Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Indelible Symbols

Last night I had a dream about all people, George Wallace. Don't know where that one came from, I can't remember the last time I thought about the former segregationist governor of Alabama, it may have been 2013 when I wrote this piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

In my dream I was interviewing Wallace late in his life, where he renounced, as he did in real life, his racist/segregationist ways. The only detail I remember of the dream was looking into his eyes and being convinced he was sincere.

Hey what can I say, it was a dream.

In case you're too young to remember, Wallace was a major player on the American political scene from the early sixties and extending well into the eighties. He ran unsuccessfully for president four times and in 1968 became the last third party candidate to date to receive electoral votes from a state. He actually won five states, all of them in the south. It's difficult to say what if any impact he had on the outcome of that election as he more than likely siphoned both Democratic votes (Wallace was a Democrat) from Hubert H. Humphrey, and conservative votes from Richard M. Nixon who won the presidency in one of the closest elections in US history.

The 1972 election almost cost Wallace his life after an assassination attempt while campaigning for his party's nomination in Maryland.

Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Wallace managed to run for president again in the Democratic primary of 1976, and continued to serve as Governor of Alabama, a post he held until 1987.

But much of that is forgotten. George Wallace will go down in history as the man who as governor, stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, in an attempt to prevent black students from entering, and thereby integrating the school. It took the efforts of President Kennedy and the National Guard to force Wallace to comply. Wallace is also infamous for his most well known quote delivered at his first inauguration in 1963:
In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
Two years later, it was Wallace who ordered the brutal attack on civil rights marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, during the planned march from Selma to the state capital Montgomery.

Times changed radically after the turbulent sixties and it was a kinder, gentler, but still thoroughly conservative Wallace who managed to hold on to power all those years. By the end of his life he had all but completely distanced himself from his past.

Wallace attended a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Selma violence forever known as Bloody Sunday. He was too old and sick to speak at the event but delivered a plea for reconciliation via an assistant to those gathered. In the speech through his aide, Wallace said: 
My friends, I have been watching your progress this week as you retrace your footsteps of 30 years ago and cannot help but reflect on those days that remain so vivid in my memory. Those were different days and we all in our own ways were different people. We have learned hard and important lessons in the 30 years that have passed between us since the days surrounding your first walk along Highway 80...

Those days were filled with passionate convictions and a magnified sense of purpose that imposed a feeling on us all that events of the day were bigger than any one individual...

Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal has been gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, 'Welcome to Montgomery.'

May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten. May our history be always remembered.

Whether his change of heart was genuine or out of political expedience, no living person will ever know, Wallace took that knowledge to his grave in 1998. Considering late in his life what his legacy would be, (in a very different era than the one in which he started his career), perhaps Wallace did not want to be seen as having forever been on the wrong side of history. Or perhaps his "finding Christ" later in life helped show him the error of his ways, we'll never know. 

What is true is the image of Governor Wallace standing in the university doorway in Tuscaloosa in 1963, has proven to be perhaps the most indelible image of American racism. 

That is until last week. 

It didn't take a political genius to figure out a path to victory for the Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election. To prove that point, I spelled it out in this post from February of last year. I may not have gotten the candidate right but I sure nailed the strategy. That strategy was simply to appeal to black voters in swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, states that all went Republican in 2016 but all by relatively small, easy to overcome margins. 

In this past election, all but Ohio went for the Democrats thanks to a huge turnout of black voters. What I didn't take into account was Georgia. There, the significant African American vote of Fulton County put the Democrats over the top. Not only that but in January, the Peachtree State flipped their two senate seats from Republican to Democrat, again a result of overwhelming turnout from the Atlanta area. 

Licking their wounds, Republicans hoping for better luck come the 2022 elections in the great state of Georgia, rather than logically asking how they could better appeal to this considerable constituency of theirs, decided it would be more prudent to change the election rules so as to prevent as many of the people who voted against them, from voting in the future. 

If the lion's share of those people happened to be black, well politics is politics. 

Of course in 2021 they couldn't come out and openly admit to intentionally disenfranchising black voters, so they came up with an old standby.

Voter fraud as an excuse for losing an election has been around forever.

Here's an example of a movie made in 1941 (Citizen Kane) describing an event that took place perhaps thirty years earlier.

