Democracy at stake if we can't agree to disagree

I haven't laughed out loud while reading a book for a long time.

I opened Dave Barry's "Lessons from Lucy" a few weeks ago and was reminded what it's like to read something so hilarious I just can't hold it in.

But like Mike Royko - the only other writer to make me laugh that hard out loud - Barry has something more than humor to offer.

He writes about being treated like an "exceptionally dull-witted" 6-year-old during diversity training, makes a joke and then offers this insight.

"No, that's a joke," he writes. "I apologize if it offends you. But that brings me to another thing I hate about diversity training: the trainers insisted if anybody is offended by something you say, you are automatically wrong. The problem with that is there are people who are offended by everything. Being offended is their primary reason for existing. If you let them decide what you can and cannot say, they will suck all the humor out of the world.

"I am an expert on this topic. In my humor-columnist career I wrote tens of thousands of jokes, and based on the mail I received, I believe that every single joke offended somebody."

Jokes, of course, aren't the only things people find offensive. Take a look at what's happened to Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass. The paper's union (of which Kass is not a member) condemned as anti-Semitic his July 22 column about Democratic donor George Soros.

"The odious, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that billionaire George Soros is a puppet master controlling America's big cities does not deserve a mainstream voice, especially at a time when hate crimes are rising," read the letter signed by the Chicago Tribune Guild's executive board.

Then, on Monday, the Trib's editor-in-chief announced the paper is moving Kass' column from Page 2 to the opinion section, reportedly as part of a plan that has been in the works since March. The timing seems more than coincidental.

Kass has made the mistake of being a 64-year-old conservative white guy at the wrong time. Media commentator Robert Feder identified him as "the white male conservative standard-bearer" for the Chicago Tribune. Can you imagine Feder describing someone as "the Black female liberal standard bearer"?

I don't know John Kass. I met him once (in Royko's old office, coincidentally, during a newspaper conference) and I interviewed him once for a column at my old job. He seemed like a nice enough guy.

I'm sure some believe he went too far with this column. But being critical of a Jew shouldn't automatically warrant the label of "anti-Semitic."

I heard a similar complaint here in town a few weeks ago. A resident called to express displeasure at a photo of Gov. JB Pritzker holding a giant burger and a caption that read "Lake Geneva or Bust" posted in one restaurant's window. The caller thought the photo was anti-Semitic. I think it was anti-hypocrite, calling out Pritzker for eating at a restaurant in Wisconsin when he was telling everyone else in Illinois to stay home.

I worry, like Barry, that we are in danger of sucking all the humor out of the world. But there's more at stake here.

Dialogue and debate and a difference of opinion are the cornerstone of American democracy. But if we are going to be accused of being anti-Semitic or racist or sexist for criticizing public figures who are Jewish or Black or female, I fear many will choose to keep silent.

The only exception, of course, is if you lambaste a conservative white man or white woman. Then you're just woke.

- Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email her at [email protected].

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean