Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Veterans Day Speech 2019 - Richland High School

Veterans Day Speech 2019

Ted Miller – given to Richland High School students November 8, 2019

Ted Miller - Veteran Bio

Captain Ted Miller is a retired Navy veteran.  After attending high school in Florida, he received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, earning a bachelor of science degree in physics along with his military studies.  He served for thirty years as a naval submarine officer, both on active duty and in the reserves.  He grew up in a Navy family and has traveled with the military around the world.  He lives with his family in Richland. 

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Thank you Mr. Fryhling and Ms. Schoepflin for inviting me here today. It is an honor and a privilege to speak to you.

Monday is Veterans Day.  What does that mean to you?  A day off from school?  A chance to sleep in?  Hanging out with your friends?  Spend time with your family?  Catch up on your homework?

Why do we even have this holiday? 

A veteran is someone who has served in the military. 

How many of you have family members in the military?  A brother, sister, mother or father?  Please raise your hand. 

Remember to thank them.

Many veterans are this nation’s unsung heroes.  Their families and friends may have been the only ones who knew their names, who knew the sacrifices they made to serve our country.  Our veterans have missed the births of their children, wedding anniversaries and graduations.  They have spent holidays in soggy rice paddies in Vietnam, amid the stinging sands of the Iraqi desert, and in the cold and rugged mountains of Eastern Europe. 

And after they return home, too many of our veterans suffer from homelessness, physical disabilities, PTSD, and just getting their life back after serving in the military.

Abraham Lincoln made a promise to veterans in his second inaugural address in 1865 when he said that America would “…care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan.”  Today we must continue to take care of our veterans.

We celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th because that was the day, one-hundred-one years ago, that the cease fire took effect to end what was called the Great War.  At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918.  Nine million civilians and eleven million combatants died in that war, one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.  It was thought to be the war that ended all wars.  November 11th was called Armistice Day because the word “armistice” means a truce, a mutual agreement to stop fighting. Many people thought we were entering an era of enduring peace.

But today we call that war World War One because it was NOT the last war.  Just two decades later we were engaged in another global conflict, World War II.  And the United States has been involved in at least ten conflicts since then, including the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, the Iraq War, and the current war in Afghanistan.  Do you know that we have been at war in Afghanistan since before any of you now in high school were born?

Why do we go to war?  It isn’t because we don’t want peace.  Every veteran, every member of the military would rather serve in a time of peace than a time of war.  I served for thirty years in the military, and I long for the day when the world is at peace.  I believe that we should always work hardest resolve our differences through diplomacy, negotiation, and international agreements. But sometimes those who want to do us harm leave us with no options other than military force. Sometimes, to defend this great country of ours, we must send our soldiers and sailors in to battle.  Even when we are not in a time of war, our military men and women are on the job, 24/7, maintaining their readiness, ever vigilant, at sea and in countries around the world, ensuring you and your families will continue to have the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.

Some of our veterans have been injured or killed defending our freedom.  Let me give you a few examples of what that is like.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy for an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. It is not given lightly.  In fact there are only 70 living recipients, from the few remaining who served in World War 2 to the few awarded for the war in Afghanistan.  Let me tell you about two of them.

Navy corpsman Donald Ballard was serving with the 3rd Marine Division in Viet Nam.  As a corpsman, his job was to take care of the marines in his unit.  He was their medical guy. In 1968, he was rendering aid to several wounded marines under heavy enemy fire.  As he prepared to have the men medically evacuated, a grenade struck his helmet, bounced off, and landed beside him.

Without hesitation, Mr. Ballard bravely jumped on top of the grenade to shield his fellow Marines from the impending blast.

The grenade, however, did not explode.

Unharmed, Mr. Ballard threw the grenade back into the jungle, where it detonated.  After a moment of what must have been shock and disbelief, he continued his work treating the wounded, saving the lives of his buddies as their “doc”.

You may call it lucky that the grenade didn’t explode, but Mr. Ballard wasn’t thinking about that at the time.  His only thought was to save his fellow soldiers, a selfless act that likely could have cost him his life.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970, and in the humility often expressed by Medal of Honor recipients, he said, “It’s harder to wear the medal than to earn it.”  What he means by that is that he didn’t do it for the medal or the recognition.  He doesn’t gloat or bask in the glory of his medal.  He did it to save others.  To protect them.  To protect us.

The youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor is Lance Corporal Kyle Carpenter, USMC.  He just turned 30 last month.  And he was just a few years older than you are now when he was serving in Afghanistan.

