Free speech is for the brave and the hated (and everyone else)

Last week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for saying he would not automatically censor Holocaust deniers from Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg is not expressing sympathy with Holocaust deniers when he says he won’t automatically remove them from the Facebook news feed. His convoluted way of saying so may have missed the mark, but defending the right of people to post controversial or objectionable ideas on a free social media service should be a no-brainer. It’s a sad sign that anyone in America today should have to “walk back” any comment that defends the right of free expression.

Facebook has the right to censor content, as it’s a media platform that can operate by whatever standards it deems fit. And indeed it has censored content, putting dollars before principles and obediently obeyed repressive laws overseas in order to gain traction outside the U.S. It follows speech codes set by the Chinese government and governments in Europe that would never pass muster in the U.S. if they were applied by a government agency.

But the demands that Facebook censor content show the diminished respect for the concept of free speech and expression. Facebook enables users to block content they find objectionable and even block other users from their news feed if they are not to your liking. That people clamor for Facebook to go further and eliminate whole blocks of content simply because many people object flies in the face of what we Americans embrace as a concept of free expression.

Free speech is an end unto itself, it is a moral absolute. Freedom of expression is a basic human right that universal and inviolate. It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights as well as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19).

Social media is not obligated to the same concepts of free expression that are guaranteed human rights. When you sign up for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever comes next, you are agreeing to terms of conditions that enable the service provider to regulate how they wish. But our sense of fair play in allowing free expression in these realms is an important one.

Americans have rightfully embraced the saying that is often attributed to Voltaire (though it actually comes from biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who summarized his idea), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

And to stand up for free speech is to undoubtedly join questionable company. You’re going to be standing up for Klansmen, pornographers, Holocaust deniers, pedophiles, and religious extremists. You will defend the rights of people who want to see you diminished, or maybe even dead. Sadly, the distinction of supporting someone’s right to say something as opposed to supporting what they say is being stripped away. Even long-standing organizations that have famously jumped to the defense of free speech—specifically the once-reliable A.C.L.U.—are now hedging and making exceptions in the toxic partisan atmosphere of our contemporary era.

Much of the speculation today surrounding the ascent of alternative right elements in our national politics is whether or not we are heading down the slippery slope to a fascist state. If the American far right is excelling in bringing us closer to fascism, its greatest victory so far has been in getting its opposition to embrace fascist elements wholesale while waving the flag of anti-fascist virtue. Every “punch a Nazi” post you see on social media, every embrace of the very concept of “hate speech” is a steep step down that terrible slippery slope.

Please remember: there is a reason that fascists are rightly reviled, it’s because they do things such as… restricting freedom of speech under the guise of protecting the populace from harmful ideas, advocating violence against those they disagree with, or claiming some higher moral right to speech than others. “That’s not free speech, that’s hate speech,” is among the most fascistic mantras in common use today.

Let’s all sides agree to let others have their say. You don’t have to listen or agree, but recognize that free speech is a human right that no one should be able to infringe. Defending the right of someone to express their ideas is not the equivalent of endorsing those ideas: teach that in schools and put up ads around town about it.

There can be no equivocation. There is no other speech but free speech. People have died for it in America and around the world. Don’t accept any substitutes.

Celebrating Suffragettes at Washington Irving’s Sunnyside

While I would be content to sit in an air-conditioned space from late May through the end of September, I know people can’t live that way and remain productive members of society. The world is already positioned to encourage my children to be mind-numbed couch potatoes glued to electronic devices; we’ve got to counter that as best we can while we still wield some influence over them.

My wife found out about an event happening at Sunnyside, the estate of Washington Irving in Tarrytown, New York, which is not too far a drive up from Queens. We decided to go. We have three girls and with women’s political activism in its ascendency we must strike while the iron is hot to give them a sense of empowerment.

Vote Like a Girl was hosted by Historic Hudson Valley at Washington Irving’s Sunnyside. The author, best known for short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” lived in Tarrytown and his home is preserved as a historic site.

The event included a staged debate between a man who advocated for suffrage and a woman who denounced the suffragette movement, a parade of suffragettes marching from the visitor’s center to Irving’s cottage, and a reading from Susan Hood, author of Shaking Things Up: Fourteen Young Women Who Changed the World.