But without a thread of evidence of voter fraud turning Georgia from red to blue, the Republicans of Georgia who still have a stranglehold over state politics, had to come up with something. How, they reasoned, could there have been such a dramatic shift between the elections of 2016 and 2020 had there not been fraud at the polls? 

Well I have a theory. It could be that the Democrats did a good job convincing black people to come out and vote in 2020. More likely however all the credit goes to Donald Trump who in his four years as president, worked tirelessly to piss off black people. It's not all that hard to figure out a swing of a little over 100,000 votes in a state with 7.6 million registered voters, and a candidate despised by so many of them. 

After losing the 2020 election, rather than campaigning in earnest for the two Republican senators, the exPOTUS just kept harping on his blatant lie that since he lost the state, the Georgia elections had to be rigged, casting doubt among his supporters on the state's ability to hold a fair election.  Turns out enough Georgia Trumplicans were so dismayed by their state's election system, they stayed at home during the runoff election, causing their party to lose both seats and with them, control of the Senate in the January runoffs. 

Well played indeed. 

Again rather than using the sensible approach, convincing their constituents that Georgia's elections were indeed fair and above board, the state's Republican legislature wrote up eighty some different bills, each one aimed at "reforming" their election system to "restore the faith" of, well lets just say some of the voters. 

Needless to say, every one of these bills in one way or other, was designed to make it harder to vote, especially for black people. 

Many of the new restrictions had to do with mail-in and absentee voting, something black people are more likely to take advantage of than white people. 

Others restricted the hours polls were open making it harder for people paid by the hour to vote. 

New voter ID requirements were put in place, which also disproportionately effect people of color. 

One bill that passed banned the use of two busses that were put into service as polling stations to help with overflow crowds on election day. Why? Well the two busses were put into service in Atlanta so your guess is as good as mine. 

In the guise of appearing that the Republicans were willing to compromise, not all eighty of their bills made it into law, they were "willing" to let a few of the more outrageous ones go by the wayside.

But a bill that did make it into law, one that has been making reasonable people's hair stand on end, is a new restriction that prevents anyone within 150 feet of a polling place other than a poll worker, from distributing water to people standing in line waiting to vote. Failure to comply with this new regulation  could result in a misdemeanor conviction and a one year jail sentence.

Now for someone like me who's from say, anywhere but Georgia, this might not seem like such a big deal because save for the last Illinois Primary election which took place during the height of the pandemic, I've never had to wait in line for more than a half hour to vote. But for whatever reason, in Georgia the voting process is notoriously slow, and standing in line for several hours to vote, especially in black precincts, is the rule, not the exception. On top of that, Georgia can still be pretty hot come election time in November, not to mention spring when the primaries occur. 

Defending this new law, state Republicans say it is in keeping with other restrictions used all over the country, preventing campaign workers from soliciting votes by offering voters within a certain distance from the polling place, "gifts" that could be construed as buying their votes. The only difference here is that water and food have been explicitly counted among these potential "gifts" that are strictly forbidden to be distributed to the voters. They say not to worry, the poll workers are there to help distribute the water. However there is nothing written into the new law that requires poll workers to distribute water to thirsty voters. 

Again, common sense would dictate that Georgia election officials would do is everything in their power to make the voting process more efficient to avoid the long lines where people require refreshment in the first place. No one should have to tolerate waiting in line for hours to vote. But given the history of the way elections have been run in Georgia over the past oh hundred plus years or so, that's apparently not what they want for whatever reason, you may draw your own conclusion.

Don't get me wrong, I don't expect people to be physically harmed by this, one way or other, folks who need hydration will get it, at least I would hope so. This is just another of a long line of indignities and injustices that people of color in this country have been subjected to over the centuries. 

But the truth is, no matter the logic of the new law nor how you spin it, bad as preventing people from voting or from attending college, the symbolism of making a law against giving another person a drink of water is a new low. It runs counter to what every decent person is taught from day one. It is a violation not only of scripture which most Republicans these days claim to be so vitally important to them, but to the very act of being human.

For all of the bullshit new regulations packed into this unnecessary law designed to disenfranchise people and nothing else, this particular feature will stand out, inspire rage and resistance, and above all and be remembered for a very long time. 

