My overall attitude toward reader reaction is that, good or bad, it’s all good
When I respond to letters criticizing something I’ve written, I’ll usually add something along the lines of “Thank you for the feedback, all of which, positive or negative, is appreciated.” And I even mean it. Maybe it takes a fellow writer to understand that it’s so eerily quiet out here that any sign of having actually been heard, of radio signals indicating contact with other human beings has been established, is cause enough for gratitude.
All this is not to say I’m some model of equanimity, to whom being praised or panned makes no difference. In fact, I keep a file of kind things people have said about my writing. Then again, that’s at least partly due to what the writer Megan McArdle was talking about when, in a piece on writer’s procrastination, she allowed that in the course of “writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists… and Googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.” Ah yes, sweet reassurance… until next time.
But my overall attitude toward reader reaction is that, good or bad, it’s all good. Every once in a while, however, an email arrives that gives me some pause and makes me wonder about what I’m doing. That happened this week, in the form of an electronic epistle critiquing my column of last week about the New York Times.
I do know the letter writer read its first sentence, in which I feebly waxed funny about how, counterintuitively, reading the newspaper has been good for my ruchniyus; he admonished me that “it is time to do a serious cheshbon hanefesh about the state of your ruchniyus in general.”
Well, he may not get my tongue-in-cheek humor, but he’s a fine fellow nonetheless. I know that because he’d written to me once before, also in a critical vein, asking forgiveness “if this letter is offensive or too strongly written.” Back then, I’d offered to discuss his concerns and clarify my view; he took me up on that, and we had a nice phone conversation.
But this missive was considerably more… dismissive. What was hard for the letter writer to assimilate was the approach: critiquing the Times unequivocally for its anti-Israel, and to a lesser extent anti-religious Jewish bias, positing that the Times has an overall liberal bias, yet suggesting that a cursory daily look at the opinion section will evince that it often features right-wing writers and respectful interviews with conservative thinkers.
None of these statements should have been particularly controversial — unless, that is, the mere mention of the words “New York Times” triggers you, sort of like what a right-wing speaker on campus does to fragile college kids.
My column’s point was that a person can hold two ideas simultaneously without getting vertigo: that there can be both much to hate about the Times (or any paper for that matter), and other things to enjoy about it. Call it the segregationist approach to journalism: Everything doesn’t need to be black and white.
One can be outraged by the Times’ often undisguised anti-Israel bias, for example, while savoring the excellent writing and fascinating panoply of stories. One can object to its liberal orientation while lauding its willingness to feature dialogue with views it deeply disagrees with and to critique those on its own side — something the great majority of publications far to the Times’ right would do well to learn from.
The letter writer didn’t like the balance I granted the Times, but he was even more defensive about my mentioning the fact that the conservative National Review had published an article defending the Spanish Inquisition. About that, he wrote: “I knew that can’t be true and Googling the article, it does not defend the Inquisition per se. It downplays the guilt of those involved given the context of the times.”
A few excerpts will suffice to give the flavor of the article at issue, written in 2018 by Catholic canon lawyer Ed Condon, and you can be your own judge as to whether National Review intended to do an Inquisition whitewash over the unspeakable tortures the Jews went through in the Inquisition dungeons:
“Tomás de Torquemada, a much more nuanced historical figure than the cartoonish portrayal of him suggests, was put in charge of bringing order and justice to the Inquisition… The jails of the Inquisition were universally known to be hygienic and well maintained… The use of torture by the Spanish Inquisition can be neither excused nor denied, though it can and should be placed in context. Torture was ubiquitous in courts of the time, and the Inquisition’s use of it, while objectively horrific, was downright progressive when seen in context…”
And Condon generously concludes:
“None of this is to say that the Spanish Inquisition is something to be proud of or remembered fondly. But it isn’t paradoxical to conclude that it was also, by the standards of the time, in many ways superior to almost all other courts.”
In an earlier piece in National Review, Thomas Madden, a history professor at the Catholic Saint Louis University, writes:
“When the sins of the Catholic Church are recited (as they so often are) the Inquisition figures prominently… Now at last the scholars have made their report, its most startling conclusion is that the Inquisition was not so bad after all… To understand the Inquisition, we have to remember that the Middle Ages were, well, medieval. We should not expect people in the past to view the world and their place in it the way we do today… For people who lived during those times, religion was… an abiding and universal truth. Heresy, then, struck at the heart of that truth. It doomed the heretic, endangered those near him, and tore apart the fabric of community.”
Madden concludes that “A new, fictional Spanish Inquisition [was] constructed, designed by the enemies of Spain and the Catholic Church.” That would be us, the Jews.
It is about these articles (in which, curiously, the word “Jew” never appears) that a well-meaning frum Jew and ben Torah wrote to me to say that they “epitomize someone who doesn’t dispatch with 30-second sound-bites and cartoonish, one-dimensional, good-versus-evil explanations for things that are in fact complex and multifaceted. But being that the wrong side wrote it, you don’t view it that way...” He then called what I wrote “a truth-bending Democratic propaganda claim.”
I’ve written many times in recent years about the deeply disturbing phenomenon of what the ruach tumah of poisonous political partisanship has done to Yiddishe hearts and minds. And this is one cautionary tale of how far people can stray from reason and sound moral guidance, when labels distort logic and common sense.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 915. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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