The event was not only a celebration of the suffragette movement, but an encouraging look at a future with things that were encouraging to young girls. They had a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) room at the event that allowed girls to play in ways that helped develop scientific concepts, and an arts and crafts room that had some projects that spoke to the theme of the day, such as cross-stitching political messages and making Statue of Liberty-like crowns.

There were also fashion demonstrations, allowing women and girls to see what they would have likely worn had they grown up in the 1800s or early 1900s. And our girls tried their hand at kids’ games from that era—attempting to walk on wooden stilts or keep a barrel loop moving with a short stick both look a lot easier than they actually are.

Sunnyside is a great place to visit and was a winning trip with small children in tow. It is on the bank of the Hudson River and has sunny lawns and shady spots for picnicking.

Years ago I attended a holiday candle light tour there and it was excellent, showing visitors how Irving’s house would have been decorated during the Christmas season (e.g., lots of wreathes but no Christmas tree). In mentioning the candle light holiday tour to one of the employees there, she said that while they had been discontinued, they were very popular and that there was hope that they could be brought back.

While the cause of women’s suffrage is not exactly up for debate any longer in the U.S., the role of women in government and society continues to evolve. There are more female candidates running for public office than at times in the past and the revulsion of President Trump and the potential shift in the Supreme Court further right means that women’s issues are going to be central in our political dialogues over the next several years.

And if you are trying to raise girls, it is hard to cut through the constant noise of our common culture, where women’s place in society is not highly valued. Women who are given the largest platform are often not there for productive achievements that are desired or realistic for our daughters (the nine “most Googled” women of 2018 turned up zero scientists, elected officials, or Supreme Court Justices; all were entertainers or reality television personalities). So let us glory in the history of women’s suffrage and use that as a springboard to greater ends.

The joy of illegal fireworks

Growing up in Yonkers, New York, which borders the Bronx, the fourth of July was always a time for fireworks and fun. I would stay up as late as I could watching people light up firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and other fare. I’d jump at the fearsome boom of M-80s. On the fifth of July I’d go outside to ride my bike and step into what looked to me like a war zone. Paper from expended fire crackers lined the gutters, leftover powder from unexploded ordnance glinted in the sun. One time I saw a metal garbage can that had been split in half and turned upside down by a blast of something, looking like a sad metallic banana peel.

When I first moved to New York City as an adult, I lived on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. A few blocks down the street was famed Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti’s old local headquarters, the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. Gotti had been in prison for several years by that point, and the Mafia was a shadow of what it once was, but the Teflon Don had thrown big parties in Ozone Park every Independence Day and his presence was still looming large enough to draw a large police presence. I could not look out the window of my small studio on July 4th of that year without seeing the NYPD.

When my brother was visiting the next year, we managed to get onto the roof of the building I lived in. While we could see the fireworks off in the distance happening over the East River, it was much more fun to see the illicit explosions spreading it spider light over the skies of Ozone Park. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game of the firework lighters and the police added to the intrigue.

Years later, when I lived in Inwood in Northern Manhattan, I walked down to where Dyckman Street met the Hudson River, hoping to see fireworks of some capacity over the water. I was too far away from the official celebrations to get a good view of anything and I went home. But the volume of illegal fireworks being launched in Inwood was enormous, and I got a better show from my living room window than I could have had anywhere else.

I have been back in Queens for almost seven years now, this time in Northern Queens on the Flushing-Whitestone border.

Our co-op apartment building houses two addresses that do not connect except in the basement and on the roof. The roof is normally not accessible, but one of the buildings is without its elevator, so residents can take the elevator to the top floor of our side and cross over the roof.

On the fourth of July the skies over New York City were lit with legal and illegal fireworks alike. With one girls falling asleep early, my wife and I took turns bringing our other daughters up to see what there was to see. We knew there was a lot going on in our neighborhood as the evenings leading up to the fourth had at least one or two substantial barrages of fireworks audible and in close range.