As such, the symbol of Georgia Republicans and their new law is the political equivalent of the symbol of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on the neck of George Floyd.  

There will be consequences of course. George Wallace's blocking  the way of integration at the Uniiversity of Alabama, forced a reluctant Kennedy administration to rethink the issue of civil rights, putting it on the front burner of national issues. Backlash from Wallace, and others' blatantly racist actions paved the way for the two major civl rights bills promoted by JFK's successor Lyndon Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And the backlash from Alabama State police attacking peaceful demonstrators in Selma in 1965, helped pave the way for a reluctant country and dare I say, even George Wallace himself to rethink the issue of civil rights.

Governor Wallace can now rest in peace knowing that his face is no longer the indelible symbol of racism and inhumanity in this country. 

Here is his heir apparent, the current Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who signed bill SB202 the so called "Election Integrity Act of 2021" into law behind locked doors last Thursday.

Brian Kemp, the new poster child for American racism.

Who knows how Kemp will feel in a few years when the terrible symbol of racism he helped create will have backfired and he will be universally viewed with scorn and derision the world over, including in the South.

How will it feel for him to have been on the wrong side of history and how will he explain himself in order to correct his own legacy?

Pathetic isn't it how some people refuse to learn from history. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

But What About MY Rights???

It's official, I am now a Facebook jailbird.  

I'm not quite sure if that's something to be ashamed of, or a badge of honor. The truth is, if I ran the social media giant, I probably would have banned myself years ago for all the obnoxious, expletive-laden posts and responses to posts that are a sad part of my legacy. The arguments with former friends and family members that led to the disintegration of relationships and the ultimate social media shame, de-friendship, all centering around the administration of the exPOTUS, should have been my undoing.  

They weren't.

So what did I do to land myself in Facebook jail? Well in the words of the company, I violated their community standards, twice. Vague indeed but I can tell you exactly what I did: 

I knowingly disseminated false information about an election, and I threatened to kill someone. 

Wow that's terrible you say but in my defense, had my Facebook judges and jurors been sentient human beings rather than an algorithm, I'm convinced I'd at the most been given probation rather than a jail sentence, if any sanctions at all. 

The problem is that while computer programs are very good at tracking down what their creators deem to be objectionable content such as spreading false information or threats of violence, they are terrible at determining intent, taking into account things like context or even worse, sarcasm and irony. 

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, the latter two are sometimes even difficult for intelligent human beings to discern as well. 

I'll never forget the time when during my days as an art courier, I was accompanying a major (and rather large) painting from an exhibition in Spain, back to its home in Chicago on a cargo flight. Having experienced cargo flights first hand, I can say there is no better way to travel, you have a front row seat up in the cockpit and normally (although not on this particular flight) a comfy bunk to sleep in when you get tired of hanging out with the pilots. Despite all that, this trip was arduous, Madrid to Montreal to Mexico City and finally to Chicago, 24 hours in total. 

I did manage to develop a good rapport with the crew, always a good idea, especially one pilot who seemed to appreciate, and even share my peculiar sense of humor. So I felt comfortable joking with him, suggesting rather than flying all the way to Mexico then back to Chicago, that I just parachute with the painting out of the plane when we flew past Chicago. Suddenly the pilot's demeanor changed, and in a completely serious, non-ironic tone he said to me: "no, that would be impossible." 

It's even more difficult to weed out irony when you are not face-to-face with someone. A number of times I've made snarky, sarcastic, conspiracy theory laden social media comments so outrageous they would shock a dyed-in-the-wool, dues paying Q-Anon member. Still I've been called on them by bona-fide human beings who didn't get the joke. One woman suggested I was either kidding or a complete idiot. After assuring her that both assumptions were correct, I promised to be more careful in the future because after Kellyanne Conway's infamous comment about "alternative facts", officially marking the death of irony, every comment from that point on, no matter how outrageous, had to be taken at face value.

Anyway here's my story:

Shortly before the last election, a friend who by and large shares my political opinions, posted on Facebook an article about Democrats being more likely to have voted early, while most Republicans were likely to vote on the day of the election.  I casually responded something to the effect of "well let's hope for the best and be sure to remind all our Republican friends to get out and vote on November 4th. The official day of the election of course was November 3rd. 

