrongthink, it's a slippery slope."

He added, "... the people who stood up for me in the bad years might not do so now. The idea that being offended is a valid critique has gained a lot of traction."

The world's foremost — and next to the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, the bravest — proponent of freedom of thought is of the firm opinion that the cure for illogical or offensive speech is more speech.

This used to be an ironclad article of American faith. But in this time when more and more people declare policy questions that are eminently negotiable, non-negotiable, the one principle that we should never compromise is at risk.

Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade and editorial director of Block Newspapers (kburris@theblade.com.)