March 28, 2015

Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006

Page 05 Plenty of life yet

As readers of this column know, I have been concerned that since time’s swift passage has taken most of Churchill’s contemporaries, along with their memories and recollections, we soon we will be faced with the gradual diminution of interest in Churchill and appreciation of all he represents. A recent occurrence suggests that this may not be the case, at least not in the near future.

The Churchill Centre recently considered various proposals to increase member value, among which was the suggestion that access to the Centre’s Listserv (internet chat room), should be limited to members only. This suggestion had a rational basis: most of those who visited the chat room are already members; non-members would continue to have access to public portions of the Centre’s website; non-members could continue to send questions or comments to the staff, the Centre’s officers or the editor of Finest Hour, the basic North American membership dues of $50 ($10 for students) are hardly a financial hardship for anyone; the cost of hosting and monitoring the chat room, presently nil, might change; and the most inflammatory and ridiculous material posted to the chat room over the years has tended to come from non-members.

After weighing these points against the fully expected accusation that any limitation to chat room access was a non-Churchillian restriction on free expression, the Executive Committee unanimously voted to limit chat room access to the Centre’s members. That decision and the reasons for it were immediately conveyed to those registered for the Listserv.

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A flood of adverse reaction inundated us at once. Emails begot emails which begot more emails ad infinitum. The committee’s decision was described as dumb, stupid, wrongheaded, insensitive and elitist. Much of the criticism came from our own members, who of course would not be affected at all by this action.

All the objectors wanted was for anyone and everyone to be able to say whatever he or she wanted to say about Churchill in whatever manner they chose—in our chat room. The rational basis for the proposed limitation was either brushed aside or ignored. The passion for the right of unfettered expression about Churchill outweighed all else.

The collective message was loud and clear: rescind our prior action! We heard it, and in a special meeting called upon four hours notice, unanimously did just that. We also approved plans to rename the listserv Churchill Chat (suggested by a member), actively to promote the usage of the chat room (suggested by another member) and make it a more integral part of The Centre. While the Executive Committee may have stumbled into this imbroglio, it decisively and purposefully marched out of it.

The aftermath of our restoration of prior policy has been quite positive. With the help of Todd Ronnei and Jonah Triebwasser (who remains our chat room moderator), Churchill Chat was moved to a state-of-the-art Google Groups page, which offers various ways to receive postings and follow threads on its site: Anyone can read the messages, but to send a post, you have to register. One of our closest collaborators, who works at Google, assures us this is completely safe, does not get you on any spam lists, and gives you posting access to all the other Google chat rooms. Best of all, the cost to the Centre is still zero.

There were further positive outcomes. Several Listserv users who had not renewed their Centre membership were reminded to do so, and did. Use of the chat room increased immediately. The Churchill Centre demonstrated tliat it will listen to its members and is willing to (and can) turn on a dime to correct perceived mistakes.

By far the most significant aspect of this episode was the immediate and spontaneous outpouring of deep-seated passion for Churchill. Those who challenged our initial decision did not do so merely because they worshipped the principle of free access and open debate. They wanted the opportunity to criticize, lament and emote in a variety of ways about Churchill whenever they were moved to do so. They demanded that even the most crackpot complaints about Churchill and the most fulsome praise be heard and debated. While some of that passion may have been dormant of late, the original proposal certainly rekindled it and brought it quickly to the surface.

I wish I could claim that the Churchill Centre had the foresight and sagacity to have known ahead of time how its proposal would play out, how we and our members would benefit from this dust-up, and that we planned and took the action for just that reason. Alas, I cannot. However, dare one speculate what benefits might be achieved and what passions might be aroused if, say, a proposal were made to raise the North American subscription rate from $50 a year to $500? Hmm.

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