Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the esteemed Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932, left many opinions which guided the creation of civil society in America for much of the Twentieth Century.
In 1918, writing in dissent in the Abrams v. United States, case he attempted to explain the importance of freedom of thought in a democracy:
[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe ... that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes can safely be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.
 
In a 1927decision he also wrote, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society”. In a recent editorial Commonweal magazine expressed it this way
 
“ (Taxes) are the means to fund public services, a way of contributing to our public life and the common good, and an instrument of economic justice –the expression of solidarity through policy.”(January 25th, 2019)
 
Rotary began while Justice Holmes was in office and no doubt Paul Harris was guided by his thinking during Rotary’s first twenty-nine years.  Today, however, “the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” is sorely undermined and in disarray.
 
This undermining has been a long slow process and is a result of many factors, not the least of which has been the concomitant undermining of the idea that taxes have any relationship to a civilised society.  Our descent into tribalism has been spurred on by a decades-long obsession with cutting taxes. It has also been aided and abetted by so-called advances in an understanding of how psychological forces can be used to manipulate our thinking and alter our sense of truth. The “power of persuasion” has ushered in the consumer society and turned politics into a game of celebrity roulette. The advent of the Internet, at first hailed as a saviour of democracy, has only exasperated our freefall into incivility. It has spawned a modern form of barbarism where emotion, fear and despair drive us to seek out others who think like we do all the while vilifying those who are not like us or do not think like us. In other words just as the market of goods and services has been bifurcated over and over again so has the market of truth.
  
Rotary mirroring the time of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr and Paul Harris placed the standard of truth and the process of searching for it as the pinnacle of democracy. In true democratic fashion, however, it did not do this by determining a truth but by asking the question: “Is it the truth?”
 
“Is it the truth?” is Rotary’s first and greatest principle, but along the way, it has become burdened with other high principles which eventually resulted in a decision to place a noose around its neck and slowly strangle it to death. "Fairness, goodwill, understanding, peace and benefits to and for all" are individually and collectively hallmarks of a civilised and progressive society. So how did this lynching happen?
 
To answer this question, one has to ask where does “the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market ”, take place? Academia is one place; schools, universities and think-tanks are institutions where society expects and tolerates a debate over social, ethical, moral and scientific principles. In the public realm, however, such debate enters the arena we call politics. Politics is where the rule of law is established to ensure “fairness, goodwill, understanding, peace and benefits to and for all.” become policy. In other words, it is the domain where society is in the search for truth. Politics is as Holmes Jr. points out where society sees “their wishes can safely get carried out.”
 
As all Rotarians know and accept without question, in Rotary politics is verboten. But that decision as I have tried to show contradicts and crashes headlong into the higher commandment to search for truth.
 
If the ban on political discourse crushes the search for truth, what is Rotary to do if it is to successfully strive for a civilised society exemplified by “fairness, goodwill, understanding, peace and benefits to and for all?”
 
I am not so nieve as to think Rotary can or will change its no politics rule; however, that does not mean that it should set on the sidelines and do nothing. Rotary is great at promoting and encouraging Rotarians to be engaged in projects within our areas of focus. More effort of that nature can promote civility in the discourse among ourselves.
 
When public discourse quickly shifts to a debate involving such hot button terms as “communist", "socialist", and "progressive,” Club’s could have speakers educating members about the meaning of each as policy. I use this example because one post by a Rotarian, in response to the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented that they were all the same. An educated person knows this to be untrue.
 
Avoidance of slurs, name-calling, and belittling of others, especially of politicians should be as ingrained in Rotarians as is the no politics rule. 
 
Rotary also needs to address the issue of political discussion on social media venues. Many  Facebook pages, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs have no official status within Rotary. Many were started and managed by individual Rotarians. A post about Rotary, by a Rotarian on a social media site not associated with any official entity of Rotary, even if it is blatantly political is outside of Rotary’s authority to govern. As such it is no different than a group of Rotarians meeting daily at the local coffee shop and discussing as in the previous example the truth behind such concepts as “communism, socialism and progressivism. For that matter, I can find nothing in our by-laws that extends the no politics rule to Social media sites even to those owned by Rotary International, Zones, District’s or Clubs. Rotary needs to make this clear.
 
In conclusion, Rotary’s first principle to search for the truth, while constraining the practice of freedom of speech with its ban on political discussion smacks of hypocrisy. It is also a paradox. If we were true to ourselves, we would recognise that the two practices are irreconcilable. Our rules should be rewritten in a way that recognises Rotarians are mature enough to trust that we can search for truth in a polite respectful manner. It's a position that would make Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr and Paul Harris proud.
 
 
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