That was Facebook strike one.

Strike two which landed me in FB jail, took place yesterday when I threatened to kill someone. Despite the sound of it, strike two was much more innocent than strike one. On a Facebook site devoted to the school in which she taught for decades and ended up as principal, someone remembered my Mom's birthday, to which several dozen folks responded with well wishes. One of them, a fellow I don't personally know asked: "how old is she?" Now like many of her generation, my mother is extremely protective of her age. So I replied: "I could tell you but then I'd have to (blank) you." Not wanting to end up in Blogger jail as well I'm omitting the offending word. Then to soften the blow I added: "That is if my mother doesn't (blank) me first."

You probably can guess the missing word because, well because I already mentioned it above but also because that statement is an extremely popular tongue-in-cheek expression, commonly used in both British and American English. No one with half an operating brain and/or at least a beginner's level of the English language would interpret that as a serious threat. 

So there you have it. My FB account was suspended for 24 hours. When I return as I most certainly will, if I screw up again, it would be strike three, and I may be banned from the platform. 

Unthinkable? Ridiculous? Absurd? 

Perhaps, but in all honesty I don't have a problem with it. 

You see, I've never been under the misconception that Facebook is anything other than a huge company whose primary goal is to make a huge profit. As far as these things go, it provides a service, and in return it is compensated, just like GM, Target, or the Ma and Pa corner grocery store, if such a thing still exists. 

As for the service it provides, I find that Facebook continues to perform well the purpose for which is was created, namely keeping people in touch with one another. In that sense I'm able keep up with folks whom I might not otherwise be in touch with were it not for the platform. I can share my friends' joy in their accomplishments and milestones, as well as sorrow for their disappointment and loss. I can share ideas with folks far and wide (sometimes to a fault as mentioned above) as well as shoot the breeze at a moment's notice on whatever topic I please, and almost always be guaranteed a response, something I can't always count on at home. 

Facebook has provided me a wonderful opportunity, via a group dedicated to folks learning Spanish, to communicate in that language with fellow learners all over the world. 

I've modestly promoted my own photography on the platform and also on occasion use Facebook to draw people to this site.

But like everything, there is a price to pay.   

If the phrase-culling algorithm that busted me sounds a little big brothery to you, it's nothing compared to the ones they use to extract money out of our pockets. Everyone who's ever so much as browsed at a product in an online store has noticed that all of a sudden, ads appear for that product and others like it everywhere you go online. This is true for every "free" online platform from Duolingo to Facebook. We've come to expect this and invasive as it might be, directed advertising such as this can even be helpful to the consumer. 

But I had an experience this past weekend that went well beyond that. My wife, who has no Facebook account of her own, purchased a bed frame online. Faster than you can say Mark Zuckerberg, my Facebook feed was flooded with ads for you guessed it, beds.

That to me was a little creepy, but not surprising.   

Beyond that, for me Facebook can be, if I'm not careful, an addictive, time sucking, black hole.  Need I say more?

But it gets much worse. 

I'm sure you know the story. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms came under serious scrutiny four years ago after the last presidential election for their failure to monitor and remove posts that promoted false or misleading information, much of it directed at the Democratic candidate for president at the time, Hillary Clinton. It is widely suspected that many of the offending posts originated in Russia, AND that the dissemination of false information may have in fact swung the outcome of that election. 

If that weren't enough, people with bad intentions have used social media sites to coordinate violent acts, from flash mobs of bored teenagers looking to start trouble in our cities, to adult thugs, following the marching orders of an exPOTUS, to stage an insurrection in our nation's capital. 

Needless to say the general public got fed up and demanded that social media platforms start controlling the content on their sites. 

It took some kicking and screaming on their part, but the internet giants started taking action. 

Of course Facebook can't possibly have human beings monitoring every single post, let alone the additional comments on them from the roughly 2.8 billion, (yes billion with a B) members of the platform. 

Nor can they rely solely upon complaints from users on the activities of others, as that review process would certainly take too long to prevent an actual crime from occurring. 

That's where the algorithms, imperfect as they are, come in.

