Vying for Partisan Cheerleaders

I couldn’t help but look in astonishment as our country’s Temple of Democracy was breached by idiots in Viking helmets and Confedarate flags. Although shock, awe, fear and genuine disbelief were my immediate reactions, I was actually befelled with a sense of sorrow. Those who stormed the Capitol building on January 6th, 2021 were not Reign of Terror activists with a plan — that would be giving them too much credit for their organizational shrewdness. Instead, these people were simply the product of misleading statements from their beloved politicians, news channels, and Reddit conspiracy theories run amok. A few hundred losers in viking helments were not going to be able to overthrow the most powerful and militaristic government in the world, nor did they try. Instead, they took selfies.

The media has a history of endlessly debating what label we should impart upon perpetrators of monumental events like this. Let’s call them “thugs” instead of “protesters!” Even better, let’s call them “domestic terrorists.” That will get the people riled up!

They’re idiots is what they are. Call them whatever you want, have a field day. No one’s going to put up much of a fight about the nomenclature we bestow. Y’all-Qaeda was my personal favorite. Let’s all agree that the people who stormed the Capitol are baseless morons and start there before we start dividing the line of right vs. wrong on the political aisle.

While the media and our current President-elect focus their energy on racism, I’d rather focus on what caused this. Let us not give in to arguing on social media over whose riots were more justified than the other and endlessly dabble over whatabouts. If you rightfully attacked the riots in the summer and rightfully attacked this attempted ‘coup,’ then we’re on to something.

In this case, our elected officials and commentators on the Republican side of the aisle misled millions of Americans to believe that the vote count was their final chance to have a say, and their last, best chance to fight for election integrity. Senators, House reps, and media personnel have been peddling lies and false hope that the results on January 6th would somehow be reversed. The belief that Congress had any say in the “certification” of electoral votes has never been true.

That’s a larger issue that should have bigger ramifications for those in charge. The police and security response were inadequate, that’s clear. But the masquerade of “What would have happened if these people were black?” is moving the conversation away from what it should be about. I do agree that’s a fair argument to be made, but we can have those conversations on the public domain. When it came time to deliver a message of peace to the public, Joe Biden did say what need to be said, but the later followed up with a message that didn’t exactly convey ‘unity.’ We don’t need more public division driven by the next President & Vice President at this time. That’s what gave us Trump in the first place.

Historian Thomas E. Ricks writes, “We should question the view that the government is almost always the problem. Sometimes it is the solution, especially when it serves the common good.”

I’d argue that the founding fathers of our Constitution anticipated something like a Donald Trump. They created the system of checks and balances to ensure our leader cannot enact a retrogressive personal form of rule. When notorious ‘bad man’ Aaron Burr nearly won the third presidential election, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “bad men will sometimes get in, & with such an immense patronage, may make great progress in corrupting the public mind & principles. This is a subject with which wisdom & patriotism should be occupied.”

We must navigate our future through wisdom and patriotism. Not hokey theories and country-bashing division.

I see those who celebrate politicians in office as if they are personal superheroes. If you have a TRUMP flag on your truck, or an AOC sticker on your laptop, worshipping any politician, regardless of how awesome, funny, smart, or “like totally vibey” they are, is creepy. Having outspoken and controversial members of Congress is almost always beneficial and we need more new, loud, and unpolished voices. However, Jordan Schachtel (@JordanSchachtel) argues that many need to “accept that obsessing over politicians and national politics is an unhealthy way to spend your time. We need to embrace localism, decentralization, and individualism. Build small groups and branch out.”

And social media isn’t helping. After an hour on Twitter, my blood pressure is through the roof. It’s become too easy to take screenshots or call out old quotes to pin-point anecdotal examples of Democrats being hypocritical to the point of ridiculousness or Republicans being soul-less monsters. AI scientist and internet personality Lex Fridman (@lexfridman) writes “Social media & the press are currently incentivized to drastically exaggerate narratives of division. This in turn creates more division & the downward spiral continues. I hope to build tech that changes these incentives. I believe there is much more love than hate in the world.”

Banning Trump on social media for 12 hours was an approproate and pleasurable response to the events of that day. It felt good to finally say “Take a seat, pal.” I’m sure Jack Dorsey and Twitter feel empowered that they have large swaths behind them in the decision to strike down on Trump. However, I’d argue they have made the unprecedented step in banning a sitting President from a platform indefinitely. We have to be very careful of this response. The fact that the President of the United States, regardless of the type of person they are, can be banned from the monopolistic cadre of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and more shows who is really in charge. The effect on how these companies dictate our news has been made glaringly clear in the last year. There are countless examples of the monopolistic nature that these companies hold on our lives, and that plays into this discussion in a huge way.

The censorship conversation has gotten a lot of steam lately and we need to be extremely careful of how we approach it moving forward. The actions of January 6th should not cause the world’s most powerful companies to supercede the Constitution with their updated terms and conditions to silence the voices of those they disapprove of. Freedom of speech is not only important, it is vital to the foundation of our country. As a writer (albeit a novice one), it’s important to speak out on behalf of our rights, and doing so begins by protecting the rights of others, even when we disagree with them. This goes especially for repugnant speech, no matter how ugly. When in doubt, remember that someone may one day try to label your own views as ‘too offensive to be allowed public expression.’ I already feel that sense in some of the things I write, and then choose to delete — knowing that my opinions don’t match the ‘right’ feelings of most of my cohort on certain subjects. I’ve never felt fearful of what I publish, but in the last year, expressing differing opinions publicly it has grown increasingly daunting, and that’s bad for America.

