Why I don’t write (told in almost 1400 words)

Why I don’t write (told in almost 1400 words)

For someone like me, with lots of opinions about lots of things, writing this column regularly is a blessing. I have a forum in which to detail and discuss my views to an audience broader than the one that can fit around my Shabbat table or gather after davening in a shul lobby. And yet some opinions never make it into a column. I’ll try to explain why.

Of my 19 years of formal education, the three I spent at Columbia Law School are among my favorites. I love the law (though practicing law, not so much), and I thus cherished my legal education.

During my first year-and-a-half at CLS, at 116th St. and Amsterdam Ave., I lived in law-school housing on 110th St., right next door to Congregation Ramath Orah. Sharon was in Teachers College’s social psychology doctoral program, so after we married, in the middle of the next year, for another year-and-a-half we lived in Teachers College housing on 122nd St., across from JTS. So for three years, almost every day, often more than once, I walked the six blocks either up or down Broadway, to or from 116th St., and across Columbia’s campus to the law school.

One of my first walks past Low Library as a new 1L was with my new friend, Phil. I told him that I vividly remembered watching Mark Rudd on television the year before, during the ’68 riots, leading protesting students from atop the Alma Mater statue. How calm and serene the campus looked to me on my lovely late summer afternoon walk.

I also made Phil laugh when, thinking about the few blades of grass that YU called its campus, I said how large Columbia looked to me. After stopping his chuckling, he explained that at Ohio State, his alma mater, he sometimes had to take a bus across campus to get from one class to another. Nonetheless, my new campus, stretching only from Broadway to Amsterdam and 114th to 120th Streets, felt special to me.

Thus, the current Columbia protests are taking place on a campus that evokes strong, warm, personal memories in me. Pictures and videos of the encampment on campus, protests at the 116th St. gate, and police entering Hamilton Hall and removing and arresting students thus take me back to a place (Columbia) and time (the late 1960s and early ’70s) that were very special and important to me.

Beyond this, I, like the protesters, care deeply about the issues emblazoned on their signs and shouted in their chants, though our opinions about the substance of those views and chants are so very different. And I also have a deep interest in the myriad of free-speech issues touching upon every aspect of the protests at what was once my school and campus. Thus, I’ve been sorely tempted to pen a column about my opinions — and I have many — as I watch and think about all this. And yet I haven’t done so.

I also don’t write much about what’s happening in Gaza and Israel: the October 7 massacres, Gaza war, hostages, negotiations, possible deals, Israeli politics, protests, diplomacy, displacement of Israelis from their homes, likelihood of a ceasefire, humanitarian aid, and civilian and military casualties. Those issues, even more than Columbia’s protests, are never far from my thoughts and heart. I care deeply and have opinions about all of them. And yet, like the protests, no column under my byline.

Why these lacunae?

One reason is similar to why I rarely write about politics. As I’ve noted before (“The Art of Avoidance, at Least for the Present”), when a political issue takes up so much newsprint, social media bandwidth, and hours of television tape, I often feel I have nothing new to say that hasn’t been said before, and often (though not always), said better. Even if some readers think that’s already true too often about my columns, one reader, the one who signs his name at the top, is satisfied that he (read I) usually has some new or different angle or idea to add. But rarely about politics, the campus protests, or, as I noted in an earlier column (“What to Do?”), the war in Gaza.

There’s yet another reason. I try very hard to use primary sources to support the arguments I make and views I opine. If I mention a legal case or discuss a Supreme Court decision or oral argument — as happens not infrequently, allowing me to put my legal training and experience to some use even in retirement — I’m not basing it merely on some reporter’s or pundit’s explanation. Rather, it’s an excellent bet that I’ve read the opinion and probably the concurrences and dissents, listened to the oral argument (as I just did in the Trump immunity case — oy and double oy), and at least skimmed the briefs. If I’m talking about a politician’s speech or rabbi’s sermon, most often I’ve heard it, watched a video, or read a transcript; if it’s a local issue I might have been personally involved (more common since retirement) or at least spoken directly to some of the participants.

That’s not the case with the protests or Gaza. I didn’t go back to my old haunts on Morningside Heights; I didn’t see the encampment, speak to the protesters, or hear directly from Jewish students who are being harassed and bullied. Nor have I visited Israel since October 7 to get a firsthand feel of the country and its residents whose lives, unlike mine, are at risk, literally on the front lines. While I see the same clips most of you see and read buckets of news and personal op-eds, I don’t feel that such distanced understandings are enough for me to add value in a blistering opinion piece.

Let me contrast this to my reaction to another campus protest. The campus serenity I experienced when I attended my first CLS class in August 1968 (see “Lighting a Fire”) was sharply interrupted when, shortly after I returned from my wedding break, protest and pandemonium, chaos and closures, enveloped the campus as a result of the Kent State shootings. Then, unlike today, I did write an article about those Columbia protests for the Commentator, Yeshiva College’s student newspaper (for which I wrote a column in my senior year) because then, unlike now, I saw those protests firsthand and even participated in some; I felt secure enough in my thinking and opinions, based on personal experience and primary sources, to memorialize them in print (no digital back then). I lack that confidence, however, in what’s happening at Columbia, or in Gaza, today. The issues surrounding those events are so nuanced, so complex, and, importantly, so ever-changing, that I’m not comfortable etching my ideas, often based on second-hand data, in any sort of permanent way.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t become a wallflower. I talk about these issues, discuss them with family and friends, even argue about them. But speech has a very different flavor than writing a column. Discussions are free-flowing; there’s give and take, question and answer, challenge and response. Opinions can, and sometimes do, shift, and perhaps even re-shift, as the conversation ebbs and flows. In print, though, I’m speaking to an unseen audience that has no opportunity to take me to task in any immediate way; once the current issue of the Standard is printed or the Times of Israel blog hits the ether. Even when I do rethink, I have little opportunity to amend, modify, revise, or alter what has been indelibly published for all to see.

One final caveat, though. I might change my mind someday (or in a month) and write about these issues. No promises. And if I do and you point to this column and berate me for flip-flopping, I’ll point you to Emerson and Wilde and leave consistency to unimaginative little minds.

read more: