Remarks by Bari Weiss upon receiving the Per Ahlmark Award
UN Watch Online Gala, November 1, 2020
What an honor it is to be here.
When I look at the other people who have been recognized by UN Watch for moral courage–people like Shaparak Shajarizadeh and Masih Alinejad–it’s clear I’m way, way out of my league, and I am humbled to be in their company.
But fate has given me two clues that I might have the distinction to speak to you all this evening.
The first is that I suspect I am the only person to have spoken to UN Watch to have profiled Hillel Neuer for my college political magazine. Yes, I was extremely cool.
The second is that I may actually be the only person ever to have written her senior year thesis on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s time as United States ambassador to the United Nations. As I said: I have always been very cool.
I had really good reason to be fixated on these two hell-raisers in Geneva during my college years. It was as an undergraduate at Columbia now 15 years ago where I first encountered the Soviet lie that Moynihan famously bellowed against during his unforgettable speech in November 1975–and that remains among the most durable and insidious untruths that Hillel Neuer and UN Watch continue to battle tirelessly today.
That lie? That Zionism is racism.
The obscene resolution, as those watching this surely know, was repealed three decades ago. But its evil echoes on. And not just in Turtle Bay, and no longer on the lunatic fringe. It now resides firmly in the mainstream, including at American universities like my alma mater, which are meant to be the guardians of liberalism.
If Zionism was racism, as so many professors and students believed, then Zionists were racists. And everyone knows how we should treat racists.
As a believer in the fundamental justness of Israel’s cause, I learned that the hard way. Many, many, many more young and proud Jews since me have since experienced the cost of that lie.
There were times that I felt besieged and alone. But Hillel Neuer and the memory of Daniel Patrick Moynihan before him–to say nothing of my heroes, like Sharansky and Saharkaov and Solzhenitsyn–they were something like human lighthouses for me and for my small group of allies.
In them, I saw how a person could exist in a hostile atmosphere.
In them, I saw the dignity of telling the truth in an atmosphere of lies.
In them, I saw the power of a single person willing to go against the herd.
In them, I saw models of moral courage.
When kids are little, we tell them all kinds of things. We tell them to wash their hands and be nice and work hard and to share their toys and to make their beds and . . . to tell the truth.
The last of those sounds as simple as all of the rest. But in my experience, it can be the hardest thing in the world to do.
Everyone wants to be liked. Everyone wants to get along. Human nature is to want to be in rhythm with the people around you.
I think the hardest thing is to be out of step, to be the thorn in the side, to be the skunk at the garden party. When the whole crowd is running to embrace the convenient fiction, to tell the white lie to make things just a little bit easier, my God, is it hard to resist that pull.
In my tiny way, I have tried to do that in my own life.
Those watching this and those who heard the introduction will likely know that I am now a newspaperwoman without a newspaper–a curious position for someone who appeared to be standing at the pinnacle of American journalism–The New York Times–not five minutes ago.
What happened? It’s a question I get a lot.
The story is a complicated one that involves Twitter and Slack channels, livestreams and hashtags, but in a way, it’s a very simple–and very old–story.
I left because I did not want to participate in a project that was betraying my values.
I became a journalist and I had come to the New York Times–the paper of record–to tell the truth. But The New York Times, like so many institutions in this country that uphold the liberal order, is undergoing a fundamental transformation that makes that job–the job of truth-telling–increasingly difficult.
The old liberal values I had taken for granted–the belief in the sacredness of the individual over the group; in judging a person based on their deeds rather than their lineage; the belief in due process and the presumption of innocence and the rejection of mob justice; the belief that pluralism is a source of our strength; toleration a reason for pride; and that liberty of thought, of faith, and of speech are the bedrocks of democracy–all of those virtues are under siege.
That worldview is under siege by a new, illiberal, and powerful ideology that doesn’t have time for any of that. The new creed says: We are in a war. We are in a war in which the forces of justice and progress and righteousness are arrayed against the forces of backwardness and oppression. And in a war, the normal rules of the game—the rules of due process; a political compromise; of free speech; even of reason itself—they must be suspended. Indeed, those rules themselves were corrupt to begin with—designed, as they were, by dead white males in order to uphold their own power.
Over the past few decades and over the past few years with increasing velocity, this ideology has captured nearly all of the institutions that produce American cultural and intellectual life. The wind is at the back of these true believers, who do not hesitate to smear those that dare disagree with their creed.
At the Times, what that meant is that the old school idea of reporting the news without fear or favor, of striving for objectivity even while recognizing that we are all fallible, that’s given way to something much more strident, a kind of blinding moral certainty in which stories that do not advance the narrative, that do not advance whatever is perceived as just, or as progressive, are seen as something like traitorous.
That’s why an op-ed by a sitting Republican senator caused my boss to lose his job. Meantime, Chinese Communist Party propaganda and apologias for medieval antisemites like Louis Farakkahn, those are acceptable.
At the Times, if you do not profess allegiance to this new ideology, you are suspect, your character and your work scrutinized, and put to a crazy double standard. Bullying in theory is wrong, but bullying the right people? That’s ok. Diversity and inclusion: yes! Just not for some people.
The ascension of this ideology—and my obvious lack of true belief in it—meant that I could no longer do the job that I was hired to do.
So I had an important choice to make: stay and become a kind of half version of myself. Or leave so I could do what I came to do in the first place—pursue the truth in a moment of incredible importance for this country. Leave knowing I was going to lose some things but with the belief that I would gain infinitely more for having walked away.
I did walk away and I have lost some things–and not just good health care! I’ve lost the excitement of telling people where I work and the automatic respect it commands. I’ve lost an editor that I love. I’ve lost a professional network. And I have lost some friends.
But when you hear what actual dissidents like Shaparak have sacrificed for the cause of liberty and freedom, you realize that to even make the kind of choice that I made is a privilege.
You see I believe that there are eternal values more important than the day’s politics.
There are things more important than prestige or status or social acceptance or money.
Or, as the great American judge Learned Hand put it so perfectly, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, and no court can even do much to help it.”
Keeping the spirit of liberty alive in an age of creeping illiberalism is our moral obligation.
And that, in the end, is why I am speaking to you tonight, not as an employee of the New York Times but as a free agent.
If my heroes — who were buffeted by history in ways I can never imagine — have taught me anything, its that history is always written in the present, nothing is a certainty, nothing is assured, and small groups of people can and have changed its trajectory. But we must fight for those ideas and the values that make civilization worthy of its name.
We are at a hinge moment in history in America and around the world. The evidence of that is everywhere around us. Look at what just happened recently in France. A school teacher beheaded for showing his student cartoons. Could there be a more powerful reminder of the importance of defending free thought and free speech than that? That is what is in the balance. Those are the stakes. They could not be higher.
Duty isn’t a popular word these days, but duty is essential for courage.
It is our duty to resist the crowd in our age of mob thinking.
It is our duty to speak truth in the age of lies.
It is our duty to think freely in an age of conformity.
And it is our duty to sacrifice something of ourselves for the causes that allow us to be ourselves in the first place.
Growing up as a kid, I was always taught that the best ideas win out in the marketplace of ideas. That’s not true. As I wrote in my resignation letter to the Times, ideas cannot win on their own. They need a voice. They need a hearing. And above all, they must be backed by people willing to live by them.
I am. UN Watch is, and I hope you are, too.