On November 21, 2010, he and a fellow marine were manning a rooftop security position in a small village in Helmand Province, Afghanistan when the Taliban enemy initiated a daylight attack with hand grenades, one of which landed inside their sandbagged position.  Without hesitation, and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow marine from the deadly white-hot blast.  When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the brunt of the blast, severely wounding him and saving the life of his fellow marine.

He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in June 2014.

Lance Corporal Carpenter’s injuries left him badly scarred, blind in one eye, and required over thirty surgeries.  But his can-do attitude and positive spirit have been an example for others.  After he left the military, he went back to school and graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2017.

What do these two stories have in common?  Well, they are both about a guy using his body to protect their fellow marine from a grenade blast.

In that split second decision, each one of them was prepared to give their life for their fellow soldier.  Not only that, they were prepared to give their lives as part of something bigger than themselves.  As part of their duty to defend their country.  They weren’t thinking about politics, or why they were at war.  They were only in the moment doing their duty, reacting to the situation, prepared to give everything.

Most veterans aren’t faced with such a life threatening decision, but they all have prepared themselves to do so. It is those little moments of sacrifice that our veterans give without thinking that make them so important to us as a nation.

Have you ever thought about what it means to be in the military?  We often think of all the military hardware.  The fast jets, the ships, submarines, tanks, helicopters, missiles and guns. But the hardware is just the tool. It’s the people who make the military. People who care for their country.

Every person in the military takes an oath.  On the day I was commissioned, I raised my right and said “I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

I swore allegiance to the Constitution of the United States.  Loyalty to an idea that embodies the ideals of individual freedom and democracy.  We don’t swear allegiance to a person, to a political party, or to a government individual.  No, every veteran swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. A document that is the foundation of our government. A government that is, as Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” of the United States.  I am proud and honored to have served in defense of that constitution.

Less than ten percent of our population are veterans, and only about one percent are currently serving in the military.  In today’s military, they are all volunteers.  We owe those volunteers for the sacrifices they make day in and day out to ensure we can go to school and get an education, that we can openly and freely discuss and debate ideas and the best policies for our future, that we can feel protected and safe in our communities, that our government and our economy will be stable, no matter who is elected as our congressman, our senators, even our president.  Because our government is embodied in law and in the Constitution.

You hear the phrase “it’s a free country” thrown around casually.  But if you’ve traveled the world as I have, you know that that freedom isn’t free.  Father Denis O’Brien, who was a chaplain in the Marine Corps, said:

“It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.  It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.  It is the soldier, not the organizer, who gave us the freedom to demonstrate.  It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”

Those are your first amendment rights, guaranteed by the Constitution, and guaranteed by the veteran.

You know, for me, the Navy has always been a part of my life.  My mother and father were both in the Navy.  I was born in a Navy hospital, moved all over the world as I was growing up, went to the U.S. Naval Academy right out of high school, and then spent 14 years going to sea on submarines and 16 more years as a Navy reserve officer.  But I wanted to be a part of the Navy for something more.  A sense of patriotism.  I wanted to serve my country and help to make the world a better place.

Our country isn’t perfect, our leaders often make mistakes and I don’t always agree with the policies of those in power.  But I believe in what this country stands for and I believe that we are still the best hope for this world in which we live.  I believe that I have been able to play some small role in defending this country, doing my best to be prepared to defend it at all costs.  And I believe every minute has been worth it for my children and their children, and for all of my fellow citizens.  And so that every American will have a choice to make a difference in the way they see best.  And that YOU can make a choice to make a difference.  

That’s what’s so great about this country.  If you disagree or have a better idea, nothing is stopping you from making a difference.  Thank a veteran for being willing to lay down his or her life to protect that freedom for you.  Take your role as a citizen seriously.  And when you turn 18, register to vote and exercise that vote.  In the election last week less than a third of registered voters bothered to cast their ballots.  Less than a third!  How can you thank a veteran?  Use your voice to make this country a better place for all.  Get involved.  Keep this democracy alive and moving forward.  Make the world a better place, work towards world peace.  Work towards the time we won’t have to send our men and women to war.  But until that day, be thankful that those before you have sacrificed so much for you. 

I’ve often felt at a loss for how to respond when someone says “Thank you for your service” after learning that I’m a veteran.  I don’t feel special for doing what I thought was right. I don’t feel any more important that the firefighter or police officer who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. But I recently learned something from General Jim Mattis, a veteran from right here in Richland who recently served as the Secretary of Defense. When someone thanks him for his service, he says “You are worth it.”


