Tag Archive | ideas

Democracy is in the details

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill is famously quoted as saying, “All politics are local.” He was right. What’s more, so much of what gets decided in our republic doesn’t happen on the televised stage but in the mind-numbing minutia of committees and boards you’ve never heard of unless you are willing to delve into the morass of local politics. But I’m telling you: delve into that morass.

This universe of local community boards and party committees have more sway and control over our politics than one might think, and they are a way to have an outsized influence on your community without having to run for public office. Depending on what you do, you might only need a few hours a month.

And no matter what your politics, you likely agree that the political establishment is decrepit and in need of new blood. Case in point: here in New York, the Democratic Party bosses were nominating candidates for party positions who were not even aware they were running. There were actually people interested in some of these party positions, but the people in charge filed the names of candidates they drew from old lists, thinking they could fudge the paperwork and appoint their own candidates later. The bosses had become accustomed to few showing interest in these party positions. With more people engaged in the political process on the local party level, this kind of rusty machine can’t continue run like that. Why shouldn’t there be a contest for these positions every step of the way—picking candidates who are actually running would be a good first step.

And in addition to the usual local and state races on the ballot Tuesday, there are three ballot initiatives specific to New York City that can shape the future of local politics and open the door for more involvement. The first would mean stricter limits on individual campaign contributions candidates could collect but increase public funding for candidates. The second would create a Civic Engagement Commission under control of the mayor (please vote against this if you live in New York City). And the third would put term limits of a sort on people serving on community boards (they could serve for eight years but then must step down for two years with the ability to reapply). I think a better solution to create more responsive community boards would to make them elected positions—members are currently appointed by borough presidents.

Whatever your position on these or other issues, you won’t change a thing by throwing rocks at someone you hate, marching on Trump Tower, or trolling normies with dank memes. Go vote.

Clearly there is a populist political wave that is cresting with Democrats now after Donald Trump surfed it to victory two years ago. There’s no reason it should stop for either party. In both cases it has widened the debate.

Five years ago, Democrats were scared to call for socialized medicine and Republicans would not have dared question birthright citizenship. Both these topics are rightfully in the mainstream now. There is no reason that ideas should be kept out of the public sphere by old and uninspired machine politics.

Don’t like it? Get out there and do something about it.

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.

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