Subscription cancelers are an odd bunch

Six years before Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper and composed the Declaration of Independence, the French philosopher Voltaire wrote these words in a letter to an adversary: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

As will happen, Voltaire’s remark has been massaged in the retelling — to the point where it now usually reads, “I disagree with what you say, sir, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”

Either way, it means the same thing: A free and unfettered exchange of ideas is a building block of the democracy, and is vital to the process of arriving at sensible conclusions.

I happen to agree wholeheartedly with that notion, yet it stands at the core of about the only thing that continues to confound me about some people who buy newspapers:

Why would someone who professes to be a lifelong Plain Dealer subscriber call up and cancel the newspaper simply because he disagrees with an opinion he read in it?

Newspaper readers, particularly those who regularly stop by the Forum section, are smart folks. Presumably, they go to the opinion pages in search of ideas; to be enriched by the variety of viewpoints they encounter there. But often enough, when some readers find opinions — or even one opinion — differing from their own, they call up the circulation department and choke off the source.

As Exhibit A, I offer the reaction some readers had to last Sunday’s Plain Dealer.

In this section last week, the newspaper’s editorial board took on the complicated task of offering a recommendation on the divisive Issue 2, through which voters will decide whether to minimize labor unions’ power over state and local public work forces. After much debate and soul-searching, the board (it seemed to me) held its collective nose and opined that Senate Bill 5, imperfect as it is, has put needed authority and flexibility into the hands of the people who must manage our schools, police and fire departments.

Following that recommendation to vote “yes” on Issue 2, we received the outpouring of comment, debate and disagreement one would expect on any controversial subject. But an impressive number punctuated their disagreement by calling the circulation department and canceling their subscriptions, vowing never to read The Plain Dealer again.

So let me get this straight: You buy the paper, often for years or decades, because it contains news, information and entertainment you need, and cannot find anywhere else — and then because a group of editorial writers examines a situation and reaches a conclusion that differs from your own, you throw all that good stuff away?

The supreme irony here is that on the same day — the same day — as the endorsement, far more prominently displayed on Page One was a comprehensive examination of Senate Bill 5, which is the legislation that will be accepted or rejected in the vote on Issue 2. Reporter Joe Guillen laid out the provisions of the bill in a way that was clear and apolitical.

It was “must” reading for anyone who will cast a vote on Nov. 8 . . . just the kind of information that people who will vote on the issue need, no matter which way they ultimately vote. A strange day to choose to walk away from the paper, if you ask me.

I heard from my share of angry readers after the endorsement, but the oddest was an email that came from a man who professes to be a government teacher at a suburban high school. Charity compels me to protect him by not naming him or his school.

In an angry dissent to the endorsement editorial, the man agreed that the editorialists had the right to endorse whatever way they wish, but wrote, “Your endorsement is an insult to me and my profession,” and went on to say that he, along with many of his colleagues, intended to cancel their subscriptions in retaliation.

I’ll tell you the insulting thing: Here we have a man who is charged with instructing children about the workings of our government — and his solution when confronted with an opinion different from his own is to stop reading the arguments on the other side and to try to punish the source of the opposing opinion with a boycott.

What sort of message about the marketplace of ideas, the First Amendment and the meaning of the ballot box is a man who thinks like that passing along in the classroom?

Voltaire would be appalled.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Oct. 23, 2011.

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