We can argue all day about appropriate boundaries of the First Ammendment (you can’t yell FIRE in a movie theatre, is the classic example), but I believe it’s in the best interest of the public to know what our President is thinking and saying at all times. And yes, I know he’s a lunatic and I also know you cannot incite violence. But our President is upheld by two other branches of the government, a Constitution and fellow citizens. The gridlock of government is a feature, not a bug. We should be aware of every waking thought of the man or woman with access to nuclear launch codes. I understand this is a tricky subject.

My urge to defend free speech in this regard doesn’t come from a place of indifference of the Trump’s antics or naivety of those responsible for this week’s events. However, we need to be circumspect that “solutions” implemented in the name of eliminating Trumpism, or otherwise undesirable opinions, may result in the dangers of rights-eroding, authoritarian reactions imposed by the state or the world’s most powerful companies, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. Think about how our rights were treated in the years post-9/11. We reacted quickly and passionately, without necessarily allowing rational opinions to debate, and as a result, rushed into a war while many of our privacy protections eroded under our feet over the preceding years.

In 2006, former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrinch wanted to stifle free speech in the name of Islamic terrorist threats. His argument was that Islamic extremist groups, given full access to forums, could incite hateful and powerful speech to plan attacks that could endanger our country. You know who defended that protection then? Democrats.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald writes:

…one is the importance of resisting the coercive framework that demands everyone choose one of two extremes: that the incident is either (a) insignificant or even justifiable, or (b) is an earth-shattering, radically transformative event that demands radical, transformative state responses. 

This reductive, binary framework is anti-intellectual and dangerous. One can condemn a particular act while resisting the attempt to inflate the dangers it poses. One can acknowledge the very real existence of a threat while also warning of the harms, often far greater, from proposed solutions. One can reject maximalist, inflammatory rhetoric about an attack (a War of Civilizations, an attempted coup, an insurrection, sedition) without being fairly accused of indifference toward or sympathy for the attackers.

We need an internet Bill or Rights that defends all political affiliation, just as it would racial, gender, religious or sexual affilation. We cannot and should not stifle speech on either side, and we’re starting to see it on the side of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter leaning towards one political party in their censorship.

American democracy is durable and flexible and strong because of the institutions put in place. Trump never represented any real threat… to democracy, at least. If you constantly follow the news cycle, your opinion may be otherwise.

People thought Trump would become a fascist dictator. Every four years, partisan voters assume the candidate on the other side is capable of mass militarization, dictatorship, communism, or any other form of despotism. When Obama was elected, people marched in front of the capital calling him a Communist who wanted to change the country. For Trump, or any President for that matter, to become a dictator in the Unites States of America would require unilateral cooperation of the cabinet, military, police, and dozens of federal agencies — nearly all of whom are far more principled than to let anything close to that of actually happening.

The bigger danger, in my opinion, is to put overwhelming trust into an establishment-approved President. That establishment would be entirely loyal to the oligarchy, including incoming cabinet members (former executives of the very tech companies who are now normalizing censorship in the name of protecting against alleged “insurrections”). One of the hallmarks of oligarcy is a legislature that is elected but tame, just active enough to divide and weaken the democratic spirit.

The biggest risk by far is the steady erosion of our civil liberties in response to overblown “existential threats”, whether foreign or domestic, making any legitimate political challenge to the status quo, no longer possible. So long as it’s the “right” president, it is accepted without media or citizen uproar.

Cancelling people, false claims of racism, arbitrary censorship by tech oligarchs. These are far more likely to lead to totalitarianism than a single, incompetent demagogue, who has arrayed against him the full might of our institutions, oligarchy, big tech, Wall Street, and half of the nations voters.

I don’t mean to defend Donald J. Trump’s rhetoric nor his actions. I can be critical of his capacity as a leader while at the same time warning of the potential “solutions” to his disourse.

From a rational view, the whole narrative of Trump as potential dictator was always hyperbole. What I fear is that this narrative continues to further erode our norms and rights, in the name of “protecting” us.

I can’t help but laugh when newscasters look solemnly to the camera to tell the national audience “This… is not us,” while images of burning cities or angry citizens march behind them. Clearly… this is us. As you can see from paying attention for the last ten months.

Alas, I am an optimist. And I think we all need to be in these times. The best part of the Declaration of Independence is a line that has been used in nearly every hallmark civil rights speech over the lifetime of our young country. Whether intended or not, Thomas Jefferson’s phrase that everone was created equal (l know, it said ‘men’ but you get point) created a test for future generations — a standard against which to measure the nation again and again. While the wording could use some updating, he created a document of lasting philosophical and literary merit that still resonates today as we try to understand and direct our country.

That Declaration was more about “what we ought to be” rather than “what we are.” And we ought to be something much better than what we currently look like to the rest of the world. Let’s all be better.

With love, as always

-KB

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