So let me say to each and every one of you, on behalf of all veterans, you are worth it.

I hope I have given you a few things to think about.  It has truly been an honor for me to be called a veteran and to share with you what that means to me. Thank you.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Local Elections Matter

Local Elections Matter  

by Ted Miller
(originally published November 2019 in Tumbleweird)

If past is prologue, less than a third of eligible voters will cast a ballot this month. For voters under 35, only one in five will exercise their right to decide who will represent them on their city council, school board, or county commission. 

And yet, those in local office have the biggest impact on our daily lives, particularly for younger citizens and those in marginalized groups. 

City councils decide things like tax rates, park use and maintenance, police oversight, sale of public land to developers, policies on inclusiveness and equal rights, urban sprawl, bicycle and pedestrian safety, business licenses and zoning, and the list goes on. School boards directly affect support for our teachers and the quality of our children’s education. Other local elected officials like county commissioners and sheriffs also have a significant impact on the community they serve.

Every vote is important. The 2017 outcome of Virginia’s 94th legislative district determined whether the state legislature would be controlled by Republicans or Democrats. The election was decided by a single contested vote that led to a tie and ultimately a coin toss. A single vote in one district decided which party would lead the legislature for the entire state. Never think your vote won’t make a difference.

Washington State makes voting easy. Voting is secure with paper ballots that arrive in the mail at least 18 days before an election, giving you plenty of time to vote and return your ballot. The state even pays for postage. Unlike many parts of the country, we live in a state with very few barriers to voting.

When you sit down with your ballot, do your best to understand the issues and vote for the candidates who align best with your values. In this issue of Tumbleweird, we are publishing city council and school board candidate responses to a survey we sent them on a range of issues we think are important to our readers. Other sources of information include letters to the Tri-City Herald, the Voters’ Pamphlet published by the Secretary of State, and the League of Women Voters information at vote411.org.

Campaign ads on television and social media are probably the least reliable source of information. There is no requirement for “truth in advertising” when it comes to political ads. They are designed to elicit an emotional response and they will shade the truth at best or publish complete falsehoods at worst. Millions are spent to try to convince you to vote a certain way, and not always for what is in your best interest.

Initiatives and referenda ballot measures can be misleading in the way they are stated. Make sure you understand the impact and don’t just vote on the title or what you see in advertising. Remember that whoever is behind the measure wants something, and that something may have consequences that negatively impact you and our community. 

If you want to make our community a better place, if you want your government to represent you as it works for all of us, vote.

Voter turnout is particularly low in years without a presidential election. It’s never been more important to get out the vote. 

Talk to your friends, family, and coworkers. Encourage them to register and vote. You can easily register online or check your registration status at votewa.gov. You can even check on the status of your ballot and see your entire voting history.

You have until October 28th to register online or by mail. You can register in person until Election Day, November 5th

In the primary this year, many of the races were highly competitive. If every eligible voter reading Tumbleweird casts a ballot, we could determine the outcome of the election.

Please vote.

Friday, September 20, 2019

It’s Not Enough to be a Good White Person

It’s Not Enough to be a Good White Person

by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird October 2019)

I’m a white man. I have benefited my whole life from the systemic racism that began over 500 years ago in Europe, was brought to America through colonialism and displacement of indigenous peoples, expanded with the horrors of slavery, and continues to benefit whites today.

If you are a white person and don’t understand that, you need to reflect on your privilege. 

White privilege doesn’t mean that white people don’t have to work for what they achieve in life. It doesn’t mean poverty doesn’t afflict white Americans. It doesn’t mean white people have it easy. It just means that being white is not something that negatively impacts our lives. A white person doesn’t have to think about what it means to be white.

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) don’t have that luxury. Race is something that affects everything; wealth, income, criminal justice, education, housing, medical care, and every other aspect of life. A few statistics to illustrate this impact (there are hundreds of studies and sources for similar information):

·     If you are black in America, your family earns just $57.30 for every $100 a white family earns. For every $100 of wealth a white family holds, a black family only holds $5.04. [i]
·     If you are a black student, you are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school than your white counterpart.[ii]
·     One in three black boys born today will go to prison some time in their life. One in seven Latino boys will go to prison. Only one in seventeen white boys end up in prison.[iii]
·     58 percent of prisoners are black or Hispanic, despite making up one quarter of the U.S. population[iv]
·     Neighborhoods in America are still largely segregated. The historic practice of redlining, which kept blacks out of white neighborhoods, and the disproportionate effect of the 2008 mortgage crisis on blacks are two of the factors that have led to black home ownership at 42% compared to 72% for whites.[v]

These are just a few examples of how racist policy produces racist outcomes. The statistics don’t adequately describe the daily injustices black people experience. Like having the police called when you are napping in your dorm, or barbecuing in a park with your family, or sitting in Starbucks waiting for a friend, or for just existing while black. These recent examples in the news happen everywhere, every day. They are so common that they inspired the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack. (see https://www.huffpost.com/interactives/existing-while-black for more examples.)  I personally know of several similar recent incidents right here in the Tri-Cities.