From all sides of the roof we saw fireworks in the distance. A string of lights on the roof added to the festive air. The official Macy’s show over the East River started up at 9 p.m., and other legal displays could be seen over some of the country clubs of Douglaston and other well-to-do neighborhoods. But the most compelling sights were the ones going on right over the tidy homes of Whitestone.

The fireworks would burst into a glowing flower of streaking fire and fade almost as quickly. “Where go?” asked my youngest daughter, pointing to where the colorful display had just been. Another family from the other side if the building was on the roof as well. “Happy Birthday America!” one little boy called out as the colorful bombs burst in air.

The Saturday after July 4th, our family visited friends for a celebratory party. There my older girls got to experience sparklers for the first time. They enjoyed holding the fizzing light, aware it could burn them but marveling at how pretty it was. It was what the older people and the big kids were doing, and they were glad to be involved in the tradition. I didn’t get to hold sparklers until I was in fifth or sixth grade, and my parents would not have allowed me to partake if I had asked them. I was at a neighbor’s house and the grown-ups were lighting off the bigger stuff, using a candle on the ground to help light things. When police sirens could be heard in the distance, someone would blow the candle out and we’d retreat to the dark shadows of trees near the house until the danger of being caught had passed.

Of course there are dangers to fireworks, and no shortage of stupid people who set them off dangerously and without regard to safety or consideration for others. But we can’t let stupid people ruin our good time. Just as we shouldn’t stop loving our country because stupidity is on the ascent in our leadership and public discourse, we shouldn’t stop loving the celebration because morons are in the mix. The idiots will be there until common sense or well-placed fireworks weed them out.

Colonists won their freedom with blatant opposition to oppressive laws and plenty of gunpowder. It’s that heritage of the outlaw patriot we celebrate with fireworks at this time of year. It’s a tip of the hat to our revolutionary history. May it never die.

 

The crucible of summer in New York

If hell exists, it borrows heavily from New York City in the summertime. The unescapable humid heat that is magnified on the sidewalks and amplified in the subways, the crowded aggravation of our crumbling infrastructure, and the general unrest that foments rage where there might normally be annoyance or resignation, are the central ingredients of our sulphuric summer stew.

New York goes into its Independence Day holiday in the midst of one of its heat waves. The general state of the country only adds to the humid misery, with half the country protesting and demonizing the other half at light-speed intervals, new Internet outrages generated almost by the hour. It’s a dizzying spiral downward in civil discourse that fuels a blanket disgust made more maddening by temperatures that bake an already exhausted brain.

This work week is interrupted by our Independence Day holiday on July 4. Imagine putting up with all the outrages of national politics today but without air conditioning and in wool clothes, and you’ll see why the colonies revolted. In New York City today, our country’s divided politics are writ large across the city. People who once enjoyed vibrant conversation on the state of affairs skip such conversations; it doesn’t pay to engage in civil discourse, even on a personal level.

This week we will get through our work week, hoping it will be easier with so many people using the holiday for vacation. The trains will be a little less crowded, the traffic a little lighter and the sidewalks will be blazing hot but not quite as mobbed. Tourists will walk downtown past where George Washington was inaugurated (New York City was America’s first capital).

Sometimes, even though I appreciate air conditioning, I have a moment when I leave a heavily air conditioned building and feel a sense of relief and satisfaction at feeling the blanket of humid heat cover me when I step outside. It is good to feel the real world on your skin, to embrace reality no matter how unpleasant, because that’s what we are destined to do.

That is part of our story. New York gives its residents all four seasons at full blast. You will be hot, you will be cold, you will feel the full force of nature’s fury and blessings, sometimes within the same month. On the first day of Spring, New York City had a snowstorm. I would have gladly endured many more if it meant we would be spared the stifling heat of the summer months, but I knew better than to think we’d have such a lucky trade.

The crucible of summer in New York makes for stronger New Yorkers and spurs our innovation, our creativity, and our own more quiet revolution. Some of us will “embrace the suck” as the military puts it, and barrel through the overheated times with a gimlet eye towards the future.

Our destiny means we move through this overheated season with a desire to embrace the heat, to dive into the fevered truth that others work hard to avoid or shout down. The hot weather will pass, and we cannot huddle in the air conditioning forever. We have nothing to do but have pride in ourselves as New Yorkers and live summer to the fullest.

