“They’ll talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.” —Easy Rider
John Keating (stands on his desk): Why do I stand up here? Anybody?
Charlie Dalton: To feel taller!
Keating: No! Thank you for playing, Mr. Dalton. I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”—Dead Poet’s Society
Passover begins this Friday night, and soon the familiar smells of the seders — brisket, turkey, chicken soup with matzah balls, and so much more — will fill our senses, unearthing warm, wonderful memories begun when we were so small we could only sit at the table. Never mind the excitement we felt when we finally were old enough to sing the four questions on cue.
That Passover is the most beloved holiday for the Jewish people makes sense as the reading of the haggadah and the seder remembering our escape from slavery has tied us together, generation to generation.
And though this happened thousands of years ago, we are instructed in Exodus, “You shall tell your children on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free out of Mitzrayim.’” Though I always understood the importance of personal identification with this pivotal moment in Jewish history, it wasn’t until I began to communicate the importance of Passover to my own child that this command’s focus on the individual, not the Jewish people, registered fully.
The individual. The most powerful voice, and yet the one that increasingly is becoming lost in our world, where group think and conformity seem to own the day. And beware anyone who dares challenge the conventional wisdom. Could this be a reason why we are instructed as individuals? Is it a warning about the precarious state of freedom and the need to fight for our liberty in every generation? After all, when Jacob and his sons were invited to stay in Egypt by Pharaoh, they were not slaves. But after Joseph died, another pharaoh enslaved them.
We are all too familiar with the intimidation, and even physical assault, perpetrated by numerous supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement on too many campuses across the United States and Canada. Though still not on a majority of campuses, both pro-Israel and conservative speakers are increasingly unwelcome to share their views; many times faculty members abet the suppression, and the administration betrays its cowardice in refusing to confront it. Declarations like the University of Chicago’s statement on principles of free expression are applauded and appreciated — but they are rare.
The good news is that there are some faculty who realize what is at stake and have decided to fight. Take the case of NYU’s Professor Michael Rectenwald, who, according to the Daily Caller, “is suing NYU and four of his colleagues for defamation, alleging that he was subjected to a campaign of ostracism and harassment when he criticized campus political correctness.” Professor Rectenwald, who called himself a former communist and ex-leftist, is known as a free speech advocate and became alarmed with “indoctrination in the classroom.”
Or what about a professor of evolutionary biology, Bret Weinstein, who is self-described as deeply progressive? He taught at Evergreen State College for more than a decade but was confronted by students when he objected to having white students ordered to be absent on campus for a day. As Weinstein said, “One’s right to speak or to be heard must never be based on color.” That didn’t work for these students. The video of their confronting Weinstein went viral. A Vice story featured one student who felt differently worry about being stigmatized. She said, “I do not have the ability to speak if I have disagreements with methods being used in protests.”
This is a college campus? Weinstein since has resigned, as part of a financial settlement with the university, and others have followed. Bullying is nothing compared to what is going on.
As Bill Maher said when discussing students interrupting Charles Murray’s speaking engagement in 2017 at Middlebury College (with one female teacher ending up with a concussion), “Debate him. Opinions shouldn’t be illegal.”
And it happens beyond the campus. This freedom of expression exclusion happens within families, in the workplace, and even for volunteers and staff within charitable organizations. If you think that everyone shares one political ideology, life is more complex. It just means that someone (or perhaps more than one) is afraid of losing your friendship or being ostracized from the group if they shared their real opinion.
But there are those who are willing to take the heat. Remember Ron Silver? He was an accomplished actor who was most readily known for his performance as Dershowitz in the film “Reversal of Fortune” and he won a Tony for his performance in Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow.” Silver was New York-born-and-bred and quite liberal. He was a president of Actors’ Equity and in 1989 he founded the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group made up of members of the entertainment industry. That is how I worked with him, producing a PSA for the ACLU down on Centre Street before the turn of the century.
Everything was great until 9/11 happened. While still remaining a liberal on most causes, Ron, like many others, took a more realistic — some might say conservative — view of security and defense of the United States. Still a Democrat, he spoke at the 2004 Republican Convention, as did Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia. Though he did continue to work, he said that he knew he lost jobs and some friends due to his support of President Bush on this issue. I was fortunate enough to meet him again about a year before he died, and he was very gracious when I reminded him that we worked together on that ACLU project. Sadly, he passed away nine years ago this month. Interestingly, Senator Miller just died.
So why is it important to think of these incidents as we read this commandment at our seder table? Each person involved understood that his ability to think and speak freely was important to fight for, even at the risk of damaging his livelihood and reputation. And there are others, including students, who we know risk a lot to stand up for what is right — sometimes doing so more effectively behind the scenes — so that the freedom to think and debate is not shut down and lost to future generations. We must join them in calling out these purveyors of tyranny.
Let’s turn the tables and challenge them to put their big boy and big girl pants on and debate ideas, in the open, without using derogatory language, demonization, or physical force. If they are intellectually honest, they will put aside the rhetoric and realize that the freedom to think freely and debate all ideas is very powerful and part of a life fulfilled. This is the only road to help them summon the courage to reject the prison of conformity, the one that people in Russia, China, Venezuela, and too many countries live and die in every day.
And for those of us who are shy, remember that this is the only way to assure future generations the freedom to think and express themselves and not return to bondage. As John Keating said to his students, “You must strive to find your own voice, because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are going to find it at all.”