The Check

I can still see the check in my mind’s eye. It was plain and it had a green background. It was filled out neatly in pen and was wrapped inside a letter requesting ad space. As the business guy at a failing college newspaper, money was practically an obsession. The check wasn’t for enough money to make us rich, but when every penny was being pinched, it was still money.

The ad talked in generic terms about educating the public about misperceptions regarding historical events and sharing proper information on their viewpoints. The ad included a Web address, a rarity in those early days of the Internet. To figure out exactly what these folks were talking about we logged on and found ourselves appalled. The site was from people like James von Brunn, the man accused of killing a guard at the Holocaust Museum this week. Among its other claims, the site stated the Holocaust was the work of a Jewish conspiracy that had never happened. It was strange in that it wasn’t a violent, angry site, but something like you’d see onthose stupid Yaz commercials, where the folks there just want to “clear up a few things.”

The editor, who had final approval on all ads, and I talked a lot about this. She wasn’t feeling all that keen on the ad, but didn’t want to see the paper fold. She also made the case that if we value our own freedom of speech, we shouldn’t be shutting out others just because we don’t like the message. I argued it was hate speech and that while I didn’t want to see the paper close, what the hell was the point of keeping it open if we’d be running stuff like this. I couldn’t tell which way she was going to lean, so I told her something that I knew to be a lie: Let’s hang on to the check and if we really get desperate, we’ll cash it. I pinned the check to the bulletin board above my desk and we both went back to work. Two years later when I left, the check was still there. Despite some horribly desperate situations, I never once thought about cashing it.

I thought about that check in the wake of von Brunn’s attack. His screeds against blacks, Jews and pretty much anyone who wasn’t him had me recalling the line from “The Paper” about how when you get older, people think differently of you, but you’re the same asshole you always were. At 88, von Brunn gave us no reason to believe he had mellowed with age.His hatred was palpable and his anger manifested itself in the basest of ways.

As is now the case with the instantaneous nature of information, the Internet lit up with various theories as to what made this guy tick, with most of them centering on the “SEE! SEE! WE TOLD YOU! DHS CONSERVATIVE LONE WOLF THEORY!” end of the spectrum. The thing most of these writers tend to ignore thatthis idiot has been doing his shtick for decades, including his infamous attack on the Federal Reserve Board in 1981. Had the economy been booming, a white guy in the White House and his world made of lollipops and unicorns, he still would have been nuts enough to do this. Of course, conservatives immediately found their way to the keyboardsand drove home this point, along with some nice name-calling of their own.

To focus the blame on a political philosophy is easy and cheap. It distracts from the fact that a man went to work, opened a door for a senior citizen and was killed for his trouble. To rail against this “lone wolf” creates a false sense of comfort for many of us. Web sites, trade shows and rallies show he’s not alone and while it’s easy to be verbally outraged, I found myself seeking introspection.

I thought about the time in eighth grade when we had a guest speaker who had survived the Holocaust. We were a raucous, obnoxious group of pre-teen twerps, but you could hear a snowflake hit the ground the whole time he was talking. I don’t think anyone even sneezed. The stories of how he watched other men kill themselves or how he watched the families of the camp guards dig through the possessions of the dead held us with a sense of horrified tension.

I thought about meeting a woman who donated much of her life savings to put a memorial dedicated to all the people (not just Jews) who had lost their lives in the Holocaust into a local park. She talked about survivor’s guilt, having escaped Germany a week before escape was no longer possible for Jews. She told me about marrying a man who survived the camps and how he never got over it. She showed me by crossing her arms and placing her hands on her shoulders how he slept every night for the rest of his life. That’s the way they slept in the camp, she said, noting he never moved at night.

I thought about my mother who boarded one of the first flights opened to the public after 9/11 to attend an event at the Holocaust Museum. She had been planning the trip for months and she was not about to be deterred. When I called her and told her to just eat the money because who the hell knew if this whole planes and buildings thing was over, she said no way. The trip was more important than anything else. She needed to go.

Mostly, though, I thought about that check. I could have run the ad and hidden under the blanket of free speech or easily cashed the check and not run the ad. I could have blamed the editor, who had final say, or pawned off the responsibility on our board of directors. But I knew all of those decisions were wrong and that I had to make sure that check stayed on that bulletin board.

Once you cast your lot with the James von Brunns of the world, no matter how small your action, you are no better than they are.

5 thoughts on “The Check

  1. THANK YOU — I was very much fighting a lone battle pointing out this guy’s prior bad acts over at Corrente the other day.
    Got beat down about how just ’cause he had a website with unsavory opinions, he didn’t need to be subject to the USA PATRIOT ACT.
    He’s exactly the kind of guy that (horrible awful no good very bad execrable excuse for a) law was written to protect the nation against, though.

  2. Great post Doc. And thank you for understanding that there are situations when speech can be limited. You are not the government. Your venue can decide to create guidelines ‘No ads suggesting violence. No ads offering child porn” and that’s okay.
    I also think what is interesting is that this is about money. You needed it and it might have been the thing that allowed you to comprise your values (and you have other values than just a commentment to free speech in private venues).
    This is the power of money. The current newspapers are told “20 percent profits for us or people get laid off” but that is a figure someone came up with on a Wall Street spreadsheet for quarterly expectation. If they miss it they are punished in a way that top exec hate. But it is arbitrary. If you had to make 7 percent profit you could be use that 13 percent to keep reports one quarter and sock away money for bad times during a good quarter.
    You saw first hand the temptation to throw it all out the window for money. This is still going on and as Athenae said above lots of people don’t get the role money and advertising plays in the “ethics” of journalism.

  3. What Spocko said, doubled. Especially the part about your not being obligated to give these guys space on your private platform.

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