A family trip to Coney Island

Coney Island is an endless summer draw for New York. It has a large beach, world-famous amusement park rides, and a seedy underbelly that gives it character. Coney Island has kept its lowbrow edge despite waves of gentrification and upscaling happening throughout New York but with particular intensity in Brooklyn. Williamsburg used to be a dangerous place to be. Now it’s only dangerous if you live in a rent-controlled apartment.

One of the attractions that has been added over the last two decades of revitalization is MCU Park, which opened as KeySpan Park in 2001. The field hosts the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.

My wife, who is much more adept at sourcing and planning family outings, discovered a good value in the Flock, a children’s club that includes tickets to several games for the entire family.

We got to Coney Island and found an expensive pay lot close to the stadium. With low clouds rolling in, fogging the tops of the nearby apartment buildings, we decided to get something to eat before submitting to the amoral monopoly of stadium snacks. In the short distance between MCU Park and the original Nathan’s, we started feeling raindrops. Nathan’s was mobbed, but close by was Pete’s Clam Stop, which had large plastic bench-style picnic tables in a small dining area. We ducked in, found a seat, and ordered food.

Pete’s Clam Stop was a good discovery. Its hot dogs were just as good as Nathan’s with the same traditional snappy flavor and they also had large fries that were a bit big and unwieldly but were in the crinkle-cut tradition (they even served them with a small French fry fork.) Pete’s also has fresh clams and oysters on ice, and hand-painted signs encouraging customers to eat clams to help to have a child and to eat oysters if one wanted to have twins. I had not heard this bit of old wives’ tale wisdom, and since we already have twins plus one, we did not feel the need to sample the oysters or clams.

The rain picked up heavily as we ate our food, watched World Cup Soccer on TV, and enjoyed the camaraderie of other Coney Island visitors making a lunch stop to duck out of the rain. The picnic tables became filled with people sharing the space. A woman with her kids at the table with us remarked on two of our daughters’ red hair.

Before long the rain was gone and the sun was out by the time we headed back to the ball park.

We got to meet two of the players and got them to sign our daughters’ t-shirts. They all became too shy to get their photo taken with the players. The highlight of the Flock benefits was getting to go on the field near second base for the national anthem. Unfortunately, the field at MCU Park is artificial turf, so it feels as if you are walking on a cheap shag carpet with some extra padding underneath.

With three small kids, I spent more time herding them and trying to quell their tantrums than I did actually watching baseball. If I were a baseball aficionado or cared about seeing a future baseball superstar in action I might be disappointed, but I don’t really follow baseball and I’m a Yankees fan anyway (the Brooklyn Cyclones are a Mets farm team), and time is better spent with family. It is more enjoyable to share ice cream with a four-year-old than to watch someone throw a fastball. The Cyclones won the game 1-0, beating the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team.

While our seats were in the last row of the stands, they were still field-level seats and comparable seats at a major-league ballpark would have been unaffordable for a family of five. Snacks were still overpriced, but the ticket deal that my wife found included some snack vouchers, so that allowed me to actually not spend money on overpriced stadium snacks.

Our seats were shaded so we escaped the worst of the sun. Still, it was an exhausting day. We drove home, buzzed from weariness, but also excited about having more Coney Island adventures.

The dark allure of the carnival

Two years ago, when our youngest was a newborn still in the hospital, I had a Father’s Day with our older daughters and decided to take them to a carnival that was being held out on Long Island.

The drive out there gave the girls some nap time and allowed me to treat myself to some drive-through White Castle in an indulgent celebration of my continuing my bloodlines.

It was on the grounds of a community college not too far into Suffolk County (the part of Long Island farther away from New York City—technically both Brooklyn and Queens are on the Island of Long Island but whenever a New Yorker says “Long Island” they mean Nassau or Suffolk County, which constitute the larger mass of land outside of the New York City borders).