And I don’t need to remind you how many unarmed black men are shot by police.

Racism is real in America.

“But I’m not a racist,” you say.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in his newly released book How to Be an Antiracist, explains his concept of racism by reframing the terms “racist” and “antiracist”.  A racist is “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” An antiracist, then, is “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Kendi says the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist,” but “antiracist.”

Claiming that one is “not racist” has no real meaning. No one likes to be called a racist and most white people truly believe they are not racist. Several years ago I would have assured you that I was not racist. White supremacists say they are not racist. Donald Trump has said he is “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” 

Saying you are not a racist doesn’t mean you don’t support racist policies and ideas.

Robin DiAngelo in her book White Fragility said, “If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do.”

To claim we aren’t racist is to deny our role in a society designed to benefit white people. To say “I’m not racist” is to say that I don’t have any responsibility for the effects of racism on BIPOC. 

After the 2016 election, people who were upset about policies that were negatively impacting travelers from Muslim countries, refugees from Central America, and other marginalized groups often repeated the quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Good white people doing nothing about racism allows racism to thrive. White people doing nothing perpetuates a system of racial inequality.

I am by no means an expert on racism. I can never understand what it is like to live as a BIPOC. But, I can listen and learn, and perhaps, in some small way, try to be less racist and more antiracist.

As I work on this, I will continue to make mistakes. I will hurt someone who is BIPOC when I don’t mean to. I will support a policy with racist outcomes without thinking about it. Working on racism is hard, but as white people, it’s on us to own the impact of our racism. I believe it’s important to try to make the world a better place for everyone, so I’ll keep working at it.

To my white readers, I encourage you to take a hard look at yourself and do some self-reflection. How has your whiteness benefited you? How has it impacted BIPOC? Educate yourself by reading BIPOC authors who write about race and following them on social media. Listen. Talk about race with friends and coworkers. Join a discussion group. Don’t just live in your white bubble.

If you want to make a difference, you have to do some work. Being a good white person isn’t enough.

Book recommendations: “So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Recommended authors:  James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Isabel Wilkerson, Ijeoma Oluo, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, Frederick Douglass.

[i]NY Times, 9/18/17, “Whites Have Huge Wealth Edge Over Blacks (but Don’t Know It
[ii]US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, March 21, 2014, “Data Snapshot: School Discipline.”
[v]Chicago Tribune, July 21, 2017, “Why black homeownership rates lag even as the housing market recovers

Friday, August 16, 2019

Gun Violence is Still a Problem, Let’s Do Something

Gun Violence is Still a Problem, Let’s Do Something

by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird September 2019)

The rate of gun violence in the United States continues to rise. Mass shootings dominate headlines, but every day over 100 people are killed with a gun and we barely notice. Hundreds more are injured. Gun violence is so quotidian that it takes an act of terrorism to even break through the news cycle. The statistics show we have a problem, but the debate about what to do is hobbled by polarizing rhetoric.

Some blame mental illness, violent video games, the breakdown of the family, and, ironically, not enough people with guns. But these arguments as the cause for gun violence don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Gun violence is a complicated issue. There are many factors that lead to gun injuries and deaths and there is no single solution. But there is one thing that all gun violence has in common: guns.

Access to guns is the common factor in all gun violence, but that doesn’t mean just having access to guns causes gun violence. We can reduce the risk that a gun will be used in a violent act by regulating gun access without infringing on the rights of responsible gun owners. 

The vast majority of Americans believe there are practical, workable steps that can be taken to reduce gun violence. We refuse to believe that we have to accept the status quo, but where do we start?

First, we need to get out of political polarization paralysis and agree that something can be done. Collectively, we need to demand action from federal, state, and local governments. Individually, we can support organizations that are working to reduce gun violence and vote for candidates that support common sense gun regulation. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Gun violence is a public safety issue. 

