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Watch your language

By Paul Greenberg, Tribune Content Agency on

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood when the sukkah mobile drove up. Sukkot, the Jewish feast of tabernacles, or booths, had arrived. And with it, all the accessories thereof in order to celebrate it in style -- including a couple of rabbis and a mobile sukkah or harvest booth.

Soon enough a gentile friend or two, attracted by all the commotion, showed up. Oh, happy day! For what is a Jewish festival without guests in attendance? Hospitality is, after all, a mitzvah -- a commandment. And so is the study of Scripture. All the pieces were in place, and it was time to let the good times roll.

So this ordinarily quiet neighborhood in Little Rock, Ark., an epitome of the far-flung Jewish diaspora, resonated with a mix of different languages -- Southern-accented English, Hebrew, my own native Yiddish and all the simultaneous translations thereof. It would have been a veritable Babel without the key that unlocks the gates of language to all comers: good will.

More than half a century now has passed since my teenage self had sat on a balcony in Tel Aviv while my hosts demonstrated how a succession of languages can be an exercise in courtesy and consideration instead of degenerating into a language war. As each new addition to the evening's gathering arrived, the language shifted to make him or her welcome.

Being a Southerner, naturally I rose as each of the ladies -- or perhaps an elderly gentleman -- appeared. The most senior of the ladies present could scarcely contain her surprise at my by now instinctive gesture. "And they say Americans have no manners!" she whispered in her native German, unaware that my childhood Yiddish had given me sufficient acquaintance with that tongue to understand what she was saying in supposed confidence -- and I certainly didn't let on.

But the censors we will always have with us, and instead of welcoming any refreshing outburst of free speech, they have a different response: Shut up, they explain. They would do better to heed the words of a still rightly controversial justice of the Supreme Court of the United States -- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. by name -- in defense of freedom of speech and therefore freedom of thought:

"When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. ... I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death."

The true test of free speech is not freedom for the thoughts we agree with, but freedom for the thoughts we hate. So let this America remain an open forum for all ideas -- good, bad and in between. And may the best ideas win.

Suppressing freedom of speech may only assure the victory of the worst ones. For what higher compliment could be paid the power of any idea than an attempt to suppress it rather than debate it? If all the clanking, cumbersome machinery of the state must be called on to smother an idea, it must be a fine one indeed, and so in no need of censorship to support it. And if it's a bad idea, have faith it will fall of its own weight. Either way, let freedom ring.

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(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

 

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