Because it was Father’s Day and extremely hot, or for whatever reason, the carnival was not well attended. There were a few rides where my girls were the only ones on at the time. One ride that was empty had a height requirement, and I told one of the twins to step up to the height measurement board by the entrance to see if she was tall enough. She misunderstood my instructions and began stepping up on the bottom run of the fence around the ride, which had the effect of both immediately proving she was not tall enough to ride the ride but making it look like I was telling my daughter to cheat. As I was trying to correct this, the man running the ride, who was wearing the requisite carny uniform of sun-leathered skin emblazoned with tattoos, quickly waved my girls onto the ride.

More recently, my wife and I took our girls to a local carnival held on the grounds of a Catholic school nearby. It was fairly well attended but our kids were only eligible to ride a few of the rides. Most of the rides were for older kids and grownups and some of them looked rickety and unsafe. The same carny types were running the rides, and the ones who were running the kids’ rides were happy to have the business. From a trailer-born midway, the typical games of change were running with giant stuffed animals to lure impressionable youth to beg for their parents’ money.

A few weeks later, another similar carnival, a larger one in Astoria, had a ride malfunction and injure a passenger who fell out of an open car on a rickety amusement park ride.

We hold the carnival folk in envy in some ways also: they travel and see the country in ways most of us wish we had the freedom to do. And we see their itinerant ways and employment in leisure as hinting at some greater, more liberated life, even though it is a much harder life that consists of working while other people have fun, for long hours in the hot sun for little pay.

Eight years ago, a Wisconsin writer traveled as a carny and wrote about it for the publication Isthmus in an article ‘My life as a carny.’ He summarized it this way:

“[W]here I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.”

One counterintuitive point that the article makes is that traveling carnival rides have a better chance of being safe than those at established amusement parks, because they are inspected more frequently.

From the interactions I’ve had, I have some away with the impression that because my wife and I have raised our girls to treat people with respect and be polite, especially to the people who work for a living and serve us, that the carnival workers pick up on that and treat us well in return.

We come away from these carnivals a little poorer financially, I like to think that our family is richer in experience. Carnies are part of the brilliant milieu of New York City; we appreciate the dark allure of the carnival, as it is illuminating when you approach it with the right attitude.

Fatherly adventures of being your children’s +1

This past weekend I had several hours alone with my three children. Normally we have full family outings on the weekend but it helps keep our family healthy if my wife gets a break from being around children for at least a few hours each week.

There was a Twist & Sprout festival at the Queens Botanical Garden and I decided this would be a good place to take our three daughters. We had been there last year and it was a good time with plenty to offer the kids.

After getting my girls out of the van and dropping off some compost, we set off to explore the festival. Arriving at the Queens Botanical Garden with my daughters is like being a celebrity’s date at an award’s ceremony. Because they are there at least twice a week for the Forest Explorers program, my girls know a lot of the people who work there. One of the teachers at the program recently graduated college and gave my girls big hugs. Other employees waved hello to us from their zooming golf carts or from arts & crafts tables.

There was a puppet show and the puppeteer was the mother of another one of the students at the Forest Explorers program. Other parents stopped to chat with me; they recognized my daughters and asked where my wife was. It was all very friendly, but I was definitely a stranger among them. I was appreciated for bringing my girls there. No doubt they are the better life of the party.

While I pride myself on being a good Dad, the point was driven home that for most hours in the week, I am largely absent from my daughters’ lives. I am out the door to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus in the morning and with afternoon rush-hour traffic I am usually not home before 7 p.m. It is dinner time soon after I arrive home and time for bed soon after that. The weekends are when I try to catch up and cram a lot of living into two days before the cycle starts up again, at least on most weekends (sometimes I have to work on the weekends).

Since 2014 I have been my children’s +1. In theory I could show up at a family gathering without them, but I’d face an extremely disappointed crowd. There’s no substitute for adorable young children.

Case in point: my reception at the Queens Botanical Garden was warm and embracing, which would not have been the case if I had shown up on my own. No one would have treated me poorly, but no one would have known who I was or given me a second glance. When fantastic little girls are your posse, you are a 100% winner wherever you go.

Our children are better versions of ourselves, bright and new to the world with endless possibilities in front of them. When we’re well received based on being with them, it reflects their position in the world and how they’re being raised.

We’re doing something right.

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