In Congress, the House of Representatives passed two bills earlier this year that would close gun sale loopholes and require universal background checks. After the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the Senate may finally consider passing this legislation. Improved background checks will close legal loopholes that allow guns to be transferred or sold to those who should not have access. 

So-called “red flag” laws, also known as Extreme Risk laws, allow family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from someone who poses a danger to themselves or others. In the seventeen states that have these laws, there has been a reduction in homicide and suicide without restricting the right to due process. Congress should take up legislation to expand this nationally.

Military-grade weapons have no place in civilian ownership. The assault weapons ban should be debated and reinstated. In 30 seconds, the Dayton shooter was able to kill 9 people and injure 26 more before police were able to stop him. There is no reason to allow unrestricted civilian access to a weapon that can kill so many people so quickly and efficiently. These are weapons of war, not sport or self-defense. 

Other regulation that could help would be universal gun license and registration, required gun safety education, gun owner accountability, and technology that uses biometric recognition to allow a gun to be fired. All these will require more study and debate, but they could significantly reduce gun injury and death. 

In addition to gun control, we can provide more funding for gun violence research, mental health and suicide prevention, combating white nationalist terrorism, and countering hateful rhetoric that leads to violence.

Guns are deeply rooted in the American culture, but we can have our guns and reduce gun violence, too. We don’t have to repeal the second amendment or confiscate guns from responsible citizens. But we must do something.

Acknowledging that America has a gun violence problem isn’t enough. As a frustrated crowd chanted to the governor of Ohio after the most recent mass shootings, we must Do Something! 

Note: Sources of gun violence data may be found at gunviolencearchive.org and everytownresearch.org.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Transgender Rights are Human Rights

Transgender Rights are Human Rights
(originally published in Tumbleweird June 2019)

by Ted Miller

In my thirty years as an officer in the United States Navy, being gay was cause for a “less than honorable” discharge. What that meant was that a shipmate could be formally labeled as undesirable and forced out of the military just for being themselves, denying them veterans benefits and the equal treatment afforded their straight peers. Their military skills, fitness reports, or length of service didn’t matter. 

Military members are citizen soldiers, reflecting the diversity of race, sexuality, gender, and religion in our nation. There have always been gay members of the military. I knew some when I served. But until recently, some service members had to hide their true selves in order to serve. Not only were they willing to sacrifice their lives for their country, they had to sacrifice a piece of themselves while serving. 

In 1993, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” allowed gay, lesbian, and bisexual (LGB) people to serve only if they kept their orientation secret. When DADT was finally repealed in 2011, allowing them to serve openly, study after study showed that LGB members have no impact on military readiness.

Openly transgender people were finally allowed to serve beginning in 2016. But the Trump administration started working to reverse that in July 2017, just as the new policy was to take full effect. Last month, the Supreme Court allowed this renewed transgender ban to take effect while challenges work their way through the courts.

This is not a readiness issue. There have been no issues from allowing openly transgender people to serve their country. The only purpose for this ban is to deny the fair and equal treatment of transgender individuals, to formally state through government policy that their value is not the same as their cis-gendered colleagues.

Charlotte Clymer, a transgender Army veteran, said in a CBS opinion piece April 7, 2019:

“The lies perpetuated about transgender people serving in the military have been thoroughly debunked and rejected, by medical experts, by budget analysts, by military generals and admirals, by the vast majority of the American people, and not least by a history of Americans who have been barred from service and proved bigots wrong.

“They barred men of color. They barred women. They barred gay, lesbian and bisexual people. We have been at this intersection of fear, cynicism, and outright ignorance many times, and we are always reminded that the only true threats to our country's strength are hatred and an absence of character.”

Denying the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals is an attempt to deny their full humanity. Labeling sexuality or gender identity as something that doesn’t conform to a narrow view of the human expression of gender and sexual orientation is an attempt to erase their existence. 

The National Center for Transgender Equality (transequality.org) says there are about 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States. Just like sexual orientation, the overwhelming consensus in the medical community is that gender identity is not a choice. And from the experiences of my transgender loved ones, I know this to be true. They each struggled from an early age to understand who they were, why they felt different, and how to express their self-identities. Their struggle was made tragically worse by family and society who constantly told them that what they were feeling was wrong, that who they were was unacceptable. Whatever the motivation, constant rejection of gender identity inevitably leads to self-doubt, self-hate, and self-harm, all too often leading to suicide. 

We have an administration that wants to allow LGBT discrimination in the name of religious freedom. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a new regulation that would allow medical providers to cite their “deeply held beliefs” as a basis to refuse service to LGBT individuals—in other words, to deny equal treatment under the law, to deny equal rights, to deny equal humanity.

