Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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Keith Burris

On being labeled

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    Despite their political differences, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were close friends for many years.


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    Keith Burris.

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My wife and I recently saw a wonderful documentary on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg entitled RBG. And it got me thinking about labels.

Part of what makes the film great is that it moves along, which is tough to do in a documentary, especially one about someone who writes and thinks for a living — not a lot of action shots.

WATCH: The official trailer for ‘RBG’


Keith Burris.

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But it is also honest. There is a point in the film in which a friend of Justice Ginsburg’s marvels at her capacity for friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. She said she could never be friends with a person who is a “right-wing” nut case. Or maybe she said right-wing fanatic. Or whack job. I’d have to see a transcript.

But she characterized Mr. Scalia as “right-wing,” which he decidedly was not. It seemed a way to diminish him, but it was also just wrong.

A few days later, I sat at breakfast with two friends as one of them explained to us the new world of trolling and bots. Trolls disrupt, harass, and create false narratives. They, seek, ultimately, to discredit.

And then a few days after that, whaddya know, I started to be excoriated — not for the first time — on social media (part of the territory). And I started getting scores and scores of essentially identical emails calling me “a right-winger.” A friend sent me a social media post that urged people to protest my “extreme right-wing” views.

Say what?

And I did hear from many who made their views known, few of whom had read my stuff.

One of the variations was that I am “a right-winger from Ohio,” as if you are more likely right-wing if you are from Ohio, than, say, Pittsburgh or Philly.

Well I am proud to be from Ohio. I grew up in Ohio and I love Ohio. But I was born in Washington, D.C., and spent large chunks of my life there. I spent almost 10 years in Pittsburgh, going to Pitt, teaching there and at Washington and Jefferson, West Virgina University, and a Penn State branch. And 25 years of my adult professional life were spent in Connecticut, a place I also dearly love. My kids grew up there.

Right-wing? That’s a way of calling a conservative a “stupid conservative,” isn’t it? Or a deplorable one.

Yes, I am some kind of conservative, or conservative libertarian, especially in this culture. But for most of my life, the angry readers on the other end of the phone called me “liberal, liberal, liberal.”

A true conservative is actually the opposite of a right-winger. For conservatism is empirical. A conservative must have what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the courage to change.”

I am deeply influenced by Bill Buckley and Thomas Sowell and Russell Kirk. But also by Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, Eugene McCarthy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and John W. Chapman of the University of Pittsburgh — one Christian realist and four liberal humanists. And by experience — by what I have seen in 60 years of living, and 40 years of reading and studying, reporting, and writing.

My values are: Liberty with compassion; personal responsibility; humility; civility; and compromise. I am a civil libertarian, a trade protectionist, and in favor of that government “which governs least.”

I favor gay marriage, legalizing pot, and a government that protects kids from lead poisoning, bad water, and bad schools. I am for environmental regulation — out of love for what Pope Francis calls “our home Mother Earth.” This is the great issue of our time and the second is the destruction of privacy by the national security state and the private information leviathans.

I am for a legal path to citizenship for “the Dreamers” and other illegals already here. I favor banning weapons of war for civilian purchase. I believe deeply in the democratizing influence of public higher education.

But two matters of liberal/​left consensus I cannot accede to and will likely not be forgiven for: The first is unlimited abortion and the second is that the current President is evil personified.

Abortion is legal in this country and likely to remain so. And the state should not regulate end of life, or beginning of life, decisions. They are private. But we are talking about two lives and we all know it: The mother and the fetus — a child.

Read more by Keith Burris

As for Mr.Trump and the Trumpian moment: I hate the right’s war on fact and science, and the President’s assault on freedom of the press, and, most of all, the war on civility, which comes from all directions.

But I do not hate Mr. Trump. I refuse to do so — because the haters are a mob, because he is our President, because I like the booming economy and the opening to Korea, and at least some defense (at long last) for U.S. auto and steel workers.

I have learned what it is like to have my heart judged by people who do not know me and my work judged by people who cannot handle distinctions. It is always easier to condemn or to join a mob than to think. But journalism should embrace complexity and subtlety. It can’t be trolled into simplification and slogans.

Justice Scalia once said a wonderful thing. He said, “I attack ideas, not people.” I ask this of all readers who have not joined a side and don’t themselves want to be labeled or put into an ideological box: Read our pages. Look at the op-ed packages, read our editorials, read my columns. We aim for independence and thoughtfulness. Read them for a few months and judge them for yourselves.

Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade, and editorial director for Block Newspapers. Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.

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