For my part, I was given the option to appeal their algorithm's judgement of my comments, or suck it up and accept the consequences. I chose the latter because I didn't want to waste my time trying to defend myself to them. However I would probably appeal a harsher ban, should that ever come to pass. And I am pretty confident I would win, not because of common sense on their part, but because of the bottom line. 

One of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life was FB founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg trying to explain Facebook's business model before befuddled legislators during Congressional hearings investigating the company's use and possible exploitation of users' personal information. One of the senators who appeared to have just awakened from a 100 year nap asked how it is possible for the company to make a profit without charging its customers for the use of their service. Zuckerberg looked at the senator much like that pilot looked at me when I asked if I could jump out of his airplane at 35,000 feet. "Um Senator..." he said, "we run ads."

The only difference between today's social media giants and broadcast TV and radio before it, is the targeted advertising I mentioned above, made possible by the internet and the algorithms that control it, has made Facebook and other social media platforms exponentially more valuable to advertisers and consequently, exponentially more profitable, and exponentially more powerful.  

So I'm not too worried that I'll get the heave-ho from Zuckerberg and Co. as I don't think they're intent on bending over backwards to lose my business, (I do buy stuff after all), or make an example out of little ol' me.   

But shouldn't I be appalled that by censoring me, Facebook is depriving me of my right to speech?

In a word, no. 

The writers of the Bill of Rights are very clear on this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The very first words state that "Congress shall make no law..."

In other words, the government can't deprive a person his or her liberty on account of what she or he says. Implicitly this right does not extend to private entities' restriction of speech.

In still other words, Facebook jail is not real jail. 

Because of the guarantee of freedom of the press mentioned in the First Amendment of our constitution, Facebook and other private entities from Breitbart to the New York Times have the right to set standards for what they publish as well as the right to deny publishing what they feel violates those standards. In fact, a good argument can be made that it would be a violation of THEIR First Amendment rights to be forced to publish everything their subscribers happen to come up with. They as publishers have the right to print, or not print, what they please. Along with that right of course, is that they have the responsibility of owning up to their decisions. 

But can't an argument be made that social media platforms are our modern day equivalent of soap boxes on the public square? How else are people today going to express their right to speak?

I honestly think this is a valid argument in ethical, if not legal terms. 

On the other hand as we all know, not all speech is protected, even by the First Amendment. 

Speech that poses a direct threat to public safety (such as the proverbial falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater), is not protected. Nor is speech that directly conflicts with other people's rights such as libel, slander, child pornography, or "fighting words" (words intended to incite hatred of violence). 

I believe that just as the Second Amendment addresses (or in some opinions doesn't address) the individual's right to bear arms, common sense has to come into play. Responsibility goes hand in hand with rights, and no right is absolute. Just as there is a world of difference between a pistol and an assault weapon, the same is true of a constructive argument and the willful intent to mislead, or a legitimate threat of violence, precisely the two things I was accused of.

So what ARE my rights as a Facebook member?

That's pretty easy, I'm free to use the platform to my heart's content, so long as I follow their rules.

Consequently, with two strikes against me, and a weakness for the high fastball so to speak, my days on the platform may be numbered. 

Well that's a pretty defeatist attitude isn't it?

Not really. Like everything, one's relationship with a business, any business, is symbiotic, that is to say, at least one party benefits from that relationship. If everything works as it should, both parties mutually benefit. However should that relationship become one way, (parasitic as the biologists call it), the party getting the short end of the bargain has every right to pull the plug. If Facebook feels my presence there is truly toxic, believe me, they'll pull the plug in a heartbeat. 

But at least as it stands now, they need me, they need you (if you're a member), and they need the rest of their 2.8 billion subscribers, as much as we need them. There is at least some power in knowing that we can pull the plug on them as well.

In the meantime I'm happy they're doing something to control the outrageous and harmful actions of some of their subscribers. Crude as they are. their means to reasonably promote meaningful dialogue while at the same time strongly discourage or if it comes to it, ban actions that trample on others' rights may be may be effective, or they may be just a band-aid, but the fact that they're at least doing something makes my brief time in Facebook jail worth it.

Not to mention it gives me the credibility to face all the delusional, racist, conspiracy theory, nut job whiners out there, bent on destroying our democracy who are complaining about having their First Amendment rights violated by being censored by Facebook by simply telling them this: 

No they're not.