For transgender individuals, allowing health care discrimination only makes the health problems they face worse. Studies published by Lambda Legal show that 56 percent of LGB and 70 percent of transgender individuals already face healthcare discrimination. Many avoid seeing a doctor when they need it most because of a fear of rejection or mistreatment.

Every human being is worthy of love and acceptance. In a self-governing nation, the government should ensure equal treatment and protection of all. That includes those whose gender may be different than what we assume based on physical characteristics. 

Forcing people into a narrow box of gender identity is harmful to them and to a society that is richer for its diversity.

Human rights apply to everyone. Transgender rights are human rights.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Divided We Will Fall

Divided We Will Fall
(originally published in Tumbleweird May 2019)

by Ted Miller

My mother used to say “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” 

Many of the people commenting on social media posts and online news articles seem to have missed that childhood lesson.

Every time I break my self-imposed rule to “never read the comments,” I see some of the most vile, hateful, divisive rhetoric spewed at fellow Americans and community members. What is it about the internet that makes people think that is acceptable behavior? Nobody that I interact with talks that way in person, to me or to anyone else. I know in my real-life conversations with others we often have significantly different opinions on a wide range of topics, but we don’t call each other names, yell obscenities, or accuse the other of being the enemy. So why is something we would never say to someone’s face acceptable language online?

We seem to have forgotten that we have more in common than not. Fifty years ago, Americans listened to the same news broadcasts, watched the same shows, and read the same newspapers. Our differing opinions about government, religion, and our place in the world didn’t overshadow our common experience. We shared a common set of facts and American values. Our political differences were about how government policy reflects our common values, not whether Democrats or Republicans were the enemy of the state.

The rise of talk radio, cable news, the internet, and social media changed all that. With the rapid expansion of choices in the media we consume, too many of us have moved to our own echo chambers, reinforcing our beliefs while becoming more and more skeptical of information that doesn’t fit our views. Social media algorithms continually feed us what we want to hear at the exclusion of a shared community experience. Misinformation, conspiracy, and divisive rhetoric spreads virally without regard to the facts. And our public discourse seems to have raced to the bottom of decency.

Watching this divisive rhetoric all over the news and social media today, I am struck at how deeply divided we are, and it is deeply disturbing. This divisive rhetoric has spread from talk radio and social media to the halls of Congress. We are no longer Americans fighting together for the future of our country. We are "us versus them," yelling at each other, convincing ourselves that the other is the enemy. It seems like the country is more divided today than at any time in living memory. 

Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin said something in an interview last month that really struck me. Reflecting on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, he was surprised at how vulnerable we were to foreign influence by the Russians. Starting in 2014, the Russian government has worked to use the rise of hyper-partisanship and media fueled polarization to weaken the unity that makes our country strong. Deputy Director McLaughlin said:

"But here's what I think they were successful in. They were successful in creating or exacerbating enormous partisan divisions in our country. Just think about it. The two parties are at each other's throats. The president is immobilized on a number of foreign policy issues. Even the media, to a degree, is polarized about this issue. And the United States looks pretty bad in the eyes of the world. I think the Russians actually succeeded well beyond what they imagined they could here. And that's the other big impression that comes out of this - is how fragile we were. We thought our democracy and our cohesiveness as a nation - I did - were stronger than they turned out to be in the face of this.[i]"

This downward spiral into divisiveness has been worsening for decades. The hyperbolic partisanship that continually paints the other political party as evil has gotten to the point that party power is more important than national unity. The Russians just took advantage of that and are continuing those efforts today.

Unless we change something, this divisiveness will be our undoing, either from within or by a foreign power. 

Maybe we can start by holding each other accountable, one conversation at a time. We can encourage our friends to be more respectful in their disagreements online, particularly when they are arguing with strangers. Other than the trolls and bots, social media accounts are real people with real friends and families. Those friends see what is being said online. We should each ask ourselves if we would tolerate the insults and hate if we were witnessing the conversation in person.

Maybe we should remind our friends, and ourselves, that the golden rule applies online as well as in person. If we can make it socially unacceptable to bully and spew hate online, maybe we can start to close the divide and focus more on what we have in common.

We are all in this together. As Abraham Lincoln said, “United we stand, divided we fall.” Let’s not divide ourselves. Let’s work together to make our political discourse more positive.

If you can’t comment in a nice and respectful manner, don’t comment at all.

[i]CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 4/18/2019