I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago. It was cause to look around and take note of the fact that there are only a couple of people in this newsroom who are older than I am -- and none, so far as I can tell, who make that particularly annoying grunting noise when they get up out of their chair.
Old enough to know better, they say. And not too old, I hope, to learn something. And to try again when something didn’t quite work.
Last week in this space I thought I was defending the whole idea of free speech, nobly standing up for the right of a group of conservative students at the University of Utah to sponsor a speech by a nationally known writer and YouTuber (who I had never heard of) who some other U. students denounced as a carrier of hate speech, racism and a threatening brand of misogyny.
In so doing, I basically took the protesters’ word for the message Daily Wire editor (and Breitbart refugee) Ben Shapiro would likely bring to the campus. It fit my narrative as someone who was standing up for the right of even a “doofus” with “vile” things to say to say them in a public place. How incredibly noble of me, no?
Some responses to that essay were troubling. Some were very helpful.
The couple that bothered me were the ones where someone assumed, though I really think I said no such thing, that because Shapiro and his sponsors, the Young America’s Foundation, espouse some positions with which I take issue, that I must stand with those who want the event canceled.
I encouraged those who have a problem with that message and that messenger to peaceably assemble near by, wave some clever signs, then repair to a counter-event where they can say and hear thing they like better. Or drink beer.
The much more useful replies came from some folks who suggested that I was drawing conclusions from insufficient data. That they had read or heard some of Shapiro’s work and, while he is clearly waaaay to the right of the philosophy I find comforting, that it was unfair of me to lump him in with the more nasty elements of what’s now called the alt-right.
Well, whaddya know.
While Shapiro built a following, in part, writing for what’s now the alt-right bible, Breitbart News, he has quite publicly broken with that media empire and created his own online news site, The Daily Wire. Shapiro is still quite wrong about such things as marriage equality -- his take-down of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision in the Obergeafell case is heartless -- and gay rights in general. He worries way too much about who else is in the bathroom.
The fact that he has been invited to speak against the concepts of ”white privilege, trigger warnings, microaggressions” might well suggest that Shapiro is an exponent of, well, white privilege.
But -- and this might discomfort his U. hosts as well as his detractors -- Shapiro was among the first of the conservative #NeverTrumpers. One of the first of those who might have been expected to be on his side to instead call Trump out as a faux conservative who doesn’t believe what conservatives believe, and may not believe in much of anything. Shapiro faults Trump for riding a wave, not of true small-government conservatism, but of racist-tinged nationalism, to the nomination and to the White House.
Shapiro’s coming out was one day after Mitt Romney’s but, unlike Romney, Shapiro has not since been considered for a position in the Trump cabinet or otherwise made sucking-up noises about our tweeter-in-chief.
It recalls what another #NeverTrump conservative, P.J. O’Rourke, said when he decided he had to support Hillary Clinton as the much lesser of two evils.
“She’s wrong about absolutely everything,” O’Rourke said of Clinton, “but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”
I think Shapiro is wrong about nearly everything. I’m not sure I’d always give him credit for being wrong within normal parameters. But give him this: He no longer has any use for Breitbart, or, in his eyes, for what Breitbart has become.
Since the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, and the rise of its old and new boss, Steve Bannon, Shapiro finds Breitbart to be beyond the pale racist, nationalist, amoral and astoundingly anti-Semitic.
So, apparently, folks who go to Shapiro’s talk hoping to hear a neo-Nazi, KKK-loving Trumpist in full fire will be disappointed. As will those who were planning to shout down such a person.
Even if that were Shapiro’s message, he has the right to bring it, to the U. or anywhere else. He also has the right to be criticized for what he is, not for what other people suppose he is.
George Pyle, the Tribune’s editorial page editor, says he doesn’t mind being called anything, except late for dinner. email@example.com